Tuesday, November 07, 2006

that one time someone had a gun

My first internship was in college. I had asked for a placement at a domestic violence shelter that my college had not previously assigned students because it was in a particularly dodgy area of town. I had a reason I wanted to intern there (another story, soon) and so I got the director to sign off, begged my professor, and was off and running. I had no real idea of what I was in for, other than convinced I would change the world. Green as a frog on Sunday.

I was assigned mostly to playing with the kids and co-facilitating some groups. I don't think they felt I had skills beyond that, and I am certain they were right. I had 2 evening shifts a week, and I loved every second of it. This shelter was pretty rough - the neighborhood was terrible, a crackateria next door, and women earning a hard living on the corner. Inside the shelter women were coming straight from their abusers, and the kids were out of control, angry, and traumatized. There wasn't a lot of money to provide extras - we used government rationed food, relied on donations, and everything had that distinct smell of old mops.

One night I was in the community room holding a 3 day old baby. The mom had a few other kids so her hands were pretty full. I remember thinking I had never held something so small in my life.

All of a sudden I heard what I thought was firecrackers. I didn't think much else until one of the women screamed someone is shooting at the building and everyone in the room fell onto the floor. Remember, I was green, green, green - I'd never heard gunfire in real life before....it's almost embarrassing now to think of it but I was doing the best I knew how. What struck me later was that the rest of the women knew what gunfire sounded like, and also exactly what to do.

I laid down on the floor on top of the baby still cradled in my arms, and single file we crawled on hands and knees out of the windowed room into the windowless hallway. There were about 10 of us, plus kids. I was the only "staff" person there, and someone had to go into one of the offices to call 911. So I did, on all fours, and then came back. There was one moment I had to stand up level with the windows and thought maybe this is it...but nothing happened and it quieted down soon after. We could still hear an occasional gunshot, and we didn't know who was doing the shooting. Many of the women had escaped violent situations, and some felt certain that their man would try and kill them if they found them. One woman in particular had been shot three times by an ex-husband who'd followed her through half a dozen states. She was an artist - and her work still hangs on my wall today.

After two long hours there was a knock at the door, followed by: open up, it's the police. Just as I did there were more gunshots, and what I will forever remember as a woman's death scream. It's was one of the most horrific sounds I've ever heard. The cops quickly told me to shut the door and they'd be back when they could. Another hour passed before they came back. That's a long time in a windowless hallway. They'd caught the man with the gun, the man who was not shooting at us in particular but at the building nonetheless.

Someone died that night. I'll never know who she was, but I know I heard her spirit leave her body. The college tried to pull me out after that, but I refused, begged, threatened to drop out. I knew it was an important place for me to be, and I knew I had so much to learn.

What happened before will come next. It's a trickier story, one with less guns but a lot more bullshit.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jesus, Jen. The life you have had. More to the point, the life that so many other women and children and men are forced to have. I really do admire your guts.

Once again, thanks for this.

daufiero said...

I imagine if I hadn't returned home when I ran away from home to CA at age 1, I probably would have met you in one of those shelters.

Even though it's only over the computer, boy am I glad I met you this way instead!

daufiero said...

Yeah, at one. As soon as I could walk, I hit the road. No, that was fifteen.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to the story of how you were called to serve...

acumamakiki said...

that is one heavy experience jen. i'm glad you shared with us and i hope you aren't in that situation again anytime soon. know it can be part of the job but still.

J Fife said...

Your stories are incredible. Thanks for sharing...

Anonymous said...

Gods, what a horrendous experience! And, yes, seeing the seamier side will definitely awaken most of us. It's hard to have any illusions when confronted with that reality! Looking forward to the remainder of the story, what you learned, other experiences, etc.

Peace,

Thailand Gal
~*~*~

Mrs. Chicky said...

Wow, that's some story. I can't imagine being in that situation.

mrs. incredible said...

Your willingness to knowledgeably immerse yourself in 'dodgy' places/situations is what makes you so special. You follow where your heart leads. What a special gift. You are very courageous. And you build on the good and bad in the best way that you can.
And damn, what a story.....

KC said...

How lucky am I to have health and love and shelter and freedom from abuse?

I thank God everyday, but stories like this still make me feel guilty for having so much and for not doing nearly enough to help others who don't.

Rock the Cradle said...

I pay a first visit after you commented on my bit of Halloween fluff, and I find I am in for a whole lot of reading. Since now I'm going to have to read all of your archives after reading this post.

I'm glad you are answering my now moot question in an upcoming post. You just picked up a regular reader, Jen.

Ditto what kc said. I volunteered for some years as a hotline counselor for a DV nonprofit in Philadelphia, and I always was filled with such admiration for the women fleeing their nightmares and such gratitude that my own life has treated me so kindly.

I never saw what happened after some of these calls, though. I imagined it to be very close to what you described. I'm sorry what I imagined is so close to the truth.

meno said...

Wow. Just wow.
I'll bet you can still hear that scream.
You are a brave woman.

Momish said...

But, this is what I admire most about you and am so glad I have been connected to you! This... after all that, when most people would run as fast as they could, you felt an even stonger need and justification to remain right there! God bless your unique soul, sister. The world is forever better because of it. Each time you touch another it will be magnified into infinity!

flutter said...

Your beauty, is radiant from that place called your heart. What an astounding experience. You are a warrior.

Lucia said...

Jen, even though you were green, you knew what to do, even if it was hard. This is what I like about you. I used to work in inner cities, and it can be tough, particuarly in dicey situations, but I'm convinced that someone needs to be there to work toward making it better. I love it that you struggle through to work out your ideals.

crazymumma said...

Thanks for wading into the fray...you are making change out there you know....

Anonymous said...

wow thats an amazing story. bless you for wanting to be there with those women. my senior year of high school i worked with youth victims and witnesses to violent crimes in houston. some of their stories have never left me. it was amazing the strength i witnessed in these youngsters. i will never forget that.

Penny said...

That story had me holding my breath!

I can't wait for part II.

But.. two hours you waited for the police?? Two!?!

Anonymous said...

Good grief - two hours!!
I know, I know, the police are understaffed in a lot of areas, but someone was shooting at your building where serious domestic problems had to have been known to flare up.

Sigh.

Your determination to make a positive difference in the world is obvious. I can't even begin to tell you how much I admire that.

Anonymous said...

Without hesitation I can tell you I couldn't do it. Violence against the helpless makes me shut down completely into a blathering, angry mess.

"Whether it is big or small, many or few, repay hatred with virtue."

You have wonderful karma coming your way. Perhaps that is what sustains you? Take care of your self, Ms. Jen. We need you around for awhile.

ecm said...

One of the things I liked about this story is that you were, "green, green, green" and yet you made it through. In such a dramatic story, I like that you were trying to figure things out as you went along.