A cold-blooded killing in the neighborhood

My children believe in tooth fairies. Do I have to tell them about the murder across the street?


Heather Donovan
August 5, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Late one night two months ago, while my daughter was waiting for the brush of the tooth fairy's wings, two young men, Shayne Worcester of Maine and his friend, a neighbor of mine here in San Francisco, were ambling uphill across our street. They were walking home from dinner out together, enjoying Worcester's brief visit, through a neighborhood so popular and lively and friendly that all of us who live here walk. All the time. We go on errands to Walgreens or to the movie store at midnight, to the family-owned cafes and restaurants and bars any evening. Russian Hill is close to downtown and North Beach; it is dense with Victorian flats and apartments. People tend to notice each other here: We see pregnant women lugging groceries home from the market, and later, those same women with their babies in strollers. We know whose children are going to camp when we see them hauling a tennis racket around.

On that night two months ago, at the corner just outside our window beneath bright streetlights but partially in tree shadow, two other young men, who had been leaning against the brick wall of the apartment building there at the cable car stop, said something. Worcester and my neighbor realized they were in danger, and ran. In a breath of time so short that few of us who live nearby heard any commotion at all, two men had Shayne Worcester flat on the sidewalk, they took his wallet when he told them where it was, and then, in an act beyond understanding, they shot him, twice. A third man in an idling car sped the three of them off. Worcester died before his family from Maine could get to San Francisco.

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I still can't tell my girls, age 7 and 10, what happened on our street. My fear is that someone will. Someone who was looking over their parents' shoulder at the TV, who heard their parents say, "Isn't that where your friend lives?" Or an adult who asks me, whispering, but in my children's presence, "Didn't I see your house on TV? Was that you and your dog walking by?" And then I will start lying.

I have been lying to my kids for a long time now. When the morning newspaper headlines are unbearable, we keep that section in the recycling, and the kids, whose morning worries are whether they're going to get in trouble for forgetting to pick up after the dog, never know what they're missing. We are not a family who watches TV news.

Some traumatized kid at school usually lets the cat out of the bag. "We aren't going camping anymore because bad men do bad things to people in Yosemite."

"Those guys in high school? They shot like the whole school? Like everybody?"

"There's a war with airplanes like that one there dropping nuclear bombs on people on bridges."

I have no qualms about lying. I have been lying to them for years. The 7-year-old still gets Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, rabbits who live under manhole covers, an old woman named Lulubelle who rides in a limo driven by a white chicken. The 10-year-old gets, well, "Kosovo is on the other side of the planet. Littleton was these really sad boys with guns. Yosemite -- you and I would have sensed that man was up to no good."

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"Good dreams come true. Nightmares don't." This is what I tell both of them.

Last year I took heart when Christine Northrup, author of "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom," hypothesized on PBS that the human body isn't built to bear news of tragedy and trauma in the colossal doses we now receive daily. She posited that when living in tribes, humans only took in a tribal dose of bad news. One tribe on one continent had no idea of the traumas of another tribe across an ocean. I have embraced this notion. Especially on behalf of my kids, who cannot possibly thrive on assaults of fear.

Surely, I have maintained, we do more damage to our children by wrapping them in cloaks daggered with fear than by letting them believe the world is a lovely and generous place -- as it often is. How much confidence can a child raised in horror grow up with?

For days after the murder, TV vans crowded our corner every hour, shooting the same photos of the cable cars and our building, reporters adjusting their ties for the cameras on the same corner where my kids sold chocolate-chip cookies and lemonade the Saturday before. "Save some for me," our neighbors shouted out their windows. "Keep the change," pure strangers said, pulling up on motorcycles, walking by. I'd taken photos of my kids 50 feet away from me, by the fire hydrant, refilling lemonade glasses, handing over chocolate-chip cookies smushed in Saran Wrap, my kids on their own a little bit in the world, living out an idea one of them had had, and taking in the kindnesses and generosity and friendliness of strangers. It was a piece -- picture perfect -- of what we hope a kids' life can be.

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On the night of Shayne Worcester's murder, we had opened the window for the tooth fairy for my 7-year-old. She'd tucked her tooth under her pillow with a note wondering if the tooth fairy happened to have a silver dollar on her, could she maybe, please please please maybe, leave it. Somebody my daughter loves was a few blocks away that night, walking in and out of bars, asking after a silver dollar. That somebody was adult and male, like Shayne Worcester, the kind of person the rest of us females assume is the most invincible, out at night on brightly lit streets, enjoying errands of pure pleasure.

Since that night, I've watched myself, astonished and appalled, at the tricks my mind tries to perform to distance myself from what just happened. These are the same tricks I use while reading the newspaper every day, but their ludicrousness is now inescapable. "OK," I told myself. "Well, it happened across the street. Our side is still safe." ("Littleton's sort of atrocity won't happen here, San Francisco is just so much more tolerant.") "Oh," I told myself, "I'll just sit in the back of my flat, where I can't see all the TV trucks. That will make it more bearable." ("The Sund women in Yosemite didn't know how to suss out sordid people, whereas I, certainly, have hunches.") "OK. Time is so weird. A murder happened last night, outside our open window. But already we are in a new day, with no trace of the act in sight -- none." ("Kosovo is so very very far away, with a history so different from ours.") "OK. Shayne Worcester isn't lead news today. This morning it was only in the second section of the paper. There's only one TV van outside."

My mind wants to do anything, anything at all to say, "That was there, then. That was not here, now."

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But to say that makes Shayne Worcester disappear. It takes him out of my heart and thoughts, as do my rationalizations of horror everywhere. And Shayne Worcester is the news that happened to my tribe, today, yesterday and the day before.

For almost a day after Worcester's death, what happened beneath that telephone pole was absolutely invisible to anyone walking by. The police and ambulance had been there at night, and by daylight there was no trace of where he fell. But by the second morning, flowers had appeared, in vases, or clumped together. A lit candle, and the first note, which said how sorry someone was that this could have happened in our beautiful neighborhood. And that person didn't mean the hilltop views. She or he meant this place where neighbors hand out sweets to children on Chinese New Year, where on rare, hot nights people set tables in front of their garages, or barbecues on the sidewalk and sip margaritas, chit-chatting with passersby. Three days after Worcester's death, a huge chalk poem took up most of the corner and sidewalk, elaborately scrolled and bright: "Songs that break and scatter out of the moon, rockets of joy, dimmed too soon." By Langston Hughes. And then came the photos of Worcester tacked to the phone pole, with notes recounting weddings he'd been at, and poems he'd written alongside. The corner grocery kept the water fresh in the vases. Cars pulled up and strangers got out to leave notes of grief. Though the news focussed on his being a tourist, and people in our city used that fact to distance themselves from what happened, as if he were somehow more incautious than the rest of us, he wasn't really a foreigner. He had many friends here. At midnight one night I watched two men darting in and out of shadows, looking over their shoulders, some sort of unwieldy objects tucked under their arms. They constantly watched the street and the windows above them. I was afraid. I wasn't about to step outside for a closer look and they soon were gone. In the morning I saw they'd pasted Xeroxed photos of Worcester on every surface: the newspaper racks, the mail box, the phone poles. Today, beneath the surviving photos, there is a planter box with flowers in dirt built around the telephone pole, with Shayne Worcester 's name nailed in metal to the wood. The grief and violence has soared, for his family, to other rooms in other places. But the flowers growing here name his memory. They stop time as it should be stopped.

In a tribal life I would take my kids daily to the telephone pole to wonder and grieve and show them: This is how we remember someone. This is how we pause to remember something that happened that is over and not over. Flowers cascading out of buckets. A mystery we can't explain, but that we can stand next to nonetheless.

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If our lives were reined in to a tribal scale, we would speak of Worcester's death for days and weeks and the flowers would be replenished forever to remind us of the moment when the inexplicable struck. We would honor him and not forget him in the wake of bigger, faster, more immediate news. He would be remembered as a stranger who left the world we hold in our jurisdiction, the one we hold, essentially, in our palm -- the one under our watch.

But I cannot tell my daughters what happened. I simply cannot. I eavesdrop wildly in the grocery and steer them away from anyone saying, again and again in disbelief, "Hyde and Vallejo, shot!" I can't explain it to my girls in the terms of a sad (and somehow distant that way) accident. Neither can I bear to let them know that there are people in our world -- our global world and in our city, our realm -- with such cataclysmic disregard for themselves that they have no regard for the breath of a stranger.

For better or worse I am raising my children deceitfully. They will be painfully shocked and angry at me when harm and evil overtake my ability to keep it at bay for them. (And pain and shock may be the right response.) I cannot conceive of doing the opposite, of filling them in on the daily horrors and letting them deal with them, of toughening their armor this early so that they are forced to take on bad news, feel it floating over and around them, here today, gone tomorrow, back again the next day.

But what can I say to the Worcester family, or the Sunds, or the Pelossos, or the Littleton families or the parents in Kosovo, that will justify my hiding their beautiful children's deaths from my children?

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This, only this: I hope my kids will have more hope, and expect more out of their world, and demand more of it than we seem to be able to do now, because they will have lived a time in their lives that proved possibility: good dreams actually coming true; strangers admiring their good cooking; tooth fairies lugging unwieldy coins. I pray that they will not be inured to so many assaults on the heart from too early on.

And this is my promise to the Worcesters. I will remember your son. I will mind those flowers. Two months ago my kid woke up with a Susan B. Anthony under her pillow. The next day, after she was off to school, I took all the red roses out of our garden and added them to the growing tribute to your son. People brought florist bouquets and garden offerings and notes. Someone arranged beach pebbles. Incense burned for Buddha, and a candle for Mary. Though my daughter asked what happened to the roses, I did not tell her. She is young enough that much of what adults tell her remains a mystery and therefore, matter of fact. As more roses blossomed, more disappeared.

I still haven't walked with my girls on the memorial side of the street. It's easier than it sounds, to suddenly notice something on the other side of the street and quickly cross over. But my promise to you, parents forever of your irreplaceable, beautiful lost child: I will dose my girls up with possibility and hope. I will be an ambassador of belief in all good things, for the necessity of kindness, of how to expect it and how to labor for it. When they are older we will tend your son's flowers together. They will learn the story and grieve it still, for what you lost, and what our world lost. And when they are grown, because I am lying to them now, they will be women who bring flowers in a vase to a place on Vallejo Street, and they will not let their children forget, ever.


Heather Donovan

Heather Donovan is a writer in San Francisco.

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