Believe it or not, I’ve been on dates to Garden State Plaza. It was the first place I took my first car. Malls in New Jersey are where you go when you don’t want to be where you are. I guest-taught a middle-school English class, kind of a half-substitute, half-guest speaker. One of the students told me he was trying to write about people, but couldn’t figure people out. I told him to go to the mall. That’s where he could find people’s materialism, mischief, kinetic energy, nerves, all on full display if he was willing to sit and watch for a minute. Writing characters is about understanding the nuances between the gigantic mile-marker moments that living presents to the writer. The mall is where these nuances are apparent and honest and real. The mall is the place for first jobs, for playing with puppies you’ll never buy, for wandering around stoned, for eating crappy Chinese food. When I needed a college job, I was all-too happy to work in the mall, even if it was only at Waldenbooks. On Monday night, Anderson Cooper told me that someone killed himself in the same Garden State Plaza where, at seventeen, I asked the girl at Piercing Pagoda to take her break early to get Wendy’s with me. She said no.
I remember hearing about the shooting in Aurora, CO during The Dark Knight Rises and thinking, “Where is safe?” …what institution here, from malls to movies to elementary schools, is safe? I couldn’t imagine being in a the midnight conclusion of The Dark Knight Trilogy, after waiting four years, fully expecting to be immersed in a character I’ve been fascinated with since I was a child, only to have that fabric torn apart by senseless violence. It’s a terrifying thought, one that haunts countless people, young and old alike. We depend on movies for escapism only to have that notion turned around in a moment of very real terror and consequence. That summer night in 2012, all the way in New Jersey, my heart was heavy, not with sadness, but with a mass of anger that someone could take away an institution, going to the movies, that’s meant so much to me and friends closest to me for so long. Regardless of intent, whether it is to take one’s own life or the lives of others, I can’t reconcile where we are meant to feel safe.
Person after person was interviewed on CNN – some were locked down in stores, some had escaped into the parking lot. These shots were intercut with helicopter shots of those familiar storefronts and parking lots. The coverage was epically confusing. Was someone still in there holding hostages? Were people dead? Why were the security cameras shot out? What reality was hiding inside the mall? I was waiting for a gruesome discovery because that’s the knee-jerk reaction when it comes to invasions of safety. It was the same wave of nausea left over from the LAX shooting last week. Airports, movie theaters, schools, shopping malls. It all seems very suffocating, like we’re waiting for the next reaction we’re supposed to have to the next horrible thing we see explode across our Twitter feeds in real time.
Maybe the nature of troubled people, coupled with the crushing reality of 24/7 news coverage, is to blame. A twenty-year-old kid is dead, so is a TSA agent, so are twelve people who wanted to watch Batman, so are twenty-six teachers and students at an elementary school, and we’ve been force-fed it in real time. It’s all almost too much to take sometimes. My brain is not a timeline set to auto-stream content. My body was never built to move through phases of grief in minutes, seconds, or hours. We are presented with images and words, bloody, leaked without a filter, written permanently and prematurely. Facts that are half-baked, undercooked, soft in the middle. I believe it all comes with a cost. People don’t die on a CNN ticker, or in a Breaking News retweet …they die terrified, uncertain, unexpected and for no good reason ever at all. We read off names and hear somber Mr. Cooper talk us through, and it is as it ever was …but that doesn’t make this any less sad.
The sub-headlines surrounding the Garden State Plaza shooting involve the shooter’s “opportunity to cause much more damage” or “to take many more lives.” Have we accepted the notion that we are not safe …in malls …in schools …in airports or at the movies? Is violence a sliding scale, being judged only on the last tragic act that happened the week before? We will never root out bad people, troubled people, evil people …but we will live in their reality, wondering where the next “opportunity to cause much more damage” will come …and instantly pulled in when it does. That, to me, is inherently sad – the kind of sinking sad that means all this is the reality of our times. Where is safe? I’m not too sure.