It was a chilly morning, but the radio reminded us that this was the perfect weather for the Marathon (here in Boston, there’s only one; the rest are mere imitators). Last year we had a fabulous 80-degree day, but the marathoners suffered terribly, with record numbers of them languishing in the heat. So I sent them good, hopeful wishes as I took my dog around the pond, my fingers freezing. We all know the Marathon—the start way out in leafy Hopkinton, one of those absurdly postcard-pretty New England towns; the crowds cheering those who are flagging at Heartbreak Hill, a long and agonizing slope that comes at 20.5 miles into the race, where you can feel the sweat and tears flying off the runners. Everyone has either run it or gone to watch it at least once in their time here. My wife adores Patriots’ Day—which in theory commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord but in practice lets every state employee (like her) off to watch the race; it's a holiday that includes history and sports, her favorite things. Last year, as a gift, my little brother sent the three of us to the Patriots’ Day Red Sox game; as we left Fenway we all had to hold hands so we didn’t lose our eight-year-old in the wall-to-wall crowds.
Of course you know what happened to change the day. I didn’t know, at first, why I didn’t get any cell phone reception while driving along the Charles River mid-afternoon, as the usual crowds were pouring over the bridges from Boston to the Cambridge side. Then I made it home to deeper Cambridge, and started getting the texts from people asking if I was okay. By four o’clock my wife and I were sitting dumbstruck on the couch watching the local news, my eyes overflowing as we watched scenes on the streets we walk all the time, the familiar buildings and intersections, all of which I know not just from television but from trying to find a damn parking place. This doesn't happen here.
I know, I know—it’s the most ridiculous cliché of disaster coverage, what everyone says when the national TV cameras descend. But it’s truly disorienting to think of this as a national story. National stories happen elsewhere. Boston isn't the heartland like Oklahoma City or the financial and media capital like New York City or the actual capital like Washington, D.C. Boston is parochial, quite literally, with various parts of Southie and Dorchester designated by parish. Boston is Whitey Bulger and Billy Bulger, a mayor known for mumbling, a dense local accent, drunken crowds for St. Patrick’s Day, streets and suburbs named after old English lords, blizzards in the winter, the rudest traffic and most incomprehensible roads in the world, fabulous Fourth of July fireworks, and sailboats on the river on a pretty day. The Cambridge side of the river, decorated by the campuses of Harvard and MIT, exports its intellectuals with such elite snobbery that you have to laugh out loud. I adore it. I even love complaining about it. Boston is ordinary. It’s my home.
To have Anderson Cooper live on the scene as if we were New Orleans is unnerving. I don’t like this feeling—being in the networks’ klieg lights, listening to the anchors mispronounce “Copley Plaza.” I want them to go home so we can go back to listening to the local reporters whose names and voices we know, the ones who know to say “the General” or “MGH” instead of “Massachusetts General Hospital,” the ones who know by heart exactly where Dartmouth Street crosses Boylston. I want to listen to the local reporters on WBUR and WGBH, the ones with imperfect and locally inflected voices, interviewing locals dazed at having been struck by history’s angry fist, who just expected to wrap themselves in those mylar blankets and drink a quart of gatorade to celebrate having made it that absurd distance. I don’t think I’m ever going to think of it as a national story. This happened to us.
Walking the dog, talking to neighbors, of course we are all speculating on who and why. If you wanted to shut down Boston, surely you wouldn’t put ball bearings in backpacks and attack runners, would you? To cripple the city all you’d have to do is take a gasoline tanker and crash it in one of the tunnels built by the Big Dig—you could take down a couple of major arteries and shut down the city for months. On the other hand, if you wanted to strike at our symbolic heart, at what it means to belong to this ludicrously snobby little city built on a harbor that was filled in, if you wanted to grab international headlines on a day when ordinary and extraordinary people from around the world were cramping their legs and exercising their hearts with ordinary and extraordinary joy, if you wanted to make a statement about what it means to be an American, then attacking the Marathon—which belongs to us all—on Patriots’ Day might be just right.