Gun Violence Changed My Life – a Personal Account of the Seattle Café Shooting
For Sheryl Wiser, it was one year ago, May 30, that gun violence shook her life. Though the event was national news, she never heard from her family. They never realized how close she was to the Seattle Café Shooting. It has taken her nearly that long to tell them about her experience in an e-mail she felt compelled to share with Newtown Action Alliance. Before the massacre of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in our community of Newtown, Connecticut, we felt relatively safe from gun violence. That day woke us up to take action for smarter, safer gun laws because we realized that if such horrific violence can happen here, in Newtown, it can happen anywhere.
And it has. In the six months since Newtown, 4,500 people have lost their lives to gun violence, and that number continues to grow. Tragically, 2012 was the worst year for mass shootings in U.S. history. There were seven in total.
The following is an edited account of Sheryl Wiser's experience with one of those shootings:
Dear sweet family and friends,
I have been writing this e-mail in my thoughts for many weeks now, and debating as to whether or not I should send this. But, I think I’m ready. And I think I need to.
First and foremost, I am “fine” in the sense that I am physically healthy. But it’s important to me that I share something with you about my life that has been both weight and blessing. I hope you will bear with me in that this might be a bit lengthy.
I live on a tree-lined street just north of the University District in Seattle. I moved to this neighborhood, known as the “Roosevelt District,” four years ago. It’s a nice mix of college students, professors, families, the elderly, professionals, and creative types. Modest bungalows are mixed in with older, more elegant homes. It’s a friendly street. Everyone knows one another, and each summer we have a block party. We swap gardening tips and tools. We know everyone’s kids and dogs, and we keep an eye on each other.
Even though Seattle is a “big city,” after being here for 25 years, it’s a small town. It never fails to amaze me how I can meet a total stranger and in five minutes we’ve discovered five people we know in common. There is a thread of connectivity here that is pretty special. Compared to New York, Boston, or San Francisco, we’re small-time here. So when something happens in Seattle that makes national news, it happens to everyone in Seattle.
I live close to the corner of 59th and Roosevelt Avenue, where I share a three-story yellow house with a sweet young couple, Nick Anderson and Nora Drummer – yes, Nick and Nora.
Nora is getting her Masters in Culinary Nutrition. Nick is a musician, and the manager of Café Racer, just down the street. Nora also manages a couple of shifts at the café. We all live exactly 100 yards from the café.
Café Racer is a well-known hangout, loved for its great coffee, comfort food, music and art. It’s friendly and accommodating to everyone – from babes in arms to dogs, struggling students, anything and anyone riding on two wheels. Neighbors wander in for Sunday brunch or morning coffee. Professors play cards with Harley-Davidson bikers, and everyone gets along. And it hosts flourishing jazz sessions on Sunday nights that the New York Times called “Seattle’s Alt-Rock Hub, Purring with Jazz.”
I’ve been happy and lucky enough to perform there and, after all these years, it is absolutely one of the best places I’ve ever played. Not because it has a fantastic sound system, or because I make a lot of money. I love performing there. Oh, and about that small-world connection? An old friend, whom I lost touch with for 15 years, owns the café. The rings of proximity have been endless.
It’s been cool to be there, listening to music, playing music, bringing my laptop there to work, having coffee, food, wine or whatever there. And to pass by it every day on walks with Blue (my dog).
It was also cool to have known Don Largen and Glenna Wilson, my neighbors across the street from where I live. Don liked to sit on his front porch and play his saxophone. What a charmed life, I thought, living on a street where people sit on their porch and make music on a summer night. And Glenna, a multi-talented glass and tile artist, and Don both loved gardening. They were a devoted couple, planning on getting married in the fall. Don was smart – always smiling, always wearing a little knit hat.
But, on May 30, 2012, a gunman walked into Café Racer at 10:56 am and shot and killed four people: Drew Keriakedes, Joe Albanese, Kim Layfield, and my neighbor, Don.
Also shot and critically wounded was Len Meuse, the café chef and baker, my friend. Len, after spending 20 years doing gene therapy research at UW and Stanford, decided he had a higher calling as a pastry chef.
Drew gave me my first gig at Café Racer. He and Joe were best friends. They were spectacular musicians and performers (think Cirque du Soleil meets old-soul Klezmer).
Kim always wore a sunny smile on her face and could finish in a single day the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, without a thought. Like second nature.
When he left the café, the shooter took something with him – Don’s hat. Then he shot and killed Gloria Leonides, a mother of two teenage girls, in a downtown Seattle parking lot, before taking his own life on a sidewalk in West Seattle as police attempted to apprehend him.
This was not a robbery or a random act. I can’t say his name. I generally refer to him as ‘the shooter.’ He lived in my neighborhood. He spent time in the café. But, he was often asked to leave for being too angry or just being kind of crazy.
Just a few days before the shooting, his belligerent behavior in front of a group of elderly customers was the last straw for my friend, and café owner, Kurt. So, when, the shooter walked into the café on the morning of May 30, Len, ever affable, said, “I’m sorry, but you can’t be here.” And that was that.
The shooter apparently had a long history of violence and mental problems, though not the kind that shows up on official records here in Washington State with its notoriously lax gun laws. He was charged with misdemeanor assault in 2008 and again in 2010. But charges in both cases were dismissed. Other charges reported by Seattle police, such as malicious mischief, were also dropped before getting to court. His family says he was mentally ill, but apparently this was not enough to keep him from getting a concealed weapons permit. It’s an all too-familiar headline – one seen over and over again. In this case, the shooter’s history was dotted with failures, rejections, delusions, violence, and a strong interest in guns.
His family now regrets that they did not push harder to get him mental health treatment. I don’t fault his family in this. They did what they could.
Shocking? You bet. There’s more – so much more – but there’s a point in all of this and I’m trying to get there.
So, why am I sharing this with you now and not a year ago? To be honest, until now, I haven’t been able to talk about it beyond people in Seattle. I am blessed with a strong and loving community of friends, and none of you live here. How can you even imagine what’s been going on? Even though it’s been in the national news, it still didn’t sink in with you that this happened, literally, in my backyard, complete with SWAT teams combing every inch of our street for the shooter. We don’t really talk much so how could you know the very real pain and trauma that has been part of my life for the past year. But I have found a good therapist. It’s taken a while to find someone who is very good at working on trauma related to gun violence.
The day after the shootings in Aurora was the first day the café opened to the public – July 20. I was just returning home after the official opening to find TV crews in my front yard waiting to ask me how I felt about the shootings in Colorado on opening day. I said “no comment.”
But over the past year, as every shooting has unfolded, it has become impossible for me to remain silent.
In all of these conversations about guns and violence in this country, I think we each must come to our own conclusions about what we are moved to do. Given my physical proximity to Café Racer on such an intimate basis, you bet I know it could have been me. The next time you find yourself thinking, “What can I do?” maybe a human face you know might help you find an answer. Just learning about the issues could be a good place to start. Start with reading in the New Republic, “This is How the NRA Ends: A Bigger, Richer, Meaner Gun-Control Movement Has Arrived” by Alec MacGillis.
I am fully aware that this is a complex issue – gun violence of the Café Racer kind is not gun violence that happens in Chicago. If you’re a fan of “This American Life,” listen to their two-part program on Chicago’s Harper High School.
This is no easy task. But in the end, there but for the grace of God, I was lucky. I’m heartbroken that others weren’t. But here I am now, and I get to say, ‘What’s next? What can I do to make a difference?’
I can’t change what happened, but I am going to do my best to articulate about where I put my grief and my grace around this.
May 30 is the one-year anniversary of the shootings. Please say a prayer for Drew, Joe, Kim, Don and Gloria. I didn’t know Gloria, but being in Seattle, I have friends who did.
I also ask that you say a prayer for Glenna, Don’s wife, and Zoe, Drew’s wife. Their grief is staggering.
And you can throw in a prayer for me, too. To be on this street, seeing the café every day, and Don and Glenna’s house, now with new owners, is less than easy. There are triggers, and some of them are quite fierce to deal with. All I can say is that it has been really hard.
I will leave you with this: When I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I sat on a bench one morning with some coffee and a book called “The Blessing” by Gregory Orr. The jacket cover asked this question: “How do we find meaning in the face of death?” Seems grim, right? But Orr is a magnificent poet. He is also a Rockefeller Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence. When he was a child, he tragically and accidentally shot his brother. I thought, how odd that this book should literally land in my lap.
It’s been a tough read. But, as with many things, there’s this place of redemption, when the character reveals itself in tiny splendor. On page 134, my heart lurched. Then it clicked in a way that hasn’t, for almost a year:
"Violent trauma shreds the web of meaning. It destroys all the threads of relationship that link the hurt self to the world – to other people and objects, or to nature or even to the inner world of its own feelings. The real task of a trauma victim – the task that makes life worth living again – is to reconnect the self to the world. To do that, you need to reweave the web, to risk the spinning of the threads until they form a sustaining pattern the self can inhabit."
Really, I needed to read this. Weird, and beautiful, the random gifts that fate casts with our coffee.
With much love,