It was February, mid-afternoon and sunny, but the wind was blowing, and the sun wasn’t doing enough of what I needed it to do: smother the chill, whisper something warm in my ear, something about spring and starting over. I was back in my hometown, about an hour’s drive west of Philly, after thirty years away—kids in college, a divorce in the offing. The world thinks Pottstown is the kind of place people go to, or get stuck in, when they have limited options, the kind of place abandoned once upon a time by Bethlehem Steel, Firestone Tires, Mrs. Smith’s Pies, me, and people like me, the ones who went to college and didn’t come back. Until they did.
I was across town at the local radio station when I first heard about the standoff a couple of blocks from my house, and I got into my car and headed toward it. It wasn’t the first time I’d run toward confrontation. I was the tomboy who picked fights with the older boys, and for as long as I can remember I’ve also needed to know what was going on around me, what I myself might be up against. As I approached the area, I squeezed into an open parking spot on the street. In the rear view mirror I saw people standing on the corners behind me, just one long block from the SWAT truck and police vehicles stationed in front of the three-story, brick apartment building where all this was going down. I heard a series of bangs then, and something inside me stiffened. They sounded like gunshots, a sound I’d heard throughout my childhood as my dad test-fired weapons in his gun shop in our backyard in a residential neighborhood not far from where I now sat; he was a full-time German teacher then and a part-time gunsmith. I waited a few seconds. It was quiet, and I figured it must have been tear gas or something like that. The cops wouldn’t let all these people get that close if they could get hit by a stray bullet, right? So, I got out of the car.
I went up to a man and woman on the closest corner and asked what was going on. The woman was young, maybe in her twenties; she looked like she might have Down syndrome. She let the young man do all the talking, and he told me what I already knew: there was an armed man holed up in the Logan Court apartments. He’d been in a standoff with the police since that morning. I got the impression that they themselves had been there for hours. They weren’t holding hands. I don’t think their arms were even touching, but there they were, together, like sentries. They turned away from me and continued their vigil, staring ahead. My eyes followed. A SWAT team was poised behind an armored truck, which began to move, slowly turning and facing the apartment building head-on. A police car was nearby with officers hunched over the hood, weapons trained on the building.
On our corner a man in a navy work jacket and thick glasses arrived, along with a woman with reddish hair and crow’s feet. At first I took her to be his wife, something about the way she corrected him several times, the implications of ownership, how we’re allowed to do that to those closest to us, or how we slide into it, one person doing it, the other person accepting it. He was wearing a cap, though, so it was hard to discern his age and, at some point, it occurred to me that they could also be mother and son. Apparently, they lived in the building that was under siege—Building B—and they knew the gunman. He was their neighbor, Albert. They put him at about seventy years old with an arsenal in there.
Just the word—arsenal—made me think of the weapons that have always been a part of my dad’s life and our family’s life when I was young—his guns, his customers’ guns, the metal cases of ammo. All that firepower, all that just plain power, amassed to defend against “it,” my dad’s continued reference to some sort of anticipated invasion or revolution, the parameters of which seemed to change with the times. During my father’s childhood, the enemy was the German army, when all Americans were alert to the possibility of U-boats just off the coast. During my childhood in the ’60s and ’70s, the revolution might have involved black militants attempting to overthrow “decent” white society. During the Clinton administration, to my father “it” meant the U.S. government trying to take arms from its own citizens, in which case secret militias and individuals like him would have to fight it out in the streets against their own government. Or “it” might have meant the United Nations’ stripping sovereign nations of their military authority, forcing people like my father to defend themselves against an armed international agency. And in a post-9/11 world, “it” might be the “foreign” terrorists among us, or again, “lawless” black and Latino gangs, venturing from their cities to attack law-abiding citizens in the suburbs. I didn’t understand or agree with him on any of this—the fearsome “it” always haunting my father.
There at the standoff, a small amount of clear drool trickled from the left corner of the man’s mouth—the man in the navy work jacket—as he described some kind of metal framing around Albert’s doorway so no one could see inside his unit. I couldn’t really picture it, but I felt a sense of impingement, started to imagine Albert as a secretive, paranoid type who barely cracked his door open when anyone was in the hallway, and then I became aware of the way the bone cold of the pavement sent a chill all the way through me. I hadn’t planned on being outside for any length of time that afternoon. I hadn’t planned on being at a standoff. The man did not wipe away his drool, and I wondered if he was cold, too, or if his mouth was numb from dental work. He kind of talked like that. He mentioned that he had seen the police arrive that morning, but then he had to go to school. He would mention that again, a couple more times, while we’re all standing there—how he goes to school. At first, I assumed he meant college, but then I didn’t know. I mean, he never really said what kind of school.
Another neighbor joined us then. She was petite. Her hair was dark brown, dyed, and teased. Her teeth were bad. She was just a little thing, but she talked tough. She had a smoker’s voice and she was smoking as she talked. Every movement was quick and sharp. Inhale. Exhale. Her beady eyes darted here and there like a nervous bird’s. Puff. Puff. Apparently, Albert had had previous altercations with the building manager.
“That manager has got to go,” said Bird Woman. “This is ridiculous.”
It was implied, and the others murmured in agreement, that the building manager didn’t deal well with people, that things had been known to go missing from people’s apartments, that maybe he was partly responsible for Albert’s behavior. Not that anyone should ever shoot at someone else, but … still. The consensus of the group was that this was a waste of their tax dollars. Then, they turned on a dog. Apparently, a dog might have been at the root of it. Someone’s dog in their building. It would start barking early in the morning and it wouldn’t shut up. Albert got mad, complained to the manager, an argument ensued and escalated to the point where Albert shot a hole through his own door and the manager’s door across the hall. Supposedly, the shot through the doors did happen that morning, but it wasn’t clear to me if the dog’s barking was the actual inciting incident that morning, or if the current standoff was being conflated with other annoying, dog-barking episodes, arguments, and slammed doors.
It hit me then that I was in the midst of a self-selected society, or at least a subset of the self-selected society of the Logan Court Apartments, Building B, and they were letting me, a stranger, in on the particulars of their lives there, some of the comings and goings, the things they knew, or thought they knew, about Albert and the manager, the way a doorway was constructed, the way we can or can’t see inside people’s lives, the mystery of it all. This was what people did in times of crisis: huddle on the sidewalk and squint into a weak winter sun and try to make sense of it, worry about what might have been, the what-ifs. I definitely felt like an outsider. Or maybe I was dissociating in that moment. Maybe I was still too good at that, and that was why I felt this wasn’t really happening to me, except to the extent that I had grown up in this town and felt a kind of ownership of it; or to the extent that I had moved back in midlife and could see the back of Building B from the alley behind my rented house, where I parked my car; or to the extent that gun violence seemed to be a fact of life in these United States.
“It’s a yappy dog,” said Bird Woman. “A REAL yappy dog.” Puff. Puff.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
One of Bird Woman’s fingers was bleeding. When she swiped at her hair, she smeared blood across her right temple, a macabre kind of make-up. She was aware of the bleeding finger and periodically dabbed it against her coat, but none of us told her about the blood now on her face.
Down the street, the SWAT truck changed its position. The lid at the top lifted up and someone poked his head out. Men outside the truck moved as the truck moved, using it as a shield. The tank rolled slowly up over the curb and onto the grass, heading straight toward the building. I couldn’t actually see the tank’s point of contact with the building, but it seemed to be backing up and going forward a few times, as though it were battering its way into the building. I wondered if everyone else was out of the building, and how the police could batter it without causing structural damage, and whether they were going to demolish the entire building just to get to Albert?
“How do they know if Albert is still in his unit?” I asked. “Could he move through the hallways, up the stairs, and shoot his way into another apartment?”
I was thinking he’d then have a sniper-perch from a second-floor window, in which case, we were all easy prey, just a couple hundred yards away. Just as I needed to be aware of my surroundings, I sometimes thought about the speed and paths and trajectories of bullets.
“Nah, there were cops in the stairwells this morning. He can’t move,” said the man who drooled and went to school.
It welled up in me then, unbidden, the memory of the mental fortress of my childhood, the feeling that someone was out to get us, our family, our dad, me, and it came to rest on Albert, the sense of his being trapped, pinned down by the police, a militia. Was this Albert’s “it?” Who did he think he was fighting right now? What did he think they were trying to take from him or do to him? If we could have looked out Albert’s window, through Albert’s eyes, what would we have seen? The police or someone else or some sort of monster? If he had, indeed, exchanged gunfire with police, then he must have had a death-wish. And I was struck again: He would not come out of there alive. When you got to that point, the point where Albert was at just then, how could you give up? How could you make it stop, the narrative running through your head, the one where the whole world is against you and right outside your window, pressing in, battering their way in? And let us be honest: Your manhood is at stake. Yours versus the guys’ in uniform, the ones who have rolled in their military vehicles to bring Albert to his knees.
Another woman joined the makeshift community on the corner, these partial witnesses, who lived up close to Albert, and me, the interloper, the eavesdropper. This woman’s elderly aunt lived in Building B and she didn’t know if she had been evacuated or where she was. She didn’t think her aunt would be able to handle this; it was too much.
At the radio station I’d just been interviewed about my new job as the executive director of a small, nonprofit, community land trust, albeit part-time, ten hours a week. I was between things then, without knowing what the next thing was, only the ones that were over: a long marriage, child-rearing, the silences, the words holed up in my head, trying to shoot their way out. The land trust’s first project was to build a community garden right in the middle of what was supposedly Pottstown’s most-troubled neighborhood—historically occupied by African-Americans in what was overwhelmingly rental housing, much of it subsidized, much of it rundown, in what had been the arena for a drug turf war during 2010 that had resulted in several shootings. Now here was this standoff taking place in the North End of town in 2012. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen here, where the white people lived, and it became a repeated refrain of the standoff audience: “I moved to that apartment [or this part of town] because I thought it was safe.”
They seemed to have forgotten about the armed robbery four months earlier and, literally, two blocks from where we were standing. The cashier at the Turkey Hill Minit Market was robbed at gunpoint the prior fall just after midnight. The police were on a stakeout—there’d been a rash of late-night, armed robberies of area Turkey Hills and other all-night convenience stores—and the police saw this one unfold. An African-American male with a white t-shirt over his head pointed what looked to be a handgun at the clerk. As the robber left the store, they told him to stop and drop the gun. He turned toward them, and they fired. It sounded very Wild West to me. The robber was struck in the leg, but managed to get away, leaving behind what was actually a BB gun. The police couldn’t find him for several hours. They roped off the street in front of my house. Helicopters with searchlights hovered overhead around 5:00 a.m., when he was finally located, bleeding, in the Presbyterian church one block over. I slept through the whole thing; sleep has always been my release.
These neighbors didn’t mention the Turkey Hill shooting, and now we all stood, voluntarily and in broad daylight, as close to danger as we were allowed to get, to men in uniforms with guns drawn, to a man with a gun or guns, who had snapped. There was no getting away from it, no neighborhood you could live in and get away from it. Well, no, I take that back. I knew there were places where money still insulated their residents from poverty and the rumbling aftershocks of poverty. I had lived in those places for thirty years. Anyway, you couldn’t get away from guns and violence in a place like Pottstown, couldn’t pretend it didn’t concern you. And, after all, there was danger all around, everywhere, not all of it having to do with guns. Most people don’t want to admit that. If you really thought about it, if you really faced up to it, how could you even get out of bed? How could you leave your house? To go to work, say, if you’re a woman. To be a person of color or an immigrant or someone who wears a hijab or a turban. For that matter, in a lot of cases, how could you stay in your house? You know what I mean. You go to enough memoir workshops, you teach enough adolescents, you listen to enough people talk about their lives, their childhoods, their parents, their partners, you really listen, you allow for the possibility of violence, and you begin to see what I mean. You read the newspaper, you read between the lines, you think back, you remember—you have to remember—if you do not want to remember what it was like to be a child, to interpret the world for the first time—your parents, other adults, other kids, the systems at work. If you do not want to remember what it was like to not know how they worked, what it was like to not know the rules, and the moment you started making one assumption or another, one interpretation or another, then, of course, you are not going to begin to see what I mean. There’s not much this story, or any story, can do for a person like that. You have to allow for the possibility.
At first, I thought it was mainly girls and women who were in danger in the world, and maybe that’s true enough anyway. Now, though, when I think about someone like Albert, I think about my father. I think about a little boy who was once in danger. I didn’t know who put Albert there, in Building B, surrounded, guns trained on him on February 9, 2012. I didn’t know if it was someone inside his house, someone outside his house. I’m talking about when he was a boy. So, of course, we can’t always know, because they don’t always know—someone like Albert, in Albert’s position during that standoff—and they’re the only ones who could tell us, but only if they know and, then, only if they want to tell.
Here’s a story: A six- or seven-year-old boy has to go down the street along the railroad tracks and around the corner into the firehouse to tell his dad to stop drinking and playing cards; it’s time to come home. One time he watches as the ambulance takes his dad away; he’s had so much to drink, he’s got the DTs. That’s how my dad put it when he told me this story a few years ago, around the time of the standoff. So many times my father has erased the stories of his father’s sometimes violent alcoholism with one line: “He was a good man.” Yes, in some ways I’m sure he was. And he drank too much, and he hit you, and you stuttered, and you pointed a loaded gun at him when you were sixteen and he’d been drinking and was coming after you, and he left you alone after that. And you’ve surrounded yourself with guns ever since. He was a flawed man, like the rest of us, and you loved him, like I love you.
“So,” I said to him after he told this particular story, “Your mom sends you out to bring your drunk father home on a regular basis. You watch your dad seizing up. You were just a little kid. We call that trauma, Dad.”
The blank look, then a shift, something coming into his eyes. My dad is not stupid. He is a reader and a storyteller with a beautiful singing voice. He is friendly and generous; his former students, relatives, and customers seek his counsel. He is really quite perceptive, but I could tell this was a whole new way of seeing the world, himself: vulnerable, trusting, the child he was before he ever had to look at his father in that condition, before he had to start making calculations about his own safety. His father’s steps heavy on the staircase leading up to his attic bedroom. Where is Richard? Where is he? This is what I mean about remembering, about wanting to remember. But in the end, how much does he want me to know or tell? He has told his stories to me out of order, and since they didn’t happen to me, I can be something of an editor and put them back in order and draw my own conclusions. Your father. Coming at you. The enormity of it. The stated enemies may have changed over the decades, but I can’t help but believe that my dad has armed himself his whole life for a standoff with his father, the real ones and all of the imagined ones.
We already know that domestic violence begets domestic violence, like sexual abuse and substance abuse, cycling through generations until it is consciously broken. And we are now learning of the correlation between domestic violence and mass shootings. I understand that my attempt to understand someone like Albert—and my father—makes me susceptible to accusations of pandering to white males, to giving them special dispensation perhaps because of mental illness, to accounting for their fragility. But I am not saying that Albert, or anyone who takes up arms against fellow citizens or the police, should get any special treatment in the moment or after the fact. I am not talking about letting them off the hook for their actions as adults. I’m talking about preventing them from being harmed in the first place, from feeling the need to pick up a gun and aim it at innocents, as if that will avenge the original harm. Or from feeling the need to own an arsenal, as if that will prevent additional harm. My grandfather has been dead for more than fifty years; he’s not coming for my dad ever again. And so, I wondered, and still wonder: What about Albert? All the Alberts? All the white men with guns? What to do about them? And more specifically, what to do about them when they are boys? People are mysteries, will always be mysteries, every single one of them, but I can’t let go of the notion that there are clues. There are always clues.
Before I left the standoff—I didn’t see how my waiting there in the cold meant anything—I ran into the Borough Council president and his wife, who lived on the block where we had all gathered.
“Congratulations on the new job,” he said. “I caught the tail end of your interview.” And then he said something like, “Thanks for moving back. It’s good to have you here.” The way he said it made it sound like he was referring to right then, at the standoff. You know, like he was glad there was, perhaps, a kind of outsider to be a witness. He knew I’d been gone for thirty years, knew I’d become the town’s cheerleader on a town blog I’d created, knew I’d been volunteering in several capacities. What he could not have known was that these gigs were a limbo for me— my own standoff with the things closing in on me: middle age and the whole of my childhood, the need to make meaning, to make sense of the past before I could make some new future.
In the end Albert did give in. The paper said his full name was Albert J. Dudanowicz. He wasn’t seventy; he was fifty-six, not much older than I was at the time. He had shot through the manager’s door, but there was nothing about the yappy dog, nothing about Albert’s mental state. It turned out there was no arsenal either, although he had a .50-caliber Smith and Wesson five-shot pistol and a Remington .375 H & H bolt-action rifle, which was powerful enough to kill an elephant, according to the paper. It was reported that he was bleeding from one hand, where a sniper had hit him. The photo in the paper showed a burly white man, alive, walking, unshaven, his chest naked, massive spotlights shining on him, darkness around the edges.
Three weeks later, a local reporter pelted Albert with questions in an online video taken as he left a hearing.
“Albert, do you have anything to say?” she asked. “You want to apologize? Why’d you shoot at those police officers that day? You’re not sorry? Why wouldn’t you come out of your apartment? No apology? You’re not going to apologize?”
Rat-a-tat-tat. She sprayed him with questions.
Albert’s beard was full then. His right hand was heavily bandaged. He shuffled from the chains around his ankles. His eyes didn’t seem to see, and then he cast them downward. At first, he whimpered, and it was high-pitched, until all the whimpers started running together, animal-like and wounded.