This past Monday afternoon, I headed off for my regular tennis game with my racket strapped to my back and my wife in her whites. That plan got derailed when a gunman opened fire on a business in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Before it was over he’d shot two people and tossed a fake bomb at police before killing himself.
I’d gone out with a plan to play tennis; I wound up spending the next few hours in a grocery basement witnessing the crew of workers that had just fled the scene drinking it away. There were two Russians, two Mexicans, and me, the interpreter. I spoke with the Russians in my native tongue and translated for the Mexicans in my working Spanish as we all watched the World Cup together and they told me their story.
It all started at 11:15 on Monday when a 54 year old man walked in to C&A Iron Works in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. His name was Cameron Waithe and he asked about a job. He was told to address the management upstairs with that question. Instead he pulled a gun out and shot two workers, one who was 28, the other 66. They are expected to live, but it was close. While I was being told this story in Russian, down in a grocery basement, the Gowanus Gunman responded to police negotiation by tossing a fake bomb out of a tool closet he had barricaded himself in. Then he shot himself.
Just after the shooting, Oleksandr Gavrunov and Dmitry Tabakin, two employees of the iron works, led me to their local hang-out. It was the basement of a grocery shop around the corner, and within minutes the two other almost-victims of the Gowanus Gunman where there too. The shopkeeper unlocked a door for us and we went down a narrow spiral staircase to a communal hole in the wall. This was hardly the first afternoon the ironworkers used this damp basement for a drink, but the first time it was for escaping the press. Five of us sat around a damp basement with the World Cup on. The Russians drank Coronas, the Mexicans drank Modelos, and all four of the men were tired of bullets and reporters.
“We were hoping to call it a day early to watch the game” said Dima, which is short for Dmitry, “We just didn’t think it would happen this way.”
Dima also regretted that they had just put the tools away before the man came in, hoping to finish before the match began. Having lived in the rougher parts of Brooklyn, he thought he might have helped if only he had a hammer in his hand. The victims were friends of his, as the Mexican and Russian contingent in the shop had grown close. They welded together, and they drank together in that very basement. Oleksander was still in his welding sleeves, carrying his welding mask. Everyone was dazed by their look at death, but relieved by the opportunity to decompress. Able to speak both parties languages, I listened as they hashed it over and translated when the communication failed.
Sasha, the Russian nickname for Oleksandr, was not too phased by the whole thing, though he feels that the two victims were both good workers, as he thinks all Mexicans are. He said he’ll miss their help and company, but in the end, he is not a religious man and life is random. No fate or destiny for him. The cross he wore was a favor to his mother. But having served four years in a Ukrainian prison back home, he has seen worse.
“One swipe with a crowbar and he would have been down,” Sasha said. “Back home he wouldn’t have made it as far as he did. In the joint, even less.” With his welding gear still on and Iron Man mask in his hand, though a Corona in the other, Sasha looked like he would have been quite capable.
He joked, as he split open pumpkin seeds with his teeth between puffs on a smoke. “The amazing thing is that just recently I hated the police. I guess they saved my life today, but yesterday I could have killed the bastards myself. I live in Seagate, where there are problems now and then, and last night I was thrown against a wall and searched. They were rough about it, for no reason, just like they would have been in the old country. I’m a working man, I just like a drink now and then, there was no reason to do that to me... But today the cops saved the shop. Though I still wish I had a piece of metal in my hand….”
“Back home the cops would have just shot the place up. With automatic fire. Here, they actually negotiate.” Sasha noted.
The gunman shot himself after a prolonged stint in a closet. Of course, by then both the Russian and Mexican would-be victims were safe in a grocery basement. The Mexicans knew the two victims better, sharing a language with them, but nobody could really make sense of what happened. All five of us wanted to know why. As the honorary American in the room, or rather cellar, they looked to me for an answer. I didn’t have one, and as of yet, neither do the police.
The World Cup was on, and how I wished a goal could have been scored at that very moment! We all had our eyes on the flickering television, but the question remained in the air, floating like a dark cloud in the basement.