We almost didn’t go. I had the outdoor concert on our calendar, but as Sunday unfolded and some of the chores I had to do were staring at me relentlessly and indolence gripped our family, I announced, “If no one REALLY wants to go to the concert, us will skip it. “
I felt bad about it: Living in Manhattan during the pandemic kept me looking for safe things for our children to remind us of how special it is to live in this city. My 8 year old son motivated me. “I want to go mom, if that’s okay?” he said as he put on his sneakers.
My husband, exhausted on the sofa, and my daughter, with Legos in hand, dropped somewhere near him and waved goodbye.
As the cab turned on West 112th Street, I gasped at the size and beauty of St. John the Divine Cathedral and reminded my son that we first attended church when he was 4 years old, and we saw a peacock named Phil walking across the grounds.
The concert had already started when we took a seat on the corner of 112th and Amsterdam. Every member of the choir – surprisingly few people who make amazingly beautiful noises – were more than a meter apart over several steps in front of the cathedral. Their sound was unearthly. Hundreds of us stood delighted. I felt so strong and grateful that we were part of a community – everyone was masked and socially distant, but we were together in that moment, listening to Latin verses that soar beautifully. My boy was standing in front of me and I ran my fingers through his very long pandemic hair. I whispered into his ear through my mask, “I’m so glad we did that. Thank you for coming. “
I took a video of the choir and crowd as I panned the west facade of the church. “How to be a New Yorker at Christmas time,” I wrote on Twitter. A celebration of the moment. Sharing the holiday spirit. A boast about being a New Yorker.
After the concert ended, most of the front steps were cleared and people walked around. We were planning to buy a slice of Dobos cake at a nearby pastry shop when a shot split the air. Birds scattered from the steps in a violent rush. Little did I know it was a gunshot at first, though – who ever expected to hear gunshots? My absurd thought in that millisecond was: Yo, St. John, what a harrowing way of removing birds from your doorway! Then another shot was fired, and another shot so loud my body contracted – I’ve only heard guns in films so far – and we saw the shooter shoot in the air.
“What’s happening?” asked my son with wide eyes. “Somebody shoots – RUN!” I ordered and we joined the sprinting wave of scared people. Before I turned away from the cathedral, I saw a couple hit the floor near the steps. I prayed my child hadn’t seen it.
My son lost his shoe. I ran back upriver, snatched it from a man who handed it to me like a baton in a race, and we kept running, shots behind us. This is a shoot. That is real.
I sat in a taxi and turned to my boy, a boy who is usually unbearably verbal and is now silent. He stared straight ahead. “I don’t feel safe,” he said quietly. “Now I think anyone could have a gun.”
I told him he was safe now. As we got out of the cab, I knelt on Broadway in front of our building to give him a hug. Then I realized I was kneeling in front of a row of New Yorkers waiting to get Covid tests at a CityMD and took us home.
He was sitting on my husband’s lap and we talked to him about how the officers did their job. At this point, thanks to the miracle / curse of instant social media, we were able to assure him that no one was hurt but the shooter. We focused more on how the police care for the community than on the lie that bad things don’t happen.
I’m shaken, but good. My son seems to be fine too (although we keep an eye on him). However, I felt the need to examine my subdued response because it does not feel appropriate to the concern that is facing me. Countless friends and friendly strangers on social media who know we saw a shoot keep checking us out. They use words like “trauma” and say they are praying for us.
If you’d told me a year ago that this Christmas, not only would I not take my kids to a live performance of “The Nutcracker” (ha!), But that we would be in the middle of a pandemic in a city in that nearly 25,000 people have died from an illness that has chronically blocked us; If you had told me I was going to grab my little boy’s hand to sprint away from an active shooter, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up that information.
But after a year of beyond the imagination, my brain is rewired. My thoughts now go to: It could be so much worse.
Because if 2020 gave me something, it’s perspective. It lowered my expectations. I mean, the last time I attended a Christmas concert at St. John the Divine it was inside, despite the expanse by candlelight and cozy, hundreds of us side by side to hear Sting. This year I have had the opportunity to stand in a mask for 20 minutes and hold my child to tears.
Indeed, 2020 taught us that things can get worse and worse. It is absurd that in 2016 “dumpster fire” was chosen as word of the year. 2016 didn’t know about dumpster fires.
The image of Sagittarius doesn’t keep replaying in my head unless I summon him. What hits me on a loop is the disbelief over how lucky we will be in a year when the unthinkable can and did happen. Yes, we saw a man open fire and create terror after a fine event. But no innocent person was hurt. The people I saw falling to the ground had ducked for cover and stayed safe. My child didn’t see anyone die. I was with him; He didn’t have to survive the horror of being an active shooter in school. I realize how privileged my family is to lead a life where even the sound of gunshots, and even less the reality of gun violence, is unusual.
In the same year that certain officers behaved brutally, police saved the day on the steps of the church. A man with a gun ran for our lives and yet we can be grateful that, unlike so many others in similar terrible experiences, we were able to return to a safe home.
We are ending this long year on the brink of a dark winter of disease while still delivering vials of hope at sub-zero temperatures. It could be so much worse, I have to say. It is a gift this Christmas season to be able to pronounce these words.
Faith Salie is the author of the Approval Junkie essay collection.