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Dreams cut short, dreams reborn

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Dreams cut short, dreams reborn

Picture of Steven Wilmsen

As part of a 2012 National Health Journalism Fellowship, Steve Wilmensen edited and managed  68 BLOCKS: LIFE, DEATH, HOPE, a five-part  series for The Boston Globe. A team of reporters, photographers, videographers, and data visualization specialists, focused a year on the Bowdoin-Geneva area of Boston, which is often identified with violence.  Steve received a grant from the Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Fund for this project. Part 1 is below. Other stories in the series include:

Searching for justice, finding no peace 

Facing the future, or the dream of one

Pushing back against the tide

Time to celebrate and to worry

Nate Davis arrived early in court on June 21 -- the birthday of his twins, Natalie and Little Nate -- to wait for the verdict in the murder trial of two young men accused of killing his son. Both accused killers lived in Bowdoin-Geneva at the time of the murder.
The Boston Globe
Sunday, December 16, 2012

By Globe Staff

NATE DAVIS is at the dining room table, talking intently toward a cordless phone that stands upright on the wooden surface before him. His wife, Trina, is pacing and crying, stalking back and forth across the threshold of the doorway to the kitchen, as though forever leaving and deciding against it.

It’s been a year, 10 months, and 19 days since Nicholas, their youngest child, only 14 years old, was shot dead a block from the house. Now their bright, college-bound son, Little Nate, is calling from jail. He has been sentenced to 18 months for carrying a gun. Police say he is part of a gang.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to them.

Nate talks hard at the phone. He’s as big as a grizzly, overwhelming the chair. It’s why people call him Big Nate. “Just as much as you got that sentence today, you could be spending the rest of your life in prison,” he says. “You decide whether you want to spend it out here, outside where it’s worth it, or do you want to spend it in there.”

Trina comes near and shouts over him at the phone. “You’re just a number now, you’re just a number!”

She charges back into the kitchen and runs the faucet. She is still wearing the pink medical scrubs she wore to work at a health clinic in Braintree. She wraps an ivory cardigan tightly around herself while she cries, pressing her hands to her face. The path to prison is too well-worn, especially in this neighborhood, known as Bowdoin-Geneva, where Big Nate has lived for 40 years. It’s a path that Nate and Trina had worked every day to steer their sons away from.

Nate and Trina with their four children in a family photo

When Little Nate was arrested in August 2011, they were devastated. But they thought they could work past it, get a second chance for their son. He had been through so much. After his brother was killed, he was afraid. That must have been the reason he had the gun. They had held out for a trial, believing that a jury would understand. But at a routine hearing this day, one they didn’t think they needed to attend, he took a plea deal. Now, it is impossible to see his situation as anything but what it is — another young black man forever marked by a criminal record. And it is harder to see their family as the ordinary, middle-class one they believed they had become.

Through the speaker of the phone, Little Nate is trying to explain that he took the deal only because the judge had come down hard, declaring she would hear no more motions and demanding a plea.

Big Nate interrupts. Too many thoughts are in his head. He’s angry. He can’t help thinking that he wasn’t there to protect Nicholas when he died and that he wasn’t there to protect Nate. Out loud, he tells his son that he should have listened to his mother, that he should have held out for a trial, and that he had warned him about hanging around with the wrong people.

“I don’t know what else to tell you,” Big Nate says.

A recorded voice comes on the line. There is only a minute left on the call.

“If you have anything to say, you better say it now,” he says.

There is only silence.

Big Nate bends closer to the phone — “Nate? Nate?” — but the line has gone dead.

IT IS APRIL. A spray of green has begun to show through the brown patches of lawn on the Davises’ street in the heart of the neighborhood. A block away, out on the commercial strip of Bowdoin Street, the homeless men who wait outside the liquor store each morning have started to go without winter clothes, and the hardware store has put out fertilizer and garden soil. Up the hill off Bowdoin — past the corner with the bright murals, the abandoned property surrounded by rusty chain link fence and razor wire, past the clatter and smell of coffee at Ashley’s diner — workers at Ronan Park rake fresh red dirt onto the basepaths of the ballfields. From up there, Boston Harbor is a gleaming band of steel in the distance.

On a blustery morning under a gray sky, Father Richard “Doc” Conway leads his congregation down the stone steps of St. Peter Church for the annual Good Friday procession. The Stations of the Cross are mounted high on the walls in the hulking cathedral’s nave. But he doesn’t take his people there. The stations he leads them to, as he does every year, are places where young men and a few women have been shot and killed. There will be 14 stops. One is at the sidewalk where the Davises’ son died. The group gathers around, and a reedy 13-year-old wearing a white sash reads: “Jesus died on the cross.”

In Bowdoin-Geneva, a 68-block swath of Dorchester set between the rivers of traffic on Columbia Road and Dorchester Avenue, spring brings the usual signs of renewal. But it also brings something more sinister. It is a prelude to summer, which plays out year after year in this neighborhood against a backdrop of danger and a soundtrack of gunfire.

It is a problem that seems to simply never go away. The rate of shootings here over the last 25 years is four times what it is in the city as a whole — averaging 24 a year in the last decade.

Big Nate Davis has long been a fixture on his porch on Norton Street. He has lived in the house since 1970, when he was 10 and he and his mother moved from Baltimore to Boston.

The 13,000 people who call it home live in a place prized for more than three centuries for its views of the Harbor Islands to the east and the Blue Hills to the south. A descendant of a church that Puritans founded in 1630 still stands on Meetinghouse Hill on the neighborhood’s northern border, as do some of the turn-of-the-century Queen Anne and Italianate mansions on a rise on the southern side. St. Peter Church was built of puddingstone quarried from the hillside, and when factories came to Boston, a social reformer built communities of affordable homes for workers so they could flee the stinking tenements for bucolic countryside. By the 1940s it was a community of mostly Irish laborers and civil servants.

Now it is mostly black, and a mix of ethnicities, Cape Verdeans, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Haitians. It is a thriving community in many ways. But gangs and their tragic mayhem are embedded here, as though woven into the warp of Bowdoin-Geneva’s odd pattern of curving streets.

No one seems to know exactly why. The drugs that spawned deadly territory fights two decades ago are no longer the primary fuel. Poverty, assumed by many to be a progenitor of violence, is much less severe than it was a generation ago and less prevalent than in some other Boston neighborhoods.

And there is this not-very-well-known fact: Gangs were in Bowdoin-Geneva long before the neighborhood became what it is today — at least as far back as the 1950s, when bands of white kids claimed street corners, wore identifying colors, and assigned themselves names.

They most often fought with their fists then, not with guns. But, as though a legacy handed to succeeding generations, gangs have remained even as the income, race, and social makeup of the neighborhood have changed. Bowdoin-Geneva now is an intricate architecture of alliances and loyalties based on little more than streets where boys and young men live. Slights real and perceived trigger violence between them.

And every summer the shooting starts. Some residents report hearing gunshots at least once a week; some say every day. In a Globe survey of youth in the neighborhood, a shocking 41 percent said shooting someone is justified or maybe justified for something as slight as an insult.

For Bostonians, Bowdoin-Geneva is a famous address for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes the people who live here seem like the only ones who have not given up on it. Numbing reminders of tragedy are interlaced with stubborn hopes, born, dashed, and born again. The people here are tired of being the object of other people’s assumptions and other people’s plans. What residents want above all is to be seen, really seen, and heard.

In their separate lives, in their struggles and joys, is the story of a place. The Davises, trying to move forward after tragedy. Theresa Johnson, an elementary school secretary who worries for her sons every time a siren wails. The residents of Hendry Street, who thought problems in their corner of the neighborhood had already been solved. Tal, a 25-year-old who has survived three shootings trying to find a path to a different life. The people who plant seeds in the community garden on Coleman Street. In different ways, all of them are fighting for their neighborhood.

As the days lengthen and temperatures rise, the city too is looking to Bowdoin-Geneva. It has tried fitfully since the 1970s to find a cure for the troubles here. Now, after a spate of murders last year, the city is trying again, with a vow that this time it will make a lasting impact.

‘WHAT’S UP, Nate?” A tall man is coming down the street, smiling broadly up at Big Nate, who leans languidly on his front porch railing, looking out over Norton Street. It’s a bright day in late April. Lilacs are blooming. They’re early this year.

“Whassup, man?” Nate says. Daniel is a friend from the old days. They were young together when the neighborhood was aflame with racial tensions and some white people threw rocks and set their dogs on them. It forged a bond.

Daniel stops, and he and Nate talk for a while over the porch rail, shake their heads, and laugh over a story from those old hard days. Daniel says he’s going home after back treatments at his doctor’s office and should be getting on.

“Later,” he says and waves.

“Later on,” Nate says and goes back to watching the street.

With a sudden run of golden weather, others are out, and he waves. As long as anyone can remember, Big Nate has been a fixture here on his porch at the street’s elbow, the big man on the burgundy swivel chair. There’s a warmth about him. And his big face hides nothing, the anger that crosses it like ocean chop or, just as suddenly, a wide beam of happiness. More often these days he is lost in sadness. He sits, sometimes for hours, watching comings and goings in both directions. Sometimes in the summer, a crowd will end up there. When he has extra money, he offers odd jobs to old acquaintances down on their luck who come around looking for work.

Nate has lived in the house since 1970, when he was 10, when his mother moved him from Baltimore and nearly killed herself paying the mortgage. She wanted a decent place for him to grow up. But they were the first black people on the block, and when his mother sent him to the corner store, he had to dodge gangs of white kids.

In time, he gained size and his nickname. People started to leave him alone.

Trina Fomby-Davis works at a clinic, part of the foundation of the middle-class life she and Nate built.

Black gangs were starting to form at about that time, fighting whites who eventually fled the city in the 1970s during the busing era. Then there were just black gangs, and later Cape Verdeans, and they all fought among themselves.

Police say there’s a gang on Norton Street now. They fight with another gang a few blocks away on Homes Avenue. Nobody knows why. The feud is deep and enduring, started by some long-forgotten hatred and propagated by new grievances.

Big Nate has seen the damage. A woman was shot down the street, accidentally it’s assumed. There are bullet holes in his house. Police say the guy who lives next door, Tal, is in the Norton gang. Big Nate has tried to talk sense to him over the years, steer him in the right direction. But the tough kids still come to sit on Tal’s porch and talk big.

Big Nate went down a bad road himself back in the day.

Then he and Trina had their own kids. Nicholas was only 3 when one day he asked his father who Jesus was. He decided to change his life. He went back to church, became a deacon. He and Trina made the children focus on school. There were math camps, music lessons.

Trina cleaned at a hotel and worked her way up to management. Big Nate drove trucks. Between them, they earned enough to have things. He bought a boat and taught the boys to fish. They took vacations in New Hampshire. The day before a trip to Disney World, Big Nate got out his camcorder, sat the kids in the dining room, and gleefully filmed them talking about all the things they would do in the Magic Kingdom.

All of it burns like a flame inside him. Most nights, he can’t sleep and rises in the dark to pace.

He thinks sometimes it would not be so hard to return to his old life on the streets, and not so hard to land in jail, where he could find his son’s killers and do to them what they did to Nicholas.

But he has three other children who need him. And, he thinks, a duty to God. A few days later, late at night, he goes to his computer and composes a letter to Little Nate.

He tells him he has been in his shoes and that prison does not mean his life is over.

“It will get better,” he writes.

He pauses, then adds: “Write back soon. Stop holding back from me.”

THE GARDEN is brown and tangled. Waiting.

Weeds are deeply rooted in the walkways. Brittle dead branches lay scattered.

Yet there are signs of spring inside the tall garden fence, just a few streets over from where Nate Davis lives.

A lilac tree is blooming there, its pale flowers like fancy sugar frosting atop swaying branches.

One block away, in the public housing complex on Bowdoin Street, Ella Pierce looks toward the lilac tree from her apartment window. She could once see it from there, when her eyes were working. Ella will be 75 this August, and while her mind is still sharp, her body is failing. Her iron will, which has propelled her through a lifetime of ailments, is no longer enough to quell her legs’ rebellion.

Ella is gray-haired and rail-thin, with ramrod-straight posture and a proud lift to her chin. She doesn’t like sitting still; she never has. But she sits now on her plastic-covered couch, her head tipped back. A soap opera theme song blares from the TV.

She closes her eyes and imagines the smell of the lilac. She imagines walking through the garden, checking the wild raspberries climbing the back fence. She has always been the first one there after the winter; in her imagination, this spring is no different.

Nate, who finds he can’t sleep most nights, spends time in a room where Nicholas used to play music.

Ella remembers when they built the garden. She sat on a plastic milk crate, watching them carve it out of broken bricks and gravel in a string of vacant lots at the end of Coleman Street. When it was finished, it was the Taj Mahal of community gardens: a small, exquisitely designed space with white-columned archways and a grapevine-covered arbor.

It was the mid-1990s, a time of optimism in the neighborhood.

Violence was waning. The garden would be an urban oasis run by residents, who understood their needs better than outsiders.

It was meant to send a message: This neighborhood can be beautiful.

The garden is beautiful, Ella thinks. But then her forehead furrows. It is not the way it was in the beginning.

The nonprofit that built it fell on hard times. Weeds invaded; walls started crumbling.

It is what always seems to happen here: a wave of hope and a period of building, followed by another cycle of decline.

Ella is proud of the garden. She did her best to impose order and raise standards there; once, she issued a report card to each gardener. But now, standing at her window looking down from her apartment, she is worried.

Who will take care of the garden if she can’t make it?

She packs her garden cart with hedge clippers and her hand shovel and rake. She parks the cart by the front door, and it sits there, waiting, as April turns to May.

THERESA JOHNSON is in her cramped kitchen, fussing over a feast, in a small gray house near where Bowdoin meets Geneva in a charmless crossroads.

Cabbage simmers in a cast iron pot. Macaroni and cheese cools on the counter. A yellow cake rises in the oven. Her children are sprawled in the living room and bedrooms. Televisions on. Cellphones ringing. Nothing is sweeter than the chaos that comes from family.

Her sister sneaks a taste of the bubbling sweet potatoes. “The yams were fab!” she yells from her seat at the table. The cook smirks.

It’s Mother’s Day. Theresa’s day in theory. But a mother’s worry is constant, and there’s no quieting the persistent hum of stress that comes from her boys and from never having enough money.

On Good Friday, members of St. Peter Church follow the Stations of the Cross by visiting 14 sites where people have been killed in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood.

“You don’t know how bad I want a Pepsi,” Theresa says, beads of sweat at her hairline. The kitchen is sweltering. The two-liter bottle in the fridge still isn’t cold.

Everything is just about done. Theresa just has to remember to set some food aside. The last thing she needs is for the food to be gone when her mother comes over to grab a plate. It’s only 3 o’clock, and she doesn’t need any more drama today.

Her roommate moved out — finally — kicked out because she didn’t pay rent on time. Not that Theresa did the yelling and the telling, that’s not her style. That role fell to her 21-year-old daughter, Ceecee.

Theresa is scraping by on a school secretary’s salary, a single mother with four children who works in Bowdoin-Geneva, the neighborhood where she grew up.

Summer is coming. Long days. Hot nights. And worry. She worries so much that when sirens sound, she calls to check on her children.

The change of season opens a faucet and her fears flow. Warm weather frees her children to roam the streets, away from her protection, all but Jalanae. She’s the youngest, who at 13 comes and goes only as Theresa pleases.

When they’re home, they’re safe.

It’s her boys — grown men, actually — who really stress her out. Sean and Easy have been “poked up” — stabbed. They’ve been chased. They’ve been arrested — Sean is in jail now, awaiting trial — for being ’hood, for committing crimes. It’s not how she raised them, but it is how they have chosen to live.

Just the day before, Easy was walking to his aunt’s house, which is on Draper Street, when he missed a shooting by 10 minutes, passing by the aftermath — a shot-up car. Someone sprayed it with bullets as it pulled out of the Walgreens at Bowdoin and Geneva.

Tall and lean with a beard that’s often scruffy, Easy is at once Theresa’s brightest and most worrisome child. He wears shirts with a huge marijuana leaf on the front and favors Green Bay Packers hats, a look Theresa affectionately refers to as “common thug” as it indicates his gang affiliation. But his eyes, big and bright with a calming twinkle, reveal the innocence she still sees inside.

Those same eyes are reflected in elementary school pictures Theresa has in the living room. The children’s framed faces hang there, in two sets of four, with “Family” stenciled in a cursive script on the wall.


The energy of a 3-year-old snaps her from a moment of reflection. The little one’s Uncle Easy is sitting on the living room couch watching the Heat beat the Pacers as the toddler bounds past.

Sitting at the kitchen table, Theresa watches the child, Trinity, poke her head into Jalanae’s purple Hello Kitty bedroom en route to her real destination.

“Nonnie!” the 3-year-old cries, sprinting down the hall to her grandmother, Theresa.

“Yes, baby.”

“You wanna see my magic words?”

Just like that, all eyes are trained on the smiling face that can scarcely reach the table. All but Easy’s. He slipped outside. Gone.

Already the weather has begun to change.

IT DOESN’T FEEL like Mother’s Day at the Davis house. After waking, Latrina Fomby-Davis sent a text message to cancel an appointment, then went back to bed. She had planned to march through the neighborhood with other mothers who have lost children to violence. She’d done it last year. But it feels pointless now. All she wants is sleep, to slake the endless fatigue.

The community garden on Coleman Street was built in the 1990s, a time of optimism in the neighborhood. But like many things built on hope here, it has fallen into decline.

Somehow it was different the first year after Nicholas died. There was the shock of it, like physical pain, and the sense that he was in the next room. The girls — Trinecia and Natalie — sometimes left lights on in the kitchen out of habit, thinking Nicholas would be in for leftovers. Now it feels to Trina that she inhabits someone else’s body, going through the motions of a life that isn’t hers.

A few weeks ago, she had taken a stab at restarting, inviting over a house full of relatives and girlfriends. She cooked mustard greens, yellow rice, and a turkey, like she used to when Nicholas was alive. It brought a brief lightness, feeling his memory so close and alive. “If Nicholas were here, he’d be smelling everything, walking around the kitchen and just smelling everything,’’ she said.

But then after dinner, as she sat quietly on a stool amid the chatter, the weariness returned. Her shoulders slumped and her head bowed.

Hanging on the wall above the mahogany sideboard is a big framed print Trina fell in love with at an art fair years before. It is a painting of a big, black family gathered joyously around a bountiful table. Now, it seems a mockery.

“People just don’t know what they do when they take somebody’s child,’’ she says. “They don’t just take the child. They don’t just kill the family. They destroy everyone in it.”

That bright spring day — May 30, 2010 — Little Nate and Nicholas took off on Little Nate’s motor scooter to get their hair trimmed. They stayed outside afterwards, reveling in the weather, Nate driving, Nicholas clinging to him on the back. They visited friends, went to the store. They went back to the house every so often to check in. Nicholas bounded upstairs at one point and showed Big Nate his new line-up, hair neatly trimmed around his face and ragged on top. Before racing back downstairs, he asked if they still planned to go fishing later. Big Nate replied that they would.

About 7 that night, the boys were almost home again when Nate braked hard to avoid hitting a young man on a bicycle who veered into the street. Little Nate took off his helmet, following an unwritten street rule to let others see who you are. He and the man looked at each other. The man had acne scars on his face. Little Nate didn’t recognize him, and the young man pedaled away.

When the boys got home a few minutes later, Little Nate got off the scooter and told his brother he needed to use the bathroom and would get some money for the two of them to go to Burger King. Nicholas asked if he could take the scooter around the block. Nate gave his brother his helmet because it had a sturdy face protector, able to take the force of the wind better than the one Nicholas had been using.

A moment later, on the other side of the block, a gang unit police officer on his way home after leaving work early saw two figures crouch behind a car like “they were on a mission,” an acne-scarred man and a teenager with a hand shoved deep in his pocket. As Nicholas rounded the corner on the scooter, the figures ran into the street and blocked his path. Nicholas stopped, and one of the figures grabbed him by the shoulder, motioned for the other to shoot. The boy with his hand in his pocket drew out a gun and fired three times.

Nicholas staggered to the side of the street and stumbled into the corner store that everyone calls Georgie’s. He crashed into a rack then collapsed, struggling to breathe. Two men who worked at the store knelt and picked him up. They carried him out to the sidewalk, returned to the store, and locked the door behind them.

A police cruiser screamed to a stop. There was shouting and confusion. A police officer knelt over Nicholas, started pumping his chest and slapping his face. “Stay with me, buddy,” he kept saying. “Stay with me.”

Little Nate, hearing the commotion, had sprinted to his brother’s side and knelt beside the officer. He took his brother’s hand. “Call an ambulance,” he screamed. “Has somebody called an ambulance?” And to Nicholas he repeated the officer’s words, “Stay with me.”

Other officers raced after the suspects and, within moments, arrested them. As police closed in, the acne-faced young man, Crisostomo Lopes, said to a cop who had drawn his gun, “What are you going to do, shoot me?” As he was being led away in handcuffs, he shouted into the air, “Homes Ave.!” — a war whoop for the Homes Ave. gang.

Nicholas Fomby-Davis was never part of a gang, never in trouble. But members of Homes Ave. had hassled Little Nate in the past, trying to shake him down and fighting with him.

That night, a throng of people came to the Davises’ house. Neighbors, relatives, people from church. They hugged and cried, prayed. Big Nate and Trina sobbed inconsolably. So did Trinecia and Natalie, falling apart with grief. Little Nate did not cry, forced himself not to. He took his sisters out to walk around the block, walking between them and holding his arms through theirs. “It’s OK,” he said again and again. “It’s OK.”

Later, Big Nate gathered up some rags, filled a bucket with water and went to the street corner. He wanted to wash away his son’s blood, as though in a final act of care. But he could find no blood to clean. He stood with his bucket and rags, stood through the night until the sun came up and there was nothing left to do but go home.

THE DREAMthe goal,” the mayoral aide says into the microphone, “is that in the end the community takes this on, and keeps it going.” It’s a night in early May. The city has gathered residents and neighborhood workers and a few cops in a big room at Holland Elementary School, built in the 1970s along railroad tracks that once served as a border between predominately white Bowdoin-Geneva and the city’s growing black population.

Theresa Johnson (center) finds joy in the chaos of family as she bustles in her cramped kitchen.

At a buffet table, a neighborhood worker from the Bowdoin Street Health Center, Susan Young, is serving chicken and plantains from steaming chafing dishes. She is short and ebullient, and chatters nonstop with people lined up with paper plates.

Turning 47 this month, she grew up in the neighborhood and now spends her days here, trying to intervene in troubled situations before violence blooms. She knocks on doors, befriends troublemakers and ordinary residents, arranges job interviews, fixes personal problems. Her office is piled with the currency of the trade: stacks of charcoal for block parties, grocery store gift cards for the poor. The point is to help where she can.

She’s here tonight because of the city’s new push, triggered by the murder last fall of an eighth-grader who was walking to Walgreens on a sparkling Sunday afternoon when a young man rode up on a bike and shot him.

In the uproar that followed, police announced a raft of measures, including surveillance cameras and beefed-up patrols.

And Mayor Thomas M. Menino soon announced his own plan, the latest in a series that the city has rolled out — mostly in vain — since the 1970s. Menino, who has been frustrated by the continued violence, walks Bowdoin Street each Christmas Eve. The main thrust this time would be simple: forcing police, public works supervisors, parks employees, building inspectors, and other city workers to meet every other week, with each other and with community leaders, to talk about what needed fixing, from graffiti to broken street lights to the houses where trouble seems to start. Then they would make sure the problems got fixed.

Cleaned-up streets would mean less crime, the city said. And the effort would restore confidence in a neighborhood that had lost faith in government and, in some ways, in itself.

The city enlisted clergy including Doc Conway, health workers like Susan, civic leaders, and neighborhood activists. They’ve been walking the neighborhood and meeting since November. Now that summer is near, they’re at Holland Elementary to brainstorm with residents about what needs to be done.

Susan comes to the microphone and tells the small crowd some of her efforts, three young men she’s helping to find jobs, two homeless men she’s helping to get into apartments. Others follow.

But among the residents, there is skepticism about this new drive by the city. It’s a refrain many have heard before.

IN HIS CELL at South Bay House of Correction, Little Nate Davis wears his yellow prison suit. He has his father’s face but his mother’s smaller build, and her quiet presence. The cell has a toilet and a tiny window overlooking the highway. He has learned to tell time by the light outside and the guards’ shift changes. The people here are adults, but he’s 17. The note his father sent is under his bunk, stuffed in with legal papers in a big envelope. The note was a kind but unhelpful gesture. His father seems to know so little of the world he has to negotiate.

Easy (left) is the most worrisome of Theresa’s children, and Jalanae (center) is the most sensitive.

He’s been in jail nine months so far — nine months since that August night when he left the house without telling his parents where he was going. He went to Mattapan to meet up with the people he trusts above all others. His ciphers, he calls them, a term for brotherhood that originates in the rap world. In his view, they’re not friends, like his parents say, or a gang, like the police say. They are people who have his back in any situation, and he has theirs.

Most of them had met in middle school, protected each other from the fights that went on in school and after. They named themselves after a street and wore the same hats. That August night, they were in an area known to police as a gang hangout. Officers spotted them gathered around a car. One officer saw Little Nate take something from one of the others, look around, and put it in his pocket. Then, the group fanned out into the street. When one of the officers got out to question them, Nate tried to get away. A search produced a tiny .25 caliber pistol, favored on the street because it’s easy to conceal.

Now, he is confined by these white cinderblock walls. There are a lot of people he knows here — each associated with some crossbeam in the framework of alliances and beefs in his world. Some are allies; some are enemies. There are a few from the Homes Ave. gang that killed his brother.

Seven of his nine months here have been spent in “the box,” a disciplinary unit where prisoners are confined in a cell by themselves for 23 hours a day. Nate has three D-Reports – “D” for disciplinary — because he’s been fighting.

In his most recent confrontation, he says he jumped in to help one of his ciphers who was about to get blindsided. He punched and punched. As guards dragged him away, he had laughed, a strange, low-pitched laugh. “It was just funny,” he said, “the way the guy’s face was all messed up.” But then that night in the solitude of the box, the terrors had come. It is the same every time: He wakes drowning, bathed in sweat, a Technicolor picture in his head of his brother’s face that night as he knelt over him on the sidewalk, when Nicholas’s eyes flickered and went dead.


BIG NATE RISES long before dawn, backs the truck out of its spot beside the house and takes it through the dark toward the highway going south. It’s a Saturday in late May. In the back are fishing rods, a cooler, and a bucket. He is going to the Cape to fish like he used to with the boys. Little Nate had eventually grown tired of that, but Nicholas never did. He badgered his father for any opportunity to go, and they would ride together through the hush of a breaking day, talking or sometimes just listening to the Gospel music that Nate liked to play on the radio. In his mind now always is Nicholas’s question the day he died. Are we going fishing? It was so ordinary. But it never really leaves him now, a request perpetually unfulfilled.

Trinity, 3, is Theresa’s granddaughter. Theresa worries about her children constantly, calling them whenever she hears sirens. It’s only when they’re home that she feels they are safe.

He drives to a marina in Hyannis, where he pays $35 to ride out on a charter for the day. He does well, filling his bucket with Porgies that glimmer like silver dinner plates. Nicholas had taken such delight in that, filling the bucket with the beautiful fish. He would bring it back to the neighborhood to sell his catch to neighbors and friends. Big Nate has something similar in mind for his, and a few days later, he stocks the cooler with the fish he caught, brings them out to the truck and sets out to deliver them to elders from his old church.

He makes a circuit of houses and apartment buildings, calling on his cellphone before each stop. “Brother Thompson, get your bowl.” He hasn’t been back to church since the murder. His faith, as he tells one of the elders, is “not so bold anymore.” But he does this, he says, for God, for love. One by one — an old woman in curlers, a man in slacks and house slippers — they come out to meet him by the curb, offering up an empty bowl or platter in which Big Nate places a few of his fish and stands to talk for a few minutes.

It is a day before the anniversary of his son’s death. And less than a week before he and his family must relive their devastation at the trial of the accused killers. As he hands the fish to outstretched arms, he hopes some of the goodness and generosity of his offering can find a way back to his family. To Little Nate. To him.

This project was reported and written by Meghan E. Irons, Akilah Johnson, Maria Cramer, Jenna Russell, and Andrew Ryan. Reporters and photographers involved in this project can be reached at