Epitaph in The County of Kings: RIP Pepe 1984-2004
In 2002, the shutter clicked on the last photograph in this book. Three years in the lives of children on the brink of adulthood and parents who are always dangerously close to the edge can produce a whole new history. My intense awareness of this made it very hard for me to bring this project to a close: I felt that in every instance when I looked away something happened that would now go unwitnessed. I also needed to move on as a photographer, but I feared that I would then lose my place as a member of the family. For an entire year, I kept up my routines on the block, even though I had stopped taking pictures.
The past two years have been the harshest for the family I've been closest to. Both Pepe and Andy were arrested for selling crack cocaine and convicted. Andy was sent to Tryon, a maximum-security juvenile detention facility in Upstate New York. Pepe was 18, and eventually mandated to a drug rehabilitation program where he remained until after his 20th birthday. Tata married a man that she met while in rehab and never again lived with her family; she is also no longer reporting to her parole officer. In the spring of 2004, Andy's father, Andres, who had held the family together for more than a decade, died in housing court. He suffered a fatal heart attack while fighting his latest eviction notice. He was buried on what would have been his seventieth birthday. [ck]Twenty-three-year-old [ck] Alex, the eldest son, was now left with six children to care for, including his own daughter, who has cerebral palsy.
Nine months later, on December 31, 2004, Pepe was shot and killed in his mother's old drug spot by a bullet to his heart. There were other people on the street, but no one saw anything. He stumbled around the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard toward his family's apartment, a few feet away, but he didn't make it home. The street named after the slain civil rights leader was covered with Pepe's blood by the time his Brother Alex got him in the ambulance. Doctors in the trauma unit at Kings County Hospital pronounced Pepe dead at 11:56 P.M., four minutes before 2005.
Pepe had always been Andres's favorite. Both father and son had heart trouble, which had made the pair especially protective of each other. Andres had often said, in his unmistakably Cuban accent, "Si I Die- Pepe Will Go With Me," and when the boys argued over who would get to be buried in the second cemetery plot at the end of the L line that held their father, Pepe would joke, "I'm gonna go in the hole next to Poppi."
On New Year's Day, 2005, I went to the morgue with Tata, Andy, and Alex's wife Daisy. I followed Tata down a dingy corridor through a steel door with a sign on it bearing an official seal and the words" COUNTY OF KINGS, OFFICE OF THE CORONER. Tata was there to officially identify the body of her son, and the rest of us were there to say goodbye. We waited while the tired-looking employee told us it would be a moment while they prepared the body. New Year's Eve had been busy, he said. Like all the other bureaucratic spaces I'd spent time in with this family, the rooms of the coroner's department offered no beauty or comfort. Clearly, this was a part of the hospital where any concerns above the bare minimum were considered pointless. We were led downstairs to a small room with a dirty glass window that was set up like the viewing area in a maternity-ward nursery, where proud parents introduce their newborns to family and friends. The morgue employee wheeled Pepe's body up to the window and we all gave the kind of hushed OOOHHH –not unlike the sound one makes when seeing a baby for the first time. Daisy said that Pepe's hair looked strange, but Tata swore that he was smiling. I couldn't take my eyes of the empty Polaroid film box that had been used in lieu of a pillow to prop up Pepe's head.
On the day of Pepe's funeral, the three rooms of the family's apartment filled up with friends, just as it had after Andres died. The music was different now, though. Alex, Andy, and Tony played track #14 on a Ja Rule mix CD over and over. " This goes out to all my niggas that's dead and gone- I'll see you when I get there"….. "Oh I wish that you was here my nigga"… The boys sat around the empty living room and repeated the words as they collapsed in tears, folding into one another's laps like the tops of cardboard moving cartons. As flowers were brought, 1.75-liter bottles of Hennessey were downed and used as vases.
Physical evidence gains importance after someone dies. Tata had called the police precinct daily to see if they would release the clothes that Pepe was wearing the night he was killed: one XXX Large North Face Parka and a pair of tan suede Timberlands were being held for evidence. The official uniform of a street soldier, his mother wanted it returned to her. Pepe's sisters took turns wearing his Summer Youth Employment Badge that bore an expiration date of 12/31/99. In a similar way, many of the photographs that I had taken of Pepe when he was little had become precious overnight. Several of them earned a spot in the makeshift shrine that was assembled in the living room, and the one of him in the limo, the day of Andres' funeral, would now be placed on top of his own coffin.
Pepe's wake was held between the hours of 2 and 9 p.m., and people came and went all day. When school let out at 3 o'clock, the funeral parlor was packed with children. Small squads of Pepe's young street brothers approached the coffin in formation and broke down in tears. Teachers and the guidance counselor from the last high school that Pepe had attended also showed up. The younger kids lost interest in acting sad after a time, and went downstairs near the rest rooms to play.
Kids I barely recognized, because they had become teenagers since I'd last saw them, introduced themselves to talk about the pictures that I had taken of them, years before. We talked about the neighborhood and told stories. One said to his girlfriend, "This is the lady I was telling you about," and I gradually realized that I had been as important to them as they had to me. Many of them still had copies of my pictures, and they would ask me about details they'd forgotten: "What was that kid's name who was jumping the roof in that picture?" —"Didn't that high school used to be an abandoned building?" I felt responsible for a collective memory of a time and place—a place that would continue to change.
Bearing witness to the neighborhood that first raised Pepe up and then killed him is the point of this book. My hope is that it provides a context and a meaning to a life that was reduced to two lines in THE NEW YORK POST January 02, 2005 Police Blotter – "The last gun fatality of 2004." The struggles of my neighborhood are so overwhelming that it is tempting to dismiss the people who face them every day. My job is to make that impossible.
© Copyright 1989 - Brenda Kenneally. All rights reserved.