There are things that I don’t love about Long Island. It’s expensive. The native culture is…interesting. Aggressive. Abrasive. Extremely honest. Filled with weird acts of generosity and indignation. The local government is so corrupt that our DA regularly sends career politicians to jail. And did I mention that it’s expensive?
But I moved out here because it’s by the water. Long Island is sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Long Island Sound. I live on the south shore, which is the Atlantic side. I can have my feet in the water ten minutes after leaving home. My train rolls over a channel on the backside of a barrier island. When the doors open, I can smell the state of the tide.
My flood insurance is high. My summers are wonderful.
Last year we joined a local beach club with some friends, which has completely changed my life. My whole summer has restructured to surround the weekend. My house is falling apart. My garden is unplanted. I’ve had weeds growing in pots on my front doorstep all summer long. But who has time to take care of these things? There are sandcastles to be built.
The weather has been strange this year. For the first month of beach season, we got rained on or the wind made sandstorms that pelted our legs in a most unpleasant way. We went to the beach anyway.
We sat on our picnic table, eating snacks with the kids as the rain poured down around our sun umbrellas.
As the summer progressed, the weather got better, but now that we are coming to the end, I find that I feel cheated by that first month of missed opportunities. We had fun. We were there nearly every weekend. And we’re still going, for as long as we possibly can, even though the pools have closed and the lifeguards have gone home for the summer. The water is too cold to linger in, but it can still suck eddies around your shoes. The terns still scold if you get too near.
There’s just something about that place that’s magic. Hours pass before you realize it. Life gets refined down to surviving the heat and sun. We find sand crabs and feed the seagulls our rejected plums. We dig in the sand like children.
It is these moments in which life feels so simple, so clear. I don’t want the summer to end. I’m not ready to lose my escape from reality.
I love challenges with deadlines, if my three completed Nanowrimo events last year weren’t a strong indicator of such unfortunate tendencies. I often pick them up on a whim, generally for no better reason than that I get bored a little too easily.
Read 30 books in a year? Scandalously easy. Alter my diet to some crazy version that makes baking an egg in an avocado seem like a reasonable breakfast choice? Sure. No problem.
By the end of the challenge, I always walk away with some new insight. After Whole 30, I learned that I like salt a whole lot more than cheese. My week long Fitbit challenges with total strangers take me to strange lengths — and down strange streets — out of determination not to let an Internet stranger win. (And when they inevitably do, I just decide that they must be nurses. Or perhaps, Olympic level race walkers. There can be no other explanation.) And, well, Nanowrimo, repeated about a dozen times, finally taught me how to write a novel.
So on January 2nd, without any planning or much thought, I decided to do another 365 photography challenge. The goal is to take a single photo every day for a full year, which sounds really simple. The last time I tried, I gave up in May, after nearly a hundred photographs. What got me in 2013 was that, like most people, my daily environment doesn’t change all that much. I go to work in the same neighborhood that I’ve worked in for the past eleven years. I come home on the same train and walk the same blocks to go to the same house nearly every day. I lost my inspiration.
But what I love about the 365 photography challenge is that it changes your perspective. With photography in mind, I see things that I would normally ignore. The first photograph I took, on January 2nd, was of a building decorated by seahorses sporting unicorn horns. I had walked past that building nearly every day for years without ever noticing that wonderfully nutty detail, but armed with a photography deadline, I finally noticed what had been in front of my eyes all that time.
Even if the photographs fail, it forces me to look around me with the eyes of an artist. I love that. And I’ve rediscovered Flikr, which is a hotbed of amazing photographers doing wonderful things. I can’t even pretend that my pictures stand up to much of what I see there, but being involved in thinking and talking about photography every day can only improve my work.
And, of course, since we are only 60 photographs in to the year, I am still filled with hope and ambition for completing it this time. It’s been six years and so much has changed. I am different, but also, my eye is different.
The religious education wing of the Unitarian congregation’s building is a spare thing, a square room with creamy partitioned walls that can be moved to accommodate the varying class sizes of the children. On the walls, large rectangles of paper list the birthdays of the children by months, for what is a community without celebration? Children’s art fills the other walls, which watch over a carpet ringed by black bed rest pillows, where the children sit in communion with one another every Sunday.
We joined the congregation when Baba was 10 months old and she is nearly 4 now, so this room is a familiar haven. She runs to it every week, jumping down the hallway in uncoordinated hops and skips that makes the aging congregation smile as they dodge out of the way of her slippery energy.
It is October and this is a Unitarian sanctuary, which means that Halloween is in full swing, with a costume parade and a party planned with food masquerading as various creepy and crawly things. And in my delight, I asked one of the teachers there, “Don’t you just love Halloween?”
And she said, “No…no, I actually hate this time of year.”
And then she explained to me how she, as the child of Holocaust survivors, was never allowed out on Halloween, because if you were Jewish and in Eastern Europe, this was one of the most dangerous times of the year for pogroms. And I thought to myself, for I have grown to really admire and love this woman, who has created such a sanctuary for a generation of children, that that was such a sad thing that she has missed out on a tradition that I love so much. Understandable, of course, that her parents would not have been able to let her go out to celebrate like so many American children do, but a sad thing. After all, this is America. We don’t have the same history of anti-Semitic riots that they do in Europe. Surely, surely, she would have been safe here.
We have done a lot of terrible things here, but at least we have not done that. Have we? (It turns out, yes, yes we have. In 1991. In a neighborhood that I travel through five days a week.)
I thanked her for explaining to me why so many people in New York ask you if you’re celebrating Halloween before they talk about it with your children, because I had not known.
And then, a few days later, a gunman walked into a synagogue and murdered 11 people, five days before Halloween. And I shivered, thinking about what she had told me, knowing that her parents were right. They were right to hide their children away from their neighbors, in the same way that I always kept my black cat indoors this entire week. Some risks are simply not worth taking.
On Sunday, I went to sanctuary, where many of the congregants are Jewish, in heritage, if not in practiced religion. And I looked at their faces and I thought about all the worries that I do not have, about how once again, evil is here, but, as it always does in this country, my appearance gives me a choice whether or not to care.
Unitarian services have a moment where you can speak the names of people that you wish to “lift up,” which is as close as Unitarians come to public prayer. Most weeks, the sanctuary is filled with the names of individuals, names spoken aloud, colliding and enmeshing with each other as multiple people speak the names of those they love at once. This week, the prayers were for groups; transgender people, Jewish people, the migrant caravan so desperate for safety that they are walking hundreds of miles towards a border where our government is right now placing armed troops to stop them.
Who are we, as a country? Are we truly this lost?
There are days where I look around and I barely recognize the country that I was raised in. And then there are the days where I wonder if I ever really knew it at all.
My friend is studying to be a wild life scientist, a trapper and catcher of information about the world’s dwindling carnivore populations. He’s approaching his graduation date, but I am only just now getting in a trip to visit him, because after two and a half years, I am finally ready to be separated from Baba overnight.
And so, I find myself on an airplane by myself. It’s a puddle jumper, as Virginia Tech is only a two hour flight away from home, and the plane is so small that I have managed to get myself a seat that is both window and aisle.
Glorious time, for an introvert. Two and a half hours of the kind of solitude that I have become accustomed to, the type where you’re surrounded by strangers who need nothing from you. Although I should be writing, instead I read the last 40 pages of Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave, the third in her famous Neapolitan novel series. Somewhere near the end of the flight, I close the book on the last page and sigh, knowing that I can’t check out the fourth and final book from the library for another week.
But then I look up, to see that I have been lucky enough to arrive in the mountains in late fall, where the land is carpeted in hundreds of thousands of trees that are all turning red and orange and yellow. Suddenly it strikes me how little I’ve noticed the turn of the season and how few trees really live on my street, although one thing I loved about my neighborhood when I moved to it were the size of the suburban trees. But compared to a real forest, the paltry sidewalks plantings of the suburbs are nothing.
When I land at 6 p.m., it becomes clear that we are the last scheduled plane and the airport is closing for the night. There are cafes and bookstores in the terminal, but the employees have shut off all but the emergency lights and they chat with each other in a way that doesn’t encourage customer interruptions.
It is a relief to be out of New York City, to retreat to a calmer place, where the accents are slower and businesses shut down for the night.
In the morning, we go to Virginia Tech, which is a glorious campus, with serene and stately stone buildings nestled among majestic trees that create a campus that feels more like a well-kept city park than a university. But you can’t go far without running into a memorial for the students and faculty that were murdered here a decade ago. It is a too-solid reminder of the attack on New York last Tuesday, which hit me and mine closer than any would ask for. But we try to move past it, darting between buildings in the gray rain, and watching the Virginia Tech undergrads like zoo animals, because the 15 years that separates us makes them seem like alien creatures.
I am here for a short visit – not quite 48 hours – and most of it is spent on friendship, asking about people that no one else remembers, reminiscing about the people that we were when we were the same age as the students around us. We can’t help but wonder – is the world less innocent now than it was then? Are we less safe now than we were then?
Then the news of the Texas church shooting breaks, so we know.
I have been off of work for the last week, as Baba’s day care has been closed for the Passover and Easter holidays. Not being a Christian nor a Jew means that this mostly turns into another one of of those holidays where everyone seems to need to be somewhere, but I’m not entirely certain where that is.
Apparently people get together for Easter? And they eat food? Also, sort of the same thing for Passover?
I’m not so culturally tone-deaf as to not understand that there are some significantly different religious underpinnings there, but my understanding is pretty vague. Jesus rose from the dead; a miracle is celebrated. The Jews were spared from the plagues that God visited on the Egyptians and were liberated from slavery — another miracle. These are fabulous and powerful stories, even if you don’t share the faith behind them.
And I must admit that I rather like the idea of miracles these days.
Our celebrations were more pagan. Baba was sent a chocolate rabbit and some bunny ears, which led to a full day of listening to Baba declaring her newfound love of chocolate. I spent the afternoon digging in the dirt in the garden and trying out my new garden shoes. (Sloggers! Recommend!) The house that we bought was uninhabited for four years before we moved in and the yard is showing the neglect. I don’t know a great deal about gardening, as you could spit across the entire yard of our last house without really even trying, but I’ve taken on fixing this yard as a personal vendetta project. I’ve been learning a lot about eradicating crabgrass and annihilating dandelions, which is very much the dark side of gardening.
Still, there are worse ways to celebrate a fertility festival than by making room for new things to grow. Tonight, I sleep the sleep of the just, even if we still haven’t figured out how to make our mysteriously 9-zone sprinkler system work.
It has been really relaxing to be away from my normal routine for so long. My grandparents were visiting for the week, which made my time with Baba very pleasant. She has very much become a 2 year old, with the attendant fits and dramas that limited language and a whole lot of will power entail, and the extra adult hands around were greatly appreciated. Our entertainments were pretty mellow, with many trips to the park and the grocery store and the back yard. The weather finally turned for the season and, for the first time since we bought the house, I’ve actually been spending time just sitting in the back yard, enjoying our tiny private patch of outdoor space. I bought Baba some chalk and we’ve been working on decorating all of the bricks in the patio, which is just the sort of life goal that I’ve needed for some time.
Perhaps the lessons of Easter and Passover aren’t for my family, but all of the time together with Baba and my grandparents has felt very sacred, all the same.
I mean that literally and figuratively; the winter solstice is, after all, upon us. I am headed towards Manhattan in a grey and bleak morning that has barely lifted into day. It’s raining, just enough to make me seem strange without an umbrella, but not enough to inspire me to take it out. I am alone in this, one bare head in an army of black umbrellas.
Like most of the world, I’ve also been reeling from the U.S. Presidential election for the last month. I’m sure it’s not hard for regular readers to guess which way I voted, so I’ll spare everyone all of that. Watching the post-mortem has been painful, as the pundits looking for ratings try to blame someone or explain away a result that very few people predicted. I, for one, am tired of trying to dissect American psychology, like we are all one big mass. I’m even tired of reading explanations about the white working class or white middle-aged women or Latinos for Trump!, because it all simplifies the picture and does not lead to much listening. It doesn’t even ring true. I have a white working class husband who would never vote for the anti-union candidate. I am a white woman who has been walking through the world with a new level of fear and anxiety. For the first week, my stomach literally ached. As the high level administration appointments have been coming in, starting with a literal neo-Nazi, I’ve had a hard time thinking about much else. This is not who we are, except that it is apparently exactly who we are. It is not who I want us to be. Maybe I am just naive, but I’d thought we could all at least agree on the Nazis.
This anxiety is not sustainable.
I want to reach across the aisle and listen – and to reach across the aisle and be heard – but how do you do that with so many people shouting? How do you do that when our elected officials are looking at the Japanese internment camps of World War II as a legal precedent? How do you shut your eyes and ears when a man who ran a “news” site that runs articles like “How to Make Women Happy: Uninvent the Washing Machine and the Pill” is now one of the chief advisors of one of the most influential and powerful people in the world? Just yesterday I read an article about a man with a gun showing up on a street that I know well because he chose to believe the vilest of Internet rumors. A childhood friend’s family church was vandalized with white supremacist graffiti within days of the election. Another friend’s cousin, living on the other side of the country, had a swastika painted on her garage. Closer to home, the NYPD is dealing with such a large spike in hate crimes that they are creating a special division just to deal with them.
I am afraid to shut my eyes. I’m afraid that if I don’t shut my eyes, I will never live a normal life again. How do you strike the balance?
I haven’t a clue. I put big pink safety pins on all my jackets and purses. In those first few days after the election, I was terrified to wear them, but I swallowed the fear and thought about how much braver it is to wear a hijab right now. It is a little enough thing to put a pin on my clothes – a pin that can easily be removed to let me blend into the crowd where my pale skin and blue eyes will protect me. The KKK has been dropping flyers on my train. Yesterday, another woman on the subway was attacked for wearing a hijab. When I tell myself that adding a safety pin to my clothing is the least that I can do, it really is the absolute least that I can do. I have decided to be accountable to my pin, that I will not blend into the background when I see that someone is afraid, but I also despair that I won’t live up to it.
So here we are in the literal darkest days of the year, trying to find a way to creep back towards the light of summer. On Sunday, we put up a Christmas tree in our new home, right in the giant bay window that I have fallen in love with. When I turn the corner at night, I see it shining its manufactured light out into a world of darkness. In a normal year, it would give me hope. This year, I am trying hard to open myself up to be able to see its light.
It is Monday morning, on the sort of fall morning where rain comes by in unsuspecting gusts, drenching any commuter that was brave enough to put their umbrella away during the brief periods of dryness. On the train, freed from the drama of the rain, we are hurtling towards Penn Station, racing past the sleepy yellow houses of Queens that quietly witness the thousands of people that travel past them each day.
Then the phones begin to buzz, first a single alert, then an unignorable clatter of sounds, as Verizon and AT&T and TMobile send out a law enforcement alert. Without glancing at my phone, I know that they must have found the person behind the bombings of the last 24 hours, the set of trash can and pressure cooker bombs in Manhattan and northern New Jersey that have scathed passer-bys, but not yet killed anyone. They’ve gone off in empty neighborhoods, late at night and early in the morning, just a reminder of how vulnerable we are and how dangerous it is to dare to be in a crowd.
How much worse they could have been.
My kid brother came over last night for dinner, as is his habit on Sunday nights. “Did you hear about the bombings?” he asked, worried that people are once again attacking our city. He is young – 21 – the same age that I was on September 11th, 2001. He was six at the time and living in England, so I know that the stories about it sound like people landing on the moon or the assassination of JFK did to me.
“It’s scary,” he says.
“Yes, but,” I say, “if you lived in Baghdad, this would be something that happened every week.”
“That’s true,” he says.
“It is scary,” I add, belatedly. “And New York will always be a target. That’s just something you have to deal with, living here. And oh God, tomorrow’s commute. It’s going to be awful.”
“Ugh,” he says, sympathetically. I know that he is glad that he works nearby.
I am not, you may note, the most reassuring person in a crisis.
And so here we are again, with another frightening drama unfolding on streets so familiar that they feel like home. The mayor and the media were quick to respond, to reassure us that the first two bombs were “intentional but not terrorism.” I laugh a bit at the language, because the way the media restructures words. Of course it is terrorism. Anyone planting bombs in public spaces is trying to terrorize the public at large. And, hardy as we are by now, it’s working. The kids are scared.
And so I wonder about this name that has just shown up on all of our phones, as we go about our lives and continue on to offices with bosses that would not understand if we “let the terrorists win” (whatever that means) by staying home. We’ve seen this play out before, in Boston, and we know that he will be found. There is not a scenario where you draw this kind of police attention and walk away free. And, is that the point? Is this kid — only a handful of years older than my brother — testing himself? Is this a question of wits, inspired by a thousand and one blockbuster action films? And is he alone? Will we be safe, as he runs for his freedom?
In the seats in front of me, a woman wearing far too much perfume is peacefully playing Candy Crush Saga, whiling away her commute as though today were just an ordinary day. At the other end of my subway ride, I will come out of the World Trade Center subway stop, thinking as I queue up for the exit of how vulnerable we are, standing trapped underneath such a world-famous target. I feel the echoes of the dead around me, as I emerge into the sunlight and pass St. Paul’s, the three and a half century old church across from Ground Zero, where some of the first European inhabitants of Manhattan are buried. The grass grows long and wild at the edge of the graveyard, where it curves down to the meet the street. I wonder about the groundsmen whose job it must be to worry about this small detail.
I’m on the downtown 2 train from Penn Station on a Monday morning. It’s summer and the trains have been bunching up, so I get lucky enough to find myself a seat. I settle into a book, half-listening to the announcements as we go from 34th Street to 14th to Chambers. At Chambers Street, the train doors open to a platform that has so strangely silent of all ambient noise that I look up from my book. The doors open on scene of a mother and a stroller and a baby on the ground. There’s a scream, then a chorus of screams as a rush of bodies move and surround the child, who is lying too still.
I have a perfect view of all of this. My seat is in the center of the train, aligned perfectly with this terrible drama. Or, I do for a moment, before half of the people on the train rush to the door to get a better view. The doors stay open too long, as the train operators call for help.
I stay where I am because I know that one more body in that crush will not save the child’s life, if it is still possible to be saved. The last thing that I see before my view was blocked was the back of a woman in a black skirt, who grabbed the child and rolled that tiny body onto its left side. The doors close. The train moves on.
I do not know how the story ends. My mind wants to give it a happy ending, if only to control my shaking limbs. As the train travels through the tunnels to Park Place, I have to move to escape the discussion surrounding me. “What happened?” a man asks. “Probably choking,” someone else says. “Or a seizure?” I walk to the other end of the train, because I feel like I might throw up and I know that I need to calm down before I get to the office. How could I even begin to explain to my young coworkers why I was so upset? It wasn’t my story. It is only the brushing of time and place, the overlapping of the coincidences of so many strangers in such a small place, that made me a participant at all. And yet, it was a public witnessing of the pain of another mother, a mother that is probably not so different from me.
New York is a strange place. The millions of people living and working in such close proximity means that our lives overlap with strangers in a much more intimate way than you ever see in less congested towns. This was actually the third medical emergency that I’ve been touching distance from, though this was by far the most horrifying. In the first, a young girl fainted on a subway car so crowded that we nearly absorbed the weight of her body before dropping her to the ground. When she woke, she cried, embarrassed, and begged to go home as dozens of water bottles were passed her way. A woman she had never met before put her arm around her and said, “Just take deep breaths. It’s going to be okay.” And, although I had held the weight of her body for a moment, I got off at my stop anyway.
The second time, I was buying a box of tissues for the office when a man in the line in front of me fell into a seizure. He was at the counter, his wallet out, when his eyes rolled up in his head and he fell, heavily, to the ground. He writhed, but I froze, not even certain why I was so frightened. And I was frightened, in the most primal and physical way. Just like with the subway today, others rushed to him before I did. When he stilled, breathing peacefully, I asked what I could do. “Go keep people from coming into the store,” someone said, so I went outside, only to discover that the job was more than adequately filled already. I looked around and hugged my shaking arms to myself and went to work, without the tissues.
Dozens of these experiences must happen across the city every day. And perhaps the strangest aspect of my experiences is that I would not recognize any of the other people in any of these scenes if I were to see them again. As a watcher, I don’t even feel the right to my own emotions. Who am I to get so upset, so frightened, so afraid? These are not my stories. These are just things that I saw, in an otherwise ordinary day.
Tonight I will go home to my Baba and hold her as much as she’ll let me. Without a doubt, I’ll be even more cautious of how small I cut her food and of the many dangerous things in the world that find their way into her hands, despite my vigilance. But what made watching that mother’s pain today so terrible was knowing how little control I really have. To love someone is to be vulnerable. To love someone the way that I love my Baba is to be very vulnerable. And the only way that I could handle that knowledge was to pretend that I know the end of the story that I saw today. In my version, that child coughed out a carrot and rose and held her mother until both of their hearts burst with joy. The end.
Since the day that Baba started day care, I’ve taken to driving to the train station. It is less than a mile from our house, but since I’m driving her anyway, it seems silly to go back home just to park the car. It is just as silly to drive to the station, but it means getting home 10 minutes earlier – and those 10 minutes are precious, because they are my only chance to play with Baba for a few minutes before she goes to bed.
They aren’t always the best part of my day, but I spend my afternoons looking forward to them. When the train is late and she’s melting for bed by the time I get home, I’m always hugely disappointed.
My street is near the center of town, which means that parking is often at a premium at six in the evening. And on the bad parking days, I get frustrated, because those extra minutes matter. But now that we’ve had an offer accepted on a house in a less congested part of town, that frustration has turned into daily rants, even though I once enjoyed living on such a community-minded street. It has been this way with all the little things in our house, which I loved in the way that you can only love the first place you live that’s really your own. Now, it’s maddening that the upstairs toilet takes an extra half-second to flush, because I didn’t make the chain short enough the last time I replaced it. There’s a scuff near our skylight that I used to be able to ignore, but now can’t wait to never see again. Walking down two flights of stairs to do my laundry is just impossibly aggravating, because this maybe-ours house has no basement.
Soon this won’t be a problem, I tell myself every time I encounter some new aggravation that never bothered me before. Soon this will be all behind us when we are at our new house.
We’ve been trying to be careful not to call this new house ours. Our offer was accepted so quickly that we’ve been wondering when we’ll find out some dark secret that will make the deal fall apart. It’s a lovely house, with a grand demeanor and oversized rooms with a delightful snob appeal. The front porch is welcoming and warm; it just begs for a swing and pitchers of iced tea on summer afternoons. The interior is finished enough that you’d only have to do projects that you wanted, which is a fine change from our current century-old plasterwork house. It’s on a quiet street just three blocks from the train station. The lot is oversized…and yet we can afford it.
Something seems badly wrong here. Is this still New York?
So we started stalking the house. We sneak up on it, checking to see what it’s doing at different times of the day. Does it disappear during the night? Are there ghostly lights? Was it perhaps part of the growing heroin problem in our county? It feels like it must be something, so we’re trying to dig up all the information we can. Stalking the house helps, because it gave us the opportunity to introduce ourselves to the one neighbor that we’ve seen anywhere near the house (and thank goodness for dogs and their walks). He tells us that no one has lived there since before Hurricane Sandy.
Oh, I see, we said, while congratulating ourselves on our cleverness in having already ordered our mold test. We knew the house had flooded, like most of our town. But no one living in it to pick up the mess? That’s a terrifying thought. Most of the homes in that situation now sport special red signs on them, with big warnings that it’s not safe to go inside. Almost four years later, the neighborhood wears them like pimples.
We were supposed to have our structural inspection done this week, but the owner cancelled on us last minute, which gave us all sorts of fuel for speculation. Yesterday my Beloved drove by the house and caught the owner cheating on us showing the house to someone else, which makes it pretty clear what the delay was about.
Still, a showing is not an offer. Any new offer may not be better than ours; we went in high, because we understood that we wouldn’t be the only ones to notice that this house seems like a steal. So it may end up being our house yet, without contest. But I admit that it feels very much like the beginning of a romance, when the stakes are just getting high. We feel very vulnerable as we wait, wait, wait and hope and dream that this might be The One.
In 1992, my mother really liked Denzel Washington.
Like, really really liked him. She liked him enough that when a movie studio was recruiting for extras for a scene in The Pelican Brief, she signed herself right up. To our great amusement, she was assigned to be in a crowd protesting gun control.
I can’t quite tell, but I’m pretty sure that the lady in the lower right corner with the blue and yellow shirt is my Mom. Denzel Washington ran through this crowd. My Mom was only a few feet away, which absolutely made her month.
The scene was funny, of course, because my Mom was absolutely for gun control, long before it was an acceptable thing to say out loud. She was an Army veteran, raised in a county so rural that one of her chores was riding her bike to the farm next door to pick up milk bottles for her family. She knew a little bit about guns and counted the time she had to throw a grenade in basic training as the absolutely most frightening moment of her life. She certainly didn’t see a reason why just anyone should have access to weapons.
No doubt, her experiences as a special education teacher in inner city D.C. contributed to her feelings. She specialized in teaching emotionally disturbed children. These are the kids who had been kicked out of all of the other schools, but still needed an education. Given their behavior problems, it likely won’t surprise you to hear that their home lives were not the greatest. Many of the children had been abused. All of them had parents trapped in poverty and plenty of her students had parents in jail. Some of her students, by the age of twelve, thought of jail as a place where you could go to get three solid meals a day. I can’t remember exactly how many funerals for her students that she went to during her years in the city, but it was far, far too many. Guns were a big part of all of that.
It was also the nineties, when D.C. was commonly referred to as the murder capitol. I remember joking about that with my friends, as though we were somehow tougher because we were living in such a dangerous environment. The summer of 1994 really sticks out in my memory, because it began with a Romeo-and-Juliet style suicide between two twelve-year-olds that were forbidden to see each other. After that, it seemed as though there was a drive-by shooting at least once a week. It was the first time we’d heard the phrase road rage, where people were so angry at being cut off in traffic that they were pulling out their guns and shooting people. To this day, I still cringe whenever my Beloved loses his temper and shouts out the window at other drivers, because I presume that they will have a gun. It was that frightening to live through.
Right before I left D.C. for New York, the tri-state area was brought to its knees by a 17 year old with a rifle. Just reading through the Wikipedia article now, fourteen years later, leaves my heart pounding in my chest. The list of shootings read like a geography of my childhood. The first shot, through the window of a Michael’s store, is the store I used to walk to as a kid. I spent hours there, looking at all the craft items that I wanted to try but could not afford. Two of the victims were murdered on the streets where I grew up. Another was shot only a block and a half from where I was attending college at the time in Virginia. The management of the apartment complex that I lived in sent out a memo to the residents, urging extreme caution as we went about the neighborhood and recommending limiting our time outdoors. I remember people volunteering to pump gas wearing bulletproof vests, because folks were that scared. One morning I was over two hours late for work, because the police had stopped the eight-lane Beltway and were investigating every single car in their desperation to find the killer. When we learned that it was a teenager pulling the trigger, it was simply impossible to process. That is how a single gun ended sixteen lives and brought an entire city to its knees.
When another murderer walked into Pulse in Orlando last week, I was on a plane home from Ireland, where I’d just spent a week trying to answer the question of why Americans are so in love with their guns, because Irish people simply don’t understand it. Irish law is very restrictive with guns, while still allowing some shotguns for hunting. Most knives will get you in trouble, if you don’t have a really good explanation for having it, so the idea that we can walk in to a store and buy a gun that’s advertised to be able to shoot 13 bullets a second is simply incomprehensible to them. (I have since learned that pragmatically your finger really couldn’t fire 13 times a second, so the real rate would be more like 3 bullets a second. I remain in awe that this is what we’re talking about.)
I have watched the public mourning of the Pulse attack with no small amount of sadness, but mostly I have watched it with a deep and intense anger. Is it any surprise that we’ve had another shooting on this scale? Is it any surprise that eventually it would target LGBT folks, given a political climate where anti-trans bathroom bills are not only voted on, but actually passed? The mourning is proper. It is good. This is a national tragedy. It should be mourned loudly and publicly. But what bothers me most is that in the last 72 hours, as I write this, 56 people have been killed by guns, per the Gun Violence Archive, which syndicates and counts reported incidents of gun violence in the media. Over 6,000 people have died so far this year. 1,200 teenagers have been injured or killed, as have 262 children under the age of 11. 148 police officers have also lost their lives.
And it’s only June.
Where is the outrage? Where is the mourning?
We are in the middle of a rise in gun violence across this country. According to a recent DOJ study, homicide rates have jumped 17% in the nation’s 56 biggest cities. In my home town, after a decade of falling crime rates that almost created a sense of normalcy, violent crime has increased every year since 2011. That’s the just the crime rate. It doesn’t count suicides or accidents. Reported accidents accounted for nearly 2,000 incidents nationally last year. In April, one of those accidents injured two people right on the same floor of the same building as the pediatric office where I take Baba. Because, apparently, responsible gun ownership means bringing your gun into the same building as a pediatrician’s office. In talking to gun owners, I’ve heard a lot more stories about accidental discharges that weren’t reported. Accidental, that is, if you get over the intentionality of having a gun in your hands in the first place.
Forgive me if that sounds bitter. I am bitter. I am bitter because I’ve been watching people shrug their shoulders at gun violence for my entire life, as if it is some kind of natural force that we can do nothing about. It is not a hurricane or cancer, which, as it happens, are problems that we spend millions of dollars each year to address. It is a problem entirely of our own making.
And the worst part, of course, is that our Congress has enacted legislation to prohibit gun violence from even being studied. I laugh when I hear people talk about Hilary Clinton’s terrible complicity and corruption in giving speeches to Goldman Sachs, because that seems so trivial compared to such an outrageous law. Why aren’t we marching in the street and screaming about the incredible pull the NRA has on our politicians? It is literally killing our kids.
I am not a gun owner, nor will I ever allow guns to come into my home. You can undoubtedly tell me a million ways in which my understanding about guns is wrong. I know this, because I’ve been talking to gun owners endlessly to try to come up with some sort of meaningful change that would actually work. But without the ability to even study the problem, we are all making wild guesses at to what would actually help. Ban assault rifles? Sure. It seems like a reasonable step. Limit the number of bullets you can put in it at a time to ten? Sure. That would give the victims of mass shootings a greater opportunity to overpower their attacker. It just doesn’t address the bigger problem, where over 31,000 Americans are shot in an average year. A national database for background checks would have saved the eight lives in Charleston. National gun laws, rather than the regional hodge-podge that makes the stricter laws completely useless would also be a great step. D.C. has a handgun ban, after all, which means nothing when you can drive 10 miles in any direction and legally purchase one, then drive it right back over the border and into your home.
Even just instituting licensing and training, like we do with driving, would be a huge step in the right direction. And that’s something that most of the gun owners that I’ve spoken to can get completely behind. I know that I live in a democracy, and that compromise is the name of the game. That has to come from both sides. We seem to be stuck on the first step, which as any addict could tell you is recognizing that we even have a problem. When you start looking at how we compare to other countries, I don’t see how you can possibly deny it.
And maybe, when we’ve actually managed to get fewer guns on our streets, NYPD recruitment posters won’t have to look like this one any more:
There’s just got to be a better way than this. Doesn’t there?