Getting back to the swing of things is not exactly and easy process, but it is a necessity. This morning I got a text from my boss at Just Sports had two tickets to tonight’s Portland Trailblazers game versus the San Antonio Spurs if I wanted to use them. Having not been to a Blazers game in about fours years, I happily accepted them. About an hour later he informed me that the Clackamas Town Center mall was allowing managers back into their stores to make the necessary arrangements for our stores as the doors would be opening for business once again, just two days after the horrific shooting which took place on December 11. I was all ready scheduled to work from 2-10:30, so I was asked to go in to take care of closing the registers, clean and put out as much new product as possible. This also gave me a chance to occupy myself for the day until the game started at 7:30.
Always being the kind of person who prefers to work while I have a lot on my mind, I accepted. I called ahead to the mall with the phone number my boss provided to figure out where I needed to and how long I had. The person on the other end told me the only access point was the entrance next to the movie theater, which connected to the food court where the shooting took place. One of my co-workers, Adam, was also scheduled to work and agreed to give me a hand, as he lives only a few blocks from the mall. I texted ahead and let him know I would be there in about 35-40 minutes since I’m currently crashing with my parents in west Portland for a bit until I conclude my studies at the University of Oregon starting January 7. I stopped and got a half tank of gas and a Dr. Pepper on my way, which held me up an extra 10 minutes. The air was especially frigid and I felt a little bad pulling up to the entrance of the parking lot with him waiting for me outside. He hopped in the car as a security official stopped me to state my business. I pointed at my name tag and he left us on our way. Adam and I swapped stories for a bit as we walked to the doors, discussing some of the details from Tuesday, like how the shooter had dropped four magazines of ammunition as he trekked the same path we were making into the mall. When we got inside an unusual silence and stillness greeted us. Usually at 2:20 PM the mall is a hot bed of activity, especially during the holidays. Only when I close at night is it ever dark and quiet. We both commented on this. Four tables were set up about 25 feet from the doors and a security official had us sign in and take lanyards with our store name printed on this inside. Something that we had to wear the entire time we were there for security purposes. None of these requests bothered us in the slightest. After I threw my lanyard over my head and affixed it to my chest, we headed in, across the path in which the shooter had done as well.
Members of the police and mall management were talking and inspecting amongst themselves, trying to make sure that everything was back to presentable shape. Adam and I kept our voices down, not to alert anyone, as all we talked about was the shooting. As we walked side by side we looked around to see if there was anything out of place. The first thing we noticed were fragments of the floor that had been chipped out due to bullets ricocheting off the surface. As we approached the members of authority we kept quiet until we got down to the bottom of the escalator, down to our store roughly 200 yards away.
The lights were still on as I hadn’t had any time to turn them, nor the radio off when I was briefly allowed back in by police an hour after I had been extracted from the store. The radio was playing a commercial for a car dealership and we both chuckled at the fact that the radio was still on. I walked along the left side of the store and saw that the Portland Timbers shirts that I was in the process of hanging were still strewn about the floor.
As we both went behind the counter we retraced what we were both doing at the point in time when the shooting had started. Adam was ringing up a customer for a Patrick Willis youth-sized San Francisco 49ers jersey. He told me the customer was in the process of handing him his credit card to pay when everything went awry. Just then “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms kicked on the radio. We both thought that this was a randomly odd choice as it was the opening song to the film “Lethal Weapon.” After a bit more dialogue we got down to business. He added sensor tags to all of the new jerseys we had received and hung, while I closed down both registers and worked on the sales report from Tuesday. We talked as we worked. Relaying what we had both done. He recalled when I told a guy standing by the door to “get the fuck inside!” We both laughed at that. We both knew we shouldn’t, but for some reason it was the only emotional response we could muster. As I closed the second register Adam rolled into another thought. One that literally made me stop in my tracks.
To tell the rest, I have to go back to Sunday (December 9). The store opened an hour early (10 AM) and closed an hour later (7 PM) due to holiday hours taking effect. My shift was from 1030-830, a long day, but necessary to be able to restock, clean, close the registers, as well as log the weekly sales report. About 15 minutes into my shift I helped a small family looking for Pittsburgh Steelers gear. I had been working off and on for Just Sports since the summer of 2000. This holiday was the first time I had worn the name tag and polo shirt since April of 2007, where I resigned as store manager the location in Woodburn, OR to begin my time in the journalism program at the U of O. In all the years I worked for the company I learned a lot of patterns in the way people shop. Some people are fans of teams because they hail from that, or near the city in which their team reside. Some like the logos and colors. Some shop for others. Either way, I always have a series of questions to ask to learn, not only more about the customer, but to also possibly interest them in more product of that team. Journalistic instincts at work. In this case the husband was from Pittsburgh, a city I had the pleasure of enjoying for a few days in late August. The wife was somewhat disinterested in the conversation, but the husband was all about it as he held the couple’s son in his arms. PNC Park came up, and we both bounced off stories of our times there. He also regaled me with stories of Barry Bonds playing at Three Rivers Stadium and the Neil O’Donnell era of Steelers football. When the couple was ready to check out I walked them to the counter with product in hand and cashed them out. In the mean time, Adam was helping a kid over at the opposite end of the hat wall with some of our MLB AC caps. The chatter between the husband and I continued until our goodbyes. At this time Adam had brought the kid up to the counter and was ringing him up for a Cooperstown Collection Pittsburgh Pirates hat. I thought this to be way too coincidental so I asked him, like the previous family, if he was from Pittsburgh. He said no with a sheepish smile, but informed me that he was a bit of a Pirates fan and that he had always liked the colors and the “P” logo because he lives in Portland. After Adam rung him up I walked out from behind the counter and we swapped Pirates baseball-related stores. He was wearing jeans and a camouflage jacket, and was all ready wearing the black game style Pirates hat. I told him about my time at PNC Park and he told me he always wanted to go there. I encouraged him to. Like anyone else I meet and swap baseball stories with, I always tell them to never let something get in the way of what they want to do. (This was a common theme I had with people on Twitter and in person who said I was living the “baseball dream life.” I never looked at it that way. I always look at it as something I’ve always wanted to do and had the means to attain.) We said our goodbyes, both with smiles on our faces. It wasn’t until today that Adam informed me that the kid was Jacob Tyler Roberts, the shooter who killed two and wounded six others before taking his own life.
I was absolutely flabbergasted. My emotional response level rose a bit. Adam and I both went back and forth with comments like, “I can’t believe it was him” and “he was such a nice guy.” The rest of the time we were there we kept coming back to the complete state of shock we were in that we had talked to this kid two days prior to the shooting and that we both thought he was a decent kid. After reading some the articles about him and his interests, a lot of other people had come to the same conclusions.
When we finished up and clocked out to head to the Blazers game we walked back the same way we came in to drop off our name badges and out to my car. Once again we noticed the chips in the tile. We stepped out into the Portland night, which had dropped in temperature to roughly 36 degrees with a slight wind, making it feel much colder. We got into my car and I turned my ignition switch over. Nothing. I checked my headlights, and sure enough, I had left them on. Adam ran off to flag down a security official to see if they could give us a jump. I had the cables in my trunk so I pulled them out and waited. While Adam was gone my mind wandered back to when I was in seventh grade at Fruitvale Jr. High School.
I had befriended an “odd” kid named Sterling Kelly. I put the odd in quotation marks because it’s a very ambiguous term that he was labeled like a lot of other kids we all went to school with. He was a year ahead of me, but we shared the same PE class. He reminded me of Danzig from The Misfits. He had long black hair, stubble on his face, a gap in his front teeth, pale skin and he was a bit of a goof ball. He was extremely athletics, but never took sports too serious. Starting at a new school, with new kids was incredibly tough, but he never judged me or gave me too hard of a time for being the underclassmen. We were always on the same team together, and I’ll never forget the black shirt, bright yellow sweat pants and black Keds I used to see him rock for every class. After the school year ended he moved on to high school. It would be an additional year before I ever saw him again. We attended the same high school, Centennial in Bakersfield, CA, but we never had the same classes. He took advanced studies courses, all of which I had no desire of taking. We would see each other every now and then at Starbucks after school. One of the last times I remember seeing him he was dressed in a cow suit for Halloween when I was a sophomore, complete with a rubber utter that another friend would suck on like in a Tom Green sketch. He graduated a year early was set to attend college from what I remember. Some time during my junior year I was sitting in Mr. Fowler’s third period English class, goofing around as I tended to do when one of the office aides came into the room and handed Fowler a note.
“Oh my God!” I remember him yelling.
“What?” we all replied.
“One of my former students committed suicide this morning,” he responded.
Instinctually, someone else in the class asked who it was; common thing to ask whether we know the person or not. He then replied, “Oh… his name is Sterling Kelly, I…”
Before he continued with his next comment I had rushed out of the room with tears all ready pouring down my face. It wasn’t until the end of the period that I returned to grab my bag and apologize for rushing out. He sat me down and asked if I knew him. I told my story of how we did. He chuckled a little bit as I went into detail on some of the stories I had. He then said that I reminded him of Sterling: intelligent but a bit rambunctious. I laughed, and agreed as I wiped the tears away. I asked him if he knew how Sterling died. I’m still not sure why I asked, nor why he told me, but he said, “Someone found him in a field and he had taken a shotgun to his face.” Even though I didn’t see it, knowing the kid, I could picture it.
A month later, Columbine happened.
In the wake of all of these tragedies I can’t help but think of the impact its had, and will have on the rest of my life. Granted, I didn’t know the kids who shot up Columbine; however, had I gone to school with them, I would have tried. We as humans, in all of our infinite wisdom, like to make assumptions about others without trying to understand what they’re going through. When I lost my friend Sterling, I didn’t have a clue he was capable, nor had a reason to do something of that nature. He was always happy around me. The same thing could be said about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the same can be said about Jacob Roberts. In the five or so minutes I had an encounter with him, I thought he was a pleasant kid, much like the friends and family he had. It pains when someone feels the need to harm others so violently, let alone themselves. Everyone I meet, or talk to, I try to establish a personal connection; one that hopefully lasts beyond our encounter. I’m a very empathetic guy, always trying to keep things on the bright and am always there to be that person you can tell anything to. I always feel like a lot of most horrible things in life could have been prevented if there was someone for the cause to rely on or talk to.
I’ve had my fair share of demons come and go. I’ve even had my fair share of attempts at ending my own life. I don’t despise Roberts for what he did. I just wish he had someone to help him. I wish I could have done something.