The Numbers on Cold Cases



This is taken from an article called “Open Cases: Why One-Third of Murder In America Go Unresolved” by Martin Kaste.

If you’re murdered in America, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that the police won’t identify your killer.

To use the FBI’s terminology, the national “clearance rate” for homicide today is 64.1 percent. Fifty years ago, it was more than 90 percent.

And that’s worse than it sounds, because “clearance” doesn’t equal conviction: It’s just the term that police use to describe cases that end with an arrest, or in which a culprit is otherwise identified without the possibility of arrest — if the suspect has died, for example.

Criminologists estimate that at least 200,000 murders have gone unsolved since the 1960s, leaving family and friends to wait and wonder.

The only statistics I was able to dig up on clearance rates on homicides specifically relating to SFPD were from over five years ago.  And between 2011 and 2013, their clearance rates were a bit above that average figure.  In 2013, they cleared a whopping 58%.  Still, that leaves a lot of people still unable to see their loved ones get justice.

In another article I read, the author talked about the bar being higher than ever now to bring a case to closure.  The District Attorneys more and more demand that police provide “open-and-shut” cases.  Of course, the DA is an elected position, and the more cases the DA can claim he has won, the better.  Any politician would know that the “I’m going to clean up this town” platform is a winner.  Politics aside, these statistics are anything but encouraging.


Paulette Brown Walks the Walk



I know this page is dedicated to sharing the story of my friend’s cold case. Although I might not always write about my experiences directly, I am writing what inspires me at the time. Of course, what inspires me is always going to be related to my story, albeit at times peripherally.

Take for instance my interest in the Aubrey Abrakasa case. I mentioned his mother in another blog, holding her up as an example of how to take action as a family member or loved one of a homicide victim. Today I wanted to write a little more about Mr. Abrakasa’s case and highlight the organization that his mother started. I’ve been doing a little research about his case, partly because Paulette Brown, his mother, has been quite outspoken about wanting to get her son’s homicide case solved. These are the details of the crime:

On Aug. 14, 2006, Abrakasa was on his way to work when he saw a man with a gun. Brown says the gunman was aiming for someone else, but her son was hit 30 times with a semi-automatic weapon.

When police and paramedics arrived, they transported Abrakasa to San Francisco General Hospital, where he died six hours later. He was 17.

Brown says her son was a good kid. He had never been arrested or in trouble with the law, and was an active figure in the community. “He played basketball, went to school, got good grades,” Brown said. “He was going to graduate —  before he could graduate he was murdered.”

Ms. Brown feels that the suspect should be charged with her son’s homicide. She also says that she doesn’t blame the SFPD for her son’s case not going to trial. She wants the District Attorney to bring  it to trial. I’ve wanted to interview Ms. Brown for this blog for a while now, but have been working on learning the details of the case as well as writing up some questions. In other words, I wanted to be prepared. And after reading a bit about the case, I find my most pressing question now is why do you think the DA won’t bring charges against the guy? I was seriously thinking maybe I would write a letter to the DA about Patty Vance’s case. I remember when I spoke to Kris Barbrich with the Medical Examiner’s office, he encouraged me to keep going up the ladder if I don’t get the help I want in the criminal justice system.

My real point in bringing up the case is to draw attention to an organization that exists in San Francisco for those families of homicide victims. It’s called The Healing Circle for the Soul Group. It meets twice a month in SF. The website lists Paulette Brown as the contact person. You can find the group on Facebook.  I’m going to put attending one of these meetings on my to do list.  Here’s hoping that Ms. Brown’s efforts to get her son’s case solved are not for nothing. She’s a shining example of someone who walks the walk. More groups like this one should be out there to lend support to friends and families of homicide victims.

More Than The Sum Of Her Odds

Here are some disturbing facts about prostitution from

According to Prostitution Research:

70-95 percent of prostitutes experience physical assault during work.

60-75 percent of prostitutes are raped while working as a prostitute.

95 percent of prostitutes experience sexual harassment that in other industries would result in legal action.

Women who are prostitutes are raped 8-10 each year on average. (

These statistics show just some of the violence that prostitutes face. A common response to these numbers is why don’t women just leave or stop being prostitutes. What readers have to understand is that many prostitutes do not become prostitutes because of their own choice. Many are forced into the sex-for-sale industry. This is a broad industry too. It is not just about women on the street. It is about comprehensive systems that trap women through circumstances that they cannot escape. Some prostitutes sell their body to feed their children. They have no skills; they have little education. They have no resources. Even with public assistance, many prostitutes find no hope in leaving prostitution, especially in underdeveloped nations.

In 2004, a long-term mortality study published by Potterat, et al. showed the following trends out of 1,969 prostitutes from the years 1967-1999:

Prostitutes and those who had managed to leave the industry faced an increased rate of death that was 200 times the rate of death for women of the same race and age range.

During the study, 100 prostitutes died. Their cause of death equated to the following: 19 homicides, 18, drug induced or overdose, 12 died from accidents, 9 deaths were alcohol related, and 8 died of AIDS.

Mortality among prostitutes is substantially higher than mortality rate of the society in which the prostitutes worked or lived. The study showed that the general population had a mortality rate of 1.9 per every 100,000 people, but the mortality for prostitutes was 391 per 100,000 people and active prostitutes have a mortality rate of 459 per 100,000 people.

To put into perspective, the story that these statistics tell is important. Not only is prostitution a deadly profession, it is a trap. Its very beginnings are woven by society, and not just one society, but by the global society. It begins with people who make laws. It is contributed to by people who abuse their children. It continues because of lack of mental health treatment. It has a basis in the culture and the value that a society places on people. It is spurred on by issues of racism, poverty, economics, religion and many other social problems such as social stigmatism.

The thing that stands out to me most is that the leading cause of death in this study was homicide.  The next thing that leaps out at me is the section that explores more than just the numbers and asks why women don’t leave prostitution.  I’m pretty certain that these generalizations fit Patty’s situation all too closely.

She probably was trapped for all the reasons listed.  She did need to feed her kid.  She had little schooling and few resources I’m guessing.

So many of the victims of homicides that are presented in the true crime television series are described by loved ones as the last person anyone would want to harm.  They are typically angelic, widely-liked young women.  Innocents.

That may not be the way friends of Patty Vance might describe her had they known her at the time that she appeared to become troubled.  Still, I remember her before those years.  When she was an innocent.  When we both were.

When I think of her, I try to picture us before we were estranged, before we’d betrayed one another so many times that the friendship could no longer endure.  Still, I want to front load the good things in my memory, her generous streak, for example.  She was a shirt-off-her-back kind of girl once.

I’ll be forever conjuring up images of her tussling her younger brother’s hair, knocking hips with me trying out the newest dance move — the bump — singing Michael Jackson songs into a hairbrush, tossing back cheese burgers at Jack-in-the-Box, stuffing her bra with wads of Kleenex, locking arms with me as we walked around our junior high campus, sprinting to class at the sound of the late bell, piling up outfit after outfit in order to find the perfect party ensemble, flipping off her older brother, sneaking cigarettes from her mother’s purse, staring out at the yellowing lawn in her backyard.  I’ll always remember that there was a longing in her eyes.  That look felt as integral to her as any feature of hers like her red hair or freckles.  It was a look that said “I want more out of this life.”  She deserved more.  In so many ways, my friend was a statistic.  (Can’t we all say that though!)  But in so many other ways, she was more than the sum of her odds.  Forever, Patty.


Shout Out To The Co-Founder Of Sage Project

norma hotaling

Though Norma Hotaling, a nationally recognized advocate for the sexually exploited, died at 57 in 2008, she left an amazing legacy.  Specifically the founding of SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation).

Ms. Hotaling, tapped by Oprah Winfrey’s “Angel” award program, overcame her own childhood sexual abuse and drug addictions to become an innovative and passionate leader committed to ending the commercial sex trade, coming up with unique social programs that have since been replicated nationwide.

When she spoke, Norma Hotaling used experiences from her own prostitution that moved her audience to tears while educating them about the cruelty of prostitution. She made it clear that almost everyone in prostitution had a burning desire to get out. Yet when Hotaling herself was struggling to escape prostitution, the only available services were inside jails.

At a San Francisco Health Department hearing on harm reduction Ms. Hotaling described the time in her life when she was turning tricks, was addicted to heroin and was prostituting for a pimp who frequently beat her but to whom she was attached. She described having approached a San Francisco health department program to ask for help and they told her she should resolve her heroin addiction. In the meeting, Ms Hotaling said, “You don’t understand, I said I need help.”

Norma Hotaling dedicated her life to what is called harm elimination in today’s public health language: providing women, men, and the transgendered in prostitution not only condoms and emotional support but services informed by an understanding of the multitraumatic nature of prostitution. Rather than assuming that exit from prostitution was impossible, as some allege, Ms. Hotaling fought for the right of those in prostitution to the same quality of life that others in society have.

Ms. Hotaling’s legacy is that the help she herself sought is now far better understood by public health agencies, even if budgets are not yet offering those services to the thousands of people in prostitution who seek to escape it. Her pioneering work lives on in the expansion of services for trafficked and prostituted people, and in the requirement of accountability for those who buy and sell human beings. The loss of Ms. Hotaling is felt and mourned by the thousands of people she touched in her too brief life.  Donations are requested to SAGE Project, 1275 Mission Street, San Francisco 94103, in honor of her life and work.


My Friend the Statistic

Last Saturday night, I was talking to a childhood friend who also knew Patty Vance and he wondered aloud about whether her murder might have gotten less attention than it deserved because she was a known prostitute. This is what he said:

“She didn’t have the social status to warrant…who knows what the cops are like? She is just a kid that’s a prostitute/drug addict. We don’t want to waste our time on it.”

I want to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt.  I want to believe that the police would have treated and are treating Patty’s case with as much diligence as any other case.  There is my anecdotal experience with law enforcement — which has been largely positive — and then there are statistics.

I spoke to Melissa Gregory of NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System) back in 2016 about my own concerns that Patty’s case might have been shuffled to the bottom of the stack, so to speak, back when it occurred in 1980.  We met briefly at the AISOCC (The American Investigative Society of Cold Cases) conference when I approached Ms. Gregory while she was tabling for NamUs.

“I can’t help think it’s going to be hard to get help with this one.  You know, I heard on this true crime tv show I Am Homicide how there are million-dollar homicides, and five-dollar homicides.  My friend was definitely a five-dollar homicide.  You know, she was a prostitute,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Melissa said.  “It’s too bad she just squeaked over the 18-year mark.  If she was a minor, I could get our people on it right away.”

“She was not quite nineteen, I know,” I said.

So, on a gut level, I think a lot of people assume that prostitutes who are reported as homicides don’t get a fair shake in the criminal justice system.  And not only might they not get fair treatment, they are far more likely to fall victim to a homicide.  A double whammy.

It’s difficult to get statistics on how much more likely a prostitute is to be murdered than the general population.  Here are a few paragraphs from on the topic along with some other not-so-fun facts about prostitutes and violence:

2004 statistics put the homicide rate for female sex workers in the USA at 204 per 100,000. The next riskiest jobs in the country were male taxicab drivers (29 per 100,000) and female liquor store workers (4 per 100,000).

I (the author of article) was recently asked to explain why men murder prostitutes, and it’s been rather an interesting question to explore.

Contrary to general belief, women are just as capable of cruelty and murder as men, but men are more likely to be physically violent and destructive.

Women tend to be personally involved with their victims: husband or boyfriend, child or parent.  Men seem more likely to murder randomly, opportunistically, wanting to get away with it, to do it again.

Occasionally there’s a religious zealot or fanatic who sees “fallen women” as being sinful and causing others to sin, and therefore deserving to die.  Maybe to a minor degree such ideas may help other killers feel justified, even though their motives are deeper and darker.

Such people are more likely to be mentally disturbed, even psychotic, with garbled explanations why they need to play the role of executioner.

The main reason prostitutes get killed is probably because they are uniquely vulnerable, which means that their killers may have a better chance of escaping justice. There aren’t many people who will agree to meet with you in a private place, not telling anyone where they’re going, not expecting to know your name or identity, and keeping no record of the meeting.

They’re like runaways and street people, in the sense that nobody will miss them if they disappear. These are marginalized people who tend to steer clear of the police and their disappearance is therefore unlikely to be reported. When Joel Rifkin confessed to killing 17 prostitutes around New York from 1989 to 1993, not one of them had ever been reported missing.

They’re the ideal victim, and this attracts predators.  Working girls don’t want to attract attention and rarely report crimes committed against them, or, for that matter, the disappearance of a colleague. They trust to their instincts in choosing whether to go with a client, though such instincts aren’t infallible.

If they’re prepared to engage in sadomasochistic activities, they may allow themselves to be tied up or otherwise rendered helpless. The relationship between sexual activity and murder varies: some killers may attack the woman after they have had sex, or during sex, and some may prefer to have sex after killing them.

And here’s another article I dug up:

In his article “Prostitute Homicides,” C. Gabrielle Salfati, et al., projects that prostitutes may be up to 120 times more likely to be victims of homicide than women not working in the field. Law enforcement doesn’t seem over eager to get to the bottom of these homicides either if statistics are to be believed. According to an abstract submitted by Michele Decker in her “Prostitution-related Homicides” nearly 2 to 1, non domestic homicides of this type result in no arrest, or the identifying of the perpetrator. Solving prostitute homicides presents all sorts of unique problems.

If these statistics are to be believed, the friend I spoke to last Saturday night was not pulling his ideas out of the air.  His hunch that Patty Vance’s case might not have gotten the attention it deserved perhaps is supported by what Decker’s research revealed.  (How would one measure a detective’s bias on the matter?)

Obviously, it’s not necessarily true that Patty Vance’s case was given short shrift by the San Francisco Police Department.  In fact, the first detective I spoke to said Patty Vance’s file was 8 inches thick.  The statistics in this article only support the idea that it was much more likely — twice as likely — that her case would not solved.

My young friend.  She was alive one minute, a statistic the next.

Snippet from a Guide for Survivors of Homicide Victims

I grabbed this document off the internet.  It’s written for law enforcement, but has a lot of good information in it about what exactly goes into a homicide investigation.  If you are advocating for a loved one, it might be helpful to take a look at this document.  I know, for me, it gave me a general idea of what a cold case investigation looks like, and what resources are available to survivors.  I don’t consider myself a survivor, per se.  But still, survivors are the people who I see as my ideal audience.  Here’s the excerpt from “Serving Survivors of Homicide Victims During Cold Case Investigations: A Guide for Developing a Law Enforcement Protocol.”

In recent years, cold cases have gained national and international attention.43 “Extraordinary developments in DNA technology…have dramatically increased the available pool of evidence that can be submitted to DNA testing. This increasing volume of evidence, together with expanded databases containing identifying information from convicted felons, has created a tremendous resource for law enforcement to help solve crimes….”44

Yet still, “cold case homicides are one of the most significant challenges facing law enforcement agencies nation-wide.”45 And survivors of homicide victims can “have trouble believing in the system and trusting that the investigation is still continuing. They see police, courts, and lawyers as giving up on them. They feel less of a priority as there is little evidence to proceed and feel like a ‘nag or bother’ when asking questions about the case status.”46

Improving the systemic processes of cold case homicide investigations is therefore a critically important task for law enforcement. These processes include the nontechnological aspects of investigations, that is, sensitivity to survivors’ needs, the improvement of which will also improve law enforcement’s investigatory outcomes in the solving of more cold cases.

“For the family members of the victims, this [solving of a cold case] can bring very much- needed resolution to what happened to their loved one,” according to Professor Clete Snell, chair of the criminal justice department at the University of Houston-Downtown.47 For law enforcement, closing a cold case also can mean catching a murderer who could kill again.

A Washington, D.C., cold case homicide that was recently successfully prosecuted illustrates the impact that solving a cold case can have on survivors, law enforcement, and the community at large.

Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old California woman working as an intern with the federal government in Washington, D.C., was last seen on May 1, 2001. Her body was found a year later on May 22, 2002. Seven years later, in 2009, a suspect was charged. And almost 10 years after her initial disappearance, Ms. Levy’s murderer was tried and convicted on November 22, 2010, and sentenced to 60 years imprisonment on February 11, 2011.

Outside the courtroom after the conviction, survivor Susan Levy, Chandra Levy’s mother, very simply and succinctly stated a most basic lesson on the importance to survivors of law enforcement’s investigation of cold case homicides: “It makes a difference to find the right person who is responsible for my daughter’s death or for anybody else’s death.”48

Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier’s candid comments after the conviction also underscore some of the points raised in this guide about the difficulties in cold case homicide investigations: “It’s not like it is on TV. Cases can be very complicated. You never give up, regardless of criticism, regardless of mistakes. And I think that’s what happened in this case.”49

Finally, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen summed up the broad meaningfulness of this single, cold case conviction to all survivors and law enforcement, as well as to the community at large: “Today’s verdict sends a message that it’s never too late for justice to be served.”50

But cold case homicide investigations are about more than seeing a case solved, a conviction rendered, and justice meted out, as important as these are to law enforcement and survivors. It is hoped, accordingly, that this guide will prompt law enforcement agencies to develop an agency protocol on serving survivors of homicide victims during cold case investigations. The information and recommendations outlined in this guide will inform that protocol with the foundational tools necessary for law enforcement to more effectively work with survivors but also—as is the ultimate purpose of this guide—to better serve survivors.

41 Albrecht, Steve (February 2010). “Threat Assessment Teams: Workplace and School Violence Prevention,” in FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved February 23, 2011, from

42 Ibid.
43 Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, supra note 6. 44 Cold Case Task Force, supra note 5.
45 Ibid.
46 Ibid.

47 Pinkerton, James (November 22, 2010). “These Five Don’t Forget: Cold Case Squad Digs Deep into Long- Unsolved Murders, Bringing Relief to Families of Victims,” in Houston Chronicle. Retrieved February 26, 2011, from
48 Smoot, Kelly (November 22, 2010). “Jury convicts man in killing of Chandra Levy in 2001,” CNN Web site. Retrieved February 26, 2011, from

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

The City of Souls

I decided to post a chapter from the book I’m trying to write about Patty Vance’s cold case.  And a photograph from the day I visited her gravesite.  The story is still a bit rough around the edges, but perhaps that’s fitting.  That might be the way I describe the emotions I feel around this project — rough around the edges.


I rented a zippy Ford Fiesta and headed to Holy Cross Cemetery. It’s the oldest and largest cemetery in Colma, California, a small town — population 1,500 — thirty miles south of San Francisco. This was where Patty Vance was buried. I’d located her obituary at the library months ago, but was too busy working to drive back to the city until now. I grew up in San Francisco, but never knew Colma was named “The City of Souls,” or that it was founded as a necropolis, a fancy term for a city-sized cemetery. Google didn’t exist back then. 

In 1924, due to sanitation issues and the effect on real estate prices, graves all over San Francisco were exhumed and moved. Colma was created. It gave me solace that Patty was at rest in a town where the dead outnumbered the living. I envisioned her in an underworld completely unlike the place she’d come from. It would be not so much a place of rest, or a peaceful place, but a place of rejoicing, filled with glee. Ghosts and ghouls would rollick, or waltz around, their heads thrown back in laughter.

I drove along Mission Boulevard, the main thoroughfare, eyeing the florist shops. Ava’s, Paul’s, Lester’s. I picked Flowerland. Its name sounded somehow more inviting than the others. I opened the car door and took a long whiff of the cool spring air. Inside the shop a woman in a lavender suit held a handkerchief clamped over her mouth, perhaps stifling a wail. A young woman alongside her patted her on the shoulder. 

I wandered inside, spent too much time deciding what to buy, then grabbed the first plant I saw. I set a succulent with tiny pink blooms in front of the man at the register.

“You must do a vigorous business here.” I assumed an investment in death, however peripheral, was dependable, a sure thing.

“It’s seasonal,” he said.

“Oh yeah. I guess you don’t get a lot of business when it rains.”

“Almost none.”  He counted the change into my hand.

I pulled up in front of the office at Holy Cross. Inside two women were ahead of me, so I found a chair in the waiting area. I picked up a copy of the Catholic San Francisco newspaper, spreading it across my knee. A half-page photograph of greeting cards children had sent to inmates at San Quentin was splashed across the front page to commemorate  “The Year of Mercy.” “Prison Pen Pals Offer Youth a Lesson in Mercy and Restorative Justice” read the headline. 

Students had cut hearts from construction paper and scribbled the words “God” and “faith” in crayon. “Don’t Lose Hope,” was the message on one. “Never Give Up,” on another. They were all signed to maintain anonymity by this eighth-grade Catholic girl, or that seventh grader. The article described restorative justice as distinct from criminal justice. The idea was to hold the offender accountable, but also to join the victim and community in the process. If offenders took responsibility for their actions, understood the harm they had caused. Ideally that would discourage them from causing further harm. The article concluded with “someone will always love you,” taken from one of the greeting cards. 

I folded the newspaper into my purse. My head was swimming with references to mercy and calls to action. I thought of those pen pal kids, of my years in Catholic school. My early training in unconditional forgiveness never stuck. Restorative justice — what a crock. The last thing I planned on doing was giving the person who killed my friend a pass. My notion of forgiveness was by definition conditional. Besides, how would the “victim” participate?  She was long gone.

The receptionist, a wisp of a woman with an inviting smile, asked how she could help me. 

“I’m here to visit an old friend. Her name is Patricia Vance.”

She tapped a few keys on her computer, licked her fingertip to get traction on a piece of paper, then placed a map on the desk between us. She wrote in boxes on the bottom of the page “Row 28, Grave 35.” Picking up a yellow highlighter, she drew the route. It formed the shape of a giant question mark on the page. Fitting. All I had were questions.

“Do you need help finding it?”

I nodded. I sat outside on the stairs waiting for a staff member, wishing I still smoked cigarettes. Efron, my guide, greeted me with his hand extended. He said something to me in spotty English I couldn’t make out. A scar ran from one corner of his mouth to his chin. Momentarily I found myself spinning a chivalrous tale, a narrative of how it came to be, its origin story. We gestured and made exaggerated movements with our bodies while we walked. I spoke broken Spanish to him. When we reached the grave, I dropped to one knee and hunched over. I felt deflated.  Efron slumped his shoulders in a show of solidarity. I remembered the seven percent rule. Ninety three percent of communication is nonverbal, seven percent verbal. There must be something to that.

“There’s nothing here,” I said.

Efron dropped to one knee and pushed aside a tuft of grass exposing a marker imprinted with numbers. 

“Is this common? What does this mean?” I looked around to see if there were other spots that were unmarked.

“Yes, yes,” he said pointing to a plot of grass two rows down.

My eyes followed the line of tombstones lodged in the grass to the other empty plot.

“I’m sorry,” Efron said.

“It’s okay.”

My hand was moist with sweat, so I swiped my palm across my jeans before shaking his hand. He smiled and bowed his head, then left me by myself. I plopped down on the grass. I was depleted, exhausted although it was only noon. My eyes welled up, and I mopped them with my shirt sleeve. Suddenly I was struck by what could be described as a boot-at-my-neck feeling. On occasion it snapped me erect in the middle of the night, gasping for air. I called this feeling a panic attack when I told my friends. They would understand this terminology. A boot, maybe not as much.

Towering, wind-bent Cyprus trees punctuated an anemic, patchy lawn. Workers in the distance pushed loud, churning lawn mowers. Cut grass was kicked up behind them and I caught a taste it in the back of my throat. Two mallards teetered towards me, eyeing the pot of pink flowers beside me. They circled around, tail feathers sweeping the air, and wandered off.  After a few minutes, I calmed down. 

I strolled over to the nearby chapel and entered. Nothing grand drew me inside. I wasn’t looking for catharsis. I was seeking the pews. My legs wobbled. A painting of Jesus on the cross with three disciples at his feet was mounted at the front of the room. The figure of Jesus radiated in the sunlight slanting through the windows, and I figured someone had instructed an architect to line up the windows just so that at certain hours of the day He radiated light. I dipped my finger into the font, crossed myself twice. I was tempted to submerge my entire face into it and gulp down a mouthful of holy water. The Bacon adage came to mind about how people either drank in knowledge or gargled it. Maybe I was after more than just a place to sit down. 

I sat puffy-eyed grimacing at the massive cross. Pews must be made with suffering in mind. There was no sitting still on them, but shifting around didn’t help either. My stomach gurgled. I hadn’t eaten, but I wasn’t hungry either. A loss of appetite was always the first signal I was depressed. A day or even a week could go by without a meal, depending on how long it lasted. I pushed open the chapel doors, unsure of how much time I’d spent inside. 

A concrete path wound along side a field of tombstones laid in neat columns. Further on mausoleums, marble niches, family columbaria, urn vaults, indoor and outdoor crypts formed a small-scale skyline built up on the edges of the walkway. I shivered as I stepped into their shade. There was the military section, and plots exclusively for nuns and priests. Expansive private gardens sometimes housed only one tomb.

  I stopped in the office on my way out to ask if I could donate a tombstone. I had already designed one in my head: a white marble slab with Patty’s yearbook photograph etched into it, surrounded by doves. I liked the idea of a secular design with no references to Catholicism. Patty was tossed out of Saint Mary Magdalen Middle School after hiking up the hemline of her skirt. She was expelled for smoking. She hated nuns. 

The woman behind the desk had a phone receiver in each ear.  I waited for her to call me over.

“Only the people who own the plot can purchase a tombstone,” the woman said.

“Her parents have passed. But her brother?” I said.

“Yes, her brother if he’s the only survivor.” She tugged her mouth into a thin, curt smile.

“What about a tree? Could I purchase a tree for the grounds?”

She handed me a business card.

“Call for an appointment.”

I jumped into my car, drove through the giant iron gates, headed north toward Daly City. I was indignant Patty had only a marker the size of a postage stamp — a piece of real estate even tinier than the paragraph allotted her in The Chronicle. She deserved to be visible as much as anyone else. But in death as in life, hierarchies existed. 

I drove up Mission Road passing a small village of cemeteries, each with its separate distinction: The Jewish cemetery, the Mormon cemetery, the Catholic cemetery. Names of specialty cemeteries carved into mammoth marble slabs flitted past my window— Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Russian, and Serbian. 

I spotted a nail salon and slid into a parking spot. Dunking my feet in warm water and unwinding was just what I needed. A slim woman with a surgical mask draped around her neck lowered me into the massage chair.  She scrubbed my calves with a grainy gel until it chafed my skin. 

“What are you doing in town?” she asked.

“I went to Holy Cross Cemetery. My friend is buried there.”

“Oh, I visit my father in the cemetery once a month,” she said.

“It must be nice that he’s so close. Which cemetery is it? They have those cemeteries for, you know, if you’re Catholic or Jewish.”

“Catholic. Yeah, we bring flowers. My husband and me. Lots of flowers.”

She questioned me further in her soft-spoken, tentative English, asked me what happened to my friend. I’d wished I lied earlier when she’d asked me to explain my visit. I could have told her I was shopping at Serramonte. I’m typically eager to tell a story, but not Patty’s story.

“It’s depressing,” I said, “we don’t want to talk about sad stuff.”

I never asked how her father died. I thought about the practice of visiting graves, about the dedication it takes to make it a routine. Before this, I’d never thought about visiting a grave. Before today, I couldn’t envision myself visiting a chapel. Maybe for a wedding.

The woman painted my toenails a lime color. My spirits lifted from the pampering for as a long as it took me to slog through the rush-hour traffic driving north over the Golden Gate Bridge. I stared out over the glassy water dotted with sailboats. The flow of cars halted. The Catholic San Francisco had spilled partway from my handbag onto the passenger seat. I slid the newspaper out and placed it on the dashboard. One of the cards in the photograph was addressed “Dear Inmate.” What if my friend’s killer had ended up in San Quentin? Coincidentally, I was coming up on the sprawling prison just as I was glancing at the photograph.  By the time I passed The Big House, cars were speeding, compensating for the earlier slow down. The gray boxy building was no more than a blur in my periphery. I pictured a shadowy figure inside that box crouched on a bunk, a heart made from construction paper pinched between his fingers. Suddenly the boot was at my neck again.