Winter is a kind of prison in Michigan, and the winter of 2013-2014 in Kalamazoo will remain one of the worst ever in the city’s history. It was the federal penitentiary of winters. It was confinement. It was death row. Sentences began and ended with phrases like “polar vortex” and “deep freeze” and “extreme low temperature warning.” They rolled around like long, blue country tunes on the weatherman’s tongue, a few more tired verses for the Midwestern songbook.
Of that winter, a local meteorologist told us long after the season broke that Kalamazoo had gone “120 consecutive days with at least a trace of snow on the ground (from Dec. 6th to April 4th).” That’s four straight months of hard time. Weather reports put the total snowfall at 115.3 inches, the most recorded since the mid-1960s. It was also the coldest year on record in two decades.
I lived in Kalamazoo with my girlfriend (and now wife), Ann, through the cold and dull cell block of that season. We were warned against going outside to smoke or jog or skate in the yard. Our human skin wasn’t built to withstand the chill. The snot would freeze in our nostrils almost immediately. I had to lather a special lotion all over my tender California face. Ice encased entire forests, as if the trees were an exhibit in a distant museum, as if we could only see them through the plexi-glass of a prison visitation window.
But that winter didn’t kill those trees. In fact, I’m sure they’re still there and probably thriving, but I don’t know how it’s possible. I think, now and then, about what those trees have had to stand against, year after year, what water they’ve had to carry, winter after winter of holding up the sadness of the entire Michigan sky.
On April 2nd, of that same year in Killeen, Texas, right before Kalamazoo’s first snow melt, a gunman opened fire at the Fort Hood Military Base, murdering three people before ending his own life. On April 9th, in Pennsylvania, some kid stabbed twenty-two people at his school. In Overland Park, Kansas, four days later, a white supremacist shot and killed three people in a Jewish synagogue.
A spring of violence, it seemed, was stretching its shoulders inside us, bending at the waist to warm up its American hamstrings. A big metal gate groaned open. Some feeling across our nation had been freed. In the moment, I’m not sure anyone really noticed it.
Because Ann worked most nights waiting tables in an upscale restaurant downtown and because I needed a cure for loneliness, I spent most of that winter playing Texas Hold ‘Em at the Wayside Poker Room on Stadium Drive, a seven-minute car ride from our apartment. In that card room is where I met Damian Tejada, and where I’d have to have handed my ID to the doorman, Orlando Mitchell, more than a half a dozen times but never even noticed him until I saw his picture online after he did the unthinkable.
It was a Wednesday night, the 16th of April, when the unthinkable would happen, and that meant two things: Ann was working again, and Wayside Wednesday was in full swing, college night. Cheap drinks. Dubstep DJs. Bass-heavy and far too loud. High heels. Drunk kids donking their money away at the poker table. The regulars like me carving them up in a feast. The poker room itself was one tiny room inside a massive two-story dance club the size of a high school gymnasium. If you took a break from playing to go to the bathroom, you’d probably get a rum and Coke spilled on you, or you’d step in puke, or you’d have to wait in a thirteen-person line for a urinal. Outside the poker room was drunken-college-kid chaos, and because the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams was in its sixth week at number one, a souped-up version of that song was probably bumping through the DJ’s speakers.
Damian had played cards earlier in the night and then quit right around the time I walked in because he wanted to party and drink in the club. That’s how I remember it. He wandered in and out, scanning the tables with a clear cocktail in his hand, a lime still on the rim, a half-smile sneaking across his face. We nodded to each other in recognition.
I sat at table two in a cash game beside a couple who looked to be in their early forties, the husband in a windbreaker and a ball cap from a local engineering company, the wife in a hooded blue sweatshirt. They both seemed nice but afraid, too cautious, and I used that to my advantage, betting into them nearly every hand and getting them to fold. They never spoke. I was up about a hundred dollars, and I’d decided that this night, I was going to go home a little earlier and not lose what I’d won.
I was a poker player who usually did his best work in the first two hours of playing. Because I’ve always been obsessive, I kept records and gathered data on my sessions. I took notes. I was scientific and unemotional. The graph of my profit kept going down any time after those two hours had ended. I had a habit, then, of overstaying, of not walking away. But here’s the conundrum: I like playing poker, the camaraderie, the shit-talking, the sports side-betting, the beer and drinks, the chess game aspect of it, the reading of who other people are based on their body language and personality and speech patterns, the human psychology of it. On top of all of that, I always stayed to play later to enjoy being around people. Sitting in an empty apartment for one more night during the worst winter of my life just wouldn’t cut it anymore.
As I was leaving around 11:30PM, Damian stopped me by the exit door. “Yo, Ephraim…Ephraim…let me buy you a drink?”
“Na, man…I’m gonna go home and see my lady.” “You sure?”
“Yea…thanks though…I’m good…seriously.”
“You sure you don’t wanna party with me tonight?” He leaned his head a little to the left and giggled.
I think about the space between his question and my answer because it was at that moment that the rest of our lives could’ve gone in a different direction. I should’ve said, “Damian, come over to my house for a bourbon.” And I should’ve said, “Damian, get your lady to take you home.” And I could’ve said, “Hey, man, lemme call you a cab, cool?”
But all I said was, “Thanks, homie, but I gotta get outta here.”
He gave me a handshake and a hug. I felt the leather of his jacket. I felt his body alive and smiling. I felt his clear drink resting behind my shoulder blade, how he might spill it. We embraced each other and when we finally let go, I walked out into the parking lot and drove home. Damian sauntered back into the dance club and ordered another drink. He must’ve. Each sip of that drink inched him closer to the unthinkable.
Honestly, he and I were not great friends, more acquaintances, poker buddies. He and his lady, Kia, used to come in on the same nights I would. He’d pay for her drinks as long as he could play cards. She’d sit behind him. That was their agreement. I remember his laugh, both of them laughing actually. He was good about including her. He would dance with his elbows squeezed in tight towards his ribs when he won a hand.
When I first started playing at Wayside, I didn’t know anyone. I stayed to myself, but people like Damian made that impossible. He wanted to know what you were up to, what kind of things you loved, what you did for work, what you cared about, what cards you were holding on the last hand. Sometimes, he’d pay you to see them even though the hand was over. He’d ask follow-up questions too.
Every once in a while, he’d go on a heater and win a bunch of money, and I would always be happy when lady luck struck him, when he had a big night, because he was so kind. He’d buy everyone at the table drinks. Most other guys would just grumble and be pissed off the whole evening. They were there to fight over money only. It felt like Damian and I were there to have a good time around other people. If Damian was having fun, even if he wasn’t winning money, he wanted all of us to celebrate that fun together. For that, I was envious of him.
That next drink that Damian ordered, after I left, I believe, was the drink that lit the unthinkable fuse that may have blown up the night.
Or it wasn’t. The stories seem conflicted. Later, Kia testified in court that Damian approached doorman Orlando, upset about the fact that Orlando had overserved one of her and Damian’s friends. The two separated, and as she and D (what everyone called him) were on their way out of the bar, she testified, Orlando shoved D from behind. D smashed a drink glass over Orlando’s head, and then Orlando started doing the unthinkable.
Orlando, on the other hand, testified that Damian was upset because Orlando had thrown away Damian’s drink before he was finished with it. Orlando claimed Damian had demanded Orlando pour him a new one. He said Damian declared, “I’m gonna fuck you up. I’m gonna shoot this bitch up.” He said Damian pointed a finger into his face. At this point in his testimony, in the courtroom that day, Orlando started weeping. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to sell the whole thing as self-defense or not. Maybe it was regret falling out of his face in the wooden witness box that day.
Then, Orlando testified that he went to his car to get the unthinkable and stuff it into his pants, a decision the prosecuting attorneys in the case would later call an act of “premeditation.”
In his black suit and tie, Orlando then testified that Damian had smashed a pint glass over his head without provocation, that Damian had made him fear for his life, and so he felt justified when he started doing the unthinkable to Damian.
Other witnesses, my poker-playing friends, testified that they were in the middle of a hand, and Damian ran into the poker room while Orlando was doing the unthinkable. He tried to hide under the poker table. They talked about how loud the unthinkable was, how Orlando kept on and kept on doing it, they said, until the unthinkable in his hand wouldn’t do the unthinkable anymore.
Then Orlando sped off. There wasn’t any snow on the ground in Kalamazoo anymore.
The trees shook their shoulders and started growing green leaves all over their arms. They and the town around them moved on.
Someone took a video in the poker room right after the unthinkable took place: Damian shirtless and strapped to a yellow gurney. Someone else had stuffed a bunch of cocktail napkins over each of Damian’s seven unthinkable wounds in his neck and chest. A blue-gloved paramedic administered chest compressions. Someone in the background off camera kept yelling, “Come back, homie. Come back!” I couldn’t see Damian’s cocktail or the broken pint glass. I couldn’t see his leather jacket.
My poker buddy, D, got gunned down in a poker room and died on April 17, 2014, right beside the same poker table around which we had spent so many nights together. That, for me, was unthinkable.
The police caught Orlando during a traffic stop around 2AM. I woke up alive at 9:30 the next morning.
Orlando got twenty years in prison.
On April 18th, we had a candlelight vigil for Damian at the card room. All the regulars showed up. We had a few minutes of silence for him, and then we played poker. What else was there for people like us to do?
There is no sadness like a Michigan winter.
There is no sadness like a poker room late at night, like brutal capitalism, another schmuck fingering his pin number into the ATM, no sadness like a room full of people fighting against each other for money.
There is no sadness like the scene of a homicide, no sadness like knowing that on the exact place where Damian died, people are playing a game. I know this because my friend in the dreadlocks next to me at D’s vigil when I ask him simply points to the hardwood floor beneath his poker chair and says: “Damian died right here.” Then, he continues fiddling with the two red cards he’s been dealt. That’s how close he was to murder. It could be a drop of blood on the wooden wall beside us, or it could be that someone spilled their cranberry and vodka.
The trees outside the windows of this room don’t seem to give a shit about any of us. They’re too busy surviving.
There is no sadness like a room full of people ignoring their sadness, pretending in the name of a game about money, pretending in the name of going on. There is no sadness like knowing that if I’d have invited Damian home with me that night to hang, we probably wouldn’t have had much to talk about at all. He might not have even liked to drink bourbon. I admit I am sad because it took his death to realize I hadn’t known him well enough.
The sadness of knowing a man just enough to feel sadness about him dying but of not knowing how much sadness is justified: there is no sadness like that. I should feel more sadness than I do, and then I feel guilty about having too little sadness.
Can we ever measure it without metaphor? Can we pinpoint it? Can we give it shape?
Can we multiply it? This is my sickness: I’m always trying to wrap a certainty around a feeling. What are the general rules for the mathematics of sadness? When I think about the grief Damian’s two children and his girlfriend must keep on feeling, should my sadness triple?
I didn’t know any of them. Kia and I’d never said a word to each other. I didn’t know what their kids looked like. I didn’t know Damian’s mother and father or any of his siblings.
And how much feeling do we owe to those we’ve never known?
I want to declare that I owe the world and all its delightful strangers so much more of my sadness, my friends, but I must admit I might not have enough room to fit all of that inside me. About Damian, I am not qualified even to write a eulogy. I don’t know enough.
And shamefully, because I have survived, there is no way I cannot make this death (I was close to) more and more about me. There is a sadness in that too. Inside, there is a guilt. There is a grief. There is a reminder. I am mourning the fact that I know I, too, will die, that everyone will die, and the great poker game will go on. Someone else has died, my friends, and again I am here, mourning that death itself is coming for everyone. I believe to do so is human, and I still feel I must apologize for doing so.
For so long after Damian’s death, every single day, I scrolled the news stations while asking myself how much sadness I needed to dedicate to the next mass shooting or missile strike, a thimble full, a wheelbarrow’s worth? Every day, I went on scrolling and scrolling myself into paralysis. I had to get to know the people behind these tragedies better, AND I couldn’t get to know these people better because they were already dead.
This had always been my ultimate paradox: I wanted to care for every death in the world, AND I knew that caring for every death was impossible.
On April 21st, 2014, four days after Damian Tejada died in a poker room in Kalamazoo and two and a half weeks after winter began exploding into spring, the city of Flint, Michigan began drawing water from the Flint River which would eventually result in a national crisis, 15 deaths, and the poisoning by lead of approximately 15,000 people. What does this tragedy have to do with any other? It depends on how close you were to it.
Some people online seemed to be sad. Some people online seemed to want to be seen being sad. I’m not sure which person I was, then, whether online or real.
I know this: when I scrolled to the news of the Flint water crisis years later, I was living in Orlando, Florida (a city with the same name as the murderer in this story). I was living underneath palm trees who seemed to have it pretty easy. I’d never been close to anyone in Flint. I hadn’t played poker in years, and I must admit to you now that I didn’t feel anything at all.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t have sadness for people I didn’t know anymore. It was worse. It was that I’d finally learned how to ignore it. Or maybe it was better. But I know it was this simple and this horrifying: I would do anything to be happy, just for the length of a lifetime.