"Thank you, Papi!"
Those were Brexialee Torres' last heard words. That's what the store man told the television reporter. She paid $5 for the gallon of milk, she thanked him and, 11-years-old, she stepped out into the night.
Through the entrance and the open iron-bar security door with the Bluntville sticker, down the four crumbling concrete steps onto Oakwood where it crosses Martin Luther King East.
Oakwood runs a few blocks along the eastern edge of Central Village, one of the oldest welfare housing projects in the country. A few years back, the county executive called the place "deplorable," and said that the federal government should be ashamed of it.
It's a sprawling mass of two-story squalor in the shadow of Syracuse University's Carrier Dome. You've got the dome on a hill, a quick descent, the impenetrable wall of Interstate 81, the Doctor King Elementary School, Oakwood, and then Central Village, where Syracuse has fenced off its poor people for the last half century.
Central Village is bounded on the west by State Street, across which is a little park called Libba Cotten Grove, in honor of the black folk singer who lived her last years in Syracuse. Sometime, get your smart speaker to play her "Freight Train" for you. It talks about a woman with dreams,dreams that don't come true, and the hope that she will be buried near the tracks and the trains, whose passage inspired her dreams and empowered her escape.
Libba lived to be almost a hundred. Brexialee didn't live to be a dozen.
She crossed Martin Luther King East and stepped up onto the sidewalk and the car came by. It was the car and some 19-year-old guy and an 11-year-old girl, at the corner of Oakwood and Martin Luther King East, just across from Doctor King Elementary and down from the Carrier Dome. In the sight of the two Syracuses. The one with a $1.76 billion endowment and the other without two dimes to rub together. The ivory tower and the littered street.
And that's where Brexialee Torres was growing up. A tennis player, a writer and artist, a product of both the university's La Casita and the city district's Seymour Dual Language Academy. A girl who smiled bright, worked hard, studied long, and whose family at dinner time on Martin Luther King Day needed a gallon of milk. Maybe for supper that night or breakfast the next morning, an errand to be run and a girl quick to serve.
They were gunning for the 19-year-old boy. The people in the car. They were trying to hit the guy. And they did, something minor in the legs, there on the corner of Oakwood and Martin Luther King East. They hit him in the legs and they sped off. Another drive-by in another decaying American city on another day when another mother learns that her baby is dead.
Brexialee took one in the belly. Wounded bad in the abdomen, she lay there bleeding as others scooped the drive-by's target, the 19-year-old, into a car and sped him to the hospital. They left her there, and the first to her side were the police officers, kneeling in the wet and cold to do CPR, to pray and push and puff a miracle out of a little girl down. But she passed quickly, and moved in the eyes of the world from complete anonymity to the fleeting prominence of a smartphone alert, an update from the paper or the TV station. Number three for the year in a world where the names of the first two are already forgotten.
And that's how it goes these days. The worst of us bring down the best of us, and children are the victims as often as not, and a little girl buying a gallon of milk, its spilled contents marking the spot where she fell, is the latest lamb to the slaughter.
Syracuse is a place where America's rot shows through, where the most substantive point of pride is an old basketball coach and the teams he cobbles together each year. A place where generations have fought and struggled but this generation largely lives on faded glory and con-job rhetoric. It's a great place if you ask the politicians and the boosters, it's damned hard sledding if you ask anybody else. There aren't enough cops and there aren't enough dollars and some days they run short on hope. And all you see in abundance are the likes of the monsters in the car, spraying a street corner with gunfire, taking a little girl's life.
At least that's how it seems sometimes.
But in the dark of the night and in the lights of the TV cameras there were the mayor and the chief, men of decency and heart, mourning first and imploring next. Asking. Asking anyone who knows anything.
The mayor saying she was completely innocent. The chief saying she was the president of her class. The community saying this is our daughter lost.
Syracuse saying we are better than this. We are not defined by our worst. We are not the monsters in the car. We aspire to be the girl in the store.
She had dreams and we had dreams.
And hers will live in ours.
While a family mourns. In a living room in Central Village, 100 yards from the store with the iron gate.
And across a region, among strangers who weep.