Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Beloved Boston

I have had a love affair going with Boston since I was 15. I remember the first time I stepped off the Park Street subway station, onto the Boston Common, and took in the scene.

That was 1968, and the common was still littered with the remnants of the hippies who had spent the summer residing on its lawn. Still, it just felt so alive. There was a vibe emanating through the place that I'd never experienced anywhere else ... and to me it's still unique.

As I've gotten older, I became a fan of cities in general. New York ... Chicago ... Philadelphia ... San Francisco ... Pittsburgh ... Indianapolis ... doesn't matter to me. I love being in the city, soaking up the atmosphere, and getting lost in the maelstrom of activity.

But like the Standells sang many years ago, Boston is my home (even if live technically six or seven miles north as the crow flies).

Boston could be the smallest big city in the world. Its core is very small in area. In fact, if you really hoof it, you can walk from the North End to Kenmore Square (Boston Garden to Fenway Park) in less than 90 minutes. I know. I've done it several times (though not lately). And that is literally from one end of town to the other.

Try walking down Broadway from one end of Manhattan to the other.

Boston is small ... and it is provincial. We really do think we're better than you are ... or at least smarter. Within a small geographical area we have Harvard, MIT (both in neighboring Cambridge), Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, Emerson, Emmanuel, Wentworth, a satellite campus of the University of Massachusetts ... a staggering number of world-renowned institutions of higher learning.

We are in the epicenter of Eastern Liberal Elitism too, and I love that about us. If you don't believe me, go to Harvard Square and go into the Coop (short for Cooperative).  During the Bush II administration, if you walked into the Coop, the first thing you'd see was a table full of books with every conceivable chronicling of Dubya's shortcomings. The covers all depicted a scowling, or a glowering Dubya, looking as if he'd just eaten a bucket of prunes. It was so one-sided, and so obviously ELE that it was funny,

Last time I was there, that same table of books had paeans to Barack Obama that may as well have featured halos on the covers. No subtlety there!

Even though Harvard is, of course, in Cambridge, it is right across the Charles River from Brighton, which is a section of Boston. It is often called the "People's Republic of Cambridge" for its liberal ways, but that's not entirely true. The Harvard side of Cambridge may be guilty of that, but North Cambridge -- where Tip O'Neil lived -- is very blue collar.

And that's one of the most obvious dichotomies you see about Boston. For every liberal dilettante there's a blue-collar worker who has to scramble the way the rest of us do. There's no Boston stereotype, except for maybe our outrageous accents that make it appear as if we were born swimming in a vat of chowdah. The exaggerated Boston accent is almost as comical as the Minnesota/Dakota dialect the Coen Brothers lampooned so viciously in "Fargo."

There again, I love everything about the language of Boston  (including the idea of us making fun of everyone else's dialect).  I love the way entire sentences can be reduced to one (albeit) long word. "Hihowahyah." "Cuppahchowdah." I stop at "wikkid pissah," though. And not only is "pahhk the cahhh in Hahhhvid Yahhhd a gross exaggeration, it's an impossibility. You can't park your car in Harvard Yard.

I'm always reminded, too, that John F. Kennedy -- that bastion of the Boston accents -- spent the early years of his administration battling someone from someplace called "Cuber." If anyone had asked him, he'd have told you his favorite singer was "Teener Turnah." We take the "R's" from where they're supposed to be and put them in the strangest of places.

Thus, you had one of the most renowned of our 20th century presidents walking around sounding as if he'd just come back from Fenway, screaming at Yankee fans, "you broke our hahhhhhhhts."

And it's one more reason to love Boston. One way or the other, its quirks descend upon everyone.

Our inferiority complex when it comes to all things New York has resulted in one of sports' greatest rivalries (helped along -- of course -- by that trade by the Red Sox to the Yankees of someone named Ruth). Because we're only about four hours from New York by car, and because we're much smaller in area and population, we've been relegated to the status of the Big Apple's Little Brother ... and oh, do we chafe at the overbearing authority sometimes. Once supposes this goes back to the days when Boston was the major port, and the intellectual focal point of colonial separatists.

All that ended in the flash of a New York minute, and from then until now, we're the tag-along who cries and whines when the bullies get the better of us (which they do far more than we get the better of them -- 26-0 at one point before that glorious night in 2004 when we could finally celebrate vindication).

We're parochial, provincial, cantankerous, taciturn (at times), fussy, and condescending. We talk funny. And our politics are so local (to follow O'Neil's dictum that "all politics is local") that they're often a minefield of slights, grudges and scores to settle. In some strange way, all of the above are part of our unique charm.

For all of that, we're noted for two distinct slices of Americana every year. The first is the Boston Pops' esplanade concert on July 4. We can thumb our noses at New Yorkers because, hey, they don't have their Independence Day celebration nationally televised.

The other is the Boston Marathon (nee BAA -- for Boston Athletic Association -- Marathon). And for a city that often refers to itself as "the Hub," or the "Athens of America," the marathon is the one truly international, cosmopolitan event in the city. It is on the register of major marathons. It is, like Curt Gowdy used to say about the Rose Bowl, "the granddaddy of them all," the first one having been run in 1897.

It is run, of course, on Patriots Day -- which celebrates the battles of Lexington and Concord that began the American Revolutionary War. The day begins at O-Dark-Thirty when the Lexington and Concord Greens are flooded with people for the annual re-enactments of these two battles.

It continues with the abnormally-early Red Sox Patriots Day game, which begins at 11 a.m. And it climaxes shortly after noon when the most elite of the elite runners cross the finish line in Copley Square, which is just about a mile east of Fenway.

The day is timed so that the Red Sox game --  unless it goes into extras -- lets out at just about the time the back-of-the-packers start flooding into the Back Bay of Boston. This is the best part of the race. It's when all the anonymous runners who do this to raise money for charities start feeling the pain of having run up and down the hills of Newton. They flood into Kenmore Square in droves, and there's an army of spectators streaming out of Fenway to meet them.

It's the perfect juxtaposition. Real fans get to cheer on real people. By this time, the international element of the race has been taken over by the inspirational sights of struggling runners, many of them doing this for the first time, trying to summon up one last burst of stamina to complete the course  ... with 38,000 enthusiastic fans shouting support. It is wonderful ... and it's one of the few things you can see a hundred times over and still want to cry over how awe-inspiring it is.

A good many of the fans streaming out of Fenway will find their way to the finish line at Copley Square. By then, all the Kenyans and Ethiopians, who congregate on the sidewalks of Boylston Street -- in one gloriously happy display of brotherhood -- to root on their countrymen as they lap the rest of the field, have vacated the premises. Fenway fans, along with family members there to cheer on their loved ones, fill the vacuum. Which is why, four hours into the race, the sidewalks at the finish line are still four- and five-deep with spectators.

Marathon Day is one giant party. I'm not sure how many fans line the streets, and fill the sidewalks at the finish, or sit in the bleachers from the start of the race to its conclusion. But I do know that in all the years I've been doing this, there has never been anything that came close to violence.

I covered my first marathon in 1973, when the finish line was at the Prudential Center and all the winners got were laurel wreaths and a bowl of beef stew (which was often regurgitated shortly after consumption).

When I began covering it, Will Cloney was in charge of it, and Will was a gentleman. But one of his loyal lieutenants was a guy named John "Jock" Semple, a crusty old Scot who guarded what he  considered the race's legacy like a demented pit bull ... so much so that when he spotted a K.V. Switzer in 1967, running virtually incognito with the initials and a baseball cap, he sprung into manic action. That's because K.V. Switzer is a woman, and women weren't allowed to run.

Semple figured out who she was, though, and got off the officials bus on which he was riding and tried to physically eject her from the pack. Switzer was smart enough to surround herself with a coterie of men who went to bat for her and shoved Semple away.

Five years later, women were allowed to run officially.

Like any longtime civic institution, the marathon is full of stories such as these. Rosie Ruiz jumped the race somewhere between Kenmore Square and Copley, figuring she'd -- on a lark -- go running down to the finish line. She badly miscalculated. She jumped in too soon and was actually the first woman to finish. As in declared winner (much to the astonishment of Jacqueline Gareau, who'd been ahead of the pack the entire way).

It had been unusually warm that day in 1980. The overall winner was Bill Rodgers, by then a marathon legend himself. Rodgers, who sold running accessories in Cleveland Circle, first won the race in 1975 (I was there for that, too), setting what was -- at that time -- a course record.

"Boston Billy" knew that course frontward and backward, and he knew how Rosie should have looked after completing 26 miles. She should have looked like him ... as if he was going to melt in a puddle of his own sweat (it was unusually warm that day in 1980). Ruiz, on the other hand, looked so fresh it was as if she hadn't run at all (which, of course, turned out to be true).

Rosie was sussed out rather quickly and Gareau was eventually declared the winner. Still, she never got to experience the thrill of crossing the finish line with a police escort, or to receive her awards on the victory stand.

As the years fade, these stories grow funnier and funnier, and they serve to humanize an event that can, at times, take itself way too seriously.

But as I've mentioned previously, the real story happens two or so hours after the winners cross. That's when everyone else crosses. By then, there's nobody competing for prize money. There are only people looking to break barriers, and achieve goals, they'd set for themselves by relentless training on cold winter mornings, on icy roads, through howling winds, and -- on occasion -- dark early-evening runs through an uncompromising chill.

And in the flash of 12 seconds, some sick, cowardly, twisted and evil bastard took that all away.

Some sick, cowardly, twisted, evil bastard invaded my beloved Boston. He or she took the one thing that is so genuine, and so wholesome, and so pure and corrupted it in such a way that it'll never, ever be the same. Nor will we.

This bastard killed an eight-year-old boy, a 29-year-old restaurateur; and a graduate student from China. This coward maimed more than 140 spectators whose only crime -- if you want to call it that -- was to get it into their heads that nobody could possibly be so evil as to ruin an event whose only purpose is to celebrate the most noble qualities human beings possess: dedication, perseverance, and charity (for most of these runners were participating to raise money for a myriad of foundations dedicated to improving the human condition).

The bombings themselves are unspeakable; the carnage indescribable. And the emotional aftermath is something we'll be experiencing for years.

There were people at that finish line to celebrate the accomplishment of family and friends. None of these people were bothering anybody ... and none of them ever did. What did eight-year-old Martin Richard do to deserve being killed? Or Krystle Campbell?

What did the volunteers whose only worries that day were whether there would be enough Gatorade to help replenish 26 miles worth of depleted electrolytes do to deserve having their lives shattered within an instance?

These were people rejoicing in accomplishment that had nothing to do with any of the hot-button issues, domestic or international, that plague us. That they were considered merely collateral damage by people who hoped to send a much broader message to the world is sickening.

We have a lot to figure out. We need to ask ourselves whether the cost of doing business in an increasingly smaller and hostile world (and that would be terrorism) is worth the amount of risk we take in pursuing our interests in unfriendly, unstable parts areas. That is a tough question, but we're going to have to find the answer to it and make peace with whatever it is. And accept whatever comes out of it.

This is by no means a "blame America" rant. Some of the things we do, and which result in a backlash that includes terrorism, are undoubtedly necessary for the protection of people -- often our own citizens -- in these hotbeds of unrest and instability. I don't think anyone could intelligently deny that. But we need to be cognizant that however justified we are in some of the things we do, there's pushback, and that the pushback is gruesome and terrifying.

And all of the above is supposing that this attack was part of a coordinated effort by a structured group. If it's not, or if it's domestic, then that's another story entirely.

Either way, if what happened Monday is someone's idea of justice for past transgressions, then that someone's a monster. Because that someone took something that celebrates the very best in international diversity and turned it into one more pile of emotional rubble. 

And the irony is, they did it in an area -- just like New York, by the way -- that is very definitely among the least Xenophobic and most culturally accommodating areas of the country.

I've heard a lot in the past two days about how tough Bostonians are ... and how resilient. I don't know if we're any tougher, or any more resilient, than anyone else whose city has been torn apart by a terror attack. The dichotomy of all this is that the most depraved acts we can think of often result, in their aftermath, in some of the most astounding examples of human kindness and nobility of spirit.

I'd like to bottle it up if I could and let some of it out down the road when the shock wears off and people return to acting the way they normally do.

Bostonians may be tough and resilient, but the thing that stands out the most is that Bostonians were also enormously compassionate and caring at a time when both virtues were in heavy demand.

We may be crusty and cantankerous sometimes, but we won't turn our backs when it's time to be accounted for.

We will get through this, Boston.

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