The women on Water Street have been tending to the mass of candles outside the house next door, where days earlier, 2-year-old Nikolette Rivera was shot and killed in her mother’s arms. This is all they can do now.
It’s more than they could do Sunday afternoon, when they heard the familiar sound of gunfire, and then the hysterical shrieks. Keisha, 43, and her daughter Hadiyyah, 25, ran next door and into a nightmare.
Nikolette’s mother, Joan Ortiz, was screaming for help. Keisha and Hadiyyah looked to the floor. And they saw the little girl they loved for her sassiness and her spunk, who would twirl her finger through her curls for them.
And they saw what a bullet from an assault rifle does to a 2-year-old’s head.
“Help,” Joan begged. And Keisha, who works in health care and is trained in CPR, knew there was nothing she could do. There was nothing anyone could do.
Now, they tend the candles and a memorial for a girl whose death has captured a city’s attention, on a block that gets almost none. Where, if you spend an hour talking to neighbors, nearly everyone you meet will eventually volunteer their own story of a loved one lost to gun violence.
That’s how it was for me as I walked the block and struggled, as the residents of Water Street are struggling, to comprehend the incomprehensible.
“I will never forget it. I will never forget it,” Keisha told me. “There’s no way to even explain looking at a baby like that.”
Compounding the horror: Nikolette was shot just a day after another child was shot and wounded, an 11-month-old baby in North Philly, who is fighting for his life.
So they sat, relighting the candles that had blown out in the wind, and they nodded their heads to the people who drove by and took pictures. The Riveras were out, talking to the undertaker about a funeral for their child.
Hadiyyah called the man who had fired the shots a coward. Nothing was worth killing a child over — worth firing indiscriminately into someone’s home, where a mother held her baby. “There is nothing that deep,” she said. She was screaming now.
Hadiyyah knows her own loss: Her father was killed in gunfire in December, on the other side of Broad Street. She’s grateful she had the time she did with him. Not everyone gets that, she said.
“You try to find ways to keep going,” Keisha said. (The family preferred that its last name not be used.)
Anyiah, her youngest daughter, who is 16, sat on the step, staring at the pink balloons and the candles. She remembered how, just a few months ago, there was a birthday party at the Rivera house. There were pink balloons then, too, and cake.
Their little diva, neighbors on the block called her. A little glamour girl, a princess, a superstar, Anyiah said. But that was all Anyiah could bring herself to say.
“I feel empty,” she said.
All day, hours before police arrested a Chester man they expect to charge in Nikolette’s killing, the neighbors on Water Street made a steady procession to the house. And when asked, they told their stories. Alexandra Gonzalez, 43, was walking down the street. Her husband was shot to death in 2009. Her friend Grisel Castillo, 51, stopped to talk. Her husband was killed in 1997.
Two women, just passing by, who shared a terrible history — one that so many on their block share: “I was empty, I was no good, I was lost,” after her husband’s death, said Grisel, a mother of four. "I was destroyed,” said Alexandra, also a mother of four.
They walked past the bar on the corner, where, in March, the bar owner, Jose Rivera (neighbors did not say if he was related to Nikolette) was gunned down while closing his bar. He loved the Cleveland Indians. He had three kids and religiously attended his son’s baseball games. His nickname was Pichy.
“Devastated,” his wife, Arely, said of her family. She runs the bar now. She goes to the games alone.
On all of Water Street, there are too many stories to tally. There’s Angel Roman, who lives across the street and has lost five extended family members. She heard Joan Ortiz’s shrieks on Sunday and, as a mother, knew immediately what they were. What they could only be.
There is a woman who’s lived on the block for four decades, who found a man shot in the head on her sidewalk a few years ago. She didn’t see it happen, but her grandchildren did. She heard the shots on Sunday and didn’t move. She’s so used to the sound. And it’s safer to stay inside. “I didn’t do a damn thing,” she said.
She heard shots again Monday night.
On the porch next to Nikolette’s house, the women tallied the dead on just one street. To find words on a block where the incomprehensible has become commonplace.
And they waited for Joan Ortiz to come home from the funeral parlor, knowing there was nothing they could say. Just like they had nothing to say on Sunday, when they sat with Joan, and with Nikolette, until the police came and covered the girl with a blanket.
“There’s nothing you can say to a mother who lost her child. Nothing you can say,” Keisha said. “I could muster up the sweetest things on earth, but it’s not going to numb it. Not even for a little bit.”