When I moved to Boston I missed New Orleans quite badly. The seafood, the quirky culture, the beautifully old architecture, the feel of being around the river and the port. The thing is Boston has all those things too, just the Boston variety of them, the Boston take on how these things are done. There were parts that I liked but it definitely took some getting used to initially.
The first thing I noticed when I got here is that people mind their own business and don’t say hi or make eye contact on the streets. This place has got quite a bubble of personal space. Walking is your time. It’s just you, the road, the historic buildings, the quaint little pubs around you, and your earbuds. I didn’t entirely like the feel at first because it seemed too stiff and standoffish to me somehow, snobbily reserved. After all, when I think “city” I think of New Orleans as the baseline of what is normal (yeah, yeah, I know it isn’t), but New Orleans is so different from Boston. It is a loud place where everybody talks to everybody, the streets are world-renowned for their public drinking and festival culture hijinks, not for all their physically fit runners, and you don’t wear earbuds because then you couldn’t dance to the live music being played on the street. It is kind of anything-goes but in a relaxed southern way that is not frenzied, not frenetic, and does not cost much of anything for a good time.
At first, in my homesickness, I mostly made fun of Boston, cracked jokes about the accent, parodied the name-dropping and the prevalent social-jockeying question of “so what do you do?,” rolled my eyes at how people got visibly grumpy and impatient when waiting in lines instead of happily chatting with the stranger next to them, and I jokingly questioned why everyone seemingly had their job, their second job, and their unpaid internship. I also laughed at the Boston culture of going out, which (while they have very good beer here) often seems to primarily involve quickly knocking back drinks that cost three times the amount they should, getting outright sloppy, and then having no Waffle House to go sober up at when the bars close too quickly after midnight. I judged the way that hordes of college girls (Boston is the college capital of the world, 50 universities in 50 square miles) seemingly compete to wear the shortest skirts imaginable when they go out to the club, tottering around on bumpy old cobblestone streets in heels so high that their feet have to be killing them and a twisted ankle seems only one step away. I felt that the city just didn’t have it right, that it worked too hard and had too many rules, yet partied in a way that just seemed unbalanced, ostentatious, shocking, and expensive. Remnants of Puritan culture (and the apparent rebellion against it) could seemingly be found in plain sight all over the place and it was weird to me, quite foreign really. It seemed that the city did not have much room for tranquility, peace, or just letting things be.
Because I did not initially accept or understand the culture here (or, more accurately, these parts of it that I initially was struck by), it took a while for it to grow on me (although it did). At first the only thing I thought was in any way “better” about Boston was that education, healthcare, and the economy have more to offer (I moved here for grad school, after all). The second thing I noticed was how walkable the city is. After all, in New Orleans you might easily get run over by a car. I was actually hit by a car there once (thankfully going at a slow speed) and knocked over. It was scary and yet at the time I’d felt it was my fault for not paying proper attention. In New Orleans cars definitely have the right of way. Pedestrians are seen as small, with delicate squishy bodies, and unless there is a whole herd of them, the person driving the big metal beast with an engine will naturally expect to go first.
Boston isn’t like that at all. While Boston’s road traffic is incredibly entitled and aggressive (they don’t call them “massholes” on the Mass Pike for nothing), it stops at the crosswalk. People respect walkers and runners. The people are walkers and runners. In a city famed for it’s Freedom Trail (a red-bricked walking path for major historic sites in the city), pedestrians are king. They have buttons to push for a “walk” signal at just about every major street and a lot of the minor ones. When the walk signal flashes it is even accompanied by a mechanical bird tweeting or other similar sound so that vision-impaired people can get about just as safely as the rest of us. I loved this immediately, and like anything special, I soon took it for granted. I think I also chalked it up to mostly being because the city likes rules and has cash for all this pedestrian infrastructure, not recognizing that it is because they value walking and running so much that they choose to spend money and effort on this, to make it part of their lives, and that this is in fact a key part of Boston’s culture, a quiet assertion of its values, it’s love.
The ability to walk or run down the street in peace is treated as such a basic thing here, almost like air or water. You just do it without noticing unless it is somehow ruined or taken away from you. Generally the most interference you might expect to get is that some unsuspecting southern (or perhaps midwestern, southwestern, western, or international) visitor says “hi” or “good morning” for no apparent reason (yes, believe it or not this is actually seen to be a sign of respect in other parts of the country, Boston friends) or some perpetual construction project, or a bad snowplowing job is blocking your favorite route.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, and the subsequent city shutdown and manhunt, sadly that was suddenly not the case though, and I (and I imagine many others) have been gripped by this sudden sense of perspective, the realization that we simply cannot take Boston’s pedestrian friendliness for granted today or tomorrow the way we did the day before the marathon bombing. It still feels rather gut-wrenching to find that I am appreciating how much this city respects it’s walkers and runners, how much care it shows them and how much dignity it tries to give them only because something horrible and unexpected did happen to take it away, because something that had just seemed beautiful and natural and ordinary was deeply betrayed.
The day before the bombing I was out walking in Davis Square, enjoying the first sunny days of spring, and saw a number of people with the distinct physique of elite distance runners, obviously here for the marathon. I rode the bus with two happy Midwestern runners, seemingly a married couple, clutching bags with the marathon logo on them, obviously out and about being excited tourists. The night afterwards (in what little sleep I got) I dreamed of them and I dreamed of that horrifying picture of the man in the wheelchair with his legs blown off that I just shouldn’t have even looked at.
Although so many photos were very well done, were so artistic about the carnage really, the bright red of human blood and the shock and sadness on faces that seem familiar to me although they are strangers, faces that I now recognize as very New England, has left me (and I imagine just about everyone else) feeling bereft. In this attack lives and limbs were lost, a sense of safety was shattered, and at a certain point in the day my questions of “where?,” “why?,” and the worst one, “how many?” were overtaken by a feeling of numb paralysis. I had seen enough already, and I just had to turn off the news and just go curl up in my safe space, my bed.
While I had not attended the marathon myself, I had definitely not been planning to spend that afternoon in bed. I had planned to walk to a little restaurant with a friend but we called it off after hearing about the bombing. Instead I stayed home, walked nowhere.
The next morning I just wanted my safe and happily walkable Boston back but too soon afterwards I awoke to the whole city on lockdown. It was all a little surreal. I still just wanted those marathon runners and spectators and little kids to have never had to hear those bombs going off, for it never to have happened at all. The fact is it did happen though and why these young men from Chechnya became Americans and then also became terrorists, tried to destroy one of the things that I and so many others hold dear about this city, I will never truly understand.
I don’t know what I can do to help (it looked like so many spare rooms, spare pints of blood, spare first aid, and free hugs had already been given on the first day) and I did stay home as requested during the lockdown, but I do know that walking in Boston or joining crowds, or doing anything in Copley Square or on Boyleston St. will not likely feel the same tomorrow or for a while and perhaps some aspects will always feel different. When I walk in the city again at first I expect I will be a little more on edge, running a few darker “what if” scenarios in my head as I make my way from point A to point B. After all, Columbine changed schools and things connected to them, 9/11 changed airports and things connected to them, and I can’t imagine this won’t change marathons and things connected to them. Will pedestrian traffic here be changed for the worse, a sense of purposeful movement replaced with an anxious sense of perpetual hidden danger? I certainly hope not, and maybe that is where I can do my part.
I will be respectful of others from the various nationalities and faiths that live, work, and visit in Boston no matter who I think the bomber represents. I will make sure to push back against bigoted people who are so quick to brand others as being suspect, coming from a nation or faith or ethnic group that is “terrorist.” I will say that they are wrong, that most people who have come here from nations that struggle with unrest or fundamentalism turning into terrorism and street violence appreciate the safety and freedom of Boston’s walkways even more than we do, and they love Boston for the same reasons the rest of us do. I will politely remind these same people that last summer I was told by a gray-bearded Pakistani man here to visit his daughter that he was not sure of America before he came here, that he had heard a lot of bad things about the drones, but he knew it was a good place with the right kind of heart when he boarded an MBTA bus and was told he was eligible for a senior discount. He took that one small thing as a sign of good values, of respect for elders, and saw much of his remaining visit through that initial lens. Boston’s public transportation system and pedestrian access are simply that meaningful, and we need to make sure that we remain that city that he saw, that we do not succumb to fear, to the terror of terrorism.
So I know that I will go back out and do the things I like to do. I will join crowds. I will push crosswalk buttons and wait (ever more impatiently it seems, the longer I live here) for the “walk” signal. When I am ready I will even trek down Boyleston and into Copley Square, although I’m sure it will be hard at first. Still, no matter why these young men did this horrible thing, I will not be scared away.
This city is still mourning for the losses, the people hurt, but people are once again setting off on foot across the road. We are celebrating the hard work that our police did. We are hoping that the politics that follow this atrocious act aren’t used to strip away protections for ordinary Americans. I am doing those things too, and I for one have a strong feeling that Boston is still, on some level, needing to be reclaimed for the regular everyday people, the pedestrians that love it and that it belongs to. I, for one, am glad to be here in this city and take part in that.