And then, a recent entry: Eric Garner.
Garner, who died last summer on a New York street after a police officer wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him to the ground, spent weekends and summers in these projects, where his grandparents lived. Eberhart was a cousin and a close friend. When they played basketball, it was Eberhart, compact and quick, who fed the ball to “Big E” in the post. In the summers, they worked the bumper cars at the El Dorado arcade.
Both of their mothers had city jobs. "We didn't want for nothing," Eberhart said. But he didn’t mean they had everything. When they were teenagers in the ’80s, at the height of the crack boom, there were boys from the projects who changed cars like other kids changed clothes. The obvious solution to the problem of not having what those boys had was to start selling what those boys sold. In a way, Garner was lucky to live as long as he did. Many of his friends were shot and killed before they turned 30. Eberhart himself was shot on two separate occasions, once in the knee and foot, the other time in the hip.
About a decade ago, Eberhart decided he wanted to leave that life behind. He had already spent five years in prison. He had two young kids by then, a boy and a girl. (He now has seven.) In a few years he would be forty. He was getting tired, he said.
So was his cousin. Garner had moved out to Staten Island with his family, hoping for a fresh start. He found a job planting trees for the Parks Department. But when the ground froze up, so did the work. He occasionally helped out an uncle who ran a construction company in Newark, but it was hard work, and Garner was a big man with asthma. Those jobs never lasted very long either. At some point, an acquaintance introduced him to the loosie business. It turned out you could make decent money selling untaxed “loose” cigarettes on a busy sidewalk. Not drug money, Eberhart noted. But the penalties weren’t nearly as severe. “When you’re free,” Eberhart said, “nobody wants to get locked up.”
Eberhart made a cleaner break from the street life. Despite his prison record, he got an extermination license and eventually opened his own pest-control business. He moved to Long Island, then Delaware, and bought a house with a yard. But Coney Island was never far from his mind. As a younger man, he caused his fair share of pain in the neighborhood. He’d been a “known bully,” he said, always spoiling for a fight. In this respect, he’d been different from Garner. Maybe it was a height thing—the shorter guy needing to prove himself. Garner had always been a “gentle giant,” he said.
One day in 2006, Eberhart told Garner he needed some help. Eberhart and some of their mutual friends were planning to hold an event to honor all the people they knew who had died. They would call it “Remembrance Day,” giving it the aura of an official holiday, like Memorial Day, or Independence Day. There would be a barbecue, musical performances, even a basketball tournament. Pastors and other notables would be invited to speak. The police would keep watch. It would be a chance for residents to acknowledge their losses as a community. It might not stop the violence, but at least it would get people talking about it. Maybe, one day, it would lead to something bigger.