Today’s story is difficult to read because of its tragic subject matter. Andy Tabar tells the story of the Cookie Jar, a house in New Haven, CT, and also tells how his housemate, Mitch (pictured above), was shot and killed in their home. I urge you to read it because it’s one of the most important, well-written, and thoughtful submissions I’ve received so far. Andy’s insight on building community and understanding tragedy is something that we all can learn from. I hope you’ll take the time to read all of it.
by Andy Tabar
Reprinted from the Community Records website.
It’s hard to even know where to start. Right now it’s hard to breathe, let alone collect all my thoughts into some cohesive, poignant essay. But writing this is all I’ve been able to think about for the past few days, as I begin to process what actually happened and start to try and move forward. I’m hoping it will help to cement and document my feelings at the current time as well as address a lot of the questions and concerns that have been floating around. I can’t make sense of it, because I don’t think that there is any sense to make of it, at least at this point. Maybe someday down the line the point of it all will dawn on me, but as this juncture I can’t see that ever happening.
So where to start? I guess the only place to start, really, is why I’m even writing this to begin with. Four of us lived in our house on Bassett Street, myself, Mitch, Emily and Kaylee. We were having a family dinner with Chelsea and Isaac, two friends who were visiting from Maine. Everyone had finished, Kaylee had gone upstairs and the rest of us were sitting around talking at the dinner table when there was a knock at the door. It wasn’t a particularly menacing knock, and the only thing that really stood out at the time was that it was nearly 10 o’clock at night. I looked at Emily, and she put her finger to her nose signaling, “nose goes.” I followed suit, and Mitch was left to answer the door. Isaac, being the fine upstanding man that he is, decided to accompany Mitch to investigate the situation. I wasn’t really paying attention to Mitch answering the door, and it didn’t catch my attention until I saw Isaac jump back, wedging himself between the door and the wall, a temporary hiding spot. My initial thought was, “It must be a cop.” This was the only thing I could think of that would make a young punk react so swiftly and with such a look of worry. Soon I realized that there was a man with a gun standing in the doorway. He had a dark hood up over his head, and he was holding his shirt pulled up over his nose. I looked at Chelsea and whispered, “He has a gun,” we all put our hands in view.
I didn’t hear the man say anything until Ruby approached him and he told us to keep the dog back. Ruby, as wonderful as she is, has never attacked anyone and would make a lousy guard dog; in fact, we are pretty sure that when our house was robbed a week earlier, she was just excited to have some company. But we still called her over to get her out of harm’s way. Mitch and Isaac were then instructed to step back and sit on the couch; they followed the command promptly. At the time all I could think of was that in a few seconds I would have to inform the man that he had missed the boat because everything of value had already been taken from us a week ago. I was looking at Chelsea and Emily and thinking, “How can I make sure no one gets hurt? How am I supposed to react in this situation? Do what the guy says and everything will be okay, right?” The very last thing that I was thinking was, “These next few moments are going to define the rest of my life. I have ten seconds to remember everything I possibly can about this guy because that is going to be the only thing that the police will have to go on.” Mitch calmly and steadily issued what would ultimately become his final words: “Dude, just put the gun down.” He didn’t yell, he wasn’t aggressive and didn’t make any movements. His utterance had a tone that, to me, signaled to the man that we were willing to do whatever he wanted.
A shot was fired. I can’t remember if I wasn’t looking at the guy at the time of the shot, or if I have just blocked it out completely. I remember hearing the noise of the gun. I remember thinking, “That was a warning shot,” then I heard someone yelling, “No, no, no,” and I snapped back to reality. The man was gone. I jumped up and screamed, “Was someone shot?!” No one answered me. What the fuck do I do? “Was someone shot?!” I repeated. Still no answer. Mitch was on the ground, and Emily was at his head. I asked again if he was shot. I thought maybe he was just in shock and fainted. She finally said, “Yes.” I looked around thinking, “What the fuck do we do?” The door was still open, and I was holding my phone to dial 911. I realized the guy could come back, so I ducked down behind the side of the couch as best I could and screamed several times for someone to close the door. Finally, Isaac closed the door. I don’t know why I didn’t just close it myself; perhaps I was just scared that the guy might be waiting outside. I looked at my phone again and dialed 911, but before I could press send Kaylee was downstairs yelling our address into the phone: “29 Bassett Street, New Haven. Was someone shot? Yes, someone has been shot, send an ambulance” I looked down at Mitch and didn’t see any blood. We lifted up his shirt and saw a little blood in his belly button, and I thought how weird it was that he was shot in such a precise area, but no, that wasn’t the wound. We lifted his shirt up more and saw a small hole in the middle of his chest, it looked like it went straight through his heart. There was nothing accidental about this wound. I thought, “There still isn’t that much blood; do we put pressure on it?” Emily kept telling Mitch that he was awake, he was okay, help was on the way, he didn’t do anything wrong and he didn’t deserve it. I’m still so proud of Emily for how well she reacted and handled everything in those few minutes. I wish I were stronger at that moment, but all I could do was tear up and breathe heavy before looking at Chelsea and Isaac, thinking, “What the fuck.” I was thinking that the ambulance would be there soon and Mitch would be okay. I thought, “He is still breathing, he is alive. What if this is the last time I get to say something to him while he is alive? What do I say?”
“I love you man,” was the only collection of words I could push out. I’m pretty sure I only said it once. I wish I told him that he is my best friend, and he needs to fight and make it through this, to stay awake. I wanted so badly for him to reply to me, but his breathing was strenuous and the slight gargling noise let me know that his lungs were filling up with blood.
Soon there was another knock at the door, and I immediately thought that the intruder had returned to kill the rest of us. “Don’t open the door”, I instructed, but soon we realized that it must be the police. Another knock, “Police”. We opened the door and within minutes our house was swarming with cops, firefighters and paramedics; Mitch was rushed off in an ambulance, and the last thing I heard anyone say about him is that he is breathing on his own, a fact that I would hold on to for the next few hours as we are rushed off in separate cop cars and questioned individually at the police station. I completely understand why they had to keep us separate, but not being able to be with everyone for the three hours immediately following the shooting was torture. From the time that we heard the knock on the door to the time that the man was gone was no more than thirty seconds, probably only twenty seconds. It’s really hard to imagine that events in such a short time frame could drastically alter the rest of my life. But here I am, and nothing will ever be the same.
I first met Mitch in 2004 when my band made its first trip to the West Coast. When you’re young, unsigned and touring in a new area for the first time, you are pretty much relying on the kindness of strangers for your survival. I had reached out to a lot of people through email, but a very small amount ever responded, and all the shows we got in California were ultimately from the help of one guy in a punk band. It was Mitch who reached out to me when he found out we were heading to his state. He wanted to book shows for us and help us out any way he could. Online I sort of brushed him off as an overzealous young kid, not thinking he would be able to help us very much and figuring the other guy I was working with was more experienced and much more reliable. But Mitch showed up to the first show we played, in San Diego at the Che Café, and eagerly introduced himself. At the time he still had his huge red hair (for those that were lucky enough to see his driver’s license photo, the one where his hair reaches the outer limits of the frame, that’s the hair I’m talking about) and was about the wackiest person we had met all tour. His glasses made his eyes comically large and it gave everything he said a sense of urgency. We would always joke, telling him to calm down after anything he said for a little while. Over the course of the next few days Mitch helped us out with places to stay, showed us around town, set up beach party bonfires and generally made sure we had a good time. We stayed in contact and over the next few years he was our go-to guy in California. Eventually he would start touring with us, running the merch table, playing trombone (poorly) on a song or two and even doing guest vocals.
Though I feel a lot of people might make the same claim, Mitch quickly became my best friend. When we had a room open up at our house in New Haven, it didn’t take much convincing for him to move out here. From that point onward he became such an important part of my life. He was just such a great friend to me. I could go on and on about the impact he had and great things Mitch did for me and for others but that would at least triple the length of this writing. I think that when anyone dies, people start to throw around hyperbole and superlatives to talk the person much more than they ever would when they were alive. But I can say without a doubt that everything everyone has been saying regarding Mitch’s unmatched positivity, spirit, generosity and kindness is 100% true. That doesn’t mean that Mitch was perfect; not by any stretch of the imagination. But in his imperfections I find everything that makes him such a memorable and wonderful person to be friends with. Over the past few years, Mitch became someone so special to me because we were able to grow with each other, make mistakes together, learn from each other. No matter how a big a misstep I might have made in my life, he was always there to encourage me to keep my head up and keep looking forward, and I was more than happy to return the favor. Though it may seem incredibly optimistic of me, I’d like to think that most people are always striving to become a better person, more effective at being the person they would like to be. I would like to think of myself in that manner; I know I’ve made some bad choices in my life, but I’m trying my best to learn from them and incorporate those lessons into my actions for the next day. It isn’t easy to do this, but living with Mitch made it easier. We both wanted similar things out of life. We wanted to grow and become better vehicles of change, to be the type of people who we wished everyone would strive to be. I really felt that in the last four months or so of his life, Mitch was really getting a handle on that concept. He was finally starting to figure out exactly what he wanted out of life, how to make himself happy, as well as those around him. It hurts so much to think about how that trajectory has been cut short. I was so excited to watch Mitch grow and figure his life out. But that has been taken from me, from us.
But so much more has been taken from us than just an incredible person. On the night of March 24th I also lost my sense of security. While I once lived in a world where it seemed like everything would work out one way or another and ultimately everything would be ok, I now live in a world where violent crime is a very real possibility. I am more suspicious of everyone who passes on the street, every car that slows dow. I don’t feel as safe in my parent’s home, where I am currently staying, as I used to. On a recent road trip to New Orleans, I slept in my sleeping bag on the pavement outside of the car, something that I have done many times before while on tour and always felt fine, but this time I felt terrified at every noise I heard, every voice yelling in the distance at the gas pumps seemed like they would be soon heading towards me. The sound of branches being trimmed from the giant trees outside of my parent’s house and hitting the ground sounded like gunshots and they made me wince every time they landed. Last night I had a dream about being robbed. I’m hoping with time that all of this will fade away.
We also lost our house, our home. How could we possibly stay in a place that would trigger such horrible memories? We had all of our belongings out of there within four days. A friend said to me, “I’ll bet you’re happy to get out of there,” and yes, I was relieved to get out of a place where such a horrible thing had happened to my best friend, but I could never be happy about leaving that house. We spent nearly a year looking for the perfect place to live; we found it on Bassett Street. We wanted a house where we could have bands play in our basement. We wanted space for vegan potlucks and bicycle repairs, for family dinners and art projects, for gardening and composting. We wanted a place where our friends were always welcome, where we had enough space to sleep several touring bands, where we could make them breakfast in the morning. A place for Ruby to run around in the backyard, a place where we could grow and create the positive nurturing environment we needed. We had found it. It was ours, for only a few months, but it was ours.
When we moved in, we thought the basement had a dirt floor. It turns out that wasn’t the case as much as it had an inch of dirt on the floor. I bought a snow shovel and borrowed a shop-vac to get rid of the dirt. I inhaled so much dust that I got sick. We used quickrete to fill in the cracks and holes of the floor, proudly writing, “The Cookie Jar”, our moniker for the house that we would use on fliers for shows, into one of the larger holes we filled in. We boarded up the basement windows with layers of rolled up blankets, pillows and foam between two pieces of wood, our best attempt at sound proofing the basement. There was only one working electrical outlet, so our friend Kyle rewired the basement and installed new outlets. We set up some red and green lights, some carpets and our PA. This was it, our show space. We could finally have a place to host bands that could be everything we ever wanted in a venue.
Any event at The Cookie Jar was set up around a touring band coming through. Most of the time it was a band that we were friends with from previous tour. We started every show with a vegan potluck. Sometimes it was just me doing the cooking, but often friends would bring over food to share. We wanted everyone to eat delicious, nurturing food that was not the result of animal cruelty and violence. We wanted to show everyone how good and filling vegan food can be, everyone was grateful for the meal. All our shows were donation-based; no one had to get turned away due to a lack of money. Midway through shows, one of us would walk around with a jar collecting donations for the touring bands. Everyone was always generous within their ability, and the bands walked away with enough money to cover the travel expenses. All our shows had a strict no drugs and no drinking policy. We wanted people to come for the music, not the party. We wanted everyone there to feel safe and respected.
Ultimately what we wanted was to show everyone how good it can be. That we can have music in a place that isn’t trying to sell you anything, isn’t making the music secondary, a place that removed much of the glamour, leaving only pure intentions. That you can feed people and respect people and not demand much money and still have bands walking away saying it was the best show of their tour. We certainly weren’t the first to do this, but we had done it, and everyone that came through loved it, bands and audience members alike. After our first few shows, we had many people telling us how grateful they were that we were doing this, that Connecticut really needed a place like this. There are several punk houses in CT, and they all serve their own crowds and audiences. We felt like we were catering to a different need.
Our first show was December 30th and the last one we had was March 20th. In that short time we had started to create a community. We even had a neighbor come over when he heard a hardcore band playing and said he wanted to check it out. It wasn’t what he normally listened to, but he loved it and offered to have us over for dinner sometime. Within an hour of the show ending, he had already brought us over a container of freshly made butternut squash pear soup. It was delicious and in Mitch’s words it “tasted like Christmas.” I felt that this was just the start of the underground music world and the world of Bassett Street starting to co-mingle. Kyle pointed out that with the warm weather coming around, there would be more people out on the street and that those younger kids would hear the music and become curious. Everyone was invited to our shows, and I was excited at the prospect of more neighborhood locals coming to the shows, of showing them an alternative to other venues of music and other means of entertainment, and in turn learning new things from them. But that has been taken from us.
We really loved that house. In some of the articles about the incident, one of the many neighbors who were interviewed said they had asked us why we were moving to Bassett Street, and that we told them we didn’t have jobs that paid well enough to make it possible for us to afford a deposit anywhere else. I can’t imagine any of us saying that, as it was flat out untrue; in fact, to move in we had to pay first month’s rent plus a two-month deposit. So, why did we move there? Simply, it was the best house we had looked at. We needed a single family house in order to pull off shows, and this one had the best basement and the most room in the rest of the house for us to live in. Further, it was located near a college, so there was plenty of parking for visitors. The question of why we would live in the area has come up many times, not only from random people commenting on the news stories but from friends and relatives. “Was it a bad neighborhood?” is one of the most asked questions I’ve had to deal with following the incident. I understand that people are trying to make sense of the situation and find a reason why, especially since this just seems like such a senseless tragedy, but I think it’s important for everyone to know that asking us if it was a bad neighborhood seems akin to asking a rape victim what type of clothes she was wearing. They both reek of victim-blaming and seem to suggest that the crime committed could have possibly been brought on by the actions of the victim. I need to say it very plainly: Mitch was not shot because of where he lived, how he lived his life, what he believed in, who he was, or because he answered the door. Mitch was shot because someone shot him. This seems like such an obvious and simplistic statement, but it’s very important for everyone to realize we need to change our mode of thinking when it comes to violent crimes. I know most people’s intentions are pure, but they need to realize how painful it is to deal with this situation while having insinuations that this all could have been avoided had we chosen to live in a “nicer” neighborhood. Crime can and does happen anywhere; yes, certain areas have higher crime rates, but those of us living in the house were completely aware of our surroundings. When asked if it was a bad neighborhood, if I had said yes, would people all of a sudden think “Oh, ok, that’s why, this all makes sense now”? It’s like saying “Well, she was raped, but she was wearing a really short skirt”. No one is ever asking to be the victim of crime, no situation ever excuses or explains why someone becomes the victim of a violent crime.
Before moving into the house, I went to the street late at night on several occasions and walked around the block a couple times. I felt safe, and I noticed the beautiful gardens and how nicely some of the neighbors had kept their lawns. We loved our neighbors; the first night that we were there a few of them introduced themselves to us, and over the course of the next few months we got to know several more. Of course, we didn’t know everyone, but those we did, we were quite fond of. One moment that was documented in several papers was the time that Mitch and I were shoveling out our cars from the latest snow storm and upon getting our final car out, we went over and helped a couple of neighbors dig their cars out as well. We were told that no one else had ever offered to help them for free and they couldn’t wait to invite us to some barbecues when the weather got nicer. I felt much more a part of a community living on Bassett Street than I ever did living in “nicer” neighborhoods. I can only imagine that those judging the area we lived in are doing so based more on the color of our neighbors’ skin and their bank accounts than on any true personal interaction with its inhabitants.
This doesn’t mean we were so delusional as to not take precautions to protect ourselves and our property. We didn’t leave out doors wide open, we locked up our cars, we took the precautions that any normal person would. So when people ask me, “He just opened the door? Didn’t he try and figure out who was on the other side?” it makes me upset, because I don’t remember if Mitch looked through the peep hole or asked who was there, but I don’t think that it matters either. I can only assume that whoever it was that entered our house that night wasn’t holding his shirt up over his face when he knocked because he realized there was a peep hole, and when asked what he wanted wouldn’t have said, “I would like to shoot someone in the house.” When I heard the knock, I figured it must have been Lewis, the neighbor that brought us the soup, and had been known to drop by unannounced. It wasn’t out of the question for a neighbor to come over and introduce themselves to us. We trusted people; we let them into our home to share experiences with us. What happened to Mitch and what happened to us was something that was absolutely not the result of anything we did or where we chose to live; it was the result of someone with a gun who felt he had no problem with ending the life of another human being.
I still love New Haven, and despite what happened I still don’t view it as a war zone or a place to be avoided, but rather a place to be embraced, improved and fixed up. I know that we can only speculate on what “Mitch would want” at this point, but I think that it would be safe to assume that Mitch wouldn’t want his death to result in people fleeing from the city that had become such an important part of his life. I don’t think he would want this incident to make people scared to move into an area where they didn’t “fit in,” demographically speaking. We didn’t move to Bassett Street with some grand plan to integrate and cause world peace, but we did move there because we see all people as equals and we don’t judge anyone by the color of their skin or their socioeconomic status (and to be perfectly honest, I’m sure that most of the people on our street had a higher income level than I did). I want people to keep doing what we were doing, and what we hope to continue doing in the future when we find our footing again.
In the past few weeks there has been a lot of love and positive energy directed towards those of us who were most directly affected, and it is truly inspiring and overwhelming. Sometimes everyone’s kindness alone brings me to the verge of tears. Everyone seems to be a little nicer to each other, a little kinder and a little more positive. Unfortunately, I know from past experience that this isn’t going to last. Soon enough life will go back to normal for most people, so I would urge everyone to act on whatever impulse they have right now to start a project or reach out to loved ones. Life is too short to be wasted on bullshit; it is unfortunate that it takes an incident like this to make us truly grasp that fact, but let’s not waste it. Tell your friends and family that you love them. Don’t be scared. It’s going to get easier.
If you have any questions or thoughts for Andy, you can e-mail him.