Tiffany Cofield knelt on Chicago Avenue, surrounded by flowers, hoping to feel her lost friend's spirit.
Nearly a year had passed since she last heard George Floyd's voice over the phone from a thousand miles away, as he made a new life in Minneapolis and she sat back in his old one in Houston.
At last, Cofield had found the resolve to visit the city that took his life under the knee of policeman Derek Chauvin. She just wanted to make peace, finally, with her friend's death.
As a cold wind blew, Cofield bowed her head and told Floyd she loved him. Then she waited.
She had not expected to make the journey.
Sometimes, she told herself that he wasn't really dead, just busy in Minneapolis.
"If I keep telling myself he's just in Minnesota and I go to Minnesota and he's not here, then what?" Cofield asked. "He's really gone."
The times that she could acknowledge what happened to Floyd, Cofield resented Minneapolis as the place that killed him. After all, she reasoned, he had lived just fine in Houston for most of his 46 years. How could he have moved to this city at age 43 and died three years later?
So she watched most of Chauvin's murder trial from her home in Texas. Cofield still needed to learn what transpired, even if she refused to watch the video of Floyd pinned to the ground. She muted the TV when those scenes played, knowing that listening would be harder than seeing; she could not bear hearing her strong friend cry out in fear.
They met in 2008 during a Thanksgiving food giveaway.
Cofield, 36, and her group of volunteers showed up at Cuney Homes, Houston's oldest public housing project, where Floyd grew up and still lived near in the city's Third Ward. "God bless y'all," she remembers Floyd saying. "Thank you for doing what you're doing in the community. How can I help?" He showed them around "The Bricks," as the complex was known.
Floyd left the neighborhood the following year to serve a prison sentence for aggravated robbery, but they reconnected in 2015 when Cofield was teaching at a charter school that served children in Cuney Homes. Floyd would mentor some of her students and counsel Cofield on how to quell violent feuds. Cofield also grew close to Floyd's mother and some other relatives, and recalled seeing Floyd daily in the years before his move to Minneapolis.
They went on tour with Houston rapper Cal Wayne, for whom Floyd worked as a security guard, and took road trips to visit relatives across the South. Over time, Floyd became like family.
In February 2017, Floyd decided to follow the path of several neighborhood friends who had sought addiction treatment, job training and a new start in Minneapolis. It was still dark when Cofield drove him to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Houston one morning.
She cried as they hugged goodbye. Floyd told her he was doing this to be a better father to his young daughter, Gianna.
"It's going to be all right," Floyd said. "I'll be back."
He returned just once, for his mother's funeral in 2018. Over the years, Floyd invited Cofield to visit several times.
"Nah, it's cold," Cofield would decline.
She still feels guilty about that.
• • •
As the trial drew global attention, Cofield visited the Third Ward sometimes because she liked to look at the murals there honoring Floyd.
On one of those drives, a policeman pulled her over for not using her turn signal. Cofield, who is Black, showed her hands, then carefully explained she was reaching for her ID. She told him that Floyd had been a close friend.
"I am terrified," she told the officer.
Days later, Cofield faced another fear: She boarded a plane to Minneapolis on Sunday. As it landed, she felt a sense of duty. But it was hard to see the Minneapolis that Floyd had described with so much admiration in his phone calls. Cofield saw a slew of boarded buildings near her hotel downtown, a half-mile east of the bus station where Floyd had arrived in 2017. National Guard soldiers stood everywhere.
On Monday, she sat in the overflow room at the courthouse to watch the trial's closing arguments. She accidentally heard part of the video of Floyd pleading on the ground and briefly walked out, racked with anxiety. But Cofield liked when prosecutor Jerry Blackwell noted that while the defense had argued that Floyd died of an enlarged heart, "the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin's heart was too small."
As the jury went into its second day of deliberations Tuesday, Cofield talked about her nervous anticipation over a late breakfast.
She was worried. She was hopeful. She thought it might be a good sign that the jury had not come back too fast — she'd rather they take their time. Cofield was on her way to George Floyd Square when she heard the jury had a decision.
"Did you know the verdict is in?" she said, calling one of Floyd's relatives. "I'm on my way back. Do we need to dress up?"
As she approached the hotel where family members gathered for the decision, Cofield said, "Oh, my God. My stomach is literally in butterflies. … My legs are tingling."
Military vehicles rolled by. She talked on the phone with some of Floyd's family in Houston.
"Did you see the verdict is out?" Cofield told them. "The whole damn National Guard just drove by!"
She went to the ballroom where loved ones waited. Cofield braced herself. Second-degree murder: guilty. She braced herself again. Third-degree murder: guilty. Manslaughter: guilty.
The following afternoon, Cofield decided it was time to see where Floyd spent his final hour.
• • •
"I almost feel like he was chosen," she said as she walked up to the memorial.
Cofield knelt where Floyd lay trapped under Chauvin's knee last May. Where he cried out over and over that he could not breathe.
Floyd used to give the best hugs, full of love, and Cofield felt as if he was embracing her now. "It's OK," she could hear him say. "You don't have to cry anymore."
She felt a wave of peace. Comfort. After a few minutes, she rose. Looking around at the memorial, she felt heartened that at least Floyd would not be forgotten.
Cofield walked into Cup Foods, where the confrontation that led to Floyd's death began when a clerk called 911 to report that Floyd had passed a fake $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. She wanted to stand where he had stood.
But as she looked around, Cofield took offense at a picture of Floyd on the wall and told a reporter that the store's actions had gotten Floyd killed. An employee who overheard her said to leave if she was going to be negative.
They briefly argued. Cofield walked out.
She went to the area around the Third Precinct police station that rioters set ablaze days after a video of Floyd's death shocked the world. She was moved by the words posted at the site where the Gandhi Mahal restaurant once stood.
Cofield began to read them out loud: "We are deeply connected/We value people over property/Let my building burn/Justice needs to be served//Black lives should matter." She reflected on their meaning. " 'Let my building burn,' that's so profound."
The fight was not over. She had already talked to Floyd family attorney Ben Crump about a protest next month in Baytown, Texas, where she lives and he is representing the family of Pamela Turner, a Black woman killed by police. On Thursday, she went to the funeral of another Black man killed by law enforcement, Daunte Wright. She had already told his mother, "People say things get easier with time; it hasn't gotten easier for me."
Cofield had even held off getting a tattoo honoring Floyd's memory, because it would mean that he was really gone. As she prepared to leave Minneapolis on Saturday, she felt ready for the tattoo. She could accept, at last, that he would never be back.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210