I was pushing my three-year-old daughter in the stroller while my five-year-old son walked next to me in Greenwich Village in New York City. We were only two blocks from our home, about to pass my son’s school when a woman ran around the corner screaming, “He has a gun! He has a gun! Run!”
So, I started to run, except my son ran in the opposite direction, back towards the threat. I was terrified to let go of my daughter’s stroller because people were stampeding towards us but I desperately needed to get my son. I caught his eye and shouted, “It’s okay, it’s okay. Come to me, now!” I stretched out my arm and finally he darted to me and grabbed it. Then we took off, pushing the stroller with one hand, pulling my son with the other.
I scanned all around us for a place to hide. The stores were all shoebox size and I thought if someone found us in one, we’d have no chance. So, I kept running. I didn’t stop to look if anyone was coming, didn’t register gun fire or lack thereof, just the continual pounding thought in my head, that my actions could save, or lose, my children’s lives.
The day before we had just learned about the shootings in Orlando, about the massacre in a gay club, that 49 people dead, and scores wounded, were primarily people of color. My husband is transgender and I identify as queer, and while we’re white and relatively privileged, it had still hit particularly close to home. We read news stories and cried before deciding we needed community so we went to a rally at Stonewall in Greenwich Village, a few blocks from our house. I explained to my son that sometimes people hurt people because they think something about them is wrong, be it color, religion, or who they love. I said people were coming together to remember those who got hurt, that putting love into the world is stronger than bad guys and that collectively we have the power to change the world.
He sat on my husband’s shoulders waving a rainbow flag and shouting “Stop hate, stop hate!” I hugged and cried with strangers and went home thinking that our world is so, so, sad but we can’t let fear win.
Then the next day I hear “He has a gun!” and think that we might die.
As I looked for a safe place to go, my thoughts were far from rational. I dismissed place after place. It was only after I’d run close to 10 blocks that I stopped. I crouched down next to my son on the pavement, hugged him, and told him he was brave. He was sobbing, hysterical, “We can’t go home. What if the bad guy’s in our house? What if he kills our cats?”
I did what any parent would do in that situation: assured him that we were safe and that our cats were safe and tried to hide the shock that reverberated through every one of my cells. I called my husband on the phone and tried to tell him what happened in an oddly sing-song voice, and told him not to worry the kids.
My husband left work, saying he’d meet me somewhere and walk us home. In the meantime, I searched for somewhere, anywhere to sit, something to distract the kids. I spotted a McDonald’s across the street and 10 minutes later,the kids were scarfing down hot-fudge sundaes, surrounded by people for whom this was just an ordinary day. I searched for news on my phone, trying to figure out what happened but find nothing. In shock, I texted friend after friend, trying to ground myself back to the world. My son, who happened to be wearing head-to-toe camouflage said, “I probably saved our lives because those bad guys couldn’t see me.”
“You probably did,” I said, kissing the top of his head, questioning my decision to let him believe it’s that easy. He will end up wearing that outfit every day for two weeks because he’s scared to take it off.
When my husband met us to escort us home, I sunk into his arms. I suggested we take a detour back, but he insisted we walk past the spot where it happened, the spot where a woman screamed and I thought, “What I do in this moment could save my children or get them killed.” I took deep breaths and gripped the stroller too hard.
“This is where we were, right mom?” my son asked. “Where the bad guys came?”
“Yeah, the bad guy had a gun,” my three-year-old daughter added and I realized she’s been taking it all in too, that she had not been as oblivious as she seemed.
I told them we don’t even really know if there was a bad guy or a gun. I said it’s possible that someone made a mistake, that there was nothing there at all.
The next day, I found out it wasn’t a mistake when a friend sends me a link to an article about the event. An off-duty cop pulled a gun during a confrontation with a bike delivery man – something about the bike hitting a car mirror, an ice-pick that may or may not have been there. But what’s clear is the cop retrieved his gun from his car and didn’t once identify himself as police. A video shows him waving this gun, shouting directly in front of an elementary school. There’s no video of us around the corner, frantically running and running.
When my son woke up the next morning, he curled into my body for a kiss and asked, “What do I do if the bad guy comes back?”
“He won’t,” I told him. “He won’t.”
But how do I know this? The fact that this is the first time my children have run from a gun is disturbingly a relative privilege – many children grow up knowing how to run and hide. No one walked into that Orlando club on Saturday night and thought a “bad guy” would come and weighed the risk-reward ratio between freedom and love and death.
The day after the gun incident, my son left a sign in front of the Stonewall Memorial that said, “No more bad guys, no guns, only love.” I took a picture of it and posted it to Facebook, proud of his sensitivity and my progressive parenting. People “liked” away.
But part of me knew I had it all wrong. The idea of a bad guy is way too simple and we’re far beyond just needing gun control. Violence has become a reflex in our country and it needs to change, for our sake and for our children’s sake. I carry my experience with me, like altered DNA, and a shot wasn’t even fired. For so many others, “Run, they’ve got a gun,” is the last thing they hear.