Ten lives gone in Boulder, and twisted beyond death

When a mass shooting happens next door, the processing is more surreal than the violence

Yesterday afternoon, another young male enshrined himself in the standing-room-only hall of American psychopaths by using a “modern sporting rifle” in a supermarket to kill ten people, methodically and with little effort, among them a veteran Boulder Police Department officer who was my age. Most of the basic details of the murders, you’ve learned elsewhere or easily can.

At times, I try to offer wisdom, sometimes in the form of different perspectives, not necessarily universally correct ones (among other questionable indulgences, I’m fond of botching a lot of the sentences I use to accuse people of various forms of editorial malfeasance.) This isn’t meant to be among those times. All I have today, as the phrase “hits close to home” starts taking on specific meanings, are impressions. Maybe the tears and confusion will stop me after a few stuttering paragraphs, or maybe this will continue well into the night. I’ll learn which as soon as you do.

The Table Mesa shopping plaza anchored by the King Soopers supermarket at which the murders took place is about two miles from where I live, at the other end of the Bear Canyon Creek recreation path. Before I moved to the southeastern part of Boulder, I lived right up the hill to the west.

I have been inside the store hundreds of times in my decade or so of living here. It’s “my” King Soopers, but I’m lazy and usually go to the inferior but far closer Safeway. Being from the East Coast, I still call it Kroger, its parent corporation, most of the time. I was in there on Friday, because they had and may still have a special on—and I wish I were kidding—pork rinds. My preferred local running store and (when applicable) fun-run is in the same shopping center. So is Rosie’s vet. So is a soon-to-be Whole Foods last used to be a Lucky’s, which is where I used to regularly meet with the one person whom I credit most directly with saving my life before she left for California to further her career as a minister.

I add these details not in a “that was close” way; I’m not a part of any of yesterday’s events. But once I started watching video of the parking lot and the checkout area of the store itself, and saw dead bodies in each, I understood that nothing about that King Soopers was going to be the same for me, ever. That whole array of buildings, that entire section of the city, maybe even the challenging but worth-the-views climb to the NCAR installation overlooking the city from the south: Now a vast, commercial-research bloodstain. It all might be habitable to a limited extent, but it will never again be hospitable. It fucking stinks.

I was home when the chaos erupted shortly before 3:00. I could hear what seemed like an unusual number of emergency response vehicles to the southwest—Boulder has no buildings taller than 55 feet except for some of the University of Colorado dorms, and noise travels easily from one side of town to the other. But such noises by themselves, however voluminous, never signal anything unusual in a city this size.

Being off social media, I probably didn’t know the essentials until well over half of the country had heard at least something. I got my first notice about what was happening in the form of a text from a friend who had heard from someone at the shopping center. The word was, between 2:45 and 3:15, no one had come out at all and that it was a hostage situation. Another text from a local said that six people had died and the subject was in custody. The latter turned out to be correct but incomplete. Then I started hearing from various aghast and agog friends and family members in New Hampshire, and became aware that the entire national media was on the scene. I wandered outside briefly and took a walk up the street to see if I could spot the news helicopters, and for some reason was glad I couldn’t.

At around this time I braced myself and checked Nextdoor. For whatever reason, probably just the on-the-ground if discombobulated character of the place, I expected to already see at least one victim identified, but there was nothing but frantic speculation (a term I hope you understand I apply with complete and unreserved empathy—I was as close to terrified to look at a Web page as I can ever remember being). There was also a link to a YouTube livestream that I won’t provide but will refer to ahead.

Several people were asking about a number of King Soopers pharmacy employees by first name, and I recognized one of them. She’s a member of my favorite of Boulder’s high-performance training groups and someone who has methodically improved over the past two years to become a bona fide elite road racer; in fact, she had just gotten back from a successful 15K in Jacksonville. Thankfully, I already knew she had made it to safety.

I had tabs open to every possible source of real or slapdash information. It was a compulsive process, a horrible idea, and an obligation. The critical moment for me, so far, came as I was watching the stain of homicidal misery and rage and death ripple implacably, even hungrily outward from local news outlets to national network affiliates of Denver to CNN to the front pages of…everything. And I know it doesn’t physically happen like that, but when the whole world is suddenly talking about your town, be it owing to a bloodbath or not, it sure feels like it does.

The YouTube stream was supplied by, as is typically the case when these scenarios arise, a guy with a camera and a personality disorder calling himself a journalist. In the snippets I saw, I watched him call the police—undoubtedly aware by that point that a colleague had been killed—”douchebags” for having the temerity to try to keep his belligerently dumbfounded ass safe. He went on in this way a number of times, squawking about being a journalist in an energetically oblivious manner reminiscent of the “But I’m a limo driver!” scene in Dumb and Dumber. But apart from that, I noticed in the video many instances of odd behavior by lone individuals outside the King Soopers, most of whom seemed alert and aware of what was happening but in no particular hurry to exit the premises; one of them, older and duly masked, seemed to be trying to find a side door back into the building.

If I am reading what I observed here remotely right, I can perhaps account for this weirdly blasé behavior. In 2004, I was working in San Francisco, and one summer morning on my walk to work, I saw a gun murder, or the immediate aftermath of one. I was walking north along Scott Street, on the western sidewalk, and about fifty yards from an intersection when I heard a report from about my two o’clock. I looked that way, but a three-story building on the corner obscured my view of the cross street. I kept walking and kept looking over to my right, and when I got to the intersection and its DO NOT WALK sign, I could see a body on the ground on the same sidewalk I was on, maybe 100 feet across Scott Street. I looked north again, and started walking because no cars were coming east or west on the cross street. I heard some women’s voices yelling and saw someone standing on a balcony above the body and screaming.

All of this was against the ordinary 8:30 a.m. din of a major city, which included that of a garbage truck parked on Scott just north of the intersection and facing in my direction. Its driver was standing next to the truck and looking at what I was, probably with the same expression: “Huh. Someone just killed someone and that gun might have more bullets, so I guess we’ll just pretend we were never here.” I initiated a short exchange with him as he hopped, in no special hurry, into his truck:

”You saw that, right?” Not looking over anymore, just looking at a garbage collector and walking the fuck to work. Left, right.

“I did. Stay safe.”

Stay safe. Good thinking!

Then he was out of my life forever. Almost.

By the end of the night, the public knew the shooter was in custody, the number of people he’d murdered, and the name of the slain officer. When I checked the news this morning, a list of the victims’ names was globally circulating. I thought I recognized one of them, but I was wrong. But a number of website operators were already scrambling to assemble a mini-profiles of the victims based on Googling. I recognized one of the faces, a young woman’s, as that of a King Soopers cashier.

What I meant above by a critical moment of recognition, or transformation, or something was incomplete until I realized what was happening during my own Googling of names. All of the victims were non-public figures leading their lives in relative if not absolute anonymity, but from this moment forward in time, all of these dead people will be known primarily as the victims of a mass murderer, people who had the nerve to occupying the public spaces they were twenty-eight hours ago. In fact, Google is so diabolical that this is already the case. This seems horrifying to me. I understand that there is no other way in today’s communication environment; I was contributing to the issue with every one of my own keystrokes. But I despise it anyway.

The story isn’t much different for survivors of shootings of other outbreaks of violence, except that they at least get to watch as their previous public profiles are subsumed by news of an event that they all wish more than anything else they could forget or have prevented. Maggie may go to the Olympics one day, and all but a tiny number of the world’s citizens will be helpless but to view her exploits through a permanently warped lens.

I have seen a few takes today among running folk that unreservedly politicize the issue, and apart from the one source who seems to have been put on Earth to emit inconceivably ludicrous, self-shredding nonsense in every situation, I don’t raise an eyebrow at any of it. We have a unique and devastating problem in the U.S. that would be difficult to mitigate even if everyone in the country without active or latent homicidal intent instantly agreed to ban the sale or even the manufacture of automatic long guns. Even if I felt like casting forth specific ideas on that front right now, I’d get nowhere with them even in my own mind.

My dog is sleeping next to me right now. She knows something is up, but I am grateful that she will never have a full concept of the world in which she lives and how precarious it all really is. And so we will go outside again, into the snow, where it’s as safe as it is anywhere.