Sadly, Rooftop was inspired by the 2004 shooting death of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer on the rooftop of a Brooklyn housing project. The scene in which the police commissioner, only hours after the shooting, condemns the officer’s actions is written right from the headlines—“There appears to be no justification for the shooting.” The officer, however, was not indicted by a grand jury made up of mostly blacks. This prompted speculation among many outraged citizens that the district attorney simply led the grand jury to the conclusion he ultimately wanted. The novel also examines the very real practice of “vertical patrol” in which NYC police can have their guns drawn while patrolling project rooftops, and the 48-hours which officers have to fill out a report after firing their weapons. The officer who shot the teen cried on the witness stand, which is why the inability to cry haunts Rooftop’s protagonist, Clay—a witness to the fictional shooting and the victim’s surviving cousin.
The novel’s framework- daily life at a day treatment center- comes from my two-year stint as a NYC high school teacher at such a facility in Brooklyn. The daily routine, including morning meeting, school, lunch, structure (chores) and afternoon counseling sessions is very real. I was particularly moved at how new arrivals were greeted- by a round of applause. “Tell him why were clapping,” the counselor would ask. “We’re not clapping ‘cause you’re here,” an adolescent in the program would respond. “We’re clapping ‘cause you made it here to a clean and sober environment.” So that has a special place in the novel. The monstrous dog that terrorizes the protagonist from the sometimes open-gated tire shop was inspired by a real-life dog that barked wildly from behind the grate of an empty air-conditioner casement on the ground floor of the building next to the facility.