When I moved to the DC area more than 2 years ago, it was stressful looking for an apartment. It’s extremely expensive here and any apartments that I could find for less than $1000 a month — yes, that’s 1 1/2 times my rent in Albany — the reviews talked about cockroaches or carjackings across the street.
All I wanted was a little place to call my own in a neighborhood where I would feel safe walking to and from the bus or Metro. And I found it in a neighborhood of Takoma Park, a small city just over the DC border that is renowned for its demographics of aging hippies and where one of the big controversies of this past year was that the library violated the no-nukes policy by purchasing computers from a company that has some weapons investments.
Then I woke up last Sunday morning and found yet another email from the police chief’s communications assistant. I usually just delete them since they’re usually reports of routine burglaries, but the heading “homicide” prompted me to read it right away. And I raced up to my landlords’ door as soon as I read that two men were dead after an incident in the 7300 block of Flower Ave., where we live.
Brian and Hetty said they had been awakened about 2 a.m. by police asking whether they had seen or heard anything, but they were given no details. They wondered if it might have something to do with drug activity at a house a couple of doors down, or random shooting by a car passing through en route to adjoining DC.
I went outside and various neighbors started to gather on our driveway, talking about what they had seen or heard in the middle of the night. A couple of them had seen two bodies lying in the driveway of the house next door, which had been vacant until a recent conversion to condos, and the bodies had just been removed to the van still waiting on the street where police “caution” tape kept away traffic for several hours.
The pieces of the story started to come out: it was a murder-suicide involving one of the guys who lived there and one of his friends. Only the next day, after an official autopsy and notification of relatives, did the full story become known: the two guys had gone bicyling; one of them had a flat tire and texted his wife that he would stay overnight with his friend and fix the tire in the morning; they were drinking; around 1:30 a.m. he came outside to get his bike and his friend, our neighbor, came out and shot him and then shot himself while kneeling over the first guy’s body. Later reports revealed that he had suffered some trauma while in the military and had many “personal issues,” but was never considered violent.
We’ll never know the full story — what happened that caused the friend to leave the house and try to get home in the middle of the night? What triggered the ex-Marine to shoot his friend, who was also a co-worker at a school for disabled chlidren? This was a guy who was named “teacher of the year” in December.
What we do know is that the others in the condo building are shaken up, as are many others in the neighborhood. It’s not the case of a shooting that leaves us all scared for our own safety, but it does leave us wondering about the fragility of human life and a society that doesn’t question why a guy with some mental health issues, mild as they were thought to have been, could have access to a gun. I know it gets me more passionate about gun violence prevention, knowing that if no gun had been involved we would have had two guys bruised and bloodied perhaps after a fistfight, but no widow nor a distraught fiance who had been away for the weekend.
I left town just a few hours after all this happened, and when I came back several days later, Brian told me how one of the women in the condo building was sobbing one day in Hetty’s arms. The parents of the shooter’s fiance came and cleared out all of the couple’s belongings, as she can’t bear to return here.
But there are bright spots, too, as this community’s neighborliness shines through. Brian, a social worker in the nearby hospital’s mental health unit, called the guy who owns the house and suggested that the tenants need trauma counseling after this experience, and the guy agreed to arrange for it. Brian and Hetty are having a traumatized couple next door over to dinner tonight and we’ll grieve and process it all together. A neighbor across the street brought flats of flowers over to the condo building and another neighobor is going to have a planting ceremony tomorrow morning.
Myself? I resolved to get to know my neighbors, to be part of this community rather than just a tenant in “Brian’s and Hetty’s house.” I’m starting by letting Ted go cross-country skiing without me this weekend, so I can be here for our memorial dinner and the flower planting.