Look west — find the majestic mountain range — to get your bearings in Colorado. It’s what I did when I lived there; it’s how I navigated the city in our black 1984 Ford Taurus using Colorado Boulevard as the main artery connecting Denver to all points east and west.
It might be the promise of the great West rising from the plains — glistening cities like Denver and suburbs encircled by housing developments and strip malls, like Aurora — that still draws people to Colorado.
Twenty-eight summers ago the Metropolitan Denver area still felt like the open West, unlike, say, Los Angeles, with its fog and congestion.
Even in all its natural beauty, Colorado still seems cursed by violence, collateral damage of biblical proportions, perhaps, of its deadly outlaw past of the 19th century that drew panhandlers, homesteaders, the generally adventuresome and the criminal-minded alike.
When I rode into Denver in the blazing summer of 1984 with my stepfather, mother and sister, we joined thousands trying to make the West work for us. We only lasted two years, but in my memory nearly everyone we encountered were transplants like us. I did befriend two native Coloradans in classes on the Denver campus of the University of Colorado, the same campus once attended by the orange-haired gunman accused in the midnight massacre of 12 people in a multiplex cinema in Aurora July 20 during a premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.
Aurora (population 332,000-plus) is a little larger than Cincinnati (296,000-plus) and is largely suburban with pockets of bleak-looking ghettos, as I recall. We lived for a time in a building festooned with Crips graffiti on the eastern edge of Denver, just across the corporation line from Aurora. I ventured into Aurora during my long days of unemployment, wasting the day before I had to be home to meet my sister from school and before I enrolled in fall classes.
Back then, I was struck by how much the Aurora I saw was like Hamilton where I was born — pawn shops, fast food joints, track houses — and like Dayton where my aunts lived because, as with Wright-Patterson, there is the Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora.
We moved five times in the two years we lived in Colorado and I never once felt safe; not when we were all together and definitely not alone, as I was most of the time.
Colorado is where I learned to be hyper-aware of my surroundings.
It’s where I sharpened my people-reading skills because everyone seemed to be on some kind of hustle.
We moved from that apartment a few blocks west to a house on what we thought was a nice street. That winter, that house was burglarized in broad daylight and my mother was convinced that — unbeknownst to me — I’d interrupted the burglary when I came home from classes and that the robber was hiding in the house until I left again early that evening.
Once the police proved largely disinterested, I did my own investigation. I found our few meager electronics — including my coveted Fisher double-deck ghetto blaster with a small ring of nail polish remover on top accidentally spilled there by me — in an Aurora pawn shop less than a mile away.
Spooked by my mother’s conjecture that I could’ve been in the house with our robber, I became anxiously and keenly aware of violent crimes. That Christmas Eve, a woman about my mother’s age was abducted in the parking lot of her job by a young couple who murdered her, stuffed her body in her car trunk among Christmas gifts and rode around that way until they were caught by police.
In the spring, a stranger was abducting children near my baby sister’s elementary school a few blocks away. I was frantic in the afternoons getting to the school gate to pick her up in person, no longer content to watch for her to walk down the street and cross a busy thoroughfare.
Two years of living in poverty and anxiety in Colorado seemed like a dream compared with the nightmare of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School massacre.
That massacre foreshadowed by two years the obfuscation and appropriation of the word terrorist soon to enter the lexicon and be forever exclusively attached to people of Middle Eastern or African descent after September 11, 2001.
However, Columbine capped a decade-long, Western states string of white male terrorism that played out publicly and violently: Ruby Ridge, Idaho (August 1992); Waco, Texas (February 1993); Oklahoma City bombing (April 1995); Unabomber arrest (April 1996).
Deconstructing the media, white terrorists are rarely called so and are always deemed “troubled,” “genius” or “disturbed.” Black and brown people are “evil.”
Even in registering dismay and disbelief, the Aurora movie theater suspect who introduced himself to authorities as The Joker upon arrest, is being, yes, hailed, as “a brilliant former student.”
Notice I haven’t once called him by name?
That’s because I refuse to even remember it, let alone say it or write it. I believe he is brilliant; brilliantly calculating in his quest to always be remembered in association with what was expected to be the largest-grossing movie this summer.
The giddiness to be part of pop culture that celebrates the kind of fantasy that at least references violence but does not make that violence appear real is why thousands across America flocked to midnight screenings of the movie.
And the disconnect between reality and fantasy for regular viewers of this kind of fantasy may be why so many reported being slow to respond to the shooter’s initial burst of violence.
They thought it was part of the show. It was.
The shooter wanted fame; to be the show.
He may have driven himself to insanity figuring out and implementing the details of how he’d upstage the show.
So now The Joker’s on us.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org