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National Opinion: A frantic call, a relieved family: 'Grandma, are you at Tops?'

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

Normally, on a Saturday afternoon, Eva Doyle would have been at the Jefferson Avenue Tops Market, not far from her home near Broadway.

Normally, the everyone-knows-her community historian, writer and journalist often called “Mother Doyle” would have gone in and immediately stocked up with bottled water near the entrance — she has so much of it, just in case of, say, a blizzard or an ice storm, that her son Jesse reacts with astonishment — and then she would have exchanged her usual greeting with Aaron Salter, the security guard who offered warm hellos to everyone.

She would have picked up bread on her way to the deli, where she would order the turkey antipasto she loves but of which reluctantly she is “cutting back,” while savoring the aroma of the legendary Tops fried chicken — “Oh my Lord!” Eva said of a store favorite that regulars drive miles to buy — before picking up orange juice and eggs, reacting all the time to neighbors wandering past, pausing for a “How is everything?” or two with long-ago students recognized by Doyle, a retired teacher, in their how-can-this-be adult incarnations.

These were gentle Saturday afternoons at Tops, where young workers would cheerfully help put her groceries in the car, a place so familiar it was almost like home itself. But Doyle, a few days ago, made “a last-second change of plans” that on this one Saturday kept her away from the store.

She is a 76-year-old congregant at First Shiloh Baptist Church. She wanted to wear a suit on Sunday she had dropped off for alterations at Hobson’s Cleaners, and Saturday afternoon was her last chance to pick it up.

So she went to Hobson’s instead of grocery shopping and thought nothing of it, which is why it baffled her when her cellphone soon was buzzing and would not stop. Startled, Doyle picked it up to hear a granddaughter, Somalia, asking with fear in her voice: “Grandma, are you at Tops?”

“No,” said a puzzled Doyle. “What do you mean?”

She had not heard. She did not yet know that Salter had tried to stop an accused 18-year-old murderer from entering the store, a white man bent on killing Black Americans, and lost his own life in doing so.

She did not yet know the list of 10 who died would include Heyward Patterson, a deacon at State Tabernacle Church of God. She recalled how she met him when he walked over to her table long ago while they were both having breakfast at Manna@Northland and he said he recognized her — Doyle, who writes for The Criterion, is a presence for all her community work in Buffalo — and that he was glad to finally say hello.

And she did not yet know that Katherine Massey — her longtime friend and a civic activist who loved to write — had died at 72 after stopping by a Tops that became a busy community hub when it opened 19 years ago, in a neighborhood lacking such a store for too long.

“She was a writer,” Doyle said of Massey, whom she admired, “and writers connect.”

Now this scholar in community heritage finds herself all too close to searing history no city should endure. Doyle appeared Monday on CNN to offer tribute to Massey, while such outlets as WBFO radio have also sought her voice. She embraces the opportunities as a chance to tear down the lies and delusions that a white supremacist carried to a neighborhood she loves.

“You have older people who survived COVID go to the store, and then this?” said Doyle, noting how the pandemic death toll moved beyond 1 million in recent days. “All that wisdom, the foundation of our community, all those contributions, so much already gone – and then this?”

She grew even angrier when she read of the madness that led to the attack, how the killer was incapable of understanding the fundamental humanity of a neighborhood he defiled. Doyle’s late husband, Romeo, was a veteran of the Korean War. They built their home in the community and chose to stay, and she said you can walk any street within many blocks of where she stood Monday on Jefferson Avenue and find a legion of women and men who made similar commitments.

“How dare you?” she said of the killer. “How dare you come here from far away, into our neighborhood, and say we have no value and take the lives of veterans and taxpayers and senior citizens who have spent their whole lives working for what they have?”

Yes, she spends much of her life trying to ease the suffering and struggle in areas around her home. But many of the people who dig in and remain, Doyle said, are there because of devotion to their neighbors. She thought of Massey, and how the two friends once attended a rally against guns on the streets that was put together by Neal Dobbins, a revered neighborhood activist and volunteer who later died from COVID-19. The women walked away afterward side-by-side, and when Doyle asked if Massey needed a ride, she responded:

“Mother Doyle, I live right down the street.”

We spoke Monday outside the Merriweather Branch Library, where an auditorium named in Doyle’s honor was packed with concerned counselors and advocates, there to help in the wake of the violence. Down the street you could see the taped-off parking lot outside Tops, and Terence Hampton, 65, paused to offer a tale similar to Doyle’s.

He had planned on being at Tops on Saturday, but found himself running behind. Hampton had intended to go there with his 7-year-old grandson Mikeal, and he recalled how one of those who died — Roberta Drury, 32 — used to kid Mikeal, whenever she saw him, about how he was so handsome that someday she would marry him.

Hampton also knew Massey, and he echoed Doyle’s tale about Salter:

The former police officer always welcomed individual customers, until he died trying to save them. “A hero for his country,” said Hampton, who responds to the idea of a homicidal man spilling over with such racial malice as evidence of an even larger malady and truth:

“That kind of hate,” he said, “it almost has to be ingested as an infant.”

As for Doyle, she endured a stroke five years ago that for a time stripped her of her speech, until patient work during recovery left her “stronger than ever.” She would like to see it when President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, appear Tuesday in Buffalo as a show of support, but only if she is sure she can get close enough with all the barriers and crowds.

The only reason she was not in Tops on Saturday was because she chose to make that stop at the cleaners. She said she almost decided the next day, in grief and shock, against attending church at First Shiloh. But then she thought of all the people she cared about who died, and she had the same response to all this murderer was hell-bent to destroy.

How dare he?

Sunday morning, Mother Doyle — in the suit that had kept her out of harm’s way — was there to pray.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com.


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