The neighbour I knew

One night in August of 2012, I was torn from my sleep when gunshots rang through the air. I remember the rest of the night in pieces—my mom jumping on my bed to peer out my window over the driveway, sitting on my living room couch as my dad called the police, and later that night, sitting in the back of a police car, entranced by the fuzzy voices coming through the radio. It wasn’t until the next morning that my mum sat my brother and I down and explained that our next-door neighbour, John*, had been killed.

Although shocked, my brother and I reacted calmly. We hadn’t known him well; my parents had been aware that he was involved with gangs and advised the two of us to stay away from him. But my memory of John was very different from the headlines that emerged the next day, which used words like “aggressive” and listed off crimes in which he had been implicated. To us, he was the guy that showed us how to make snowballs with our bare hands so that they stayed together, whose ex-girlfriend would let us play with her three puppies, and who once tipped my brother $18.50 for a cup of lemonade he sold at a stand. We remembered him as a kind person, albeit a bit of an enigma.

This is not a defense of any of the gang-related acts he allegedly committed, but rather an outline of the ways in which my vision of John contrasted with the rest of society’s. Reading stories and watching the news the following day, I saw a picture of a totally different man than the one I thought I’d known, leaving me wondering whether it was possible to separate his kindness from the bad things that he was accused of. 

As I started high school the following week, I continued to struggle to reconcile the image of John in my head with the one that the rest of the world saw. Friends and acquaintances who had known about the situation eagerly asked for details about that night, expecting brutal ones. They seemed disappointed when I revealed what I knew, which, as an innocent 12-year-old, amounted to exactly nothing. 

Over the following weeks, as my mum and a number of other neighbours cleaned out his apartment, I slowly gained more and more tiny glimpses into John’s life: A complicated security system, a series of scales, and tools for tinning your own fish all were packaged up before disappearing, just like his physical presence next door and my memories of him.

As time went on, I struggled to decide whether it was okay for me to remember someone who had caused incalculable damage as a good person. People are morally complex, and it was not up to me to judge someone I barely knew. I’d like to think that his kindness to my brother and I wasn’t a one-off thing.  Limiting one’s perception of a person to a single facet of their identity is dangerous, and for me, it worked in both ways: His good deeds didn’t deny his crimes, and his crimes didn’t define him as a human.

When I think back to the small things, like how he’d yell at drivers who drove down our street too quickly because of all the children who lived nearby, it’s easy for me to forget about the more serious circumstances of his life. When I think of John now, I’m reminded of the importance of regarding people holistically as complex beings, whose isolated actions shouldn’t be judged without acknowledging their larger context.

*Names have been changed

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