When I first met Marquis Hamilton, my camera was what interested him.
“You takin’ pictures?” he blurted, extending his hands toward me in an unmistakable gesture. “Can I check that?”
I stepped back. I wanted to be snapping the photos.
“You want your picture taken?” I said, a stock response.
Marquis’ face lit up. He rounded up two buddies and they posed next to a pillar in front of Shields-Reid Community Center. I clicked away.
It went like that for the next half-hour or so. I was helping two grad school friends shoot footage for a documentary on the dearth of fresh produce in North Richmond. Marquis shadowed me much of the time, peppering me with questions about what I did, where I went to school, how he could get some nice pictures of himself.
He was a nice kid. It was February, and he had just turned 20. I didn’t know that. From his exuberance and trusting manner – which shone bright against a backdrop dimmed by violence and blight – I would have guessed he was a teenager.
In my last shots before we left, photographs of neighborhood kids unloading a truck of trees for the community center, Marquis was still clowning for the camera.
That was the scene I replayed in my head Wednesday as I sat on the floor of New Hope Church’s packed worship hall, just a block from where I had first met Marquis.
A singer wailed a Bible hymn. Most people sang and clapped, but some cried. Dozens of Marquis’ friends milled about in the street, near the white hearse. Police cruisers sat at both ends of Alamo Avenue.
Marquis was in font of the pew. His body lay in a silver casket.
Marquis was the fifth young African American male killed by gunfire in North Richmond this year, an astonishing total given that the unincorporated community comprises fewer than 4,000 people. The County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols the area, has made no arrests in any of the killings.
Marquis died the day after Thanksgiving, when he and several other young men were sprayed with bullets while standing in front of a local market. The drive-by occurred just a few blocks north of his funeral. Everything is close to everything else in North Richmond – it’s just one-square mile in size.
Marquis was the only one who caught a bullet that night. Nobody seems to think it was meant for him, but bullets often seem guided by cruel logic. Marquis half-scrambled, half-crawled into the store for cover, and the cashier comforted him on the floor. Marquis spoke in choked gasps, the cashier remembered. He kept saying he couldn’t breathe.
The smiling kid with a goofy sense of humor was still conscious when paramedics wheeled him into an ambulance. Witnesses said he told two of his sisters, who had rushed to the scene, not to cry, that he was going to be “alright.”
He died at the hospital that night.
Marquis leaves behind two small children, a boy and a girl. The last post on Marquis’ Facebook page before his death came on Nov. 19. It was Vee Ortega, his longtime girlfriend and the mother of his children.
“Thanks for always being there for me when no one else is,” Ortega wrote. “Love u.”
On Nov. 26, amid a torrent of solemn odes that lit up his Facebook page, Ortega posted again.
“Can’t believe your gone babe!! 5 years we were together … But we always said forever so ill see you again in heaven!”
The second time I saw Marquis was at his friend’s funeral.
Ervin Coley III, 21, a lifelong resident of North Richmond’s project housing who worked with a community garden program, was shot and killed in a drive-by on March 29. That killing was about a block south of where Marquis would be felled eight months later.
“Yo what’s up Rob?” Marquis yelled at me, bolting from the group of friends he was standing with in the parking lot. I was surprised he remembered my name. I had just exited Coley’s funeral, and I felt light-headed. I had spent several hours with Coley two months before his death, interviewing him about his role in the gardening program. He wasn’t as bubbly as Marquis, but no less likable. Coley was cerebral and reflective, talking about life in his troubled neighborhood with uncommon insight.
Marquis greeted me with a fist bump, and then led me over to the group. He thanked me for the photos I had emailed him after our first meeting, and wanted me to take pictures of him and his friends.
I snapped away. Marquis and his friends leaned over a car. Some pulled their T-shirts taut, showing Coley’s face embossed on the fabric. More people wandered over. Some smiled. Some held up liquor bottles and blunts. It was a photo shoot, suffused in a mourning ritual honed over generations.
By the end, my notepad was filled with email addresses. Everybody wanted a picture. I created a Flickr photostream and mass emailed it that evening.
I don’t remember his exact words, but before I left Marquis said something really profound. He wasn’t smiling or giggling anymore. He said I was alright, or something like that. I looked in his face for a second. Fist bump. We went in opposite directions.
Angela Moore often wears a stern expression. She’s crafted this over 16 years of working with young adults and youths in North Richmond. She has to be tough. The kids tend to respond to her fair-but-firm approach.
As director of the Center for Human Development’s programs based in Shields-Reid, she’s lost kids she’s cared about before.
But Marquis’ loss hurts. She sat in the church during his funeral, on a wooden bench near the back. I was behind her, on the floor. In between taking pictures and thumbing through a program about Marquis’ life, I would glance at her. I could only see part of the side of her face, her hair and her left ear and cheek and her eyelashes. I remembered that stern expression she wore every time I saw her in the neighborhood over the last year. I wondered for a moment how she looked now, in grief. I decided not to look.
“Mark was smiley, always smiley, and he always had a compliment,” Moore remembered a day after his funeral. “Not one time did Mark ever disrespect me. He would even speak up and say, ‘Hey, don’t cuss around Angela,’ when the other kids used a curse word or something.”
Moore had been Marquis’ supervisor in the community service program since he got the part-time job in 2008. His work included tending local gardens, and picking up trash on the sidewalks and around the vacant lots that pock North Richmond. He was proud of his work, Moore said. In North Richmond, work is a scarce commodity. According to a report commissioned by Contra Costa County, the annual median income here is less than $10,000. Nearly half the adults in the neighborhood do not have a high school diploma.
On his Facebook page, Marquis’ profile picture was a shot of him wearing his bright-green work vest.
Marquis’ father died of cancer when he was about 10 years old. Working and being a father was a source of pride. On Nov. 23, two days before his death, he worked five hours, picking up trash around the neighborhood.
“He was extra happy,” Moore said. “He came in and I remember he asked ‘How are you doing Angela? What ya doing for Thanksgiving?”
“Then, like he always did, I remember talking about he needs money, he has got to make money for his kids. He loved to talk about his kids, I think he was really proud of being a father.”
Moore will keep working in North Richmond, but she hasn’t completely come to grips with Marquis’ death. She said Marquis was a young man “she wasn’t ready to let go.”
She has a lot of memories. She said she would share one more.
“He would wander in on his days off all the time, just to say hi,” Moore said. “He always tried to make me laugh, that was his way. He had this joke, he would always say ‘Yo Angela, I gotta keep this job because I’m broker than an invisible penny.’”
When I think about the last time I saw Marquis, I feel sad. I’ve lost my own father, and I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost people I liked and people I knew. Some people, like kids and young adults who grow up in North Richmond, are well-acquainted with death.
Death discriminates in its visits, but not completely. No matter how safe your neighborhood or sheltered your life, everyone gets to know death if they live long enough.
And it’s the finality that hurts most. Never again. Can’t go back. Can’t have another chance. Not having another chance is hard to accept.
It was Aug. 6. A hot day. A happy day. I spent a couple hours taking pictures at the First Annual North Richmond Community Block Party, hosted at North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church.
I walked toward my car, parked off Fred Jackson Way. I saw him making lazy circles on a bicycle.
“Rob!” there’s that name again. Not many people call me Rob.
“What’s up man?” I said. I had forgotten his name, but not his face.
Marquis looked just a bit less enthusiastic that day than normal. I didn’t give it much thought then, but now I wish I had asked about that.
We chatted in the middle of the street. I told him that he looked good. He seemed a bit huskier. He said things were cool. He asked about the party, which was 40 yards or so down the street.
I told him that there was a little basketball tournament and food, and that he should go check it out.
He looked for a few seconds. Then he was back to the camera, which hung from my neck.
“Can you take some pictures for me?” he asked. I agreed, but I was kind of tired of taking pictures. The light wasn’t so good. Too much sun. Photos of this young man sitting on a bike didn’t seem especially great.
I agreed, as I always do. I liked this guy, even though I still couldn’t remember his name.
I took two pictures. Two. He sat on his bike and smiled and looked straight into the camera. He loved to be photographed.
I broke it off. I wanted to take off and write and publish my story about the block party. I promised Marquis to send him the pictures and we bumped fists and smiled. I think he may have been a bit disappointed that I didn’t take a few dozen more, or that I didn’t ask him to strike a few different poses, but he hid it well. He just smiled and said he’d see me later. I did the same.
As I drove away, I saw Marquis sitting on his bike. He waved and smiled and I flashed him a peace sign.
Marquis was always interested in my camera, in the photographs I could take of him. But I think he was interested in me too. He liked to ask questions and crack jokes. He was interested in a lot, especially in what was new to him. He liked attention, and he was curious.
I wish I could snap a few more photos of Marquis, bump fists with him again. I wish I could ask him how his kids were doing and what he wanted to do with his life. I wish I could tell him something that might have some small impact on his future. I wish the neighborhood in which he lived and died wasn’t a killing field.
More than anything, I wish he wasn’t in front of that store the night after Thanksgiving. I wish he was alive.
But death is cold like that. All you have is what you did, and you never get a chance to do it again. I wish Marquis had another chance. He deserved it.