t’s just before the lunch rush in the Highland Hospital cafeteria. The chairs are mostly empty. Soon it will be filled with doctors and nurses on their break, families eating as a way to pass time and pretend having lunch in a hospital is normal.
But Tiera McGill is already there, a lonely figure in a bright yellow sweatshirt, her body curled like a question mark while talking into her cellphone.
“I know yesterday they wanted to change the IV out his neck into the other side of his neck, 'cause from his swelling, they can’t really get good veins," she says. She lets the thought linger.
She’s sitting in a corner table, on the phone with her fiance’s mother. Her fiance, Marty, was shot last weekend, no, the weekend before. Tiera is exhausted and can’t quite remember the days. She’s “lost in the time,” she says. (We’re using only Marty’s first name, to protect his privacy).
Tiera is tiny, bird-thin. She’s 27 and beautiful, but you see can the fatigue in her eyes. She tells her fiance’s mother she had a breakdown last night. After 11 days at the hospital, she cried and lost it, a little. She and Marty have been together 2½ years, but they got engaged the week before the shooting.
Marty was shot twice during a robbery, she says. He was carrying the rent money she had just given him, another thing to worry about, but she doesn’t have time for that right now. Not while he’s fighting for his life.
The last time he spoke to her was when he called from the ambulance. It was the last time he was conscious. He told her he loved her. She told him she loved him, too. She could hear the effort in his voice. And then he faded out.
It’s not just her: She has her 3-year-old son to worry about, too. Her fiance, he’s the one her son calls his daddy.
“My son knows he’s in the hospital, and he knows Mommy’s going to take care of him.”
In the Bay Area there are 88 black men for every 100 black women, according to a KQED analysis. Nationwide, there are 83 black men for every 100 black women. The reasons for those disparities include incarceration and premature death. There is no such disparity among whites.
But in some Bay Area neighborhoods, the gap between the number of black men and women is much higher. One of those neighborhoods is in East Oakland, around the housing project known as Lockwood Gardens, where there are 56 black men for every 100 women.
Tiera’s dad grew up in The Gardens. She grew up just across from it, in a housing project everyone knew as The Village. Both were notorious, famous for having armed guards on the roof, part of the empire of the late Oakland drug kingpin Felix Mitchell.
Tiera was going to meet with me to talk about life in The Village and in The Gardens. But then her fiance was shot. So we are meeting at Highland Hospital.
When Tiera was growing up, her father was in prison, doing what she calls “penitentiary time.” Her mother, she says, “was sick. She had an illness, which was a drug.”
Her mom is clean now. She's around for her daughter. But it wasn’t always like that. When Tiera was little, her older brother, Terrence, was the most stable force in her life.
Tiera says that when her mom was using, she never left them “in like drug houses or anything like that.” “She would send us to Texas,” Tiera explains, or to Denver, to places where they had relatives who could take care of them.
“Sometimes she’d ride with us and sometimes she wouldn’t,” Tiera says.
For three years, when Tiera was between the ages of 6 and 9 and Terrance was between the ages of 7 and 10, he would look after her as they traveled across the country on a Greyhound, by themselves, with the phone number of one of their aunts in their pockets and directions to call when they arrived.
“It was just me and Terrance for a long time,” she says.
Years later, Tiera was living with her mom in Texas when they got the phone call. Terrance, who had looked after her when no one else did, was dead.
He was killed in an altercation with Oakland police. It was 2003. Tiera was 15. The city later paid $50,000 to settle the family's civil rights lawsuit.
“My brother like, I’m 27 -- they killed him at 20. I feel like I haven’t lived, not a lot -- just a little bit of life. And at 20, I thought he was doing a lot, and I seen him living, but really he wasn’t living,” she sighs. “He didn’t get to do anything.”
After her brother died, Tiera came back to Oakland. She went to McClymonds High School. She fell in love.
His name was Damien. He was older, a protector like her brother had been. “He made sure I stayed going to school, he made sure I stayed going to work,” Tiera explains.
They were together six years.
“In 2008, he was killed.” She stops for a moment looking down at her hands. She has never stopped loving him. “It’s still hard to live with that.”
Her breath catches. “It’s like I’m living it again,” she says.
But she knows this isn’t the same. Her fiance, Marty, is still alive. Damien is dead.
Both Damien and Marty were shot in East Oakland. As Tiera talks, she realizes they were shot on the same street -- Damian on the lower part of 76th Avenue, and her fiance further up, closer to the hills.
“I just thought about that as I’m talking to you.”
In the world of East Oakland, 76th Avenue isn’t much different from other streets. Single-family homes lined up next to each other in small square plots, some of them are the worse for wear, boarded up or crumbling. Some of them with small gates in front, a garden, a cared-for yard.
Tiera says neither Damien nor her fiance were involved in anything that would make them a target. Yet they were shot.
“Avoid the streets,” she says, shaking her head and sighing.
A few years after Damien died, Tiera became pregnant. The father is still a part of their son's life, but they were never really a couple.
Tiera didn’t go through her pregnancy alone. She had her best friend, Robert Dell.
Tiera met Robert at a local youth center, Youth Uprising, where they both worked.
Tiera says Robert saw her as she was -- sad and angry, but with a kind heart. She trusted him. She let him in. He went to Lamaze classes with her so she wouldn’t be alone.
Three years ago, she was on her way to a doctor’s appointment, in the final month of her pregnancy, when she passed 72nd Avenue.
She noticed it was blocked off with police caution tape. She knew Robert lived on that street, but she didn’t think much of it. He was a youth mentor, one of the ones helping other kids get off the streets.
She learned he was dead while she sat in the waiting room at the OB-GYN’s office.
She was 24 and had already had lost her brother, her first love, and now, her best friend.
Her son is named for all three: LaVelle Neimad Terrance Clark. LaVelle was Robert’s middle name. Neimad is Damien spelled backward. And Terrance, for her brother.
“His personality is like a little bit of all three of them -- it’s so wild,” she laughs softly. Talking about her son is just about the only time she smiles right now.
“They live on in him,” she says.
Perhaps the person her son has helped to live on the most is Tiera herself.
“He took a lot of anger away from me. I used to be so angry, and I used to be so mean, I didn’t care about people’s feelings, I was just so sad like all the time, I just didn’t care.”
He’s the source of healing and the source of her not inconsiderable strength.
“I have to be strong for him, and I have to be here for him. I cannot let him end up as a statistic. It’s not gonna happen. I have to just keep fighting for him, so he can see, 'Mommy went through some things, Mommy’s strong,' ” she says.
Prayer has helped, although Tiera acknowledges that God has “been throwing battles at me, he throws ‘em.” But she hasn’t lost her faith. “They say, ‘He won’t put too much on you that you cannot bear.’ You just gotta keep on getting through them.”
Tiera doesn’t think the losses she has suffered set her apart. She knows too many women, including her mother, who have had to bury the men they loved.
“Look at all the men – that’s a lot of men, that we lost, that I just lost.”
If she blames anyone, sometimes she blames herself. “It’s kinda like, ‘What am I doing wrong? I’m at the age – I need to get my men up out of here.' But it’s like,” she pauses as she considers leaving Oakland, “it’s home.”
Her fiance, Marty, is home now, getting stronger every day. They are talking about moving to Modesto after they get married. Tiera just wants to be somewhere they will be safe.
Tiera doesn’t want to give up on her city. But she wants her son to have a fighting chance.