It was only last Friday night that Joe and Carla Tucker were talking about how sweet 22-year-old Gillespie McPherson was. Less than 24 hours later, McPherson bled to death in the brightest sunlight this winter.
Joe pointed out down filling from McPherson's coat that swirled around on the sidewalk beside his restaurant.
The gun battle crowning McPherson homicide victim No. 14 went down before 1 p.m. Saturday in front of Tucker's, the Vine Street diner passed down to Joe. It was right in the middle of the Tucker's Saturday lunch crush.
Folks schlepped in from Findlay Market, mellowed and sunny from the temporarily balmy weather.
But trash still blew past. Cars still slowed so drivers and passengers could hook up with drug dealers. And black pigeons — pedestrians disrespecting and crossing through traffic — clogged Over-the-Rhine streets in a strange cultural celebration of the sun's first full appearance.
Word is McPherson traded shots with an unidentified black male gunman but the other man scurried away with a gunshot wound to his leg. McPherson fell at the corner of Vine and Green streets.
I call that corner Dead Nigga Boulevard. It gives way to Crack Alley.
Drugs are as ubiquitous as rims and Rap. Dealers are brazen. They strut, sell and call out to their lieutenants in shorthand ghetto-speak.
It's an aboveground, used-to-be-subculture on the run from nightfall into broad daylight. It's their world, and they own it like homeowners who prune shrubs and manicure lawns to increase property values.
They used to scurry and avoid the eye contact of strangers. Now they saunter. And dare. And stare. And some kill.
Joe, Carla, David and the rest of the extended family who run Tucker's know full well what goes on in the hell outside their door. They know. How could they not?
But when drug dealers and users get hungry, they enter Tucker's with respect and that respect is reciprocated. Joe calls everyone by name, remembers their favorite orders and moves on with the business of omelets, deluxe home fries and the Big Tucker Burger.
Still, it's taking its toll, this see-no-evil/I-know-evil schizophrenia. Here's a family — not just a business — but a family unit who stayed and who'll remain here at the epicenter of drug culture.
Tucker's closes at 3 p.m. A little past that time Saturday I was making my way to Findlay Market via Liberty Street. A police cruiser, its bar lights flashing, sat parked on Vine Street at Liberty, blocking the intersection.
I slowed to look north on Vine. There was a tangle of yellow police tape zigzagging around light poles for blocks up the street. I cut down a side street, parked, walked through an alley and emerged on Vine a few doors from Tucker's.
I knew someone was dead. It's the only time cops block off streets. Plus, the ominous Crime Scene van was parked across from the restaurant.
I dialed up Tucker's from my cell phone and got David on the phone.
"Man! What the hell happened? Are you all being held hostage in there or what?"
"Somebody got shot right out front, honey. It was right at lunch rush. There must've been about 12 shots."
The cops cut down all the tape, and I dipped into Tucker's. It looked like a shut down movie set. I'd never seen it empty and that clean or quiet. Joe's eyes were strained and his forehead was wrinkled with stress and fatigue. Carla sat in a booth across from me talking about McPherson without naming him. David walked around smoking a cigarette.
They talked about their clientele and how most were good people who "do what they do but are fine when they come in here." They don't even curse in front of Carla, David said.
But for Tucker's to turn from the cliché of the well-meaning white establishment whose owners must turn blinded eyes to the embarrassing realities of black urban life just to make a buck, some shit's gotta happen. Assuming the bling-bling street clockers aren't gonna stop slinging on their own, the police have to reclaim — with reasonable restraint — these streets overrun by dealers, prostitutes, thieves and addicts.
The cops are pouting and thin-skinned because of critics like me, collaborative agreements and maybe even fear. If cops weren't ghosts, though, how could crime run butt-naked through black and poor white neighborhoods?
Corpses emerging as statistics aren't just numbers for tallying at year's end. These people belong to other people.
Mayor Charlie Luken once called Vine Street the most important street in Cincinnati. Yawn.
It's an atrophied limb falling off from lack of stimulation. The damage done to the neighborhood from the botched Empire Theatre debacle alone will take years to untangle, as will the mayor's credibility and the willingness of residents to believe future promises coming from City Hall.
When people know nobody cares, they behave accordingly.
Stop playing politics. This time last year there were eight homicides. We were bearing down for peaceful observances of the one-year anniversary of the death of Timothy Thomas.
The start of 2003 indicates we've got a long summer ahead. And it'll get a lot warmer than it was Saturday when Tucker's closed early for a reality check.
Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.