Friday, December 14, 2012

Picking Up the Pieces

              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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Unexpected Events

             I wrote this last night. I was having a difficult time sleeping so I figured it would be best to get my thoughts out.

             The day started off so well. Like every day when I arrived back into Portland I woken up by the familiar sound of my dog Tuaca barging through my bedroom door to jump up on the bed to give my face a good lick. After wiping the slobber from my face I threw on my MLB Fan Cave sweater which was lying at the foot of my bed. Despite it raining the previous night, it was especially cold as I headed into the kitchen to destroy a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch as Tuaca sat patiently, waiting to see if I would give her some. My parents had all ready gone to work and it was one of the first times since I temporarily moved back in that my mother didn’t wake me up before she left. At the time I really didn’t think much of it, so I carried on my day.

            The internet connection in my bedroom had been a bit shoddy for the last couple of days so I took my Samsung Galaxy Note and computer into the living room for a better reception. Over the last couple of weeks since the Major League Baseball season ended I have been posting photos from my time in New York, during my Fan Cave days, to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, as I have left them sitting in my memory without sharing. There has been no consistent pattern to my posts, rather just a scroll and point sort of system like blindly finding a phone number in a phone book to crank call. I came upon the photos from when Baltimore Orioles stars Adam Jones and Robert Andino had stopped by for their “Puttin’ Birds on Things” sketch, which is still arguably one of the funniest things produced and put on the Fan Cave Web site. The first one I post was of Jones and Andino walking through the streets with a giant Oriole logo as the production crew rolled behind. One of the more amusing things about this shoot is that I was the only Cave Dweller allowed to be out for their shenanigans as Jones had asked me to come along since I was wearing Orioles gear. The second photo I posted was a shot of the three of us which I had taken for my friend Scott Landis, an avid Orioles fan, for his birthday which was a month away from that date. When I posted I was being rather goofy and said something to the tune of, .@SimplyAJ10, Andino and me. Clearly the best looking guys in the @MLBFanCave. 

            It was a bit of a joke as I was rather brutish looking at the time. What I didn’t expect was for Jones to not only retweet the photo, but to start following me on Twitter. I was pretty shocked. We chatted for a little bit about Andino being traded to Seattle and I assured him I would look after him. He thanked me and said he was one of the best teammates he had had. With good things in the bag, I got ready for my 9 hour shift at Just Sports at the Clackamas Town Center Mall with a little bit jollier step in my walk.

            I arrived about 15 minutes early and checked my online activity on my phone at the Starbucks at the southwestern side of the mall, as that was the best spot for me to get internet access. Before I left my house I had posted my 4-step New Era photo of me taking of the stickers, creasing the bill and marking the hat with jersey numbers for one of my newer Orioles hats. I had gotten a few likes, which I was satisfied with and headed in a little early to see if any new freight had come in. There had, but only about 4 new boxes, nothing terrible. I clocked in and dove in to try and get caught up on the previous freight. We had gotten in a load of NFL, Oregon Ducks and NBA jersey restock as well as a lot of popular sweatshirts. My co-assistant manager Clayton and I stuck to the freight whilst the other employees: Adam, Connor, Justin and Kevin helped the customers. Every now-and-then I popped out onto the floor to help someone, but for the most part I stuck to getting the product out. I had quickly knocked out one of the boxes. Since a lot of the product required sensor tags, I first put out all of the stuff that didn’t need them: Portland Timbers gear. We had about 5 adult and youth jersey to throw on our 50% off rounder so I finessed them in, along with about 7 hooded sweatshirts. I walked back to grab the last two shirts when I heard a loud bang.

            I have heard in moments like this that time stands still. A few of the customers around me and I exchanged glances and all had puzzled looks. Somewhere in a matter of a fraction of a second we all came to the conclusion, mentally at least, that the sound was probably a large box that had fallen to the ground and made the commotion. As I turn to hang up the last two shirts it started… BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG!!! Having fired off an array of hand guns, assault rifles and sniper ripples with my stepfather, I knew what I was hearing. Everyone in the store, roughly 12 people including myself, had stopped in their tracks. I on the other hand sprinted to the door to close and lock them. I remember yelling, “Get out!” to everyone as I ran, but still no one moved. I saw dozens of people running eastward as I got to the door and told and grabbed as many people as I could into the store before no one else was within my grasp. I closed the doors, hit the deck and locked the massive glass doors as quickly as I could. One kid in particular was standing next to me doing nothing. I yelled, “Get the fuck to the back of the store!” He froze. I then pushed and yelled at everyone else to go out the back door. Clayton and the rest of my co-workers to notice and began rushing everyone out. I had never been in a situation like this before, by a sense of leadership overcame me. As soon as I saw everyone clear out the back I quickly closed the door completely and ducked behind the sales counter, waiting to see if anyone would walk by. After a few moments I walked toward the front to see if there was anyone else out there. Sure enough there were patrons casually walking through the mall on their cell phones. I unlocked one of the doors and called for them to come in. Once they cleared the threshold I locked it again, explained what had happened and got them out. I then moved back to the counter area and got on twitter to post that there had been a shooting. I’m still not sure why, but I momentarily went back about my business as the phone rang from other stores in our company looking for product. I told them all that there had been a shooting and their attitude quickly changed, making sure I was OK. I said yes, asked what they were looking for and gave them an answer. In between calls I continued to tweet what I was seeing.

            Clayton and Adam had started texting me, asking if I was still inside. I told them yes and that I was waiting. At this time they informed that the police had arrived and surrounded the building. When I read that I knew I couldn’t just walk out into safety. Looking the way I do, with my beard and all, I would be greeted by local law enforcement with all guns on me, ready to be taken into custody to be questioned. Obviously I had no involvement, but they don’t know that. I continued to stay behind the counter and kept tweeting. For some reason I took to trying to be a bit more humorous for a few. I remembered reading about Brett Lawrie being in a mall when a shooting had broken out and so I sent out a tweet to the tune of, “I feel a lot like Brett Lawrie right now.” After that I sent, “I'm glad I have shoes on. Last thing I need is broken glass and bare feet like John MacLaine,” an obvious Die Hard reference. Almost immediately after that tweet SWAT had taken siege. I saw three teams of three stroll by the front of the store, all armed with AR-15 rifles and full body gear. After they passed I hit the floor and crept my way across to the front to snap some photos. 

              I finally saw a sheriff’s deputy across the way and signaled to him that I was trapped inside. He motioned for me to get back, so I did. Ben Lacy, a producer at KGW in Portland, and fellow Oregon alum, hit me up on Twitter and asked if they could do a live interview. I sent him a DM with my number and said yes. Five minutes later I was live on the air, taking the reporter step by step as to what had happened. A few minutes in, the police had arrived at the door and motioned for me. The glass isn’t soundproof, so they told me to unlock the door and be ready to stay low and move out. I had forgotten my Note and jacket, but didn’t care. I wanted to get out. As soon as I got the green light, I cleared out. I looked back and noticed that there were six totally officers, all armed to the teeth with .45s, shotguns and rifles. I booked a sharp right and headed out.

            Now, at the time when I made my exit I thought I had an officer tailing behind me as an escort. I didn’t. As soon as I cleared the threshold of the door I was “greeted” by five officers with shotguns and assault rifles all pointed at me.

            “Get your hands up!” I heard someone yell.
            I complied.
            “Get on your knees and drop the phone!” I heard.
            I did
            “Slowly lay down and cross your legs!”
As soon as I did I felt my Orioles hat slip down over my face, but I remained motionless. The last thing I wanted was a bullet entering any part of my body. One of the deputies came around and slapped handcuffs on me, pulled me up and walked me to the left for questioning. I stood up straight and answered everything he asked: Name, business at the mall, etc. He then got on his intercom and asked for a description of the suspect, which luckily I didn’t fit. As I stood there shivering in khaki and pants and a polo shirt in the cold more people began exiting… all of which glared at me as they passed as if I was the shooter. I didn’t let it bother me. I turned my head to the left to get a look at the deputy and listen in on the responses he was getting. He was almost a foot shorter than me with short grey hair and an amazing salt and pepper mustache and glasses. He then slipped his business card into my pocket and told me to call if I had any information to give as he unlocked the steel bracelets. He pointed me toward the left of the parking lot and told me to get out that way. I did what he asked and walked away… for a bit. Around this time I was getting texts and calls from a lot of people making sure I was safe. Since my Note was still inside the store I couldn’t get on Twitter to let everyone know I had made it out. I texted everyone I knew who had Twitter to let them know and to let others know I was fine. Unfortunately, most of the people that I knew who had large followings on Twitter are all on the East Coast. Not until the end of the night did it dawn on me that they had no idea what was going on. Therefore, I got a lot of confused texts back. My friend Kat in Boston, who works for NECN, called me up; made sure I was doing fine and asked if I would do an interview.

Kat and I went to the University of Oregon together and I crashed at her place in Boston during my second trip there over the summer during my MLB stadium tour. I said I’d be more than happy to. As we chatted on the phone I noticed more people leaving the mall… I then hatched a plan. I really wanted my Note back so I could get back on Twitter to give updates so I asked the deputy at the door if he could escort me back to the store so I could lock it up, which is actually true. He said yes and took me back. About halfway there he asked another deputy, the one who handcuffed and questioned me, to take me the rest of the way. He jokingly said yes and followed me in. I quickly ran in and grabbed my jacket, cigarettes, Note and locked the door on my way out. It was during this time that I noticed tables, chairs and product from stores strewn about the walkway of the mall.

 It was a rather eerie feeling, but for some reason I was still calm. I half sprinted back to the original doorway I had exited the mall and passed by a girl crying hysterically and talking to two officers as she had witnessed the shooting. I didn’t gather much as I wanted to get back outside. Once again, as I cleared the door way the same officer was about to yell at me to get down, but realized I was the same guy as before. A slight moment passed and he told me to be on my way. I called Kat back and did the interview with one of their reports and walked across the road where I knew there was a Starbucks with Wi-Fi. I sat down and typed away. Giving updates on Facebook and Twitter what I knew, and what I had overheard. It also gave me time to call my parents and assure everyone that I was safe.

Over the next hour or so I did interviews with KATU in Portland, NECN live in air, the Jeff Sammut Show in Toronto and even Good Morning America. I posted photos and got hit up by FOX and CNN for permission to run the photos and do more interviews. It was a weird feeling. Despite going to the U of O for journalism, I had always wanted to do sports. This was way more important and I gave my clearance on everything as it is my responsibility to relay the information.

Around 5:45 PM PST, over two hours since the shooting had started; I finally got in my car and headed home. Mentally I was burnt out and just wanted to get back into the familiar. Traffic was pretty ridiculous and I called ahead to my mom to let her know. With nothing but the steering in my hands and my thoughts, my brain drifted back to when I was 14-years-old, living in Bakersfield, California. (This part of the story I have never told anyone)

I can’t really remember the date, but I do remember it was spring. I was with a few of my friends at his parents’ house, a few blocks from Centennial High School where we all attended. We had been sitting around, watching TV and gabbing about usual high schooler things. Around 4:30 his older brother walked into the house and sat down with us. As he sat down he pulled out a bad of marijuana and his .45 from the waistband of the back of his pants. What I didn’t know and everyone else did was that he was a drug dealer. At that time I really didn’t like guns too much so I sat away from everyone else as they talked about it and wanted to see it. After about five minutes of that nonsense I had to pee so I got up and went down the hall and around a left turn corner to go. I finished, washed my hands and walked out. As I was about to bank right back into their living room the gun fired. I didn’t realize it at first until I turned my head to the right and noticed the gun pointing at my face. I then turned me head quickly left and noticed a bullet hole in the wall. The bullet had whizzed about 7 inches from my face and by the grace of God had missed. Everyone in the living room froze, except for my friend’s brother who quickly snatched the gun out of the hand of the kid who had fired it. Despite the clip being out of the gun, my friend’s brother forgot to take the one in the chamber out before he handed it off to let the younglings play with it. The last thing I remember was yelling at everyone, crying and running home. I didn’t tell my parents and I stopped talking to the kid who had pulled the trigger for years. That, realistically, is the closest I had ever come to dying as a result of gun-related means.

Throughout my day I had been calm and collective. The shooting at the mall took place about 200 yards away from me, yet I still went into protective mode over everyone else. Perhaps the trauma from my youth made me less scared? I’ll never really know. After seeing my parents, having dinner with them and watching “North by Northwest” with them, the gravity of today’s events didn’t hit me until they went to bed.

What happened when I was a kid was in isolated incident, but what happened today took place on a much larger scale. Three people are dead, including the shooter. Thousands of people will be affected by this for the rest of their lives. As terrible as things got, I am forever grateful that I was there to have a clear head and to help people get to safety. Hero is a word I’ve heard a few times since. Thrown around casually as we do with our sports icons, but I certainly don’t feel like one. I just did what needed to be done. I can only hope that others do the same in a similar situation.