I was at the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, watching the runners come in, the waves of runners who would finish with times a little better or close to the one I ran all those years ago.
The colorful flags of many nations were flapping in the breeze overhead along the last hundred yards of the course, in front of the Boston Public Library. It is the final sprint to the brightly painted blue and yellow finish line.
The sidewalks were crowded with teens and families, with Moms and friends come to cheer, carrying signs saying: “Go Daddy”, or “Yea, Caroline and Paddy”, or “You Got This, Amy”. There were college kids enjoying a day off from school, hanging out in the local bars, clutching long necked bottles of beer, and enjoying the rite-of-spring, street fair atmosphere that exists on Marathon Day, on Patriots’ Day, in Boston, Massachusetts.
The sidewalk cafes were bustling along Boylston Street and Newbury Street, which almost seemed like a pedestrian mall, with couples strolling hand in hand. At one Back Bay frat house, a block over, they were busy grilling out on the sidewalk, tossing a football, hosting an al fresco party perfectly suited to a spring day.
I watched at the finish for awhile, then decided to walk along the course towards the last two turns, “right on Hereford, left on Boylston”. I made my way along the sidewalk through the festive crowd, through the pinch points where restaurants had fenced off sidewalk seating, or where lamp posts and mailboxes were set back from the barricades along the curb and forced the crowd back onto itself.
I stopped for quite awhile near the 26 mile mark, across the street from the Prudential building, cheering and clapping with the crowd as runners – many first-timers, many run-for-charity fundraisers – loped by in various stages of fatigue and ecstasy, some in pain, some in costumes,
some in uniform.
Oh the joyous feeling of the day. It was familiar magic.
I continued on to Hereford, and turned the corner, making my way backwards along the course to Commonwealth Avenue, to watch the runners turn at that second to last corner. It’s a special spot, because most of them know at that point that they are almost home, they feel the finish pulling them, whatever the state of their legs. This is a visceral memory of mine, of floating through the clamor of Kenmore Square (buoyed by cheering for Boston’s Marathon hero Johnny Kelley), going down and under Mass Ave, and up again to the last turns. When you turn onto Hereford, and then onto Boylston, the growing roar of the large crowd is amplified even further by the taller buildings lining the sidewalk. It is almost overwhelming, so close to the finish, so close to the edge of your endurance. When I ran I remember I felt a sense of claustrophobia, to be back in this canyon of sound and brick.
So I stood in the crowd and watched the proud runners living out their dreams, chasing down the moment of triumph and completion due to them after months and months of training, after hours and hours of runs, and miles and miles of pavement. Commonwealth Mall was filled with cheering squads looking out for their own runners, and holding up their hand lettered signs. They gathered with neighbors sharing the enormous power of community, and with children racing in dizzying circles on the grass, under the influence of crowd generated euphoria.
I debated walking back to the finish line, but a glance at my watch reminded me it was two o’clock, and The Dog would be anxiously awaiting my return for a late midday outing. I headed home. The Dog and I then sat outside on Commonwealth Mall enjoying the street parade of passing spectators, back-up emergency and medical support personnel, and runners who had already completed their races and were wandering about in dazed victory, with medals hanging around their necks on bright yellow and blue ribbons, many wearing the yellow race shirts and blue wind jackets given them by the Boston Athletic Association, some of them wrapped in tin foil blankets.
The Dog and I headed inside at about 2:30pm. Bless you Dog.
Minutes later, sitting at my desk, I was aware of many sirens. My cell phone beeped with a text. “Are you all okay?” from The Boy. I went to Twitter. That’s how I found out that two bombs had just exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, a mere two blocks from our house. No, I did not hear the explosions. My theory is that the taller buildings along Boylston Street acted like a sound barrier beside the highway, sending the sound up and out into the further air. Friends of mine who live in Cambridge say they heard the booms. I texted My Husband that I was home. But where was The Girl? “Everybody okay and far from the Marathon finish line?” came in from The Eldest. And so it went, texting, calling and emailing, to make sure all the family were safely somewhere. Where? The Girl had left her cellphone at home that day. I called her, and could hear it ringing in her room. I began again with emails, hoping she would look at her iPad. It was almost 30 minutes later before I heard from her Dad that she was safe. She had been in the Prudential T stop and was ushered out by the Police, onto Huntington Avenue. Along the way there were many people running, and crying, but thank goodness she was not at the scene. She generally hates crowds. I had thought she would be much further away.
At home, on television, we watched and listened to the stories of the first responders and brave bystanders, who rushed toward the blasts instead of away from them, the emergency personnel and surgeons who spent endless hours attending to, and attempting to repair, bomb damaged spectators, the marathoners who ran 26.2 miles and then ran to the hospitals to donate blood for blast victims. So much goodness it made me feel weepy.
Safe at home The Girl and I consider how we feel. We know immediately that at many levels we are ‘fine’. We were there, but we were not there THEN. We are not among the injured, the maimed, the shocked. We live only blocks away, but we are almost unscathed. Over the next few hours we receive countless texts and phone calls and emails from concerned friends and family around the world. Our real networked community is reaching out to us. We are able to tell our stories, and this allows us to recognize and explore the nuances of our experience, to admit the ‘almosts’ of being so close, to articulate the ways we do relate to the blasts and the growing pall of aftermath.
Within an hour the streets of our Back Bay neighborhood were barricaded, yellow tape everywhere, dozens of Police and emergency workers in action, ATF and FBI arriving in SUVs with blacked out windows and Humvees.
By nightfall the Commonwealth Mall in front of the house was a parking lot for TV broadcast trucks with satellite dishes on top, with miles of colored wires snaking from generators and cameras, and cars filled with newscasters and their assistants,
a phalanx of movie cameras was set up across the intersection, propped atop tripods resembling a flock of black-legged storks, all the lenses pointed down Dartmouth Street towards Boylston, where a large sign with blinking orange letters spelled out “STREET CLOSED”, alternating with “FIND ALT ROUTE”.
We watched too much news coverage on TV. I spent too much time on Twitter, and Facebook.
By the next morning, under cloudless blue skies, with the magnolias coming into bloom, and their soft fragrance floating on the air, a full crime scene investigation was under way, with sniffer dogs and forensics experts. I know the sidewalks of Boylston, two blocks over, are still littered with wreckage, detritus from the bombs, abandoned possessions, and stained with blood.
I was approached for interviews by a black clad reporter with scarlet lipstick, in Boston to cover the event for Russian news. Also by a reporter for Sky News in the UK. But I do not want to be on camera as the face and voice of America. Yes, these events are horrendous wherever they occur, to whatever innocent people on whichever much loved holiday.
My neighbors and I are bemused, as Tuesday gives way to Wednesday, and Wednesday to Thursday, walking between and around the news trucks parked all over the grass median, and the catering tables set up, stocked with coffee and sandwiches fro the reporters and their staffs, trying to exercise our dogs and share morning chats on our once quiet Mall. The yellow tape and blue Police barricades block off access to my cash machine, the two local grocery stores, my gym. It requires extra blocks up or down and around to get to anything. Sirens still echo down every street. They sound different now, or maybe we just notice every one. Neighbors are kind and reach out – we are all interested in each other. We have rediscovered our community. Meanwhile Police and soldiers in dessert fatigues, with guns, block the intersections.
What is fair? What is appropriate? How long can this situation persist? And how do we behave? Life goes on, but it is not normal, and it will not be for some time. The things on my To Do List for this week will not get done.
We are ‘fine’. We live here. We will be Boston Strong. We will see this through.