Perhaps I have an overactive imagination, but whenever I start working in a new location, one of the first things I do is map out all the possible escape routes. Not just the recommended fire exits. I think about the routes that no one would expect me to take. If I smashed that window with my chair, could I climb down to safety? What if I pushed aside those ceiling panels – would I be able to crawl out among the supports?
I like to attribute such musings to superfluous creativity, rather than low-grade paranoia. Of course I don’t really believe that I’m ever going to have to escape from a crazed gunman or a fanatical terrorist. (Although there was a time, in the early 2000s after 9/11, when I was anxious just living in DC. But my office was only a block from the White House, and I had stood on the roof, watching black smoke billow from the Pentagon.) I just feel a little more prepared and relaxed once I’ve worked out all the alternatives.
Rationally, I know that I am about 1,000 times more likely to be hurt in my drive to or from work than to be slain in my office. I am more likely (although, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not all that much more likely) to be killed by “Contact with objects and equipment” or “Falls, slips, trips” than by another person. But I don’t memorize the locations of all the office throw rugs or consider how I would escape from a tumbling photocopier when I walk into a new workplace.
If I weren’t already so provident about escape, recent news might seem threatening enough to justify becoming so: public shootings in Oregon, Las Vegas, and Seattle, all in less than a week. But this reporting is all sensationalist, and ought to be statistically meaningless to the average American, who, like me, is extraordinarily unlikely ever even to be threatened, much less hurt or killed, by a workplace gunman. I’d like to think that I am not capitulating to the lurid, neurotic narrative that the mainstream media seems to favor, the kind of story that prompts the masses to fear strangers more than the extra 40 pounds they carry around their waists, even though the latter is many times more likely to kill them.
So, mainly, I attribute my little escape fantasies to the same sense of fanciful inventiveness that kicks in when I tell stories – the compulsion to wonder, “What if?” A harmless diversion, mostly, the flip side of wondering what it would be like to win the lottery.
Mostly I think this. Except sometimes, when I read a story about yet another insane attack by someone who feels lost, or marginalized, or ill-used, and hopeless enough to believe that the only way to set things right is to kill. Which is always far too often, but has been exceptionally so lately.
Those times, I often recall a certain look on the face of one of the partners in the law firm where I first worked as a paralegal, shortly after graduating from college. This was in Boston, in 1988, when a man named Lonnie Gilchrist – who had struggled for two years as a stockbroker with virtually no success – entered the Merrill Lynch office from which he had been fired the day before and shot his former boss, George Cook, five times. Then, shouting “No billionaire is going to ruin my life!”, Gilchrist kicked and beat Cook as the dying man tried to crawl for help. The law partner with whom I had worked, whose office has right next to my cubicle, had known Cook, and I remember him hanging up his phone after receiving the news, his face empty of blood and full of sorrow, disbelief, and shock.
Two steps removed is more than close enough to be to such horror. And while that memory does not prompt me to overestimate the danger that we all face from such events, it does remind me that it is not just something on television.
Perhaps it is ironic, and perhaps it is not, that I left law practice for a career that would fairly be described as “helping other people find and prepare for success”. And while I have never worked with a client or student that I thought was a danger to anyone else, seeing a little bit of other people’s pain and confusion and helplessness and desperation, virtually every week, does remind me how pervasive those feelings are in this world, and how much power they have to contort the soul. So, while I know rationally that the kind of violence we have seen this past week is unlikely ever to touch me, I also feel, in a different way, that such violence and its causes touch us all. And maybe planning my escape routes is my way of dealing with that.