Boston, Through a Crisis Darkly

AP Photo/Josh Reynolds

Tucked in the hipster haven of Jamaica Plain on the southern side of this brash yet neighborly city, my apartment is just a few miles from the heart of Boston. As a beat reporter who covers local politics and mayhem, it's a convenient place to live. A typical morning commute to report at City Hall or the State House takes about 15 minutes on the Orange Line, or a bit longer by bus. But even though the trains are running on time today, it takes me longer than usual to get downtown. I just can't help but stop every couple of feet to note how drastically the Hub changed since two bombs went off near Copley Square, killing three people and injuring nearly 200 others. I'm accustomed to covering craziness—from police brutality to Occupy, I've been front-and-center, if not fully embedded—but today, this landscape is a wholly unfamiliar beast.


A View From Boston

That much becomes clear less than a block away from home. In a rare occurrence, the bodega on the corner that I frequent in the morning has unprecedentedly sold more newspapers than empanadas. The clerks tell me that their regulars have been storming in since 6 a.m. asking for the Globe or the Herald and talking about terrorism instead of spreading gossipy around-the-way rumors. On the sidewalk, there's a grade-school girl with freshly twisted braids sipping an Arizona tallboy. I often see her and her family waiting at the bus stop between my corner store and Forest Hills, but we've never interacted before. She inspects my newspaper, then looks at her mom and says that she's upset to be on school vacation all week: “I really wish that I was with my friends today.”

Forest Hills, just blocks from my pad, is a major transportation crossroads; between trains, buses, and taxicabs, there are always enough squeaks and bells to penetrate noise-canceling headphones. Commuters here are sometimes made to endure unpredictable and indiscriminate pat-downs at random, yet while it's not exactly the police state I expected, some things are unusual. The transit worker who's regularly rapping about sports with his colleagues is silent—it's the first time that I've ever seen him calm the day after a Red Sox win. His buddy in the booth down on the platform is trying something new as well—instead of snoozing with his head in a magazine, one hand wrapped around an empty bucket of iced coffee, he's awake. There's also an LED asking everyone to keep an extra hawkish eye out for suspicious packages. The flickering sign might always say that, but I've never noticed it. Since the ordinary turned eerie, everything feels oddly new.

For two stops I watch people read the free Metro rag in horror. Folks here rarely speak to strangers—Boston's far from the Midwest—but this is even extreme for a metropolis where drivers cut you off with their middle finger out the window, and where “Yankees Suck” is the go-to sports chant whether it's a baseball, hoops, or hockey game. It's like we're all working hard to ignore one another. A family from Kentucky climbs aboard and brings some cheer. Twenty-two of them arrived in town on Thursday, and are renting a house in my neighborhood. They were all huddled right next to the finish line until 20 minutes before yesterday's explosions—they have pictures with time stamps to prove it—but cleared out after a family member named Amy completed the marathon.

The Kentucky clan didn't come here just to boost Amy. They're also on a mission, literally, and had been handing out anti-drug and pro-Jesus pamphlets prior to the bombings. They still have a few dozen out of 1,200 tracts left, and are en route downtown to spread the gospel and tour museums. The patriarch says,“A lot of folks rejected us before the bombs went off. Now they seem willing to listen.”

When I exit the train and walk up to the street, there's not much action in Downtown Crossing—a main shopping destination and tourist thoroughfare. I'm not sure if it's because public high school kids are on vacation, or if it's because of what transpired at the marathon, but the lunchtime Italian sausage queue is unusually short, as are the waits in Starbucks and at every other java shop. After a minute or so passes, however, a small and somewhat alarming fleet of motorcycle cops from towns and cities outside of Boston—Arlington, Billerica, Lowell—fire up their engines and ride out one after the other. This is a rare kind of collaboration around these parts, where state troopers and police officers are literally known to slug it out over jurisdiction.

Though the visiting Big Apple Circus—scheduled to be in town on tour until the middle of next month—is still kicking, the concrete skirt around City Hall isn't the madhouse that I expected. Inside is an especially ghostly scene. The lone city councilor who's there says that he's not ready to go on record. He's not much of a publicity whore, but that's still an oddity. Complicated feelings are definitely flowing. The coldest building in the city—a much-maligned brutalist fort known for its frigidity—is seemingly emoting. City Hall is mourning.

At least it appears to be a normal day on Boston Common—vendors slinging street meat, co-eds smoking weed. My favorite recurring free show is even underway at the bandstand: an intensely nutty woman who preaches against gay marriage and invents bible quotes. But wait—something's out-of-whack after all. That's not the regular “FREE HUGS” guy; Keith says that he came down from Manchester today, just to wrap his arms around anyone who needs a friend. This massive SWAT tank full of camouflage-clad soldiers is another anomaly. And the ocean of suburban cops near Beacon Hill—that's also new since yesterday.

I enter the Public Garden—where I was walking when the bombs went off, blocks away, nearly a day earlier—and pass the famous Boston Duck Boats, which are temporarily out of commission. I've never seen them de-feathered in such nice weather, but that's not the biggest surprise out here. On the corner of the Common, amidst the momentarily metastasizing national media, are some local TV reporters. Their routine is covering the likes of Kim and Kanye, but to my amazement, they're acting serious for a change. I scratch my head, scribble something in my notepad, and try remembering what this city used to look like.

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