I’ve only lived in two major metropolitan areas. I call Chicago home now, but before I moved here, I called Boston my home for a decade. I moved to the city in 1996 for college, to the Boston University Warren Towers campus on Commonwealth Avenue. My first apartment was on Beacon Street where it hits St. Mary’s on the border of Brookline and Boston, right on the route where the marathon runners head into the city toward the finish line at Copley Square. Even though my apartment faced away from the street, I could hear the cheers of the marathon watchers easily, even with the windows closed. The crowds were so thick in front of my building that there was no point to leaving until the race was over, and taking the T to get anywhere was a laughable proposition (even though there was a stop right outside my door).
If you’ve never lived in Boston, you need to understand just what Patriot’s Day and the Boston marathon mean to the city. Patriot’s Day isn’t a national holiday – it’s a Massachusetts-specific event that happens every third Monday in April. Schools are closed, as are the banks and many offices. Visitors from all over New England, not to mention the rest of the country and from the rest of the world, come to the city for the Boston marathon as runners, volunteers, supporters and spectators. The Red Sox have played a home game at Fenway every Patriots Day since 1959 (with few exceptions), with the game starting mid-morning so that the marathon runners come through Kenmore Square by the park roughly mid-game. People are drunk by 9am and even if it’s freezing and there’s snow on the ground, grills are lit and the air smells like smoke and sizzling meat. Any place serving food and drink on Newbury Street, Boylston Street and the Boston side of the Mass Ave bridge is packed to the gills. Whether you want coffee and a piece of decadent coffee chocolate cheesecake at the Trident, chicken tikka and a sweet lassi at Kashmir or a cheap burger and a Pabst at the Pour House, you’re in for a long wait and a tough squeeze finding a seat.
When you live in Boston, celebrating Patriot’s Day and the Boston marathon is what brings Bostonians together, regardless of if you’re a sports fan or not. More than St. Patrick’s Day or Memorial Day or the 4th of July, Patriot’s Day is something uniquely Boston and the entire city vibrates with that feeling of athletic enthusiasm, history and pride.
The Boston marathon holds a similarly seminal place of pride for Bostonians. While many metropolitan capitals have their own marathons, Boston’s is the marathon that all other marathons serve as qualifiers for. I have a few friends this year from Boston who are running the Chicago marathon this year specifically to qualify for the Boston marathon next year. It’s the marathon that scares the bejeezus out of people (ever heard of “Heartbreak Hill?) and when people say that they’ve run it, have every reason to puff their chests out a little (ok, a lot) with pride.
Which is a long way of saying, that regardless of the fact that I haven’t lived in Boston for almost seven years, I still feel the pull of home there and what happened at Copley Square breaks my heart.
Boston is the first place I truly felt safe and at home after leaving Chicago after my parents died and I moved in with relatives in a Pennsylvania suburb. I’ve wandered the streets where the two bombs went off – Exeter Street and Boylston Street, and then a block south at Fairfield Street and Bolyston Street – so often I could navigate them with my eyes closed. The Atlantic Fish has been there since the year I was born. The Copley Plaza T stop is one block north on Dartmouth Street. Vehicles and pedestrians follow a deceptively chaotic but vibrant pattern of purring steel and rhythmic footfall during the day. The deserted streets at night during a quiet snowfall become canyons of amber light glancing off glass and stone.
It’s the first place I established what felt like a real family of my own, with people who made the saying “friends are the family you chose” less of a cliche and more real words to live by. It’s the city where I met the love of my life. Many of my Boston family still live in the city. I have friends who are runners – some of them were in the marathon. They do events like this because they love them – the challenge, the camaraderie, the rush of pushing one’s self over the finish line before collapsing in a heap of “WTF did I just do?!?” My Boston family and runner friends were the ones I thought about as soon as the first news of the explosions on Boylston Street appeared on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, because Boston is smaller than you think and chances were at least some of them were going to be in the city today at the race – watching, running, volunteering – maybe even at the finish line.
Those moments when you wait to hear from loved ones in a disaster crawl by like mercury across cold glass. Some of the friends I reached out to in Boston today I haven’t spoken as much as I would wish, but slowly over text, Facebook and phone calls, everyone replied with the same message: “We’re ok. Thank you. We love you.”
I’m thankful that no one that I know and care about in Boston was hurt today, but I know that not everyone was that lucky. According to latest reports, more than 100 people have been injured; several have lost limbs and three people have died, including an 8-year-old child. It’s still unknown who planted the bombs, or why.
The last mile of the 26.2 mile race was dedicated to the 26 victims of the Newtown, CT shooting at Sandy Hook. I just don’t know what to do with that sort of macabre cosmic irony. The idea that anyone would target a event that brings together such a disparate group of people from all over the world who are united by a singular passion and sense of determination to just run with the intent to cause harm is incomprehensible.
Not knowing is incredibly hard, and makes it that much more difficult to sort through the tangled mess of shock, grief and anger. Frankly, I don’t care if it was a lone ideologue or a group of fanatics, because knowing the reasons why and who is responsible won’t change the fact that people have been hurt, maimed and killed.
One thing’s for sure – jumping to blame anyone or any group without proof would be an awful way to honor the memory of those who’ve been harmed today.
If there’s anything I’m trying to take away from today’s events, it’s this: despite the horror of this tragedy and the scale of harm that’s been done, the stories coming out of Boston are overwhelmingly ones of heroism, empathy and support. One of my friends was a volunteer at the marathon near the finish line, close enough to hear the explosions and see the smoke plumes. While he was frightened and there was no clear line of command on what to do, he stayed to help evacuate people and direct them where to go as long as he could before being told he had to leave as well. My Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with people posting offers (their own or passing along those they knew of) for places to stay for anyone stuck in the city, rides from commuter rails or T stops and where to go for information on missing loved ones.
This is what I try to focus on when the urge to chuck my humanity membership card into the shredder becomes overwhelming in the face of such calculated brutality. Patton Oswald managed to capture this sentiment perfectly today:
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.
And to my friends and loved ones, whether we share the same zip code or require a plane ticket to see each other, I’m sorry if I haven’t been in touch. I wish it didn’t take a tragic event like this to spur better communication habits, but I hope you know how deeply I love each and every one of you.