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Broken Sidewalks

I wrote this piece a while ago for one of my writing classes in school…thought I’d share it here.
Man, this is scary….but here we go…

*Disclaimer: I’ll only put this disclaimer up once, and I feel weird even placing it here at all. But as this is my first time posting any of my “actual” writing outside of blogging, I feel compelled to make clear that creative non-fiction/memoir writing is subject to memory, meaning MY memory of events and places and people may be different than YOUR memory of the same things. Also, while 99% of memoir is (should be) true, naturally, about 1% is either exaggerated or down played for artistic effect.




“Broken Sidewalks”
 
It has always felt strange to me that the entirety of human existence is broken down into just two distinct time periods. There is B.C., which stands for Before Christ, or, the time before humans were civil and Jesus entered onto the scene to remind us all of how awful we are. After B.C. comes A.D., which for some reason people always confuse as meaning After Death, but in fact stands for the Latin phrase anno Domini, which roughly translates into In the time of our lord. As an altogether unreligious person, the B.C. and A.D. classifications have long rubbed me the wrong way. It is as if we are being forced into accepting something as true that in my mind, and the minds of three percent of the population, is a myth. But I suppose Jesus was real, even if his miracles are the stuff of pure fantasy. Saussure suggested that these binary oppositions—which I would argue B.C. and A.D. to be—are essential in structuring our linguistic reality, that we cannot conceive of one term of the pair without understanding the other.
            
Twelve-hundred miles away from my current home in Sacramento, in the small Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado, exists a similar binary. A town that, for more than one hundred years after Richard and Angeline Little staked their initial claim into its soil, maintained a general state of anonymity; Littleton not even a blip on the historical radar of Colorado. That is, until that warm, sunny morning in April of 1999, when Littleton’s history became forever split between the designations of Before Columbine and After Columbine. I suppose the same abbreviations that set up the timeline of human existence work in this situation as well. B.C., standing for Before Columbine, and A.D., standing for the often confused, but in this case highly relevant, After Death. Eerie how that holds up.

 

 
I am a native Californian. A bikini-wearing, ocean loving, hella-as-an-adjective using California girl. But when I was twelve years old, my mom moved my sister and I away from our comfortable, new home in Sacramento, to the brisk mountain air of Littleton. The construction business in the Denver area was booming, and our mom would follow her new hammer yielding boyfriend just about anywhere.
            
Honestly, my memories of that move are a bit hazy. I remember that my sister and I stayed the summer with our dad, his new wife, and her three girls, while Mom and the boyfriend set up shop in Colorado. When the summer came to a close, my sister and I loaded into a rented RV with Dad and his new family, and drove the monotonous eighteen hours from Sacramento to Littleton. I have since made that drive more times than I can count, but as a twelve-year-old girl it all felt very distant and epic; as if I was leaving Sacramento behind forever.
          
I spent that pre-Colorado summer trying to reinvent myself. I practiced new handwriting styles and tried on a new gender-bending nickname. I would now be called ‘Al,’ because that was so much cooler than Alaina, and the sassy tomboy on the popular Friday night sitcom, “Step by Step” also went by the brief moniker. New name and new style for what I was sure would be a shiny new life in Littleton.
            
As it turns out, Sacramento and Littleton were not all that different. Apart from Colorado’s icy winter weather and severe lack of oxygen, the towns were disappointingly similar. I had wrongly assumed that a city named Littleton would be much smaller than it turned out to be. Colorado was supposed to be cowboy country; mountains and horses and tiny towns full of nice country folk who knew every last detail of your life. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid may have altered my perceptions of what it means to live in a small, practically Midwestern town. When I first began writing about my time in Littleton, I thought it would be interesting to look into the town’s demographics for the year I moved there, to see how my memory holds up to actual raw data. Population-wise, in 1993, Littleton had 36, 875 people to Sacramento’s 401, 716. I must admit that this information shocked me. The density of Coloradans did not feel that drastically different than the Northern California crowds. I failed to take into account, however, that the Littleton borders are not visually obvious, so really, all of Denver and its suburbs felt like home to me. The entire Denver area had 508, 388 people that year, which was much closer to Sacramento’s population, and makes me feel a bit less crazy about my memory of my new town’s unimpressive expanse. What this all boils down to is this: Littleton was not so little; it was basically Sacramento with snow.
           
It is no surprise, then, that I also remember feeling disappointed that my new home was almost the same as the last, only now in Mountain Standard Time. It is a bit saddening now to recall just how little I appreciated all that was different about Colorado. For instance, one can never look to the west (or even know truly what direction is west), in Sacramento and find their view consumed by the awe-inspiring, snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I miss that. You always know what direction you are traveling in Colorado because of those mountains. There is something comforting about always being able to place yourself, to always know which way is home, or which way leads you furthest from it.
 
I have been a change junkie, a lover of the new and unchartered, for all of my adult life. That nervous feeling you get when embarking on an unknown adventure, trying something new, being completely ripped out of all comfort and forced to adapt—I have always craved this feeling. Come to think of it, I can probably trace my long-standing addiction to change back to this moment—when I first moved to Littleton. This is when I remember it most fiercely.
           
I say first move to Littleton, because in typical me fashion, after spending just two years in Colorado, and upon entering into that wild landscape that is high school, I decided it was not enough. I should double-down on the newness and move back to California. I would live with my dad and step-family, starting high school in another foreign town with not an acquaintance to my name. Rocklin, California. As close in proximity to Sacramento as Littleton is to Denver, but that is where the similarities end. I have little desire for delving into the preppy boringness that was my time at Rocklin High. Almost nothing of importance, and surely nothing of interest, happened while there. No doubt this is why I adhered to my impatient internal change clock, and high-tailed it out of Rocklin halfway through my junior year to go back to live with my mom and sister in Littleton. The year was now 1998, and Littleton High had all the charms one expects from their high school experience. A “North Side,” where the punks and goths (and usually the jocks, too, but don’t tell anyone) went to smoke their American Spirits; an open campus generally running at about half-capacity due to an overabundance of freedom coupled with a severe lack of ambition; and a fun, wild cheerleading squad where I unsurprisingly found my home (I may know a thing or two about the North Side). It was the complete opposite of Rocklin High, and it was perfect. Little did any of us know that in just over a year, an event would take place that would rock this town, and the country, to its core, promoting the term “school shooting” to the top position in the hierarchy of social anxieties.
 
It is a bit hard to even remember the nuances of Littleton life before Columbine. Those who spent their whole lives there undoubtedly have a better grasp of how the town used to be. I was a teenager when I moved to Colorado, so most of my pre- and post- Columbine reflections revolve around me, not the town. But I suppose the two are inextricably linked, even if I failed to notice it then.
 
One of the first things I did upon returning to the Mile-High City was secure employment at the local Littleton movie theater: AMC Southbridge 8. This particular theater was going to be closing soon to make way for the new, massive, and many would complain, obnoxious 24-plex that was breaking ground about a mile down the road. They were hiring for that theater now, using the old, run down establishment as a location to train its employees in the meantime.
           
It is astonishing how drastically the landscape of a town can change in just a mile. The Southbridge movie theater lay just on the border of Littleton, the ten mile or so County Line Road serving as the border between the cracked and littered streets of Littleton, and the new suburban paradise known as Highlands Ranch. To get to the new theater, you would head south down Broadway for about a half a mile, past King Soopers and the old Conoco gas station, past a handful of bus stops with faded advertising signs scattered along the dusty streets, and continuing on down past the drive-through liquor store that never carded and supplied my senior year with a constant supply of Keystone Light. Just your run of the mill town. Nothing terrible, yet nothing exceptional. Old and somewhat neglected, but very much established.
            
Littleton is an old town, established officially in 1890, and because of that, manages to hold on to a bit of that old town charm, especially in regards to the homes. The street I lived on had not one house that looked alike, and I loved it for that. Every color and shape and size imaginable, the only unifying feature being basement windows lining the bottom of every residence. All houses have a basement in Colorado; it is a matter of safety. Tornadoes are common there, I am told, although I never had the thrill of seeing one first hand.
          
All of this changes, though, once you cross over West County Line Road on your way into the neighborhood of Highlands Ranch. No dirt, no sketchy liquor sales, no charm. Just rows and rows of the same stucco boxes, all a similar shade of peach, and this one giant movie theater. That was it. Sidewalks were ample, made for walking, I assume, yet not a person to be seen walking down the road. Back up the way in Littleton, there were pedestrians always on the move, casually side-stepping the potholes and drop-offs, sidewalks an unnecessary luxury. It is so funny to me, these new developments with their massive sidewalks. No one ever walks there. All the walking happens in the city, the older parts of town, the places with the shitty sidewalks.
             
My time spent working at the new theater in Highlands Ranch stands out in my mind for several reasons. It was the first real job I ever had, and I thought I was so mature to finish my classes at noon every day so as to be able to go straight to work. I moved up in the ranks quickly, and landed myself a position as the personal assistant to the Human Resources manager. At only seventeen years old, I had more responsibility and pull than any of the other high school students working there. But this is not the main reason this theater remains a fixture in my mind. It remains there because this is where I worked when it happened.
 
I learned of the shooting much like the rest of the world, from the constant media coverage overtaking literally every news station in operation. Many of my friends were in class at 11:19 AM when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris began to open fire on their teachers and peers. But not me. I had a tendency to ditch class my senior year, especially on the days when I was off from work. So on this day I was safe at home in my pajamas, eating a Papa John’s pizza and drinking a diet coke, when Saved by the Bell was suddenly interrupted by horrifying images of the chaos. Bleeding and screaming children, lines of students being led from the school, confusion and terror permeating the air around us. This is in Littleton? At Columbine? I lived close to Littleton High, the building I was then supposed to be in, which was itself only a few miles away from Columbine High.  I cannot recall there ever being a time before this that I felt as scared or confused as I did then. Was anyone I knew hurt? What about my friends from work? The movie theater, being as big as it was, employed students from all over the area, Columbine included. Were they alright, or would I soon be crying along with those hysterical students on television?
            
As it was all unfolding, I remember a palatable shift in the air, a feeling that we were entering a new landscape, that things, in the most unpoetic of phrases, would never be the same. Whenever I would go back to visit California before this day, there was never once a person who knew of the town where I lived. I would have to say, “It’s a suburb of Denver, much like Carmichael or Roseville is to Sacramento.” Everyone has heard of Denver, naturally, but Littleton had, until then, lived up to its name. Its history and significance being so little as to be almost non-existent.
           
That is all different now.
            
Littleton is now, and forever will be, synonymous with Columbine. We had finally made it. Recognition. But we didn’t want it anymore. Take it back. We want to go back to obscurity, a time when kids could be kids, and the worst thing you had to worry about being brought to school was drugs. Bring back the drugs; we want the drugs. Anything other than this.
 
I learned rather quickly the awful news that one of my fellow movie theater employees was in fact one of the thirteen dead. Her name was Lauren Townsend. Not a friend by any stretch of the imagination, but I certainly knew her. I talked to her frequently at work, and even called her house once to ask her if she would be so kind as to switch shifts with me. She said yes. Lauren always said yes. In fact, Lauren was the go-to for shift change requests because we knew we could count on her to accept almost any work-related proposition. That was just in her nature. An intelligent girl with an incredible work ethic, always willing to help out a comrade. So it was only natural that a rather large group of us from the theater decided, without hesitation, that we would attend her funeral. Lauren was always there for us, and we wanted to be there for her now.
           
I remember arriving at the church and being overcome with the beauty and stillness of the location. It was at the top of a small hill overlooking the city, Pikes Peak and the Rockies just off in the distance. The view was unobscured, the sky appearing to go on forever, as if standing inside of an unshaken snow globe. I did not believe in God, I still don’t, but I knew that Lauren did, and thought that there was not a better place for her to be released from this world and into the hands of her creator. If He did exist, this is where he would be, overlooking this church on the top of this hill, ready to receive yet another angel into heaven.
           
I have not been to many funerals in my life. Strangely enough, I think the only funeral I had ever attended prior to Columbine was for another young girl taken too soon. I had little experience, but this funeral, I was sure, was one of the biggest in recent history. Most of the funerals for the victims were open to the public, welcoming the community into these sad and personal moments, no doubt in an effort to bring the community back together, to prove Klebold and Harris wrong, and to remind ourselves that Littleton is a place where people come together with love and acceptance, not vitriol and gunfire. There were over two thousand people at the Foothills Bible Church that day. Two thousand devastated souls, not a single one able to contain their grief as the U.S. Air Force Academy Chorale sang a heart-wrenching rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and Lauren was finally laid to rest.
 
The irony of the town’s history is not lost on me. As it turns out, Denver, and the surrounding metropolitan area, began in this country as a multicultural hot spot. It has long been revered for this very characteristic—a place where everyone is welcome, everyone is wanted. Lots of places like to boast of this kind of town unity, but have little to back up their claims outside of their own biased city pride. This is not the case for Denver. The archeological record points to Colorado, and more specifically, the greater Denver area, as a key hub of early American agriculture, and therefore, also a lively hub of cultural diversity. Back in the 1800s, Euro-Americans and Native Americans, Chinese Americans and Latin Americans, all came together in the plains and valleys of Colorado, settled into the Platte Canyon and along the Colorado River, and coexisted for over a century. Juxtaposing this information against the more recent history of our town as home to arguably the most shocking school shooting in our country’s history boggles the mind. How did we get here? Yes, the area was old and rundown, but it was also diverse and cooperative, always a friendly neighbor nearby willing to lend a helpful hand. How did we go from that, to a city that is now known for breeding two troubled boys who exuberantly sought out and killed their peers, their primary goal being to burn the whole place down? How?
            
The answer to this question is not clear. It never is. Whenever these things happen, we are always shocked, horrified. We grasp at straws, trying to pinpoint where we went wrong, how we could have prevented this. But we always come up short. Soon after it happened many claimed the two as belonging to a group known as the Trench Coat Mafia; a group suspected as having neo-Nazi tendencies and a rampant hatred towards the more privileged and popular of Columbine students. The truth is, they were not part of this group, they were not part of any group. There is no reason, no comforting solace, no justifiable punching bag to seek out and unleash upon. It just is. And it is frightening.
 
Littleton was trying its best to rebuild, determined to come out of this better and more united; but the fog had not quite lifted, and the sadness remained just beneath the surface, ready to break through whenever we would inadvertently find ourselves to be happy. Blue and silver ribbons, Columbine’s school colors, could still be found tied to every tree, the radio still playing Sarah McLaughlin’s “Angel” on repeat as a dedication to those that died. My high school graduation, and I would imagine all of the Littleton area high school graduations, dedicated a portion of the celebration to remembering Columbine. The names of the victims were read out loud, a moment of silence observed, a reminder to “Never Forget. Always Remember.”
           
I left Littleton for good not too long after the shooting. College life, as it turned out, was not for me, and I was tired of the constant blankets of snow and sadness that seemed to follow my every move. Everything and nothing were happening all at once, Littleton struggling to find the balance between not letting this happen again, and not letting this consume our lives with fear. It was exhausting. I missed the sunny, easygoing atmosphere of California, and as an outsider, a non-native, I did not feel the same kinship and responsibility as the rest of my Littleton community. I had no reason to stay, and every reason to leave. And so I did.
           
I go back to Littleton every few years, to visit friends, to raft the rapids of the Colorado river, to drink beer and wander the dynamic streets of downtown Denver. Right when it all happened, the changes felt sudden. Usually, change happens gradually, but after the shooting, it felt like everything was changing all at once. I can see now that much of that was temporary. The people, the policies, the politics, they all tempered down, and Littleton life, for the most part, resumed its quiet existence. Columbine High School is still there, supplying young employees to the big, obnoxious, Highlands Ranch movie theater, and Clement Park remains an unexpected suburban oasis. But there are changes. The new and the old are less defined, the drive-through liquor store always cards, and the broken sidewalks of Littleton are a little more stable.
 


4 Comments

  1. Thanks, girl!!! I am excited to add more things! Hoping to post something of my own at least once a month 🙂

  2. Had me crying a couple times … very descriptive and visual writing. Thank you for sharing your story with us!!

  3. Absolutely wonderful!

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