the circular runner

can bullets fly forever?

In observations on September 13, 2010 at 9:58 pm


A little more than three weeks ago, I witnessed a shooting in the Mission. It was a Friday evening and I was working late helping a student with Algebra when I heard a popping sound come from somewhere across the street. There’s a park across from the community center I work at, and there are always lots of people there. It’s one of those parks that changes depending what time of day it is. During the day, the park is a place for out-of-work Latino migrant workers to congregate, play cards or a pick-up game of futbol. In the evening, true to the neighborhood’s mixed demographics, more affluent people (mainly white) come out to walk their dogs. The shooting happened somewhere between this daily changing of the guard when both community’s kids were out on the playground enjoying the strangely warm weather we’ve been having here this summer.

At first, I thought it was a car, though at some level, I knew it wasn’t. Then the sound repeated in rapid succession and when I turned to look, I saw a kid in a red hoodie pointing his gun at another young man. I don’t remember what either looked like. I told the student I was working with to get behind something and I did the same, not that it mattered. The shooter was, after all, a kid, and like a kid, once the shots were fired, he ran away. I never saw his face, but I could tell by the way he was running that he was as scared as the kid he was shooting at.

Since then, I have thought a lot about that day. For some time afterward, I caught myself making the same dumb remark over and over again to the people I work with or to the kids I taught or to the locals who usually hang out at the center. “I’m glad the kid was a TV shooter,” I kept joking. I don’t know why I kept making the same dumb joke over and over again. I mean, in a way, it’s true. The kid in the red hoodie didn’t hit anyone, in large part, because he held his gun at a sideways angle the way the thugs do on TV, which is good for style, but thankfully shitty for hitting things or people. But still, even if my comment were true, I don’t really know why I felt I needed to repeat it as I often as I did. I still don’t know. Better to be quiet than to be dumb is a motto I’d like to think I live by, but obviously I don’t.

The people at the center where this happened are all numb,or at least they seem like it sometimes. I mean they were horrified right when it happened, but then they moved on. Maybe there was a part of me that was pretending to fit in by being analytical and non-emotional about the situation. Crackin’ funnies, as they say, pretending to be numb. But there was more to my comment. In a way, I am numb and I don’t want to be. I’m not numb because I have seen so many horrible things, but rather, I think, because like with any experience, no matter how horrid, if you are still around after the dust has settled, you have to move on. There’s no choice. And I hate that. I don’t want to just move on. I don’t know what I want. It’s not that I want to understand the violence, though I can see how it comes to pass. The young men hanging out on the stoop in this neighborhood don’t have much. History is full of battles for land, and a block in the city may not seem like much, but it’s something. I get that.

So why do I want to keep the memory fresh and go over it?

When the shots rang out, I looked on at all the people in that park flee, and then, when the coast was clear again, I watched those same people and their loved ones flood the space. Flood may not be the right word. Maybe it was more like a tide. After the shot, people disbursed and then, within seconds, there were fifty people where there’d been two, all adding their commentary, all with their different stories. Yeah, better to say it was a tide because like the ocean, this cycle of shooting followed by people trying to make sense of the violence is as inevitable as the ocean.

Do you know what I did after the shooting? It weirds me out. As people came back into the park and police cars lined up, I knew my student and I were as safe as you could be anywhere. So I turned back to this guy who had grown up in those projects and told him we should continue. He agreed without hesitation, and that’s what we did for another hour. We continued working on linear equations and Y-intercept formulas as if that was all that mattered while police detectives got nowhere with locals who don’t trust cops and/or don’t want to get involved.

Here’s another math problem I keep thinking about: if gravity was not an issue, would a bullet fired by a scared kid at another scared kid over four square feet of a city block keep flying forever? The eleven rounds that the kid in the red hoodie let off didn’t hit anything, or at least, they didn’t hit anyone that day. So where did the bullets go? This is not a great neighborhood, let us say it now. So there will be no CSI people coming around to reimagine the crime or to map out bullet trajectories. The realist in me knows the answer to the question I am asking. Those eleven bullets are probably lodged into the wall of some house, or maybe gravity finally overpowered some of them and brought them down in the alley that opens out into the park. But there’s a part of me, I’m not sure what you’d call it, but this part of me wants to say that those bullets have kept going on and on. They have with me at least. I think about them and what they mean for the community I work with, but that I leave every day.

I do not give much thought to the safety issue, though I know my wife thinks I’m a fool for this. But the honest truth is that the neighborhood is like any neighborhood. It’s not Afghanistan, it’s not a war zone. It’s just a neighborhood where there are some poor and some not-so-poor people. So I don’t carry the bullets around with me because I am scared that they could’ve accidentally hit me. No, I do so because it seem disrespectful or inhuman to move on from that evening as if it had not happened. I’m not sure that’s what I mean. But inhuman is the word that comes to my mind and it’ll for do for now.

Though I can’t be clear about why I’m holding on to that evening, there are some advantages to thinking hard about the event. Here’s an example of what I mean: it is an image that makes me laugh and that makes me cringe at the same time. A minute after the last shot was fired, after everyone had fled the park and the block was left eerily quiet, an old man came riding by on an old hoopty-bike. I can’t remember if the bike had a basket, but it should’ve if it didn’t. And the rider–one of those older men you see a lot here in SF, probably vegan and well acquainted with various yoga studios with legs long and gangly–reminded me of some kind of strange bird with wheels for feet. He was clueless as to what had just happened. He was riding by, probably going home from work or his yoga class, and maybe he noticed the quietness of the park and thanked some God for it (probably the Buddha), or maybe he was just listening to Wilco on his I-Pod and grooving out. Either way, he was oblivious. Seeing him made me happy then and it continues to make me smile when I’m feeling good. (When I’m not feeling so great, I think that if that man had ridden by a minute earlier–hell, 30 seconds earlier–he probably would’ve been shocked and troubled like I am.)

City blocks are resilient things. People say that about nature, but city blocks are amazing to me because they are completely neutral–they are created and recreated daily by the people who live on them. After the police were gone and people stopped making dumb comments like the one I made for that week after the shooting, the block has returned to being the same kind of ugly/beautiful urban block it had been before. Or maybe the truth is that the block is numb like the people who live there. Either way, I hope there are no more shootings even though I know that there will be. Maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe even the realist in me has to admit that the bullets do keep flying, if not on that block in the Mission, then on other blocks like it close by and on the other side of the world.

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  1. Resilience.

    We can come back from anything. From bad things and from good things. We are set upon our paths and actions. We will do what we will unless something touches us deeply or violently and changes our path.

    The same way people bounce back after something like this, they can bounce back from seeing something insipiring…change is difficult.

    I remember sitting at a red light in Miami last year and I saw this guy pedaling his bicyle uphill and carrying a grocery bag in one hand. He had only one leg.

    I remember being inspired, being inspired to change myself, change someone else. Then I stopped at a drive thru to get some food…forgot about the cyclist before I got home. I remember now only because I am amazed at how quickly inspiration left me.

    Glad you came out all right and thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for being a teacher, and for knowing the right things to do: take cover, and then keep going.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience. I could picture the wave of people receding, then flowing, in concert with that public display of violence people seem to have become accustomed to in certain neighborhoods. Here in Chicago there is an organization called CeaseFire that treats this type of violence as a public health issue. Gary Slutkin, MD, CeaseFire executive director, calls it an epidemic. High-crime neighborhoods have seen gun violence drop as much as 67% where CeaseFire “violence interrupters” (often former gang members themselves) are present. Unfortunately, the funding for these very worthwhile violence prevention programs ebbs and flows like the tide on a California beach. In fact, I learned yesterday that sometimes the state funding doesn’t come through until January–which could be considered the street violence lull on the cold, blustery streets of Chicago and it’s not available during the summer, which is when the need for violence interrupters is greatest.

    I currently live 1/2 a block away from a community center that sounds similar to the one where you work. At about 4 am a few weeks ago, a young crack addict was shot four times at the corner between the community center and my building. The gunshots woke me up from a dead sleep. According to people who know of the shooting, the young woman who was shot checked herself out of the hospital AMA with 2 bullets still lodged inside her body. I have speculated that after the pain drugs administered by the hospital wore off, she left to get another fix. The two local news stations that bothered to cover the initial shooting, didn’t report any follow-ups.

    In the little bit of time I’ve lived in this neighborhood, I’ve begun to recognize some of the young people by face, if not yet by name. I listen to them cut up with their peers and if I remove my own filters as best I can and sift through the vernacular (which is steeped in “MFers” and “b*tches” and “N*ggah, looks”) I hear the voices of smart, quick-thinking young men and women with the same kinds of issues and insecurities I had at their age–but who are living with very different circumstances: poverty, violence, lack of job opportunities, etc.

    I don’t think they choose these lives of loud, violent desperation as much as their lives choose them through lack of alternatives. It’s what they know by virtue of where they were raised and by whom–often an absentee parent who’s working 3 minimum-wage jobs or strung out on drugs. So, they turn to one another and the culture of the street in order to get by.

    And that’s why I think violence prevention programs like CeaseFire are effective, not so much because of the intervention model as much as the simple human connection–adults who can relate to the young people because they have been there themselves reaching out and paying attention and showing the young men and women that they matter, that there are people out there who care whether or not they live and who want to show them alternatives to their current trajectory, alternatives that don’t include loaded weapons.

    Until our society values ALL of its children, not just the ones with access to resources, we will continue to witness the experience you wrote about as we go about our lives. It’s up to us to make a difference and cause a decided shift in the paradigm, similarly to the work Dr. Slutkin is doing with CeaseFire.

    I posted the following quote by Princeton University Professor Cornel West, PhD, on my Facebook page earlier today. I think it sums up, much more eloquently than I could, what I mean: “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”

    The young people in my new neighborhood deserve to hope just as much as anybody else. Please go to CeaseFireChicago.org and click on the Donate button to give them that chance.

  4. Well done keeping on.
    I suspect the shooting will return to your mind at unexpected times, alternating between so what and what if.

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