Monday, April 21, 2014

Boston in a civic sense: The Marathon bombings one year later.

The Marathon bombings were an anarchistic act that tell us nothing interesting about global terrorism, anti-Americanism or anything else so grand.  They only remind us that nihilism combined with a willingness to harm can blend with some fairly unremarkable items such as wire and nails to bring about bloodshed, heartache and fear.  

The bombings also exposed the soft side of civicness.  When we go out in the street to celebrate  — say, to watch somebody run 13 miles per hour for hours at a time with apparent ease — we turn our city into our playground. It’s an act of joy that puts us in proximity to human greatness, but it also moves us closer to vulnerability.  

This is slightly different than observing that freedom and security are often in tension.  

A year has passed since the bombs went off, and Marathon Monday certainly was going to come again.  Johnny Kelley, Heartbreak Hill, the Red Sox game, Patriot’s Day — Boston is a city of history with a great sense of humor, but it is also a city deeply reverential about its lore.  

So officials met, discussed, planned. The Boston police and its sister agencies had to figure what the gaps were and how they could be filled.  The show would go on.  

And this year’s show has gone on.  As I stood in a festive South Station at noon today, there on two TV screens was Boston in its spring time glory: on the one, Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz dug his foot into the mound, trying to hold off the Orioles; on the other, Nigerian Rita Jeptoo knelt down to commune with the ground after breaking the women’s record by two full minutes in this year’s run.  

We each participate how we can, and my part happened the night before, when on the last-minute prompting of someone I know, I joined another great but much newer Boston tradition, riding a bike the whole Marathon route.  Since I hadn’t really prepared to do this, I wasn't going to get the whole thing done.  I headed out from Cambridge at midnight to join the incoming riders who were departing Hopkington at the same time.  

A college student had come up with this genius idea six years ago, and it’s now a full 1,000 riders strong, though because of security concerns, some good arrangements, like a commuter train to the starting point, were canceled this year.  

As with so much in Boston, the ride is an irreverent twist on Marathon, the tongue is in the cheek when some people can pedal the route starting at midnight the night before and claim to have gone the whole way. 

As it turns out, it all had a deeper, unavoidable resonance.  I will never run the Boston Marathon.  It’s just not in the cards.  For one, I’d never get a number, and given what I saw when I crossed back into Newton and hit the hills, I don’t think I’d finish.  But I’ve seen part of the route ... joined by nothing but the stillness of the night air and its April chill, joined by young riders unfazed by fatigue as their crisp metallic gears cut through the dark, joined by Brookline DPW trucks removing trash barrels by truck-mounted floodlights at one in the morning, joined by empty Green Line trains sitting patiently on their tracks, waiting out the hours in silence, neither asleep nor fully awake, eager to get back to work in the morning. 

It is a celebration.  It was at least, filled with a kind of Boston love that is Boston: underdog but not quitter. 

My brown fenders rattled as I hit the potholes, two riders on my tail about thirty yards back, each of them with good speed too. There were no working streetlights on this section of Commonwealth Ave.  The road squiggled up ahead and at the light, there were a couple of options to chose. I leaned over my shoulder and shouted to no one in particular “Which way does this go?” I gestured with my left hand to ask, left up ahead? There was speed, it was dark, I didn’t want to lead those two astray. A guy fixing the tracks, a T employee, shouted back from beside his pickup truck, “Right!”  Go right.  The three riders rumbled home.  

We all were creatures of the night, the sprites and fairies and ghouls and goblins that flit in the dark, in the other kingdom, before the dawn breaks and we go.  It was a fitting way to celebrate the runners who populate the day, and all the many many workers, working men and women, who stay up late to transform our streets and sidewalks from concrete into a land of imagination, a land of celebration.