What I saw on Pearl Street

I was on Pearl Street talking to a voter the other night.  He had been trimming the hedges in front of his house. The sun had set but the summer's evening light was lingering.  Our topic was the development pressures in Central Square.

A young man walked by us with a backpack on his shoulder.  He looked like a college student.  We paid him no mind but when he got to the corner, he started to shake his bag violently, distributing the contents onto the sidewalk.  It's the kind of thing a crazy person might do, but he didn't look like the type of person who'd be losing his mind on a Cambridge street.

He then approached the two of us, and asked "do you hear something ticking in my bag?"  As preposterous as it sounded, we did.  Loud enough to hear from five feet away, and persistent.   Should he call the police?  Well, yes, if you have no idea where this sound is coming from.  So he called the Cambridge police and explained his unlikely tale.

The police showed up within a couple of minutes and cordoned off the area, blue lights flashing and all.  There we were, standing a few feet from this bag, waiting for someone to do something.  I think none of us was particularly sure who or what.  But we waited.  Even the police waited.

Then a plain clothes officer arrived.  His chinos and his madras shirtsleeves and his shaved head would have allowed him to slip innocuously into any crowd, his only giveaway being the radio attached to his hip.  He walked past the uniformed sergeant and approached the bag at a deliberate but unaltering pace.  It was neither a professionally trained caution nor foolhardy bravado.  It was however bravery. Few things are truly scarier than the unknown, and he was walking toward it. The rest of us stood around and watched.

He kneeled over the bag and leaned his head toward the sound.  He began to peel back the top flap, looking for the source of the tick.  I looked down the sidewalk at him in the fading July light.  His head was no more than two feet above this thing and I thought to myself -- if there's a bomb in there and it goes off, he's dead.   

What kind of job is it that takes you from a coffee break to a possible backpack bomb within minutes just as part of your everyday work?  It's impossible to be there and not to feel the tension of the moment. 

He pulled out a ticking black box from bag and announced "I don't know what it is, but it's not a bomb".  The student approached and realized that it was a metronome, something musicians use when they are practicing.  Maybe his friend had put it in his bag.  The situation had defused. I started to walk away, but it didn't escape my thinking that for the police, this constitutes a normal day on the job.  Acts of courage are seen as nothing more than doing your work. And they go largely unknown, unnoted or unnoticed by the public at large. 

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