The District of Columbia is a small town.
Despite the quantity of agencies, ideas, government, non-profits, food trucks, and height limitations on buildings, we’re awfully close together. It’s relatively easy to walk across each quadrant, through Rock Creek Park, across the Anacostia, over the Potomac, past McMillan Reservoir, through the Zoo, past the Observatory, into Atlas Theater, up Connecticut Avenue. In my years here, I’ve been at nearly every metro stop and to the end of every line.
Even Shady Grove.
On the metro, I play a “list game” with my partner and the WMATA map, where we list the coolest things we’d seen or done at each stop. Mass at the Basilica at Brookland/CUA, the drum circle at Malcolm X Park in Columbia Heights, the farmers market at Dupont Circle, CPR/First Aid training at Navy Yard, and on and on.
As we’ve lived here longer, the density of interesting places becomes more pronounced. This city has so many details to me, so many restaurants, parks, bars, bus shelters, elementary schools, public pools, and hospitals. This city is my home.
Navy Yard is a very dense place to me.
To me, it’s not a foreign place on the news, with words like “unknown gunman” “civilians shot” “possible terrorism” attached to it. It’s generally not a multi-page story on the New York Times. It’s not only a relatively open naval base — it’s a part of a neighborhood, “near southeast”. It’s a part of my home.
I heard about the event about a half-hour after the shots began on Monday. I texted my partner. I emailed my old work associates. I sent Facebook messages. I didn’t pray. I didn’t watch the news.
“It ought to obsess us, it ought to lead to some sort of transformation,” is how President Obama puts it.
It ought to. It certainly ought to.
I used to work at Navy Yard. My partner works there every other day at the DC SEU. Three of my friends work at the Trapeze School of New York in Navy Yard, and a friend moved to the Waterfront area to be closer to the rig. Two of my close friends live on M Street. My current studio is a quick mile away in Capitol Hill. I’ve been to events at the fairgrounds there, events where everyone is sloshed, and the music is way too loud. Several of my clients live there, in “near southeast,” right on the Anacostia River.
I remember running late to an interview at Navy Yard. I rushed across M Street, running in my fancy interview shoes, past the vendors at the Tuesday farmer’s market by the Department of Transportation. I stumbled on the gravel in the unfinished blocks past the DOT, pebbled lodged into my palms. When I returned from the interview, job un-offered, I remember stopping back towards the pebbles, and just kicking the gravel. I sat on the curb, and I sniffled.
I was alone on the street, on one of those isolated spots in the area, where the sidewalks are wide, but there’s no one walking. And I sobbed. I don’t like to cry around people — my face gets blotchy and I lose rhetorical grace. And I blessed how deserted Navy Yard was, at 11:14am on a Tuesday, how still and sunny, so I could pity myself in privacy.
It’s a quiet place, with quiet corners.
I remember “staffing” a fundraiser there with my housefamily. There was a band, and we all showed up in force, the merry Keep family, all of us getting sloppy and exuberant on a bright October night. We were gifted two cases of wine, and a few bottles of rum (which we tore into on the metro). When we got home, we collapsed on the floor, all of us, spooned on the hardwood floor.
One of my friends from that night recently committed suicide. The clearest memory I have of him is from the pavilion, laughing and dancing with him. He’s still alive to me.
Navy Yard is a real place to me.
On the news, they discussed the proximity of the shooter to places of power, to the White House, Congress, and the Hill. To me, Navy Yard is on the street that my friend lives on. It’s where we go to watch the Nats win (and lose). There are two elementary schools a stone’s throw from the Naval Base. It’s just a place in my city.
Last Tuesday, I thought of everyone I know who goes to Navy Yard on a regular basis. I thought of the river, the barracks, the park where they play jazz. I thought of names, and I waited. It was hard to breathe. I peaked at the news, and saw the buildings (that I know so well) as a backdrop to squad cars and flashing lights. The standard scene that we all know so well: the deranged shooter, the brave police, the stricken families, the unknown death toll.
I check twitter. I read DCist. I checked the Post. I texted more people. I read about Aaron Alexis, his medical history, his ineffective background check, his origin and his end.
My friends could have died. My partner could have died. My very close friends. And my neighbors, the people I see every day. The utility workers and office workers, and contractors. The everyday working Washingtonian.
This fear is part of how we live.
And it ought to obsess us.
And it has obsessed me in the past. I’ve always wondered how it felt, in Aurora and Newtown, in Boston, in Middleton, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech, and Ft. Hood. It can seem surreal from afar — the way the news conveys the action (and often inaction) of these killings. It can feel easy to detach from them, to just imagine that the shooter is within a secured Naval Base, sure to be restrained within moments. Like all the video games I grew up playing, and all the movies I watch. On the screen, the people onsite seem like NPCs, saying the same things with each new reporter. It all bleeds together.
Years ago, I wondered how it would feel in my home. When it was my city, my neighbors, all calling families and friends, checking in: “Are you okay? Is everyone in your office okay? Did your kids go to school today?” I wondered how long it would take to heal, or if the killings would stain the ground. I wondered when the streets would feel safe again.
Quickly, it seems.
The camera crews and EMTs have left and the news moves on. The Washington Post and Think Progress ran an excellent story on the quick “forgetting” of the incident, discussing the quick return to business-as-usual. Aaron Alexis is dead. While President Obama pushes for reform in gun control legislation, the issue is muted and dialed down. Our tears are evidently not enough.
I hear that phrase every day. And I hate it.
There are no rising heroes and no novel atrocities here. Just an everyday random killing. Nothing connected to national security, or the overhanging everyday fiscal crisis, the daily suffering in Syria, the typhoon that killed at least 25 people in Southern China. Days after Navy Yard, shooter(s) killed three people and injured twenty-three people in Chicago– *that* story barely dents national news. This is part of how we live, right? This is our new normal.
We grind on. We check our phones. We go to football games. Particle physics progresses. I help throw a bachelorette party. I go to work. I fall asleep in my clothes.
We have conversations about it. Conversations that circle endlessly, ineffectually, and (sometimes) obsessively.
We talk about: the race of the shooter. Militarism. Mental illness. Gun laws in Virginia, and how much worse it could have been. Aaron Alexis. Our government’s disinclination to adjust gun safety laws. The transition from Congress to K Street. The mothers and families of these killer. Aaron Alexis’s mother. NRA. The “black NRA” viral video.
The norm of killings and gun violence. The shootings in my neighborhood, the senseless incarseration and demonization of African American youth, and the way lynching looks in our modern day. Who is Aaron Alexis. Erasure. Mental illness and access to guns. What are guns are for. How easy it is to fire a gun. (It is so much easier than I expected.) Poverty. History. Density. Suicide. Numbness. Who would you shoot. The victims and their families and grief. Mayor Gray, in a moment of leadership. Aaron Alexis. The Invisible Man.
Syria. Massacred children. Is a killer a victim.
100,000 dead. 1,400 gassed. 12 killed. 14 wounded.
I try to be better to strangers.
For me, the most awful thing about these events is the complicity we bear in normalizing them, and normalizing the monumental violence in our world. I try to be a better listener, a better celebrater-of-others, a better employee. I try to be more honest. I’ve fucked up a few times, but I’ve tried to make it better as quickly as I can. I don’t want this to be a part of my life.
If there is senseless violence, I would like there to be more senseless kindness.
If there are so many unsafe spaces, I would like to build more safe ones.
There are thirteen people who lost their lives last week.
Gerald L. Read. Richard Michael Ridgell. Michael Arnold. Martin Bodrog. Arthur Daniels. Sylvia Frasier. Kenneth Bernard Proctor. Kathleen Gaarde. John Roger Johnson. Mary Francis Knight. Frank Kohler. Vishnu Pandit.
And Aaron Alexis.
Fourteen others were wounded.
They could have been my friends, and I wish I had known them. And I wish I had known Aaron Alexis.