A year ago today, I was running down to Commonwealth Avenue, headphones in, listening to “Shipping Up to Boston.” I was racing the clock, and an Olympic Gold medalist, trying to intersect Joanie Benoit Samuelson, the famous runner from my hometown in Maine, as she reached mile 25 of her umpteenth Boston Marathon.
This spot along the marathon route is iconic; after seeing the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, runners start to realize what they’re about to accomplish. They’re smiling, crying, bleeding, fainting, puking, some have totally peed their pants, others are hugging people, taking selfies, ripping their headphones out so they can hear the crowd as they absorb its energy for the final 6-10 minutes of the race. It’s insanely emotional.
It was hot this day, the sun was beating down me. I jogged along the Fens and under the Queensgate overpass to the police gates where I stopped. I stood next to four Staties, who were all tipping their hats to a group of Marines (pictured above) running by in their uniforms, carrying packs, and of course, American flags. I had goosebumps. I remember sticking my hand out to high five these guys and saying to myself, “So Patriotic, I love it.” I stood for about 20 minutes, talking to other spectators while scanning the masses for all 5’2” of Joanie. No luck. I checked my phone. Dammit, she had already crossed the finish line. I was too slow. Disappointed and sweaty (from my whopping half a mile jaunt, of course), I put my headphones back on, jacked up the Dropkick Murphys, and headed home to get back to work.
When I returned to my apartment 10 minutes later, I had g-chat messages flashing like crazy on my laptop. I thought, “Yo, I was only gone for 30 minutes, chill out.” But one of them was from an unexpected friend. “Libby, have you heard from Kristi?” a girlfriend of mine in New York City had asked. Kristi is her sister and she was watching friends at the finish line. “No, how come?” I replied. “She said there was an explosion next to her. Now her phone is off.”
I immediately ran to the window. I don’t know why; I lived on a side street off of Boylston. My view was College Pizza (love you, Ozzy). There were no bombs here, it was beautiful out. We were in Boston, nobody wants to hurt Boston. I opened the window. Nothing, silence. Normalcy. Birds. The 55 bus. An explosion? Couldn’t have been on purpose, it had to have been an accident. NSTAR? It was definitely NSTAR; not those idiots again. Moments later the texts started to pour in.
“Lib, where are you?”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Libby. Please tell me you’re not at the finish line.”
This was the first time in my life that I’ve ever been in fight or flight mode. I think knew I was in no immediate danger, but I was standing totally alone in my apartment in Nike shorts a tank top and sneakers. I thought, “I’m ready to run if I need to run.” My roommate, one of my best friends, was on a bus to South Station from Maine. Holy shit, she was on a bus to the biggest hub for public transportation in the city. I hadn’t heard from her. This is when I decided to fight not fly. I needed to know she was safe. I immediately grabbed 4 things: My credit card (in case I was gone for a while), my insurance card (you can guess why), my license (insert even more morbid thought here), and my phone (which was rendered completely useless about 2 minuets later). I called Gretch on my way out the door and tried to explain to her that there were two explosions at the finish line and that she needed to not go anywhere near the the marathon route. It was too late, she was in the Commons walking home from the bus. The T was shut down. Everyone had been evacuated from South Station. She was flustered, and she never gets flustered; her resting heart rate is lower than Lance Armstrong’s. I started running, and screaming at her over the phone to walk fast and to meet me exactly where, 45 minutes prior, I had been cheering on members of our military (recognized later as some of the most heroic first responders).
Outside was absolute chaos. But chaos in a weird, zombie movie, “there’s no way this is real life” kind of way. I looked over at Fenway Park and thought, “If that goes next, I’m glad I have my sneakers on.” There were helicopters hovering over Boylston Street like little insects. The wind had picked up. It was so ironically sunny. Everything was fuzzy and blurry and loud but totally silent all at the same time. I saw some stuff I didn’t think I’d ever see: Ambulances. Blood. Dust, lots of dust. And thankfully, like an obedient puppy, there was Gretchen plowing up Queensgate like a scene from a movie. I hugged her so hard and said, “Jesus Christ.” and she said, “What the fuck do we do now?” Then we scurried home, taking in the scene every step of the way. I remember thinking, “What can we do? How can we help? Can all of these people come to our home? We have goldfish and vodka, can I give them goldfish and vodka?”
And then we watched the news for 24 hours. And then we watched the news for 24 more hours. And then, when shit really started to hit the fan, and we watched the news for 72 more hours after that. We were safe, all of my people were safe, but we were scared. Being glued to the TV was the only thing anyone felt like they could do. I hit refresh on the Bostinno home page every 30 minutes.
“This guy in the hoodie did it…”
“Shit sorry, no, that guy’s totally not connected. Our bad…”
“There were more bombs that were supposed to go off…”
“No there weren’t…”
“Pressure cookers. They did this with pressure cookers…”
“Now Beth Isreal is on lock down…”
“There’s a suspicious package on Congress Street. Bomb squad’s here…”
“Don’t listen to CNN…”
“The Courthouse is being evacuated now…”
“Famous therapy dogs are on Newbury street, go pat them…” (I did, duh.)
“Lord and Taylor’s security cameras have all the answers” (I always knew I loved L&T, thanks Mamie!)
It was endless, it was overstimulating, and by the end of the week, I had walked past the scene so many times, that I got brave enough to say hello to the Marine standing guard in front of Chanel on Newbury with an AR-15. I listened to a lot of music. I listened to this song in particular. It made so much sense at the time and it made things hurt less. Things were weird. My family was worried about me being right in the middle of it all day everyday. It started to feel normal to see tanks in the middle of the Commons. To have Anderson Cooper just be, “another guy you bump into” on your commute. To be told, “Don’t leave your home, the entire city of Boston is on lock down.”
None of what happened to me during the week of April 15, 2013 is significant to the world. I did absolutely not one thing heroic. I didn’t run in the marathon. I wasn’t injured. I wasn’t even technically there when it happened. I was incredibly fortunate and incredibly selfish all at the same time. I am a runner, though. I’ve never run the marathon but I’ve run the half. I understand and believe deeply in the personal level of spirituality that many runners experience when they’re training and competing in races. Our city is vastly comprised of runners and athletes, as it is so intimately incorporated into our culture. So, when I began to reflect on that week this morning, I was shocked to realize that after 5 straight days of news, alarm, violence, and epic tweets by Mayor Menino (bless his heart), I have predominately positive memories of it. The weather was stunning, the magnolias and tulips were blooming, people were out for runs with their babies. Strangers were laughing with each other over coffee. The entire city came to life around Boylston street in such a robust, enlightened way, that it created an infectious and loving energy that to this day, still resonates with me. We certainly stopped at each end of beautiful Boylston and we said a prayer or we left a rose or a sneaker or we cried. But we primarily focused on just…being ourselves.
There are a lot of life lessons that a person can take from experiencing a week so influenced by tragedy. The obvious being: Don’t take things for granted, we are lucky to live in such a safe place, tell people you love them, be in the moment, push yourself to be your best, do not crumble when you are afraid. But my biggest takeaway was this: People are inherently good. People are quite amazing, actually. And since last year, I have opened my eyes to new types of people, my heart to complete strangers who look like they need a simple smile, I try to be kind in simpler ways, to joke with an equally frazzled woman in a beastly line at the grocery store, to be more human towards other humans. Yes, there are bad guys out there, but they are 1 in a million. And I have yet to meet a real bad guy face to face. So, until that happens, I will carry on with this belief system that the better I am to those around me, the more I will get out of life in return.
Boylston Street is quite literally the backbone of Boston, Massachusetts. Running imperfectly from Fenway Park to the Boston Commons, it represents everything we stand for in this city. It’s not a straight line; nothing in life ever is. But it leads exactly to where we need to go if we just have faith that one foot in front of the other will prevail over twists and turns. We have high standards in this town. We compete to win. We participate to set the bar. We seek to inspire one another, persevere through adversity, and to appreciate all that we have. And now that we have gone through a week of confusion, destruction, hate, fear, and misunderstanding, we have all come together, closer than before, to better understand how to be the city that so many of us call home. We are Boston Strong. We are Humanity Strong.