Why you should care
Because a good person needs to know their limitations.
Every person in that room believed in God for about 30 seconds.
Thirty seconds was about how long we stayed on the floor of the bar between 17th and 18th streets on a busy Sunday in Richmond, Virginia.
One of the few remaining smoking bars in the city and one of the few worth going to for ambiance alone. However, this did not make lying face down on the floor any cooler.
In 11th grade, I came home on a Tuesday afternoon to learn that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had peppered their classmates with TEC-9 bullets and buckshot in Littleton, Colorado, at Columbine High School. Thirteen people killed. Twenty-three wounded.
I didn’t do any homework that night. I don’t think anyone did.
Then there was the shooting in Las Vegas on the first day of our most recent October. Fifty-eight people killed. And 851 wounded. That happened only a week before this particular evening in Richmond and was still very fresh.
I didn’t reach out to either of them. I only thought of myself and Columbine and Vegas as I played dead.
I can’t deny that I thought about both of those horrible events as I lay on the floor directly under the bar with the slush of alcohol, cigarette butts and cheap beer. My friend Derek was on the floor next to me with his arm around his girlfriend. Another friend was covering his head under a barstool. Both at arm’s length.
I didn’t reach out to either of them. I only thought of myself and Columbine and Vegas as I played dead. Thinking that at any moment a steel-toed boot would appear out of the corner of my eye. Then the sharp pain immediately after the blast. Then what follows a point-blank shot to the space between one’s shoulder blades.
The steel-toed boots never appeared. After 31 seconds, people started moving around on the floor and became atheists again. A group of college students bolted for the kitchen and fled out the back door. Some woman sat in a booth sobbing.
I got into a hunched position, moved to a place in the back where I could see the street. Outside the people were moving fast in all directions. There wasn’t a pattern. No sense to be made of it. Might as well have been a stampede. Or a stampede urged on by a swarm of sting-happy hornets. Chaos.
Most people tend to forget how they said they’d react in a situation like this. How they would have done this and not done that. Maybe reliving scenes from Die Hard in their heads. Or the last fight between Balboa and Clubber Lang. I don’t know how many people who hit the deck like me that night were guilty of this, but I knew I was. I didn’t do a goddamn thing I said I’d do. I only thought about not getting shot.
Ace hightailed it around the corner from where the shots were fired and hid under an air-conditioning unit until he felt safe enough to move.
A husky guy named Ace came in through the same kitchen door the college kids had ran out of. Shell-shocked is the word I am choosing to use here to describe the look on his face because it is an appropriate word to use even though it seems inappropriate. Even marginally cheap. But that’s how he looked.
“I saw everything,” he said to anyone.
Ace had gone down the block to get a slice. Mid-chew, he witnessed an altercation on the packed sidewalk. Then a gun went off. Bullets went by his head. The pizza was dropped like other items that would come to litter that stretch of Main Street until the sun came up. Ace hightailed it around the corner from where the shots were fired and hid under an air-conditioning unit until he felt safe enough to move.
He walked into the bar with Novocain face. Ace sat down on the green felt of the only pool table there and stared at the wall.
This actually allowed me a brief moment to try to collect myself. My thoughts.
I was running my mouth to an old friend about nothing important. Was starting a second beer with no intention of having another. The snare popping on the bar speakers was loud enough to turn my head. Bouncers and bar staff closed the front windows and locked the front door in a frenzy. Those pops weren’t from speakers.
A man lay there on the sidewalk in an impromptu Jesus Christ pose. Unmoving and unattended to. Brutal truth wasn’t any less insensitive on this night.
“Get the fuck down,” someone up front shouted.
I hit the floor. Lay completely still. More gunshots. Men yelling. Women yelling. Everyone outside yelling. Car horns. Squealing tires. The rumble of hundreds of rubber soles and stiletto heels on concrete.
I wonder if it’s the same for a spotted bass being blooped into a shallow bucket as it is for a guy awaiting the outcome of a pregnancy test. I felt whatever that was. Maybe it’s dread. Something not totally fear and not totally not. The purgatory balancing the two.
That was it.
As people inside the bar were getting to their feet, I moved to the front entrance to make some sense out of what happened. I looked down the block. A man lay there on the sidewalk in an impromptu Jesus Christ pose. Unmoving and unattended to. Brutal truth wasn’t any less insensitive on this night.
A bullet hole in the wall was pointed out to me. One of the bouncers had been standing there but had crouched down for one reason or another before the shots were fired. There was another man shot in the street, but I didn’t know if he was already dead or not.
I sat down on a stool. Stared at the mirror behind the bar. Started drinking whatever beer was there in front of me. Moments like these are why I still continue to purchase and smoke filtered cigarettes.
The thoughts started to ebb in.
I hadn’t done anything. I hadn’t been a victim. I hadn’t been a hero. All I did was suck up air and leave a warm place on the ground. I hadn’t thought of my parents. I hadn’t thought of any of my friends. I hadn’t even managed to think about the woman whom I said I love you to each day, even though we were no longer a couple.
These are the things men think about and never forget.
Fathers staring at early mornings from their front porches. Remembering their failures. Remembering all of the ways they did not live up to their egos. Or their father’s egos. Or maybe they’re not thinking of these things at all.
But if you ask me, I certainly am.