Portrait by Kelly Bjork
Alex lives in a town of 800 people in central Maine. “It’s a little farming community. Lots of my neighbors are Amish,” he says. His house is in the woods, at the end of a very rough dirt road. He shares his space with a roommate, a cat, and two dogs. “One day I hope to have chickens, goats, rabbits, and oxen,” he says. During our phone call, Alex mentions it’s rainy and windy outside. “I’m a little afraid the power might go out. It happened a couple weeks ago during a storm. A tree fell over a line and shut it down,” he says. “It’s no big deal if it happens now though. I’m on a landline. It’s the only technology I have in the house, beside my cell phone, my cordless drill, and some lamps.”
Alex is in his early 30s, and he teaches ecology at an alternative residential high school. The drive to work takes an hour and a half, one way. On the side, he sells antique tools. As we’re chatting, Alex mentions he’s on a rotary phone then proudly describes it. It’s a glossy-black coil-cord midcentury model, and “it has the phone number of my mom’s childhood home typed on a little piece of paper that’s protected by a clear plastic panel in the center of the dial. It’s the same phone that was in her house when she growing up and that was in my house when I was growing up,” he says.
“I’m from around here, and it was natural for me to move back,” says Alex when I bring up his hugely transformative relocation. Around the time of the shooting at the Twilight Exit, he’d been living in a busy Seattle neighborhood, studying at a community college, and working as an editor for the student-run newspaper. “The shooting absolutely reinforced my dislike of cities and my feelings of unease in them,” Alex said, though he didn’t realize he was ready to leave until the following year. “I was diagnosed with lymphoma. That took a few months because I’d ignored what little symptoms there were, at first. I went through six rounds of chemo. My original plan was to go back to Seattle, but after all that happened, my perspective on life changed,” he said. “I knew I really wanted to be here, and I didn’t need to try to fit into some mold or do things just because people think I should. I decided I was going to live the way I wanted and do what I loved.”
I don’t recall seeing Alex the night of the shooting, but he met me after to tell me his story. His friend put us in touch. That was a couple years ago now. Alex had picked the spot, an anarchist-owned coffee shop frequented by street youths with blocky tattoos, black t-shirts and canyon-brown work slacks. Alex wore glasses and a plaid button-down shirt, and while his demeanor was markedly serious, he’d break here and there to toss an efficient greeting as his many buddies kept wandering in. Today on the phone, Alex tells me the story again, beginning with his arrival at the Twilight Exit. He was celebrating the twenty-first birthday of a close friend. “A group of us drove there together. We’d had it planned for a while. There were a couple carfuls of people,” he said. (As it happened, “one car took a detour to go pick up some CDs or something at the house,” and basically missed the whole thing. “They showed up right when the cops were arriving,” said Alex.)
Alex and his friends gathered in the bar’s entryway, “just kind of talking and hanging out with each other” while they presented their IDs to the bouncer Greg. That’s when Alex first noticed a man, James, across the room. James was standing at the bar, “causing a scene, yelling at a female. I don’t know how long the confrontation had been going, and I didn’t get a good look at her either. He was saying something about, I don’t know, her letting things be stolen, or her stealing things. I didn’t really pay attention. I just thought he was drunk and being a jerk,” said Alex. “The door guy took a break from IDing us and went over and kind of put his arm around him and escorted him out. He didn’t struggle as he left,” said Alex. He remembers Greg stepping outside with James for a moment, then he returned alone and calmly resumed his door duties.
Once Alex and his group were inside, they’d gathered near a high-top table separating the dining room and the lounge. Alex wasn’t drinking and had no interest in karaoke, but it was fun to be out, and he spent the next twenty minutes socializing. When James returned and shot Greg in the alleyway, Alex immediately recognized the sound. “I knew it was a 9mm because I’ve been around gunshots my entire life,” he said. “I went to summer camp, and when I was maybe 12 or so, I started shooting 22s. When I turned 15, the older kids that were good at riflery would get to go with one of the counselors to a shooting range, a real one. We’d shoot all sorts of guns — bigger rifles and handguns,” he said. “I think it was lucky I’m used to firearms. It led me to be fairly calm in the moment.”
“I was trying to figure out what was happening. I took a quick look around and realized the shot had come from outside,” he said. Alex kept his eyes on the door, and as it opened, “I saw just the hand and the gun coming in first, and the shooter coming after. That’s when I realized it was the same guy as before,” he said. (In his statement, given hours later at the police station, Alex would describe the man as white or Latino, age 30 to 40, and around 5’6” to 5’8”.)
“The room got very quiet. Everyone started clamoring and scattering and crawling and getting down under tables. I remember the sounds. People whispering and crying, the rustle of clothing, the furniture scraping lightly against the ground. I think my adrenaline heightened my senses,” he said. “I’d lost sight of the people I was with, they’d gone off in a different direction. I dropped to the floor and flipped over a table in front of me to make a barricade. I’d had a knife in my pocket, just a little 2 ½-inch blade. I pulled it out and concealed it in my hand, in case I needed it. I didn’t have any actual clear thoughts that this was gonna be a course of action. It was more an instinctual habit — to get ready,” he said.
“At one point, I assumed the worst, that he was going to be shooting random people. Which sounds terrible,” said Alex. “At the time I wished I’d had a firearm on me, though I don’t know if I would’ve felt safer or if I would’ve used it. That’s one of those things: would it’ve made the situation worse or better? It would’ve been risky. Even if I’d been armed, it’s very likely I wouldn’t have confronted him. I don’t know what his reaction would’ve been. If he turned and fired at me, I wouldn’t want someone to get hit in any crossfire,” he said.
As James entered the building and crossed the dining area on his way to the lounge, “I was close to him. He turned his head and looked directly at me. He looked right at me. Right into my eyes. I don’t remember the look on his face, honestly. There was too much going on. I just remember him looking at me, and then he turned his head back toward the bar. As soon as he’d turned his head away, I knew it was unlikely he had any intention of harming me,” Alex said.
Meanwhile in the dining area, “somebody had opened a back door that led to the street, and everyone was filing out. I wasn’t panicking. Mostly I was thinking — what can I do to stay safe, what can I do to keep others out of harm. I’d jumped up, and at some point when I was still inside, I heard another gunshot. I saw a girl cowering under the table, maybe against the wall. I think I might’ve tapped her on the shoulder or grabbed her hand, and said — I don’t know what exactly, ‘We gotta get out.’”
After Alex guided the woman’s exit, he paused at the door. “I took one more look back. I wanted to make sure everyone was out. As I saw it, I was the last person in the room,” he said. (There were more of us in the building, but “I couldn’t see where you and some other people were. You were around the corner, but I didn’t find that out ‘til afterwards,” he said to me, and I concurred.) From Alex’s doorway view, “I remember everyone’s stuff was strewn all over. That was one of the very distinct things — seeing all the car keys and purses and jackets and wallets scattered across the floor. For a split second I thought about grabbing it all and pulling it onto the sidewalk, just so the people could have it again. But that would’ve stalled me, and the risk was too high. Before I left, I shut the door behind me,” he said.
Alex found his friends outside, and together they began “walking briskly down the street and away from the situation. Then I heard one gunshot followed by a second or so, and then an entire magazine unloading,” he said. “I assumed that was James firing at the cops and then the cops killing him. That’s when I knew it was safe to go back, and I turned around,” he said.
I asked Alex what that was like. “It didn’t feel great, and I wasn’t happy about it,” he said. “I have a fairly healthy distrust of all authority figures in the government in general. I just don’t feel that police are inherently interested in our protection. I’ve seen a lot of friends get arrested, get injured by police. I’ve heard about situations where they kill people. I’ve come across them acting in manners that seem contrary to their purpose. Their presence that night didn’t make me feel comforted or safe. In fact, it probably made me more nervous,” he said.
“But I think there was some contradiction in my mind. I had a sense of relief the situation had been neutralized, to use a very law-enforcement-type phrase. If somebody shoots at the cops, they’re trained to immediately kill that person. I believe they acted in the manner they were trained that night,” he said, and as he continued, he widened the view. “In a perfect world, people wouldn’t shoot at each other, and we wouldn’t need guns. We’re not in a perfect world. If somebody shoots at you, you have two options. You can wait and see if they keep shooting at you, and you might die. Or you can shoot at them,” he said.
Back to that night. Alex waited amongst a group of witnesses for hours, and then he submitted his statement. He kept a steady composure until went home. That’s when “I started shaking and going over things, but it wasn’t ‘til later that I freaked out. Into the next few days, I got a little paranoid, a little, like, sketched-out to be in public. Especially when there was a bunch of people around. Buses were nerve-wracking because of the closed spaces and the limited escape routes,” he said. Alex described his state at its most extreme, in the weeks just after the shooting. “I had flashbacks, I had nightmares. Sometimes two or three nights in a row. Sometimes I’d go a month or two in between. It wasn’t structured. Even when I was in Maine, three-thousand miles away, I’d kind of play it over and over in my mind. Just the whole entire thing from beginning to end. Hearing the initial gunshot. Being on the ground with the table flipped over. Watching him come in. Hearing the clip unloading, and knowing that he’s dead,” he said. “I’d picture the bouncer, shot on the ground, even though I never saw any of that. I don’t know Greg, but I know what he looks like, and I had this image of what it might’ve looked like. I can still see it,” he said.
Today, however, enough time has passed, and the vividness no longer haunts him. The experience “didn’t turned me off to guns at all. I still go out shooting with my friends. But you have to remember it’s just a natural part of life in Maine. There’s always a gun in my vehicle. I carry a Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 380. Certainly I have it to defend myself against humans, but it’s more about being in the rural areas. I do some hunting, not a lot. Usually grouse and woodcock,” he said. “I go hiking, and I spend a lot of time on logging roads, twenty miles out. A black bear is not likely to do anything, but if it wanted to, it could. I have things like that to worry about.”