An excerpt from the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Guidebook
By Bowie Rowan
In 1959, less than ten miles outside the city of Pittsburgh, a high school was built like a college campus. Comprised of eight buildings, each one housed different subjects and homerooms for every grade level. Bethel Park Senior High School was meant to serve additionally as a campus for the Community College of Allegheny County. So, in some ways, the campus makes sense then, I think. But mostly, an open high school campus in Western Pennsylvania, with its harsh winters—even harsher before the last several decades of global warming—now seems like a practice in teenage torture.
My mother and father went to Bethel Park Senior High School. But they were four years apart. They never shared snowy walks between buildings one and eight—their hair turning into icicles in the cold after swim class—or held hands while cutting through every building across campus for respite from the cold. Despite the ice and snow, there were advantages to the campus for a troubled kid like my mom. An open campus meant there were secret spots behind buildings to make out with boys and smoke cigarettes and weed before the bell rang.
An open, mostly unguarded campus made it easy for a kid to skip class. By my senior year at Bethel Park Senior High School, I walked off campus unbothered before I finished my classes for the day at least once a week. But an open campus also made it easy for anyone, from anywhere, to walk onto it and into classrooms as well, without ever being noticed.
The first time I heard that someone died from a gunshot was in 1997. I was ten. Ennis Cosby, Bill Cosby’s son, was murdered in Los Angeles during a failed robbery attempt. Despite what we all know about Bill Cosby now in 2020, all I knew or cared about then was that somebody’s son was dead. It was difficult for me to comprehend, but eventually, I made sense of it. At ten, I already knew, death would come for me someday too.
Before I saw the gruesome news coverage of Ennis Cosby’s death— his bloody body on the side of the road showed on a TV screen on repeat—my only real understanding of what could cause death was old age or sickness. In 1997, I had already seen and experienced various kinds of violence as a young girl, but not the kind that killed you—even if you felt like it might.
Before the death of Ennis Cosby, when I thought of guns, I saw the slack jaws of deer, their blank stares gnawing at me from the bed of a neighbor’s pickup truck. As a girl, I fed apples to the deer that visited us in our small backyard. Mom put out salt blocks for them in the summer, though now I’m uncertain why. My family didn’t own guns nor did anyone have the financial luxury or time to go hunting. I can only assume she wanted to attract them so I could give them apples and ensure they were fed.
One night, when I couldn’t sleep, I stumbled to the kitchen in the dark, filling a glass with water before almost dropping it. Through the window above the sink, a deer’s watery gaze stared back at me. I could feel its animal heat so close behind that flimsy window screen. We looked at each other for longer than I’d ever looked at another animal, human or not. I felt a sense of recognition I hadn’t yet felt with any human in my life.
Ever since I was a girl, I have always wondered, why would anyone want to kill a creature as beautiful as this?
It’s 1999 when I cover my bedroom walls with images of the band NSYNC and high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murder twelve students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado. When I see the news, I can’t help but think that, despite the trench coats, they look a lot like my older brother. Tall, skinny, white, male, teenager. It scares me. So do the new drills at school. The ones where we huddle together in the far end of the room after the teacher locks the door and we wait, trying not to imagine a skinny boy with a gun blasting down the classroom door before murdering us all.
I am twelve and in school at Independence Middle School on a small hill just next to the high school when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold kill their fellow students and teacher at Columbine. My brother is a sophomore at Bethel Park Senior High School then. He is a student on an open campus. I try not to think of everything that could happen to him.
After Columbine, I take a break from the news to focus on the more manageable and mundane daily dramas of my almost-teen life. Or perhaps my parents stopped letting me watch the news, though that level of surveillance from them when I was a tween is unlikely. More likely, is this: the news was so overwhelming, I watched it, and often, but now, I remember little after Columbine because I blocked it out.
Richard Baumhammers was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1965, only two years after the birth of my mother. Like Richard, my mother spent her early years in a small house in Mount Lebanon, even closer to the city of Pittsburgh, than Bethel Park. A convenient neighborhood for those who lived and worked in the city like Richard’s parents did, both of them faculty members at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Dental Medicine.
My mother’s father was a trolley car driver. Eventually, my family moved to a house in Bethel Park on the trolley line because it was cheaper and more convenient for my grandfather’s job. Richard spent high school at Mount Lebanon, a rival of the Bethel Park Blackhawks, before going off to college and then law school while my mother became a pregnant teen divorced from my brother’s abusive biological father before she could legally drink.
Richard became an immigration lawyer and returned to Pittsburgh in the late 90s. He was having some problems. Only later would his father admit that he’d seen signs since his son was a boy.
Whenever Richard leaves the psychiatric hospital where he was committed, he returns to his parents’ home in Mount Lebanon. He decides to travel, moving to Latvia where he stays close to where his grandparents once lived in the 1930s.
Before his travels, he’d never really been in trouble before.
It’s 1999, the same year as the Columbine shooting and me covering my room with images of NSYNC ripped from magazines, when Richard’s arrested for assaulting a woman in Paris because he believed her to be Jewish. He’s detained for a short period of time before leaving for Spain.
A year later, after we all survived the turn of the millennium, Richard’s back in Pittsburgh when he buys a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver just south of the city.
First, he shoots and kills his parents’ friend and neighbor of more than 30 years before setting her house on fire. She is Jewish.
Traveling a little north of Mount Lebanon in his Jeep, Richard shoots through the windows of a synagogue before murdering a thirty-one-year-old man shopping for groceries at the local India Grocers. The store manager survives the shooting, dying later of complications at the age of thirty-two.
Moving closer to the city, in the town of Carnegie, Richard shoots through another synagogue’s windows. Continuing on, he drives west of Pittsburgh to a town not far from the airport before shooting and killing a young restaurant manager and a cook in front of customers at a Chinese restaurant.
Traveling further down the Ohio River, away from the city, he finds his final victim: a twenty-two-year-old Black man who happens to be working out in a karate school.
Like so many of these stories, a manifesto is later found in Richard’s home in Mount Lebanon. It is a familiar and untrue story. European Americans are being outnumbered. Minorities and immigrants are the problem. A website is also discovered where Richard had clearly, and publicly, stated his racist, xenophobic beliefs.
Here are the facts: Richard was arrested for physically assaulting a woman after believing she was Jewish. Richard had a documented history of mental illness. Richard was still able to buy a gun.
“Shootings Leave Pittsburgh Suburbs Stunned” a New York Times article reports in April of 2000 just after Richard Baumhammers went on his shooting spree through three counties surrounding the city of Pittsburgh. Only a few months before this, a Black man was charged for racially motivated killings in the neighborhood of Wilkinsburg.
The more I read, the more I am overwhelmed by the number of shootings during the spring of 2000 alone, not only in Pittsburgh, but across the United States.
Perhaps I don’t remember Baumhammers’ spree in particular because its shock was absorbed by a sea of national violence, delusion, and cruelty. Perhaps I don’t remember because I couldn’t after the particular kind of contact I first felt with chance and death in the wake of Ennis Cosby’s murder.
Eighteen years later in October 2018, another New York Times headline reads: “Quiet Day at a Pittsburgh Synagogue Became a Battle to Survive.”
The deadliest attack ever committed on the Jewish community in the United States is in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in the city of Pittsburgh where I was born. Shortly before the massacre, two independent reports showed a peak in anti-semitic activity online, similar to the rises reported surrounding the 2016 presidential election.
The suspect: another white man obsessed with the alt-right who had a history of posting hateful beliefs publicly online.
Like Richard Baumhammers, Robert Gregory Bowers, the 2018 Squirrel Hill shooter, lived in a suburb of Pittsburgh just south of the city. Baldwin: a township only a little east of Mount Lebanon and Bethel Park.
Baldwin High School being where Bowers went to school before dropping out and where I took my SATs for the second time during my senior year of high school.
Baldwin being where Bowers’ neighbors described him as a ghost.
In 1959, the year Bethel Park Senior High School was built, I wonder if the architect considered the possibility of a lone gunman walking onto campus, spraying the inside of buildings one through eight with bullets while students hid inside classrooms or attempted to flee.
School shootings have been reported since the eighteenth century. There is a seemingly endless list of them labeled “List of School Shootings” organized by century on Wikipedia. A law professor shot by a student in 1840 in Charlottesville, Virginia. A father who shot a schoolmaster to death after the schoolmaster strangled his son to death for killing his tame sparrow. Many more killings of teachers by students and parents and vice versa. The death of two students by gunfire at a school dance in Plain Dealing, Louisiana in 1893. 1904 in Chicago, Illinois, the murder of a sixteen-year-old boy by another boy after fighting over a girl. An eleven-year-old student in Trinidad, Colorado in 1909 who accidentally killed his teacher while on a school trip. The rape and murder of a nineteen-year-old female teacher in 1916 in Bemidji, Minnesota. The killer just walked right into the school while the teacher was alone.
The list goes on and on. The number of deaths and injuries per shooting rising through the years until we see eighteen dead in Austin, Texas in 1966 when an engineering student shot bullets from the observation deck of the Main Building tower at the University of Texas at Austin. Like Richard Baumhammers of Pittsburgh, Charles Whitman had a documented history of violence and mental illness.
The University of Texas tower shooting was the most fatal campus shooting until 2007 when at Virginia Tech, another student shot and killed more than thirty students and staff. Like Robert Gregory Bowers of Baldwin, Seung-Hui Cho was described as quiet, someone you might barely notice if it weren’t for their perceived lonesomeness.
I am struck by how as the years pass, the documented school shootings seem to move from personal to impersonal rage. From eye for an eye revenge to shootings growing larger in scale motivated by racism, sexism, xenophobia, and mental illness.
Today, in 2020, as I traverse public spaces throughout the world, I often fail to subdue my anxiety whenever I hear an unexpected loud noise or I pass an agitated man in the movie theater or grocery store because all I can think is Gun. Gun, gun, gun.
Over the last handful of years, when one of my students has become demonstrably angry (they have all been male and white), by slamming the door or banging the desk as they walk out of my office when I tell them something they don’t want to hear (you’re failing, you’re tardy every day, you plagiarized, I discovered you forged government documents to get out of class), all I can think is Gun. Gun, gun, gun. I go to bed at night running through my head how I might protect my other students if one of these boys came to class with a gun. I feel insane, overly sensitive, dramatic, but am I?
I’m a college senior at the University of Pittsburgh in 2009 when my writing professor shows a video in class to demonstrate something important about point of view, how depending on when and how you learn information, your perspective of a character or narrator will change. The video she shows us is of a man giving a tour of his apartment. It’s innocuous and boring on first view. When she reveals to us that the man is George Sodini, I feel sick, and another student gets up quickly before leaving the room.
Only a few months before, Sodini shot and killed three people in an LA Fitness outside of Pittsburgh, injuring nine others. The daughter of my mother’s boss was one of the victims. Not long before this, I was at her wedding where I remember her vividly, smiling in her ornate sari. Luckily, she survived, but I would hear reports over the next year from afar after I moved to San Francisco for my first job post-graduation. She was having trouble leaving the house.
Everywhere I went in San Francisco, I imagined a man pulling out a gun. Sodini had a history of posting hate speech online about women, yet he was still able to purchase a weapon.
In 2009, when my classmate came back into the room, she apologized before saying quietly, “I’m sorry, but I had to leave. I was one of the women he shot.”
Shortly after I graduate from college, I vote to keep Bethel Park Senior High School an open campus. I’m not totally certain I can explain why, but I’d like to try. Despite my increasing fear of guns since I was a kid, voting for tax dollars to be used to tear down a perfectly functioning school and replace it with another felt like waste and also like failure. It made me angry. Angry to know that kids would be locked away in a new school that would be more like a prison. Angry that they wouldn’t have the same choice and freedom to learn and make mistakes by skipping class or making out and smoking weed behind building five. Maybe they’d be safer in some ways, I argued with myself, but ultimately, a new school could only protect them from the realities and choices that lay ahead for so long. They would still leave school for the parking lot or to catch the bus. They would still go to the movies and the mall.
I voted for the campus to remain because nowhere is fully safe. What if our tax dollars were used to aid in enacting more gun control efforts and offering mental health services to those in need instead? Bethel Park Senior High School was colloquially called Heroin High by the time I graduated in 2005. In fact, the boy who sat in front of me in homeroom every day for years died of an overdose shortly before we were meant to graduate. My brother’s best friend passed a few years later after first encountering heroin from another suburban high schooler.
This was the reality. The reality we all knew as teenagers, even if adults didn’t like to talk to us directly about it as we locked doors and hid behind desks on the far side of the classroom during drills, holding our breath.
The unspoken reality we lived with every day was this: If someone wanted to shoot a bunch of us at school badly enough, campus or not, they would find a way.
When I voted from the cubicle of my first after-college editorial assistant job in San Francisco, I felt defeated and depressed before I even knew the verdict. I wasn’t surprised when I received an email letting me know that I lost. My high school campus was torn down and one massive building took its place. I’ve driven by, and just like I thought, it looks like a prison. I like to think that the students are safer than my brother and I were in the late 90s and early 2000s, but I don’t really believe this. I see the new school only as a Band-Aid on a larger cultural problem that has been hemorrhaging for decades.
Last year, shortly after I finished graduate school, I was bartending in the wealthiest municipality of Pennsylvania, a suburb called Fox Chapel. It was early that day and our shift had only just begun when one of the servers began talking about a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, TX. More than twenty people were killed and more than twenty were injured.
“This is why my brother refuses to take his kids to any large stores,” I say. “He feels guilty, but he buys everything on Amazon because he’s so afraid of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“You can’t live like that,” one of the chefs says leaning against the bar. The manager turns down the lights before customers arrive, leaving the room as soon as the gun and murder talk begin.
“This is what they want,” the server says. He’s smiling shyly like he often does when he’s about to make what he thinks is a profound point. His cheeks are round and covered in freckles. He pulls at the strings on his brown apron. “Division. Isolation. That’s how they gain control.”
It’s unclear who the “they” is that he’s referring to. I’m uncertain he even knows, but I understand his meaning. There is always someone who profits from hatred and violence. All you have to do is follow wherever the trail of money takes you.
When one of the other servers walks by the bar, the small group standing around me as I cut lemon and lime garnishes grows quiet like it always does when he’s around. There has been an ongoing joke since we all opened the restaurant together a few months before that he’ll be the one to shoot us all. He’s of course young, white, male, quiet, easily agitated. I feel guilty every time I laugh when someone says it. I laugh only because letting myself come into contact with my real fear feels far too overwhelming for conversation with coworkers, most of whom I’m hoping I won’t see again as soon as I find another job.
I feel bad for the server we all fear, but I’m also suspicious. We aren’t necessarily wrong for feeling afraid of him. Months before during an early training, he asked me for my number so he could take me out for coffee. I gave it to him, though I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to spend time alone with him. We hadn’t talked much, so I was unsure of his intentions. I was too afraid to reject him outright, especially around new coworkers. When he texted me, I told him I was too busy that week, but we should try again for the following. He never texted back or talked directly to me again, except for once, in the middle of a rush, he asked if I took tranquilizers. Busy and confused, I asked him what he meant. “I don’t know how you stay so calm,” he said, unexpectedly looking me in the eye before rushing away.
Shortly after that day, I saw him sleeping face down at a table in the gas station across the street from the bar. I felt soft towards him before becoming afraid. I can’t explain why, but seeing him like that didn’t evoke sustained pity or compassion in me, though I thought it should. After that moment, I began to be extra aware and kind to him whenever he needed something from me at the bar. I feel absurd admitting it, but if I’m honest, the thought often passed through my mind that maybe if he did decide to shoot us all, he would take pity on me if I could only get him to look me in the eye. Time would slow down, and for a moment, the world would feel a little safer and more beautiful like it did all those years ago when I caught the gaze of that deer through the kitchen window in the middle of the night.
He will look at me and I will look at him. And we will see together what is impossible to see when you’re living inside a prison of fear and rage and loneliness. We will see in each other what is always there but too often goes unseen: We are beautiful, vulnerable creatures capable of equanimity, understanding, and love. Then we will follow a question until we feel the weight of the truth of our connectedness, no matter how much we may try to deny it through differing identities, ideologies, hate, and violence.
The question where we will meet each other fully for the first time in mutual frailty and humility will be this: Why would anyone want to kill a creature as beautiful as us? ■
*This story appears in the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Guidebook, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.
Bowie Rowan is a writer and multimedia artist. Their work has appeared at Joyland, Kenyon Review Online, Los Angeles Review, and PANK, among others. Most recently, their audio essay, “How to Survive a Fire,” was recognized by the Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize. Currently, they’re at work on their first novel.
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