It was a weird and senseless crime, a sudden, unprovoked burst of violence on a tranquil street in a tranquil Brooklyn neighborhood on the eve of Christmas Eve, and two minutes after the attack began, twenty-one-year-old Tyler Kobe Nichols collapsed onto the sidewalk with three knife wounds in the front of his torso and one in the back. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Tyler and his twenty-four-year-old brother, Shayne, had gone out for holiday hair cuts at a local barbershop just a few blocks from where they lived. They started home at around a quarter to eight, the only pedestrians on the empty streets during this dark, pandemic winter, and at the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Turner Place, within eyeshot of their own house, they noticed a car parked at the curb with two young men in it, both of them strangers. Double-parked beside that car was another car with three more young men in it, all of them strangers as well. For reasons unknown, the five unknowns were staring at the Nichols brothers.
“I looked in the car,” Shayne told the Daily News, “and then two kids came out. They asked us what we were looking at. Then they just started fighting us.” Seconds later, the three from the other car joined in the attack, and suddenly it was five against two. The brothers did what they could to defend themselves, but they were outnumbered and took their fair share of knocks. Unexpectedly, the three from the double-parked car suddenly stopped fighting, returned to their car, and drove off. A few moments after that, the first two piled into their car and drove off in the same direction. Shayne looked over at Tyler and said, “Let’s go,” but Tyler was unresponsive. “I think I got stabbed,” he said, and then, according to Shayne, “he just dropped to the ground.”
A twenty-one-year old kid goes out for a haircut and winds up bleeding to death on a Brooklyn sidewalk. “Nothing ever happens in this neighborhood,” his brother told the News. “It’s my first fight in the whole twenty years I’ve lived here.”
Nor was robbery a motive in the attack, since the three hundred dollars in Shayne’s wallet were untouched, as was the gold chain he was wearing around his neck. Had the stabbing been prompted by a gang initiation ritual—kill someone, anyone, in order to gain acceptance into the group—or was it simply a random act of brutality committed by an angry, nihilistic teenage boy? Impossible to say. And also impossible to say just now whether the suspect the police have tentatively identified as the killer will turn out to have been guilty of the crime.
I missed the story in the News and never would have learned of Tyler Nichols’s death if not for the photographer Spencer Ostrander, who told me about it shortly after he made contact with the Nichols family. Roughly six months ago, I joined Ostrander in a project he had launched two years earlier on the epidemic of mass shootings that has spread across America in the past two decades. In that time, he has traveled widely through all regions of the country, taking photographs of more than two dozen sites where these killings have occurred—not from some sensationalist impulse to cash in on the horrors of American violence but from a personal commitment to memorialize those places as tokens of our collective national grief and force us to remember the savagery we have visited upon one another as bullet after bullet has wiped out thousands of innocent lives.
I have been enlisted to write the preface to this work-in-progress, and in the course of our discussions over the past months, Ostrander’s project has expanded beyond the sinister phenomenon of mass shootings to take on the bigger question of American gun violence in general, which kills forty thousand and wounds eighty thousand men, women, and children every year. To that end, he has reached out to the survivors of gunshot wounds who are now permanently confined to wheelchairs, to the families of those who have been killed or wounded, and, with the permission of the parents, spouses, and relatives of the dead, has begun attending funerals of the victims.
In this instance, the director of the funeral home made a mistake and told Ostrander that Tyler Nichols had been killed by a gun. He suggested that Ostrander come to the funeral early, where he would introduce him to Tyler Nichols’s mother, Sherma Chambers, who would decide whether to allow him to take pictures during the service, and so it was that the thirty-six-year-old Seattle-born photographer and the fifty-two-year-old working mother who was born on the island of Saint Vincent and has been living in Brooklyn for close to forty years met for the first time.
The encounter began with Ostrander looking straight into the eyes of the dead boy’s mother, and a moment later his arms were around her, enveloping her in a great bear hug of solidarity and commiseration. As she later told him, she knew he was someone who could be trusted from the first instant they looked into each other’s eyes. They had exchanged no more than a few words, but a human connection had been established between them, and Ostrander was granted permission to stay.
A week later, Sherma Chambers contacted her new ally and invited him to her house in Kensington for a fuller conversation about his project and to talk to him about her son. Ostrander was well aware by then that his presence there had nothing to do with his yearslong research into gun violence, but what did that matter? He had stumbled into the midst of a grieving household that was willing to share its stories with him and allow themselves to be photographed in their time of pain and mourning, and because Spencer Ostrander is a person of singular compassion and purity of purpose, the entire household was with him, understanding that they would not be exploited but instead would serve as exemplars of the binding human force that connects us in times of sorrow.
I look into your face and see myself. Such is the power of photographic portraiture when it manages to achieve its highest objective. I become you.
It is not possible to talk about Tyler Nichols’s life without first understanding something about the house his family has owned since 1990, a three-story wooden structure with two front porches, a basement apartment, and a kitchen on every door that has functioned historically as a small, self-contained village inhabited by members of the Nichols-Chambers family—a rock-solid, transgenerational household that has held fast in an age of ever-dwindling and ever more dispersed American families. On the day before Tyler’s death, fifteen people were living there: Tyler and his two older brothers, Shayne and Shomari (29), his mother, his mother’s mother and one of his mother’s sisters, several of his first cousins, Shomari’s wife, Vera, the couple’s little daughter, Raine, Shayne’s girlfriend, Brittany, and Tyler’s girlfriend, Ashley, who had moved in three years earlier when she was eighteen (the two kids had met at school when they were eleven and had been in love ever since). Except for the little girl and her great-grandmother, everyone who lived in the house worked at a fulltime job, everyone pitched in, everyone pulled together. None of that has changed since the night of December twenty-third. The only difference is that fourteen people live there now, not ff teen, and the space that Tyler occupied has been turned into an enormous hole.
It was that house, and that hole, that Ostrander walked into on the afternoon of his first visit, where one by one he talked to various members of the family about Tyler and asked them to sit for a preliminary round of photographs. For his second visit, he carried along a tape recorder and spent several hours conducting separate interviews with Tyler’s mother, Sherma, his brothers Shayne and Shomari, Shomari’s wife, Vera, and a twenty-eight-year-old first cousin, Kareem Eusebe, a college graduate with a degree in biomedical technology, and little by little a picture began to emerge of a last-born tyke tagging along after his older brothers until he was off to kindergarten and the grades beyond, at which point he began participating in afterschool programs at P.S. 282 in Park Slope, where he studied and progressed at such divergent activities as fencing, the steel drums, and the piano, and then, as he moved into his late, pre-adolescent boy hood, his passion for skateboarding, for which he showed an immense talent, far surpassing the abilities of his older brother, Shayne, and as the clock ticked on and he entered middle school in Ditmas Park, his early, puppy-love romance with Ashley, a deepening involvement with music, and, almost inevitably—given that his middle name had been inspired by Kobe Bryant—a turn toward basketball, at which he soon began to excel, which in turn led to a stint at Bryant’s summer basketball camp in Santa Barbara, California, where he caught the attention of the Great One for the promise he showed on the court, and before long, when Tyler entered Erasmus High School in Flatbush, he wound up as a standout shooting guard on the J.V. team (freshman and sophomore years) and then the varsity as a junior and senior. The two Kobes were captured together in a memorable photograph from that summer in Santa Barbara, and how bitter it is to think that both of them are now dead, the older one on January twenty sixth and the younger one on December twenty-third—at opposite ends of the dark, devastating year that was 2020.
He was an old soul in a young man’s body, a quiet, contemplative person who spent much of his spare time alone, and yet Tyler matured so quickly in the last two years of his life that he became the moral center of the family. In spite of his age, he was the person the others turned to for advice, for help in solving problems and resolving conflicts because he was the one who could read human situations more clearly and impartially than anyone else. The heart of what he told them never varied: Be honest with yourself and others, act responsibly, do not blame others for your own faults or blunders, and if you stick to these principles, there’s a good chance you will be able to overcome the impediments that stand before you. Ancient wisdom from the lips of a boy just barely into his twenties.
As one of his good friends said at the funeral service on January tenth, “Whatever I was going through, I could always talk to him…he was always there for me,” and his older cousin Kareem went so far as to describe him as “a musician, a therapist, an athlete, an alleviator, and a role model.” Some weeks later, during his conversation with Ostrander, he called Tyler “the sharpest edge of the family” and that “he absorbed everything.” Almost in astonishment, he marveled at his cousin’s sharp, “analytical mind” and the surge of inner growth that seemed to have transformed him in recent months. “Imagine a flower blooming before your eyes,” he said, “and then someone comes along one day and clips the root from below.”
Meanwhile, the family is still grieving. Tyler’s mother and brother Shayne and girlfriend Ashley still talk about him in the present tense, as if he were hiding out somewhere in one of the rooms of the house. Tyler’s empty boots continue to stand within breathing distance of the bed he shared with Ashley, and she has turned her dressing table into a small shrine of their life together, with an assemblage of photographs and numerous intimate, personal artifacts. The life-size cutout photograph of Tyler that stood by the chapel entrance on the day of the funeral now stands on the ground floor of the house. He is there with them still—there and yet not there—as his image and the memory of that image continue to reign over the ravaged household.
One wants to howl forth curses at the injustice of it all, but what judge can we turn to at such a time, and what human or extra-human force can put the scales of justice back in balance? The skies are silent. The earth is silent. Not even the most powerful god can undo what has already been done.
He was the homebody of the clan, the one who famously never wanted to go out to do anything that was not strictly necessary, but on the evening of December twenty third he decided to break the pattern and leave the house with his brother Shayne to have his hair cut at Leroy’s Barbershop on Church Avenue. That night, he would be attending the birthday party of one of his closest friends, there would be Christmas Eve dinner the following night, and the day after that would be Christmas, with the whole family gathered on the ground floor celebrating in full force, and Tyler wanted to look his best for those Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday events. As it happened, he was in uncommonly good spirits that day, and a few hours before he left the house with Shayne, he began talking about how lucky his life had been so far and how many extraordinary opportunities he had been given, from fencing lessons to piano lessons to basketball camp to various trips to distant places, and though he was looking back that day, there was much to look forward to as well, since he had recently finished his studies at the School of Cooperative Technical Education (Coop Tech) and was now a licensed electrician, which would have opened the door to a lifetime of productive work, and before long he and Ashley no doubt would have been married, and as she continued her training as an assistant elementary school teacher, it is almost certain that a day would have come when they began to talk about starting a family.
How chilling it is in retrospect to remember that speech of gratitude and happiness and to realize that those words were spoken just hours before his death—when a perfect stranger jumped out of a car and saw ft to end Tyler Kobe Nichols’s brief journey through life with three stab wounds into the front of his body and one into his back.
On the day of the funeral, Tyler’s mother stood up in front of a room crammed with mourners and openly confessed her grief and how difficult it was to bear, but she did not talk in anger against the unknown boy who had killed her son and did not call for revenge. She simply said, “I promise you one thing: Tyler’s name will never be forgotten.” After an anguished pause, she went on: “Tyler was brought up in love,” and his murderer “was not brought up in love,” and one day she would like to meet that person and other lost boys from the street “to show them what love is.” And then she announced that she was planning to start a foundation in her son’s name called Long Live King Kobe.
Two months after Tyler’s death, that foundation was up and running.
Any and all proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to Sherma Chambers’s cause.
— Paul Auster
*** Pictures in this article were taken by Spencer Ostrander and reprinted with permission.