By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
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A swarm of cops descended on the block, herding back onlookers, taping off the scene, and picking up .762-caliber casings across the street — 17 in all. The bullets sprayed the car and pierced the front of Lela's house, the shooter having hit dangerously close to Tomone and a friend as they sprinted up the stairs to the unit's door.
Police radioed in at 12:46. There's a pulse. Breathing. Within minutes, medics loaded Devron into an ambulance to speed the well-worn route to San Francisco General Hospital.
At 1:24, Lela's friend, Mable Long, steered her minivan onto Interstate 80 west out of Reno, with Lela in the passenger seat. Mable had held many a brain while helping perform autopsies at an East Bay hospital. She knew a bullet to the delicate organ meant she shouldn't try to tell Lela her son would be all right. They headed back to San Francisco, the city that for Lela in recent years had become more and more of a place she wanted to escape.
Lela had moved to the city in 1986, a high school grad with a 6-month-old baby ready to trade the Chicago suburb she'd grown up in for big-city life on the West Coast. She moved into the Geneva Towers, blocks away from the Cow Palace, where she'd visited her aunt on summer breaks. Private developers had built the two 19-story concrete monsters that loomed over the valley for airport workers in the mid-1960s, but soon afterward took out a mortgage from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and started filling the units with folks down on their economic luck.
Though Lela recalled the building being pleasant back when she was visiting, by the time she snagged a job at the second-floor kids' recreation center in 1993, Geneva Towers had earned the dubious title of the first property ever foreclosed on by HUD because of the owners' failure to maintain safe conditions. Lela remembers men thrown off balconies. Urine spotted the hallways, and guys hustled crack out front and in the stairwells. The vast majority of tenants voted to implode their own home in 1998, but Lela didn't hesitate to return a couple of years later to one of the cheery, condo-style, affordable housing units built in their place. She still worked at the neighborhood rec center and had many returning friends, and she was optimistic that the towers' old ills had been destroyed with the buildings.
Beyond that, Lela had perfected the art of protecting her sons from harm, even on a limited budget from her rec center salary and help from their dads. Her boys filled their after-school hours at the center, their weekends on field trips or fishing with Devron's dad to show them life beyond the valley.
"Whatever she can do for her kids or for any other kids, she would," Mable says. "You don't find very many people like her."
Lela took a part-time job as a postal worker during the holidays to buy her kids Ecko brand clothes and Air Jordans from the outlet mall, and friends admired how she carried herself with confidence — braids neat, earrings dangling, toes adorned by rhinestones. She enrolled her kids in high schools across town where they'd be away from the peer pressure of the kids they grew up with, and during summers they worked at the center.
As a result, her kids' problems were child's play relative to those of their many peers. Devron often smoked weed before school and after that surge of F's after his grandma died, he had to sit out most of his junior-year football season. But even as Lela's efforts seemed to be paying off — "It's like roses growing out of concrete, you know?" — violence seemed to be picking back up. A steady stream of funerals dotted the family's calendar, and Lela started pondering an exit. In 2000, she began applying to other housing authorities: Oakland, Alameda, Contra Costa County, even out of state. Better get her name on the waiting lists, she figured, just in case she might have to get away from the violence surging in San Francisco.
When Devron was shot, the dangers that had always lurked around the neighborhood's edges had closed in. By the time Devron arrived at the hospital, the electrical impulses that snap through the mind's circuitry had stopped snapping at all — no cough, no pupil response, no breathing. Brain dead. It would have been legal to put him in a body bag, but S.F. General's policy is to hook the patient to life support until the family can pay their last respects. As the two women pulled into the hospital at 5:15 Sunday morning, Lela learned that if there were no changes, she would soon face pulling the plug.
No way, Lela said. It's too soon. Devron's face had swollen and lost its color; his hand felt cold. Rounds of neighbors had already been there, praying, and names of who did the shooting were already flying. Retaliation always menaces the 'hood, and earlier that morning, Vincent Mallory, Devron's father, called his cousin in Los Angeles: Don't let your sons drive up here and try something stupid. It would take a couple of days for the father to talk himself out of doing the same.