Just across the street from where the bombs went off yesterday is the Copley Library, the main branch of the Boston Public Library system. The newer building, a modern monolith that looks vaguely like a prison with all its fluorescent light and stern angles, is smooshed up against the old one, the research and administrative wing with all the dark wood and white stone and arches and academic grandeur. I used to spend hours and hours in the new building as a teenager -- not because I was particularly bookish, but because I cut school a lot, and you never heard about truant officers patrolling the library. No, they were always a few blocks away at the Copley Mall movie theater or down by the Fenway General Cinemas, close to school as it was. So the library was safe; a little boring, sure, but it was a pleasant enough way to pass the time unbothered until 2:15, when you were free to wander the streets again without suspicion.
I found myself telling a friend about this while all the news unfolded yesterday afternoon. "I used to hang out, right there, all the time," I said. "But that's all I've got." All I've really got in terms of proximity to this thing. I called my mom to make sure she and my dad were OK and texted some friends, and then that was really it. Something terrible happened in a place near where I used to hang out, some truant kid whiling away the hours until he could go home and let the guilt of having skipped yet another day set in.
I felt guilty too just then, talking to my friend, wondering why I'd felt this dumb need to tell him this, as if placing myself there, right there at the scene, only twelve or thirteen years removed, actually meant something. When the fact was that, parents and friends accounted for, I was fortunate to have no direct connection to what had happened. I was as uninvolved and anonymous as anyone else glued to the news, as faraway as whatever famous person was currently tweeting out a prayer or platitude. Moments like these are when you hear, or at least I heard, people say they are glad that things like Twitter didn't exist on September 11, because can you imagine, can you just imagine, everything everyone would have felt the need to say. The sudden imperative invented by access, that clawing urge to feel counted as a witness. It would be too much. Amid all that chaos and terror, "Here I am!" can seem like an awfully silly thing to say.
A few summers after September 11, I took a long road trip around the country with two friends, and I'll admit to rolling my eyes at all the signs bearing images of the burning Twin Towers that dotted so much of the landscape, signs saying "We remember" or, more commonly, "Never forget." (One a declaration, the other a command.) We were a year into the Iraq occupation then, and, yes, I was angry at how national mourning had become a matter of pride, and how one tragedy launched us into another, possibly even worse catastrophe. But mostly, if I'm honest, it just seemed so self-involved. It represented the same desperate need to bear witness that things like Twitter or Facebook have now made so easy, too easy maybe, to satisfy.
So I was surprised when, yesterday, I found myself wanting to do just that, to post something -- some poem about Boston by Walt Whitman, or a quote I found from Haruki Murakami about running the Marathon. Something that would enlighten or soothe. Not just the vague Them of the Internet, but me, too. I was rattled in a way I've never felt before. I found myself getting angry at the people who were reacting to this news in the same way I would to anything else like this -- the intellectual detachment, the weary pleas to mute all the sensationalism. Of course mine was a purely selfish reaction -- this is my hometown we are talking about this time, a place I know well and have loved and hated in ways that are personal, owned by me and only me. Boston did, for a moment on Monday, become a city that was very much mine, and it was attacked, made dangerous, dragged into the broader world of uncertainty and fear that it always, to me anyway, seemed somehow buffered against.
It was a strange feeling, to suddenly understand why people react the way they do when horrors like this happen, to feel that helpless immediacy that demands a response, any response. The idea of Boston -- the city that raised me, which I both run toward and away from, as any child does -- being consumed by such gruesome terror commanded recognition, any recognition, any attention that I or anyone else could give it. This is Boston, the city of that library. Familiar and tedious even, but always safe. A place of furtive, childhood peace that is suddenly not that anymore. Not right now, anyway.
On that 2004 road trip, I drove through or spent time in many American cities. We stopped in Chicago, peeled by Kansas City and Des Moines, spent the Fourth of July in Portland, lazed around Los Angeles. We got drunk in Las Vegas and sweltered in Phoenix. We ate tourist food on the River Walk in San Antonio, got drunker in New Orleans, took a wrong turn in Memphis and ended up crossing a bridge into Arkansas. So I feel qualified enough to say that of all the cities in this country, Boston is easily the prettiest. There is nowhere else in America that can compare to the way that city opens up as you head down Storrow Drive, all its oldness and augustness bending along the river, then giving way to the ocean. There's a quaintness, yes, but also an air of grand possibility to the city, placed as it is just so, at both the beginning and the end of something vast.
Boston will always feel that way, I’m sure. But that something so sudden and so cruel has darted into the picture, making it such an ugly place for so many people, feels startlingly personal. So I'm talking about it, despite that nagging voice, that probably better judgment, that reminds me that this is not my story to insist myself into. I was not there, friends and family weren't there. The rational side of me wants to highlight the all-important distance -- neither I nor anyone I know was in the blast, or across the street, or down Boylston a ways, or cheering along at mile 21. There's no need to put myself there, because I wasn't. And yet, here I am.
[Image via wallyg/Flickr]