Five years or so ago, I was reading in the Russell Library in my hometown in Middletown, Connecticut, while two blocks away on Broad Street, Stephen Morgan was pumping bullets into Johanna Justin-Jinich. By then, the bookstore where she worked was called Broad Street Books, but I will always think of it as Atticus. I spent more hours picking through the same old books in that store than I can remember, while my father browsed the magazines. In that same store, as I picked through the same old books in that library, Johanna Justin-Jinich gasped for air and bled out on the floor.
In the days that followed, I thought often of another young woman who died young, and in agony, and less than a mile from where I was standing. In 1989, during our Sidewalk Sale, 9-year-old Jessica Short was approached by a mental patient from Connecticut Valley Hospital and stabbed to death, right in front of the crowds, and in front of her mother. He had wandered down from those old brownstones on the ridge overlooking the city, found a knife, and killed her. They say it killed downtown, but downtown was dying already, another boring story of an old New England factory town with no more factory. It didn’t help that Connecticut’s only real state psychiatric hospital was a 15 minute walk from downtown; they did and do call it “MentalTown” because of the people who, released with nowhere to go and nothing to do, wander down to Main Street and sit on the curb. One way or the other, Jessica Short was the nail in the coffin, for a decade or more. If you weren’t going to Bob’s to get a cheap pair of jeans or to that one Chinese restaurant that sold cigarettes without carding, you weren’t going to Main Street. Anyway: when I heard about Johanna Justin-Jinich, I thought about Jessica Short, about being just a little younger than she was, and about that mad rush in the crowd, those screaming parents, those grasping hands.
It took years for Main Street to come back. By the time Johanna Justin-Jinich was killed, I had grown, improbably, into an adult, and Main Street Middletown had become, improbably, the kind of place people celebrated. It was and is a lovely transformation; there’s bars and restaurants and, at times, shops. Most improbable of all, Wesleyan kids, notoriously adverse to townie culture, come downtown. They make the ten minute walk down, from that other set of lovely brownstones, on the other side of the valley, from the other ridge overlooking the city.
Last year, I was taking the Bronze Loop bus, that’s the #16, heading home, as it turned down Northwestern Avenue past Armstrong Hall. As we passed the statue for the old moonwalker, I thought about when he died, right at the beginning of my second year here. They stacked flowers and candles around his statue. As we turned my pocket vibrated. I had gotten a text from the school’s automated emergency system. It said there was an active shooter on campus, but it turned out that was wrong. We passed the electrical engineering building and some cops, hustling a dark haired young man in handcuffs into a police SUV. The street was packed with cars, and with men, and I knew then somebody had died.
He was sentenced today, Cody Cousins. They gave him 65 years. I hope that they are 65 years of physical safety and emotional turmoil. At his sentencing he said something awful and self-aggrandizing. They tell me that we on the left have a justice problem, and maybe we do. I don’t know. I know I oppose the death penalty in a way that is deeper than thinking. I know that our carceral state is an abomination, a stain on all of us who live free lives. I know that we have created a penal system designed to produce rape, torture, and murder, and that all of us are implicated in that casual holocaust. I still dream of a world where every prisoner can go free. But I also know that Andrew Boldt was young and alive, and he was shot and stabbed in his heart, and that Cody Cousins smiled in the courtroom. And I hope he stares at the ceiling of the cell and feels just as small and petty as he did when he came up with his murder, that he knows he’s a loser and that killing Andrew only made him more of a loser. And though I would give anything for him to live the rest of his days in health and security, it’s true that I hope that Cody Cousins dies in prison.
I fucking hate guns. I hate gun guys. I hate “I’m a lefty, but I love guns, it’s weird.” I hate the way gun guys get when they talk about their guns, their sweaty palms, their manic voices. I hate the intricacy of their knowledge. I hate their excitement, I hate the way it sounds in their voices. I hate the boutique ontology of the gun guy, the bizarre, convoluted moral reasoning, the way they all become little Kants, coming up with personal schools of logic that have a funny way of ending up with them with their guns, their bullets in bodies, and evil in the bodies. I hate guns. I hate guns. And I hate their friends.
Yeah: the schizophrenic who killed Jessica Short, he used a knife. And Cody Cousins had a knife, too. You could tell the parents of some poor kid shot to death at school that it’s not about guns, if you’re feeling up for that sort of thing.
I have no right to any of these stories. I have absolutely no connection to them except for this: I was there. It’s Forrest Gump shit, dumb luck stuff, just pointless coincidence. And with that kind of pointless coincidence, you come up with the typical hero narrative, where you’re just in the nick of time. Even when you’re eight years old. In my mind I jump in front of bullets. You know. But you also get old enough where you understand that if you had been there, you would have been like everybody who actually was there: just another dumb look on a dumb, uncomprehending face. Your gun has no bullets. All I can tell you is, as improbable as it sounds, I got that text message, and I was on that bus, and I saw his face.
My life has been steeped in these coincidences, that’s all. And so now I’m profligate in my desires, desires for love, and marriage, and for children, and for the typical things we buttress against the fact that crazy people can get a gun the way I can buy a beer. But we have to be real with each other: there’s always just another Cody Cousins, and he always has a gun, and as the woman wrote, we’re all beyond saving by children.