Boston Marathon 2013 began like every other, runners and fans in peaceful common pursuit.
photo J. Hilberman
The bombings at the Boston Marathon were cruel enough. But the calls for citizens to become the eyes and ears of a new ‘Security States of America’ blame the victims and insult the very openness that makes us who we are. On NPR, a military trainer talked about how when a person goes out for a walk in their neighborhood they should, casually, also keep an eye out for ‘suspicious activities.’ For my money you can start with notifying the authorities that more than 20,000 people chose to run more than 26 miles—for most of us, running a marathon is a suspicious activity indeed.
Increasingly, in modern urban culture, making eye contact and talking to the people around you are suspicious activities. But at the Marathon, it’s what happens: I spent three hours watching the Marathon around mile 24 on Monday, and got to know three different stories of the people I had simply decided to stand near. Two Midwestern women, one young and one middle-aged–strangers to each other–were waiting for their fiancee and husband to run by, and an elderly Canadian couple waited for their son to come by in his 11th Boston race.
The crowd at Boston, famous worldwide for enthusiasm, lines the entire course and dedicates a good portion of lung power–sometimes enduring truly disgusting weather conditions–toward cheering the runners on home. We scream for the wheelchairs, the breathtaking elite front-running men and women, the fast, the not so fast, and then the throngs of people who by mile 24 and the fourth hour look suspiciously like ourselves–frumpy, pained, off-kilter, and maniacal—except that they are in the middle of Beacon Street with numbers on and ultra-bright shoes, and we are banging noisemakers and cowbells as the police keep backing us off of the course. They write names on their jerseys, and we scream: ‘Go Army’, ‘Attaboy, Ken’, ‘Looking good, Mom.’
Three teenagers—any group of teens, immediately suspect–push in front of the short, anxious, Midwestern fiancee: rude crowd behavior anywhere. They edge onto the course and begin trying to high-five the hypoglycemic saps who are stumbling onward. I nearly intervene, but something stops me. The lankiest teen begins reporting how many ‘high fives’ and at some point he is up to 30. The runners love it! I watch in amazement as high-five after high-five comes from the runners to the three teens, who are howling with laughter. They are partying, and their party is giving energy to the runners.
We are all partying, and giving energy to the runners, and getting energy from the runners. It is one of the truly beautiful days of the many marathons I have watched, a little cold at times but mostly sunny and dry—a glorious Boston spring day. Two of my three new friends from out of town see their people run by–the husband actually stumbles over for a kiss—and they do what all the ‘support personnel’ do: hop on the ‘T’ and head down to the finish line. I am hoping to watch the fiancee greet her husband-to-be, but after three-and-a-half hours I decide to shove off, on my bike, and leave that chapter unfinished.
Riding through Kenmore Square—the first time in 25 years I have dared to take this route—I encounter the largest frat party I have ever seen. Thousands of college kids drunk in the streets and nearly incoherent, stumbling over to the lightly-barricaded median of Beacon Street, screaming for the runners: group binge drinking is a behavior I have found suspicious since I was a teenager. But at the Boston Marathon, it’s just another part of the course, not far from the historic finish on Boylston Street.
The Marathon divides the city into North and South for most of the day. You can get around the race by driving 30 miles West, or right downtown. I ride a few blocks past the finish line and circle back to to meet my friend Kathleen for coffee. On the way I see a few people wearing the familiar mylar blankets, given post-race to avoid hypothermia, and the spectacular 2013 blue and yellow participant’s jackets. I offer congratulations from my bike, and weary but content runners smile or say ‘thanks.’ I cycle past parked buses with the runner’s clothes all bagged and waiting for post-race pickup.
After coffee, cycling home, throngs of out-of-towners either led or trailed by a marathoner, are jaywalking. As a biker, the thrill begins to fade back into a more normal sense of my city: these people who don’t know where they are going, or how to cross the street, they are like one big suspicious activity. I don’t notice the transition, but the good cheer of my inner marathon-watcher collides directly with the jaded, 25-years-in-Boston traffic curmudgeon. Great job, runners, now get the hell out of my way!
Out of the crowd, down a relatively empty city artery, and over the Mass. Ave Bridge. From the bridge, Boston on one side, and Cambridge waiting for me, the city is most glorious: river, trees, skyline, sun, boats, a few Marathoners walking back to their hotels, pedestrians, bikers. And then: BOOOOOM! The blast is unbelievably loud. I have been waiting all day for the Air Force Thunderbirds to fly over, which normally happens around 11 AM, and think it must be them. A quick sky check reveals nothing. People on the bridge stop and turn and look back. I keep riding.
Home, I hit Google to see who won the race, and the computer is buzzing with ‘explosions at the marathon.’ Without a TV—to some people not just suspicious but unfathomable–I have to phone a friend: I call Pat and ask her to turn hers on. She begins a series of gruesome reports, which just get worse as day fades into evening. I need ice cream and companionship, so I pick up a pint of chocolate and head over to my mother’s place to watch some TV.
My phone rings. My student, Joan, is calling to say she is OK, but not sure she will make our lesson in the morning. She begins to weep as she tells me she was standing in front of Marathon Sports, directly where the first bomb exploded, waiting for two friends to cross the finish line, and walked away only minutes before the blast. She heard the boom, the screams, saw the people running, began to run herself, until she was safely home, a few blocks away. She doesn’t know why she walked away when she did, and she wonders about the people she had just met: in that instant they have gone from new Marathon comrades to the injured, the dead, the amputees.
Joan loves the sweet frozen dessert substance from Tasty D-Lite. I find that totally suspicious: how many chemicals have to go into a flavor list that is longer than the phone book? How can you get a dessert that has basically no calories, and why is that desirable? Did Tasty D-Lite, with their scientifically engineered and expertly portioned dessert substitute, save her life by providing the exact right amount for her to finish, marking a moment for her to leave the scene?
Joan is back in tap shoes the next morning, we are hard at work on Carnell Lyons’ two-chorus Paddle and Roll. After a sleepless night, and with a brain that has not stopped churning, she is smiling when the hour-and-a-half is up. Tap dancers know: it’s like meditation, the quiet, peaceful state the brain finds after making all that noise.
At lunch yesterday with a friend, a marathoner sits gingerly at the table next to us. Instead of my usual ‘congratulations,’ offered for 25 years, I ask, ‘Did you finish?’ Nearly 5,000 runners had the surreal experience of being unable to complete the race, more than 25 miles in. He says, ‘Yes’. Then I ask, in the race parlance, ‘First Boston?’ Again, ‘Yes’. Before two days ago, the marathoners were simply high-achievers engaged in a suspiciously obsessive pursuit deserving congratulations, now they and I and the city and the injured: we are all survivors. I mumble half-congrats, half-apologies, and he keeps saying, ‘I’m leaving tonight.’ Me and my lunch date, we live here, we’re staying. And the dead?
Yesterday, I take a long walk along the Cambridge side of the Charles river, spending some time in contemplation of the city I have called home for all these years and am about to leave. Boats are sailing, runners are out, traffic is backed up in both directions over the Mass. Ave Bridge. With each siren’s wail I wonder if it is just ‘normal’ emergency sounds, or if it relates to terrorism.
I walk back through Central Square, Cambridge–a hotbed of suspicious activity at all times day or night. A small Asian woman walks toward me carrying a box, out of which emerges a plastic Christmas tree with lights on it, and I think: Christmas tree bomber? Should I alert someone? As I stare at her my eyes go into Dunkin’ Donuts, where a woman is dipping soft sandwich rolls into a Tupperware container filled with a tomato-meat sauce: isn’t that illegal, bringing sloppy joes into Dunkin’ Donuts? And even if it isn’t illegal, isn’t it disgusting? Should I go into Dunkin’ Donuts and tell the manager that there is a woman with an alien meat substance and immigrant bread, sitting in the window for all the world to see?
Every day last week the US news was filled with domestic terror, shutdowns of community colleges with suspected gunmen, mass stabbings, hostage situations. Yesterday as the main news focused on Boston, another college shutdown due to alleged gunman snuck under the radar. The killing-spree has become the new normal, and it is pretty clear that the maniacal defense of ‘our right to bear arms’ has created a new pathology, a breed of killers with warped minds and easy access to munitions. I find the zealous defense of our right to buy and sell unregulated assault rifles one of the most suspicious activities of all.
Meanwhile, just after the bomb blasts go off in Boston, a bystander tackles a man of Saudi descent who was running from the explosions. The Saudi gets hospitalized, interrogated, his apartment gets searched, his roommates get questioned for hours, and several days later it turns out: he was doing what everybody reasonable person on Boylston Street was doing, running for their lives. Fleeing an explosion with dark skin, a suspicious activity?
I remain horrified by Monday’s Marathon bombing, but equally horrified at the thought of a populace composed of citizen vigilantes–untrained, fearful, and increasingly armed people who nervously scour their personal domains for ‘suspicious activities.’ Terrorists win when the population gives in to fear.
About one thing there is no doubt: Boston will beef up security and the amazing Marathon will continue to be the region’s greatest day of the year, for years to come.
And I will keep on tap dancing, maybe the most suspicious activity of all.