Seasons changed around a city that stubbornly refused to move forward in time. The Big Dig would never be quite finished, the Democrats would continue to hold power, the traffic would always suck, Tom Menino would remain the forever mayor, the nightlife would always close at 1, and the sports teams would never win. (Of course, that changed starting in 2001, leading to the decade when sports teams would do nothing but win — the reverse problem.)
And our issues were piddling, the kind of issues that could have made up an entire set of hashtagged memes. In the greater scheme of things, what sort of problem was “having a working model of universal health care coverage,” or “operating the best public education system in the nation”? Politics were predictable: of course Scott Brown would win a Senate race as soon as Martha Coakley flubbed a Red Sox reference; of course Scott Brown would lose when Elizabeth Warren stormed the state with her anti-corporate message. The closest thing we ever got to a bomb threat was the time when Governor Deval Patrick overreacted to an Aqua Teen Hunger Force viral campaign.
Everything was so boring in Boston, to the point where people my age fled the city in droves to live elsewhere. Adorable little Boston became the butt of jokes from Gawker to The Onion, and that one time when The Boston Globe responded to an Onion article (“Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’”) with an attempt at tongue-in-cheek hipness? We groaned. All of us. Of course Boston would react in the uncoolest, unhippest way possible.
Sometimes, Boston was interesting. There would be the occasional burst of violence in Dorchester, close to where I grew up, or the long-standing developing story that was Whitey Bulger (note that it took him nearly twenty years to get caught), or the time during the Iraq War when a little-known state senator with a funny name made a cool speech at the Democratic National Convention that year. But Boston was, after all, the sleepy little city where “cuisine” would always and forever be a spukie sub with meatballs, or a frozen, dewey Coolatta from Dunkin’s. Of course it would never change.
Every time I came back, my suspicions were confirmed. Sure, a new building may have been erected, or some graffitied tenements had been turned into a gentrified building, but other than that — no, nothing had really transformed or gained momentum. A Kenyan would always win the Marathon. The mall at The Prudential Center would never change its layout, nor would Boylston Street in front of it look anything less than scrubbed and pristine, would it?
No wonder I spent this afternoon frightened and stunned, even though I was working safely in an office in SoHo — hundreds of miles away.
Apart from the frantic search for my own parents, conducted over a phone, I couldn’t fathom a reason that out of all the disturbing, terrifying footage, this one bothered me the most:
If you’ve never been to Boston, that’s the view down Boylston Street, facing east, towards the finish line that ends right between the Marathon Sports store and the Boston Public Library. That Walgreens is across the street from the Prudential Tower, and always has been for as long as I can remember. Walking down that street meant a trip for ice cream, or Newbury Comics, or perhaps some bar to meet up with friends. Never in my life would I expect to hear those screams there.
Somehow, after years of living in stubbornly stagnant Boston, I’d gotten it in my head that Boston is not supposed to change. Boston was supposed to be the quaint, boring city that never changed, that always reminded you it was the birthplace of liberty back in the 1770s, where some corners were full of tech nerds waiting for time travelers, and others looked — and smelled — like they hadn’t changed much since the race riots of the 1970s. Not as vibrant as New York, not as crowded as Mumbai or as powerful as Washington, DC, Boston was supposed to be America’s most important insignificant city.
It was supposed to be safe from the problems of the world — and perhaps, in the days and weeks to come, we’ll find that’s one reason whomever decided to bomb the Boston Marathon decided to hit it.
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