I flew to Orlando, Florida, the day after the Pulse nightclub shooting with a borrowed radio kit and a simple assignment: Get to know a survivor. Bring back a person, not just a soundbite.
I was nervous that no one would want to talk, or that anyone who did already would have told their story so many times, to so many news outlets, that my work would be redundant at best and retraumatizing at worst.
Instead, I found that everywhere I turned — even in the bizarre media-occupied landscape of a modern mass shooting’s immediate aftermath — there were people who wanted the wider world to hear who they are and what they’re going through.
When I landed, you could drive through the city without seeing a sign of the shooting, until you hit the police line on West Grant Street that blocked streets four blocks from Pulse. There, news helicopters circled, and dozens of TV crews took turns shooting “stand-ups” in the street. I saw someone getting a camera out of a TV news van and asked her, absurdly: “What’s going on?”
She answered, absurdly: “Nothing that I know of.” What we really meant was, I think, that what was “going on” was so ubiquitous, it was hard to figure out how to point a camera — or a microphone — at it.
Standing right at the police line, behind the TV crews, was Naomi Winfield, a 19-year-old Pulse regular who would have been there the night of the shooting if not for a friend who took her to Tampa instead.
“Things are unreal to me,” she told me, looking down the street at the distant speck that was the Pulse sign. “I just wanted to come here because I want to feel it, you know what I’m saying? I want it to be real.”
As I spoke with more people like Naomi, who had either been at Pulse or easily could have been there, I repeatedly ran into that same sense of shock and numbness. But just as often, I ran headlong into a tangible reality of the friends who were lost or feared lost: an interlocking, intergenerational group of primarily gay and lesbian Latinos and Latinas, close enough that the word “family” seemed more than figurative.
By the time I left Friday, emotions had shifted and rearranged themselves, but were no more settled among the people I met. In the city, the police line had moved closer to the club. Downtown LED screens, hardware stores and concert venues declared #OrlandoStrong and #OrlandoUnited. The early improvised memorials had been supplanted by official ones, with laminated photographs of the dead and flowers left by the president, already starting to rot.
A group of young children from a City of Orlando summer school program had made condolence cards and were tucking them near each of the photographs. One of them read, in crayon, “Sorry for your lost.”