Sidewalk shrines of teddy bears, liquor
Memorials for the fallen of urban life exist as much for the living as for the dead
Kelly St. John, Chronicle Staff Writer Monday, August 5, 2002
In the median of a busy East Oakland street lie the tokens to another life lost:
Three empty Remy Martin brandy bottles sit at the base of an oak tree. A white teddy bear guards an unopened can of malt liquor. A dozen wilting wild roses, a handful of dollar bills and empty beer bottles sit on the ground, below scrawls of "RIP Bud" and a picture of Jesus Christ.
The modest curbside shrine that sprung up after Jesse James "Bud" Smith Jr.,
35, was shot and killed in an argument Tuesday is most extraordinary for its ordinariness.
Such memorials, which pop up in inner-city neighborhoods from New York and Washington, D.C., to the West Coast, are as much a part of the urban fabric as the street killings that inspire them. They honor lost lives not just with hearts and flowers.
Images of liquor-bottle memorials appear in popular culture, like the final scene of the 1975 film "Cooley High," in which friends pour alcohol onto the grave of a friend mistakenly gunned down by a Chicago cop. The late rapper Eazy-E poured out a liquor tribute on one of his album covers, and the idea of pouring "One for my homey" was even spoofed in an Austin Powers movie.
The custom has roots in African religious traditions of pouring libations in honor of fallen ancestors, scholars say.
And honoring the place where someone dies has become increasingly important in modern urban life -- even if people have forgotten exactly how or why they started creating urban shrines and toasting lost friends, said Beth Gill, a sociology professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.
"As society has become more complex and modernized, we really no longer go to places where people are buried," Gill said. And in a society where people are becoming more anonymous, "this shows that they have been there. It's a connection between the living and the dead."
TEDDY BEARS AND CIGARETTES
The memorials, including the one in honor of Smith in Oakland, say as much about the people who make them as the one who is gone.
"We live in the ghetto, but we love 'Bud,' so everybody brings something," said Smith's cousin, Bill Smith, 40, of the shrine to a man he described as kind-hearted, though not a saint. "Teddy bears, drink, a pack of cigarettes."
Bill Smith's contribution to the memorial was simply to write on a piece of poster board: "May God forgive you for all your sins. I love you. Rest in peace."
"I heard him call on Jesus. I know he knew who Jesus was. He's just in a better place," he said. "This life they gave us wasn't a fair hand. We're only men. It's up to the high powers to dictate where we go, and where our future is."
But not everyone considers the tributes an appropriate way to remember the dead.
"What does this have to do with showing respect?" said a longtime Oakland mother, bothered not just by the city's rising murder rate but the image of empty bottles at another memorial.
"We're talking about something that's destroying your community," she said. "I wouldn't want to associate (alcohol) with anyone's life that I loved."
Oakland homicide Lt. Brian Thiem said such shrines popped up only once in a while when he worked as a homicide investigator in the 1980s. Now, he said, "every time there's a murder, you see one."
WINDOW INTO CULTURE
While usually just flowers, photographs and bottles, Thiem said he's seen memorials with drug paraphernalia, and even pornography, left behind.
"It does tell you a great deal about the culture of our murder victims and their friends. What they glamorize," Thiem said. "The drinking, the drugs, the 'gangsta' rap culture."
Near another Oakland shrine -- for Katherine Bagwell, a 23-year-old slain last Sunday as her 7-year-old daughter looked on -- Gary Neely wasn't thinking lofty thoughts about the flickering candles, white teddy bears and row of Hennessy bottles assembled there.
"Nearly everybody here dies by the hand of a gun," said Neely, 22. He left behind an empty Remy bottle in his cousin's memory.
"That's just our way of saying goodbye," he said. "I guess it's just our way of setting her free."
Beside him, James Johnson, 30, kneeled in front of Bagwell's photograph and strawberry-scented incense sticks, her favorite.
Lighting them, one after another, he propped them up against the candles and bottles.
"This is for my homies," he repeated softly, under his breath. "I'll see you when I get there."