19 June 2005, 4:28 pm

I was running a few errands Saturday afternoon. On Mass Ave I stopped and locked my bike to a street lamppost while I went to pick something up.

It wasn’t until I came back to the bike that I realized there was something attached to the pole — a small shrine with flowers and a cross made of green foam. The bottom leg of the cross was dangling forlornly.

I suddenly realized I thought I knew exactly where I was standing. I shivered.

Simltaneously, I recalled that my shoulder had brushed against something when I was locking my bike. This sounds a bit crazy, but it hadn’t penetrated my consciousness as the time — I only became aware of it in retrospect.

On June 8th of 2003 — later I consulted police records and the Harvard Crimson to verify the details — a young man named Robert Scott had been shot to death within a few steps of where I was standing. It was the second homicide in Cambridge that year. I was still living in Washington DC then, though I was visiting Cambridge frequently. I remember being startled at how newsworthy one murder was.

And now I, who’d been so callous about the crime when it happened, had possibly damaged a memorial to the victim. I didn’t think I’d cracked off the broken leg of the cross — if I’d bumped something hard I would have been aware of it right away. If the shrine were placed there (as I later guessed) two years after Scott’s death, it had already endured high winds and heavy rain. But I knew I couldn’t swear I hadn’t damaged it.

And I was keenly aware that to those left behind by Scott’s passing — like the girlfriend who was waiting for the bus with him, and his daughter (now age 7) — it would look like something much worse than a moment of inattention and carelessness. It would look like an act of deliberate vandalism and profound disrespect.

I didn’t rest well that night. I imagined friends or relations of the deceased seeing the state of the shrine and wishing venomous curses on me. I wasn’t even sure I didn’t deserve them.

So on Sunday I returned to the scene of my (possible) crime, armed with a roll of Scotch tape and a baggie full of odds-and-ends that I thought might help repair the cross. The tape did nothing, which I should have guessed. I wound up using a pair of brads to reattach what was left of the drooping leg. I couldn’t restore it completely. Some of the leg had been snapped off even earlier — in one of the thunderstorms, I’d guess.

I still wasn’t quite sure what the mourners would make of my handiwork. There’s an irony that I don’t much like, for me, a non-believer, to fix a Christian symbol by putting nails into it.

But as I was working on it a very strange thing happened. The sidewalk was far from deserted. Several people looked at me curiously as they passed. A guy on his cell phone in the fated bus stand stared almost the whole time.

Only one man spoke to me. I can barely remember a thing about him. Medium build, I guess, late thirties. Business casual sort of attire. Perhaps sandy-haired, and then again maybe not. But I remember what he said.

“Did you know him?”

Not at all, I replied. I explained what I thought I might have done. I didn’t try to meet his eyes.

He nodded. “I saw it,” he said.

I don’t know if I managed words or if I just gasped, but I imagine my shock was clear enough. I looked into his eyes then and there was a shadow lurking behind them. The man could have been a liar with a dramatic flair and a nasty streak, but I don’t think so.

“I was in my car, right over there.” He gestured vaguely. “About where that blue car is.”

I couldn’t manage to look at the blue car. I probably looked down at my hand full of brads and screws.

“Terribly sad,” he said. He repeated it, not that emphasis was necessary. “Terribly sad.”

Words aren’t adequate for some things, and my tongue is too sluggardly for many situations. If I could have distilled my memories in an instant, maybe I would have told this stranger how, years ago, one winter morning in DC, walking to the subway station, I’d followed a trail of recent bloodstains halfway down the 13th Street hill. Someone had been sprinting down the sidewalk, bleeding profusely, then veered hill into the high school grounds. To seek some concealment, or refuge, or a maybe just a place to wait for the inevitable. I could have told him how I sometimes heard shots fired and wondered what consequences the bullets left in their wake. That I couldn’t say if a gun had ever been pulled on me, that the streetlight had seemed to glint from something in the man’s hand that night, and that though he’d ordered at me to stop, I’d had asolutely no inclination to slow down for a closer look.

Most of all, I wanted to say to him that for all my bravado about of the toughness of my old ‘hoods, those uncertain moments were the closest I’d ever come to what I he’d gone through. To say that I knew I couldn’t really even imagine what he’d gone through, what Robert Scott, or his friends and family, had gone through.

He walked on. I felt that perhaps some sort of approval had been conferred upon me. I felt surer that I was doing the right thing. I finished my work on the cross, nodded to the observer in the bus stand, and pedaled home swiftly.

I think it looks better.

I hope it looks better.


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