Violence has the ability to reshape the way that you look at things—especially when it follows you from the place where you were born, appearing for a brief and horrible moment in your new city, before returning and reasserting itself in a macabre double-play, positioning your hometown before the cameras of every news outlet in existence.
I was at work in one of the offices at Seattle Pacific University, transcribing part of a chapter for one of the professors in my department. The phones were silent, the hallways were empty, and the sun had only just begun to poke its head up from the place where it goes to sleep. Then I blinked, and the infuriated ricocheting bark of our campus emergency alert system erupted from hitherto unnoticed speakers embedded in the walls. A man’s voice instructed me to remain where I was, shouting: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL—I REPEAT, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The computer I was using momentarily froze.
The university had just been locked down. I stood, clumsily, and hurried to close the blinds hanging from windows in room after room, finally reaching the faculty lounge. That was when I heard something land in the bottom of my stomach with a KLANG! as I tried not to imagine what it might feel like to get shot. Feelings of confusion and dread hit me there at the same time, where they seemed to be building a nest.
I returned to my desk to wait, unsure where this danger might be coming from or going to. I learned that the bank on my campus—and it’s a small campus—had been robbed. But not before I found myself weighing the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “SPD is on campus. Updates will follow as we learn more,” read my flashing computer screen. And on the way to my first class, a little later, I saw a group of grimacing police officers bump into one another in the entryway that connected the SPU bookstore and the US Bank.
A month after the incident, my brother Aaron texted me half a dozen times in as many seconds. I was back at SPU, twelve-hundred miles away, studying for finals. I thought of the bird I’d seen flying back and forth as it put twigs in a hole in the upper face of one of the campus buildings, the Otto Miller Hall. The hole that stared at you as you approached the building.
“Turn on the news,” Aaron said.
The latest mass shooting had just taken place in my hometown. San Bernardino is on my birth certificate: I grew up there, met my first girlfriend there, popped my first zit there, drove my first car, wrote my first short story and started my first garage band there. With its parched, khaki-colored landscape, shimmering under a graphite veil of polluted air, San Bernardino sticks out of the map like an old rusted nail. I have two decades worth of memories as a San Bernardinian. With its smog alerts and its Santa Ana winds, the fire evacuations, the racial tensions and race riots at my high school, along with the orchestra of gunfire that documented the evenings at my girlfriend’s house—all of it was par for the course in San Bernardino. Sixty miles southeast of Los Angeles, my hometown had its share of everything that would make you want to escape from it: drugs, petty crime, blight and a homicide rate that would spike when the city declared bankruptcy in 2012. But I was long gone by then.
“There is panic in San Bernardino,” said John Weeks in the Sun Telegram, the local newspaper, “the homicide rate is out of control. People are being shot dead while paying their respects at the memorial sites of other people who have been shot dead.” But that was before Bonnie and Clyde and their black SUV full of pipe bombs came roaring into town to celebrate Clyde’s Christmas party.
It’s safe to say I’m from a pretty messed up place. When I was a kid, my hometown had one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country. And as reported in the Sun Telegram, a group of policemen drew national attention to the increasing death rate there, selling t-shirts that read “San Bernardino 187 Champions.” Writer Pamela Fitzsimmons described it: a pair of vultures were “waiting on the city’s welcome sign, mark[ing] off the body count.”
I spoke to a friend of one of the victims, who said the killers walked from place to place, pumping bullets into people. Her friend was in intensive care when we spoke.
My brother Aaron was close enough that they locked down his building and sent him home from work. My stepmother and my other brother were only three blocks away when the shooting took place.
Last year we had our own random shooting, here at Seattle Pacific University. A stranger walked into the Otto Miller Hall with the cognitively distorted fantasies of the kind of momentary fame that the Columbine and Virginia Tech killers were enjoying in their blackened afterlife. The stranger had stopped taking his medication and turned to alcohol instead, wanting to be able to appreciate to its fullest the electric hatred channeling through his body. Garbled voices of his heroes swam in his head. They offered advice. He took a tour of the campus with a couple of students and returned later, armed. Just inside of Otto Miller, the desperate man killed one student and wounded two others before he was tackled, while attempting to un-jam his shotgun.
I remember thinking of that, and of the dread that I felt when our campus was locked down during the bank robbery. It was a feeling I was unaccustomed to, even after growing up in a predictably unpredictable city like San Bernardino, where I stood a better-than-great chance of being on the receiving end of an act of violence the longer I stayed. I saw it in the faces of some when I went back there for the holidays. And I missed Seattle pretty quickly after I arrived. But I felt like this violence was following me, closing in wherever I go.
I put the phone in my pocket and headed to the Otto Miller Hall for my next class.