I was driving home from a visit with a friend one night last February. I was thinking about getting some ice cream, and I fought the usual battle in my head — about using sweets to comfort myself, and whether to be weighed down by feelings or by fat. I was thinking about my friend, and the stubborn pain in each of us, the legacy of our pasts. I was thinking about the war with Iraq. A ground war was imminent, the radio said.
I drove past the bars and restaurants on West Rosemary Street, past the old yellow house where The Sun office used to be. I’m fond of this neighborhood — Chapel Hill’s low-rent district, its rumpled back porch — with its cheerfully seedy, vaguely bohemian air. It’s especially lovely in spring, which comes early to Chapel Hill — a reckless lover who sends flowers in February, impatient for winter to end.
At Internationalist Books, the lights were still on. I considered stopping, knowing I could count on a friendly hello from Bob Sheldon, the owner. More than a bookseller, Bob was a fervent political organizer, a sixties radical who had stayed true to his convictions.
I’d see Bob often in the parking lot between our buildings. (Before we moved the office, I used to joke that the Internationalist — its shelves filled with books on Marxist theory, Palestinian rights, feminist and gay and lesbian issues, Green politics, black nationalism — was just to the left of The Sun.) I might be reading manuscripts on the stoop when he’d arrive on his motorcycle, his strawberry-blond, shoulder-length hair streaming behind him. Because Bob didn’t open the store until nearly midday, parcels addressed to the Internationalist were frequently left with us. The UPS driver would chide me about Bob’s “banker’s hours.” He was convinced that people like Bob and I didn’t know what hard work was. I’d smile, having been up half the night putting together an issue. I knew that Bob, who supported himself with another job, was no less devoted.
I don’t know how many books Bob sold. Plenty of people came to the store just to browse through magazines, or to get into a discussion. Bob loved to talk politics. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he used to distribute Revolutionary Communist Party literature on local campuses, and was once fired by a textile mill for his unionizing activities. Yet Bob defied easy labels. A streetwise intellectual, he danced to reggae, worked part-time as a registered nurse, and was a former jock with letters in wrestling, track, and football. Even among dissenters, he was a dissenter. While he refused to embrace nonviolence — insisting that if you lived in Guatemala or South Africa you might have no choice but to be violent — he was a gentle, soft-spoken man with a keen sense of humor; no matter how serious the conversation, there were always some laughs.
If I had stopped that night, we might have talked about the Gulf War, which Bob emphatically opposed. I might have kidded him about being a celebrity: a few weeks earlier, he had been interviewed on local television, and he was now the best-known anti-war activist in town. I might have picked through the Central American handicrafts or the international music cassettes, which Bob carried as a gesture of solidarity. If I had stopped that night — as U.S. planes dropped bombs on Iraq, and Democrats cowered in their bunkers, and Republicans paraded behind the flag, and something shadowy and menacing, some twisted dream of glory, loped again across the land — I might have gotten to see Bob Sheldon one last time.
Bob’s friend Ken was supposed to meet him at the Internationalist around nine that very night. But when Ken opened the creaky screen door, he found Bob sprawled on the floor, bleeding and unconscious. He’d been shot in the head. Ken called for an ambulance and the police, and Bob was rushed to the hospital, but he never regained consciousness. He died the following day.
The bullet came from a small-caliber weapon, fired from less than ten feet away. There was no sign of a struggle, no immediate indication that the store had been robbed, nor was Bob known to have any personal enemies. The speculation was that Bob had been killed because of his political beliefs. The timing of his death was too significant to ignore; his television appearance must have angered many viewers. This is North Carolina, after all, which keeps reelecting Jesse Helms to the Senate. This is the state where, not too many years ago, Klansmen shot and killed members of the Communist Workers Party and were never convicted. A friend said, “Bob stood in harm’s way. He knew that. He’d been threatened before, and he didn’t move. This was the first bullet fired in the ground war.”
Others suggest that West Rosemary Street was too busy, even in the evening, for an assassination. And, despite initial reports that no money was taken from the store, it turns out that Bob kept two cash boxes; one appeared to be missing. But Bob’s friends doubt it was a robbery; they say he was savvy enough to have handled a holdup without being killed, that he wouldn’t have fought over money. Besides, armed robberies are rare in this town, murders even more uncommon; and anybody looking for cash on West Rosemary Street could easily have found a better target.
As I write this, there’s still no way of knowing if the killing was an act of personal vengeance, or a robbery, or a political assassination. Police have no suspects and have made no arrests.
Several days after the shooting, nearly five hundred people packed a local church to mourn Bob’s death. One woman told how Bob had offered her money at a dance after her wallet had been stolen. They were virtual strangers, she said, and she was hesitant to take it. Bob had said, “I know you’ll do the same for someone else.” Marilyn, with whom Bob had lived for many years, said that about a week after she and Bob separated, their cat Max died. “Bob had Max for a very long time; he loved Max. He took him to the vet, and they said Max wasn’t in pain, but that he was dying. So Bob put him in a box and stayed with him. I remember Bob saying he didn’t think anyone should have to die alone.”
One person called Bob “the most combative socialist” she’d ever known. Another referred, jokingly, to his “rabid, testosterone-laden diatribes.”
Dan, a fellow activist, later said, “Though I was sometimes put off by his sectarian terminology, I could always respect his commitment and sincerity.” Even in applying for a credit card, Dan said, Bob wanted to know how to get the politically correct Working Assets card. “I kidded him about becoming bourgeois — a yuppie Marxist — and he laughed at himself, something Bob did often.”
I didn’t always agree with Bob either. I suspect that, like many radicals, he sought from politics what others just as unrealistically seek from religion: a kind of paradise on earth. Yet I respected him enormously. He created not just a bookstore, but a meeting place for local activists, a community hub where people could question and challenge each other and the culture at large.
Bob understood what it meant to turn a stand into a life, sometimes thrilling, sometimes boring. He lived his revolution, not as if it were something outside himself, something impossibly distant, but here and now, as real as bills to be paid, books to be shelved, coffee cups to be rinsed. He believed what he was taught as a child about freedom and justice, and this made him dangerous. Of course, democracy itself is dangerous to those who think society is supposed to run with all the quiet efficiency of an expensive foreign car. Democracy is raucous and uncomfortable — an old jalopy with bent fenders, a shirt that’s never ironed, hair that’s never combed, a busy Saturday when there are always too many errands to do, too many injustices to protest, never enough time.
“Every revolution evaporates,” said Kafka, “leaving behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.” This is true not only of governments, but of individuals: the moment of realization, of inspiration, becomes institutionalized, trivialized. One reason I admired Bob so much is that he kept the revolution alive inside himself.
I don’t know what war Bob died in. Maybe he was the first casualty in the ground war with Iraq. Or maybe it was the war of the cities — rich against poor, poor against poor, neighborhood against neighborhood, with casualties measured in robberies and muggings and rapes.
Bob’s death is a tragedy, regardless of whether the violence was political or criminal. And in some sense it will remain a mystery, even if the murderer is arrested, his or her motivation laid bare. With all our psychological insight, do we really know why people do what they do: why they love each other and murder each other; why marriages, and nations, turn sour; why the same type of misfortune cripples one person and brings out the best in another? Do we know why one man, watching Bob being interviewed on TV, might mutter something under his breath and reach for a beer — while another man, embittered by failure, convinced of his own powerlessness, might reach instead for a gun?
His death reminds me that nothing keeps us here: not our commitment or our fear of commitment; not the words we’ve written or the words we haven’t written; not the fear of dying, either, or laughing at the fear — as if death were a joke, as if you could tell the joke again and again, never getting to the punch line.
All our lives are tragic, James Baldwin writes, “simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”
How we struggle to understand. Every day, it seems, a new book arrives on my desk explaining how we create our own reality, how everything is some kind of karmic unfolding, how we’re each of us like characters in a novel we ourselves have written, living out a tale intricate and beautiful and strange. Yet these ideas that explain so much, these ideas that celebrate the endless coupling of mystery and meaning, are born of a deeper mystery we can never comprehend. Psychology, philosophy, spirituality — they’re like games we invent, with cards we don’t know the meaning of, and so we try to compensate for our ignorance by devising ever more elaborate rules of play. We confuse facts with truth, honesty with understanding, stories about reality with reality itself.
Meanwhile, someone puts a gun to your head. They want money. They want you not to be who you are. America puts a gun to the head of the world, pulls the trigger, insists it was self-defense.
For certain facts, I’m thankful to reporters for The Independent, The Village Voice, Prism, and the Chapel Hill Newspaper.