Bloodied Boulder

My neighborhood, Table Mesa, before

A few days before the massacre of 22 March, I walked around my neighborhood, the now infamous Table Mesa. 

I turned a corner and saw a goose was standing with an arrow through its head. It acted perfectly normally, as if the arrow wasn’t through it. 

All around were weeping children and appalled adults. It was a nasty sight, and made even more pathetic because a second goose stood next to the one with the arrow. Its mate, probably.  Animal Control officers were coming up. They’d catch the goose, operate on it, and make sure it went on to fly back to Canada. (I know all this because it was reported later on Nextdoor, a social media platform.)

A goose with an arrow through its head was the worst thing that’s happened around here for a long time. 

It seemed absurd yet touching that a wounded goose would create so much emotional turmoil. And, after all, shooting a goose and then not having the grace or decency to either kill it or take it in for care was cowardly and disgusting.

Back on the scene, before the goose was rushed to a vet, a slim blonde woman in late middle age told me that she’d moved to Boulder to avoid “all that.”

All that. Shorthand for robbery, rapine, random shot gun blasts, and all the scarlet drenched madness and violence of American life. 

Life’s uncertain, but it seemed like a good bet against “all that” to buy a multi-million dollar home in a small university town.

Privilege is a slippery concept, But the privilege of living here is undeniable. I’m annoyed that my neighborhood is shifting over from a place where well-paid yet crunchy professionals live — doctors, lawyers, scientists, tenured professors — into some weird super-moneyed, semi-urban Aspen. Still, it’s a beautiful setting. People around me, especially since the pandemic, are considerate and kind, if a bit uptight.

But all that drove up in a black Mercedes Benz on a gloomy Monday afternoon anyway.

My King Soopers

I’ve shopped there a thousand times or more. It’s my local place, the supermarket where I buy last minute birthday cards, do my weekly grocery shopping, or pick up my prescriptions. 

Completely ordinary, kind of ramshackle for glossy Boulder. Girl Scouts sell cookies outside the doors, various high school clubs peddle popcorn and whatnot for fundraisers. Compared with the other shiny hipster shops in town, it is refreshingly normal and aggressively un-designed. You shop for your groceries, look for the shortest line, and boom, you’re done. The management updated it recently so now it has polished concrete floors and an exposed ceiling instead of the old acoustic tiling. Soft rock plays over the speakers.

During the day, small bunches of teenagers from the nearby high school bought Doritos or kombucha. Often, one of the seniors from the active living complex across the street would ask you to hand her a box of macaroni on a shelf too high for her to reach.  Later at night, college students will roll in high as kites and pack their carts with ice cream or chips. And, of course, you have the whole neighborhood buying dinner, breakfast, whatever to stock the cupboards.  They sold flowers for potting in the spring, and Christmas wreathes in December.

The Asian pharmacist was incredibly helpful to me once, double checking and tracking down some drugs for an eye infection. François, a burly Frenchman, worked the butcher counter and had a fan club of the local ladies.

One of the regular cashiers wore a pentangle and confessed — or bragged — that he was a white witch. Another clerk is a tiny young woman who’s so short it seems she has to reach up to hit the keys on the cash machine. She has acne, a Russian first name, and blushes when you say hi. Kim, who grew up in Vietnam, has her own fan club; her line is generally filled with middle-aged guys, hoping for a chance to catch the sunlight of her smile.

During the live stream video of the event, I was afraid for every one of them. (And, yes, I knew Teri, who’d worked at King Soopers forever, always cheery, ready to return a greeting, a careful and conscientious bagger. She loved her job, they said in the interviews, and it showed. )

I hope Teri didn’t see it coming.

Death Streaming

“It seemed like all of us had imagined we’d be in a situation like this at some point in our lives,” 57-year-old James Bentz said.

via the Denver Post

By chance, a videographer named Dean Schiller arrived almost immediately after the shooting started at King Soopers. Alerted by a friend, my son called me into his room to watch Schiller’s live stream on YouTube, around 2:40 pm.

The computer monitor showed SWAT teams, armored vehicles, a hook-and-ladder truck, ambulances, and what looked like a hundred police SUVs with their lights flashing. One squad of police in full tactical gear lined up by the east entrance. The front windows of the store had been broken out. 

A helicopter flew above my house. Then, it appeared on the computer screen.

It wasn’t surreal. Surreal is giraffes on fire or Jean Cocteau or melting clocks. 

More like: uncanny.

If you’ve ever driven a car down a one-way street and had a car aim at you, coming from the exact wrong direction, you’ll know what I mean. Wait. What’s that? A car? It doesn’t belong there! Is it there? It is! Then you blast your horn, figure your escape. 

But there’s that lag.

Or, in this case, layer on top of each other two scenes you know well. Your supermarket. And a massive, video-game like police response.

After I did take it all in, I went into overdrive. My son’s here, good, okay. Wife’s out of danger.  My daughter—visiting for the first time in months—is driving around. Goddamngoddamngoddamn. I called. She’s fine. Shocked to hear the news. 

It’s strange to hear these words come out of your mouth: “There’s an active shooter situation at King Soopers.” It’s like borrowing a policeman’s uniform, theatrical and wrong. But, that’s what’s happening. And you want the full weight of it to hit hard so that she’s careful.

Your friends? One lives five doors away from King Soopers. A quick text. A quick response, thank God. You work down a list. 

Then, people text you. 

And you watch the live stream. 

Despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers, equipment, and weapons, the police operation had a tentative feel to it. They’d probe, gingerly. The live stream included the police scanner chatter. It seemed as if one problem was logistics — how to handle all the force that arrived.

As we watched, we wondered: How many shooters? How many dead? Are there bombs, ready to go off? Did the shooter have hostages? Would it be turn out like Dog Day Afternoon?

A cherry picker delivered a team of SWAT officers to the roof of the store. Why the roof?

Schiller, who was still live streaming, kept imploring the police to fly a drone in through the broken windows and survey the interior of the store. It seemed like a good idea. Instead, what looked like a chain saw arrived on top of the roof. 

I’m no expert in managing sieges against active shooters. From what I saw — a know-nothing guy watching the internet — the police seemed slow, musclebound and not well trained. In one way, you can’t blame them. It was a first-time crisis for most of them, probably.

But I would also note that after the shooting started, the shoppers helped each other. One witness said that young people helped old people descend the loading docks. Instead of fleeing, they risked their lives for the sake of a stranger. 

A fast-acting barista, Logan Smith, hid his 69-year-old co-worker, leaving himself exposed.

What’s even more remarkable is that, once out of the killing zone, some of the King Soopers shoppers went back into the store to help more people out. Those shoppers did not have shields, body armor, or tactical weapons.

After what seemed like forever, the police led a man out in black boxer shorts with blood streaming down his leg. Was he a victim? No, he was cuffed. The shooter?

The police leading him out were businesslike and absolutely calm. Solemn as priests performing a ritual. 

The man was in black boxer shorts was docile. Something about him reminded me of steers being led through corrals. He had a long streak of red down his leg, but didn’t seem to be limping or seriously hurt.

His naked torso looked terribly exposed and tender, like skinless, boiled chicken.

At one point we heard the voice on the police scanner say, “Six deceased.”

It was, partly, cinematic — a scene played out very often in fiction and in reality. The weapons, the tension, the sheer spectacle of all that hardware. Except that this massacre wasn’t: it was random. No build up. No motive. No climax — the police simply led the man away. And thus, no meaning. Just a growing sense of horror and grief.

What was inside?

Officers in tactical gear and with automatic weapons escorted groups of people, hands linked behind their heads out of the store. They seem to be holding their breath until they got far enough away. 

I saw “my” Asian pharmacist in one of the first groups. Her jacket was still an immaculate white. What had she seen? What nightmares will she have to endure? Later, reports would show that one of the victims was standing in line to get her prescription. Had the pharmacist seen her blown away by the bullets that travel 2,500 feet per second?

That night

I walked to the store. It takes 10 minutes or so. The police taped off a wide perimeter, and it was impossible to see very much.

In the laundromat behind the police lines, a load of clothes spun in a dryer, seemingly on an endless cycle.

A clanking sound came from inside the store, metal on metal, right out of a David Lynch soundtrack. I realized that the bodies must still be inside in their newly butchered condition.

I was the only one walking around. Silence has different qualities. Sometimes it’s merely quiet, other times it seems pregnant. It seemed full that night.

As I walked home, I triggered one of those motion sensitive lights. It was above a garage and flooded the front yard with a bright glare. I had to laugh. 

There you are, with your burglar alarms, your motion detectors, your insurance, your seat belts, your police departments, your martial arts training, your weapons course and you know what? 

Just go shopping for beef stroganoff on Monday afternoon and see what happens.

The victims

Rikki Olds, 25, on the right. via the Colorado Sun

Tralonna Bartkowiak

Suzanne Fountain

Teri Leiker

Kevin Mahoney

Lynn Murray

Rikki Olds

Neven Stanisic

Denny Stong

Eric Talley

Jody Waters

Teri, as I wrote, I knew from her packing my groceries. Jody ran a store aimed at women; she also sold the first Beanie Babies in town. My wife knew her and said she was vibrant and funny, the sort of a person you’d stop in to say hi too. I saw Rikki a few times, joking around as everyone recalls.

Three less people to say hi to. Ten gaping holes in the lives of the families and friends of the people who knew them well. 

The memorial

By Tuesday, the authorities fenced off the King Soopers parking lot. People had already begun leaving bouquets and weaving the stems of red roses into the chain links. Prayer candles lined the sidewalk. Messages and poems were also tied to the fence. Snow fell. 

A tall man covered his eyes and wept. A woman lit a sage stick. Groups of young women in twos and threes walked arm in arm, tears streaming down their faces. Mostly couples of all ages would walk to the fence, leave some flowers, step back, and pause. Perhaps they prayed.

photo of king soopers table mesa boulder colorado

Mixed in with the crowd of mourners, photographers festooned with several cameras, many with long telephoto lenses prowled around with hungry eyes. 

On the other side of the fence, a man in a windbreaker with FBI on it was taking measurements with some device on a tripod. Three black, boxy tents about the size of a car marked the spots of three of the murder victims in the parking lot.

Today, the numbers of mourners—of people paying their respects and leaving offerings of flowers and poems—keeps growing. 

What can you say?

I like to think I’m an imaginative person and not without a certain sensibility. Other mass shootings affected me, some more deeply than others. To my shame, I’ve forgotten about several. That in itself carries a weight of horror: so many mass shootings that you can’t keep track of them.

But when the slaughter takes place less than a mile away from your home, in a place you know as well as your kitchen, it marks you.  By now, I’ve learned that I work through grief with nihilism, carbs, and cognac. It’s not a method I’d recommend, but they kind of work. I’ve been sad, enraged, and raw, all my feelings closer to the surface than I’d like. (This is just so you know what it might be like to be around a massacre, but not part of it.)

I don’t know about lessons or insights. Maybe there are none. If you live long enough, people you love die. I’ve been thinking hard the last few weeks about the pandemic, and for the last few days, about this carnage. They’ll be familiar to most people.

We can die at any moment. Or someone we love could die, or endure a crisis that in a moment will forever change.

There’s a quote from Ivan Bunin that I can’t find, so I’ll paraphrase it clumsily. It goes something like this: Each goodbye could be the last. But how can anyone live at that emotional pitch? Wouldn’t it be strange if each time I said goodbye to you it was as if for the last time?

And yet, it’s true. Each goodbye might be the last one. Had my daughter decided to pick up a snack after she left the house at 2:00 pm, she could easily have ended up in a pool of her own blood. I’d visited King Soopers the day before. My son, the day before that.

I often remember the last act of Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. This scene happens in the cemetery and imagines that the souls of the recently dead review and look in on their lives before they move on — kind of a New England bardo.

EMILY: Let’s really look at one another!…It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed… Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?

STAGE MANAGER: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.

I’ll shop at King Sooper’s again, and I hope they put up a decent memorial to the people who were killed there. But it has utterly changed for me. It will be now a place to buy bread and the location of a massacre. The banal and the horrific all under one roof, as it often is in places where humans have lived for any time at all. 

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