I made my last delivery as a bike messenger to Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard in 2002. I rode up to the front gate at 8th and M St. SW, showed the security guard my ID, which then he handed it back to me and I was on my way.
I walked my bike, as was the rule for access to the base, until I was around the corner of the nearest building and then I jumped on and rode the rest of my way to the museum where I always took a minute to look at “Old Ironsides,” a piece of John Paul Jones’ ship from the Revolutionary War. A lot of messengers hated the Navy Yard because it was leagues away from any decent deliveries and usually there wasn’t any work going with the one or two packages you had to ride three miles to pick up or deliver by it.
Last year, I rode by the Navy Yard daily to get to my job at the Capital Bike Share. I always arrived around the time that seemingly all 3,000 workers at the Navy Yard Complex arrived. From time to time, there was friction in the crowd of half-asleep subway commuters. There was always traffic.
The Navy Yard is an unremarkable place. From the time I was last a messenger, the area went from the city’s bedroom community for drug users to a major center of commercial and government activity. Those of us who have known the area a long time lamented at the change, noting the lack of character and humanity that all that investment brought. So when a young man opened fire and killed 12 people there like a maniac, I wasn’t surprised at all. It all supports my suspicions about these “senseless” killings. None of them, not one of the mass shootings that occurred, surprised me at all. To me, it’s obvious what is wrong.
I grew up in the ‘burbs. Of my 45 years on the planet, living in the ‘burbs happened to one of the most disconnected, depressing and hopeless period of my life. Over the years I’ve lived in places that were far more dangerous, dirty, dense and unpredictable. In my early 20s to late 30s, I lived in the most socioeconomically challenged parts of several major cities. In the city, I’ve had my life threatened numerous times, gotten in many verbal and fist fights, looked over my shoulder and watched my step. I’ve had things stolen from me, I’ve been hit by cars, yelled at, had bottles thrown at me and been sexually harassed in every way imaginable. Never though, would I ever expect a mass shooting.
The suburbs are toxic. The new phenomena of pouring billions of dollars into depressed city neighborhoods and turning them into suburbs in the city is unconscionable. The problem is not the suburbs or even the people that end up living in them but instead the homogenization of attitude and drowning out of individuality and self expression that comes along with the lack of imagination in construction.
Americans started moving out of the cities with the advent of the Eisenhower Expressway system construction. The majority of people moving out were white. White people were running away from black and brown people. When white people move out to their own conclaves they have a nasty tendency of ultra conformity. A certain amount of social conformity is necessary for people to live together. But when white people are left to their own devices, they are vicious in their enforcement of a sanitized life. Everything from the way someone dresses and does their hair is up for public debate and censure. White women who don’t know each other are keen to invade a pregnant woman’s orbit to tell her what she’s doing wrong with her pregnancy, to touch her, to comment, as if it were any of their business. Kids in white schools are particularly horrible having learned these rotten soul-crushing tactics from their parents.
So then you end up with the Dylan Klebolds and the trench coat mafia. When Columbine happened, I was in NYC recalling my own high school days. I was picked on mercilessly and there weren’t a few times I fantasized about blowing up the school and killing as many kids and teachers as possible. Why? The kids were horrible, or they were sheep. The teachers knew what was going on and did nothing about it. In fact, you had to be incredibly sneaky about defending yourself because you could get in trouble for standing up to bullies.
It is little wonder that a guy had a hard time fitting in during his four years in the Navy. Like all of the services, the upper echelons are dominated by white men. Having served in the Marine Corps, a department of the U.S. Navy, I have experience with both Marines and sailors. As a woman in the service, I’m here to say that sexism and racism are alive and well in both services. In services where the top brass is still majority white, it surprises me very little that a Black man might have behavior problems. As a female Marine, I felt suffocated by my service. There was an institutional insistence that I suppress my personality. My liberal feminist tendencies were deviant behavior and I was reminded of it often. If women are not allowed to maintain their identity in a service dominated by men, it makes sense that men of color would also experience this amputation of personality just to survive the day-to-day bullshit.
I quit the Marines because I like being myself and having people around I can relate to. Not being allowed to express myself fully was killing me psychologically and manifesting itself in a litany of physical ailments.
I remember a time in D.C., also in September 2001, when riding an elevator with a woman who as aghast about the terrorist attacks on 9-11. She told me how depressed she was because the world was no longer safe. I laughed at her, and shook my head. Clearly she hadn’t been paying attention. The world isn’t antiseptic, clean and free of strife. I find it arrogant that some people really believe it is when there are people all around them suffering because they don’t fit into someone else’s white and shiny universe. She was white, of course. When I asked her where she was from it all made sense. She was one of these folks that leaves her beautiful box on her beautiful street, gets into a beautiful box on wheels drives it to the subway station where she gets in another box with her earphones and her newspaper, emerges from the ground to go into her imposing big box, to ride the elevator to her clean little box and then do the whole thing all over again at night when she went home. Never once on that trip does she dip her toe into reality.
Some of us live outside the box. We don’t drive cars everywhere so we see the world at a human speed. We smile at people as we ride by, we have conversations, and we take side trips on a lark. We are unprotected and accessible. We take the risk of absorbing life in its completeness. We don’t cross the street to avoid black people, clutch our purse when a brown person gets on the elevator. Being open to diversity, we listen to other peoples’ complaints and empathize instead of blaming their problems on them.
I feel sorry for Alexis. I feel sorry for the victims too, but in a way, they were all victims. The people wouldn’t be dead if someone had been a real friend to Alexis. In all honesty, he probably was hearing voices, but having been in the defense industry for eight years, there was probably a fair amount of that back-stabbing, plotting whispering actually going on. Not all the voices are imagined.
Instead of declaring things senseless that we don’t understand, how about we try asking ourselves the hard questions. Am I living up to my faith? How do I contribute to society? We all know an Alexis, a Dylan, and a Jared. These dysfunctional, disconnected types. We as a society need to ask ourselves if we are doing anything to prevent their anguish, or we adding to it.