Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I heard the explosion across the water yesterday. I looked out the window, thinking, "...Thunder? Odd," and was still looking when I heard the second one. That actually reassured me that it probably was thunder, that there must be clouds coming in from the east or something, and I went back to my book. The noises stayed in the corner of my mind, though, and about twenty minutes later I checked Facebook.

Boston isn't my hometown. If this happened to a little city in the desert, my grief would be wild. But I have lived in the Boston-environs for fourteen years now. I arrived here as an immature and lost twenty-two-year-old, and at thirty-six I look out the upstairs window of my little cottage, which I refinanced Friday because I apparently can fool people into thinking I'm an adult now, and see the Boston skyline. (If I lean a little. Otherwise it's the Revere skyline.)

When Claudio and I first started dating, I'd T from Somerville, where I lived, to meet him at his workplace in Allston. This involves taking the Green line, which apparently caters to BU students' inability to walk more than thirty feet to a T stop, so if the weather was nice I would get off at Copley Square and walk the rest of the way. I never really got over the "big-city" feeling of taking a subway, having grown up somewhere with no public transportation whatever. Once I moved north of the city, I used my car far more often than I used the T, but a couple years ago I took a class in Boston once a week, and the morning commute on the subway made me feel so hilariously adult. 

I grew up (in the sense of spending my childhood) in Santa Fe, but I grew up here. I learned to hold down a job and pay my rent and own a car and a house and pets here. I was still totally a kid when I arrived, living in the official First Apartment in Medford (there are thousands of First Apartments in Somerville / Cambridge / Medford, all with exactly the same layout, and it is a rule that you must live in one when you first move to the area) and not having the faintest idea what to do with myself other than drink. I learned how to live sober here, how to go to museums and concerts alone if I wanted to, how to quietly be myself. Getting physically lost in Boston taught me how to pull myself together in a crisis. (Which is why I'm not great at handling crises that can't be solved by finding the Citgo sign.) 

For six weeks I drove over the Tobin bridge every morning to have my cancer treated, and was reminded that Boston by morning is rather glorious. The drive north over the Pike at night, with the buildings lit up, is also gorgeous (bonus points if you're listening to Jonathan Richman). The jogging paths along the Charles; the cheap balcony seats in Jordan Hall. The USS Constitution being taken out every 4th of July; the museums; how the Zakim bridge looks under a half-moon. The belief that having to cross a street for a Dunkin' Donuts is more than any New Englander can be expected to handle, and so they face each other just about everywhere. (When I was in Europe in 2005, being handed a tiny cup of espresso with my breakfast, I missed Dunkin' Donuts to a degree that probably should cause me shame.)

It's a city with a lot of problems. The racial history is disgusting and current racial attitudes sometimes don't seem to have caught up at all; I've seen some bumper stickers so offensive they blew my mind. There is a wretched faux-Irish-eternal-fratboy culture on offer, showing itself in the form of grown men tumbling out of pubs in Davis Square bellowing homophobic slurs at anyone with a reasonable neck-to-head ratio, or in the form of That Drunk Guy sitting behind you at Fenway bellowing homophobic slurs at the Yankees. The sports culture, alas, seems to give a permission to this behavior that might otherwise not exist.

But that sports culture can be a lovely thing. In October 2004, this city was an absurd and wonderful place to live. No one slept, the radio gave the weather forecast for St. Louis without comment, and suddenly you could be in an elevator with a complete stranger, both of you blinking groggily at your coffee, and the stranger turns to you and says, "DAVE ROBERTS," and you say, "DAVE ROBERTS!" and then you hug.

After that, of course, the Red Sox became less interesting. Their 2007 win slipped by me entirely. Because what this city does best is rally. Is start from the underdog position, the "they think they're a city, how cute," position, the "how tedious, the colonists are being troublesome," position, and surprise everyone. Doesn't matter if you're George Steinbrenner or George III or whatever sick, hateful human beings planted those bombs yesterday - Boston will surprise you.

Rally caps on, kids. (In spirit only, because in actuality it looks ridiculous.) 

Boston knows how to rally. Boston knows how to dig down and be brave and walk through its routines as usual, not letting whoever did this keep us at home afraid. We are stoic as fuck. We get up and we go to work and we make some dry cynical joke about our own fear and we donate blood and we hug our loved ones. And I hope, I pray, that Boston knows how not to turn to hatred.

A pervasive perception about Boston is that it's a mean place, a place where no one makes eye contact, where no one cares about anyone else. New Englanders are taciturn, no doubt. Being here is not like being in the Midwest, where store clerks won't let you walk away until they have your life story. But that's not the same thing as not caring. And this perception is another reason Boston can surprise you. 

Because I was desperately searching for information yesterday when the news first came out, I made the mistake of going into some comment threads on Facebook. There, of course, I saw the worst of humanity, the soulless creatures who deliberately read posts by political figures or groups they loathe just so they can spew poison in the comments. Seeing people react to the news with hatred and victim-blaming shook me up as badly as the news itself.

The moral risk of the underdog narrative is the need to have a powerful, concrete adversary. The Red Sox are nothing without the Yankees. The colonists are nothing without a monarchy. There has to be an operatic struggle. What I hope right now is that Boston will not decide its adversary is a people or a religion. I hope that Boston will recognize that the adversary is hatred, and that the way you beat hatred is not by hating more, or hating for different reasons, or hating with a larger military budget.

I don't believe that hatred is a natural state for humans. I believe that hatred is something turned to out of ignorance and fear, out of states that humanity instinctively wants to overcome. Ignorance is not a place of comfort for humans: when you see the worst of humanity, you see people who have turned to bigotry and violence because they could not find any explanation for their suffering other than to blame it, and wish it, on someone whose race, or religion, or class, or choices, are different from theirs. You see a person who was looking for answers, and fell prey to someone who knew exactly what to say to gain a companion in hatred. There will be those stepping forward now with those "answers", trying to get us to join them in their hateful narrow world. We can't listen. 

Operas could be written about the choice we make here. About the city that felt safe because it isn't the perceived world leader that New York or London is, and quietly went about its business being liberal and progressive and generally, with the exceptions I've mentioned, awesome. And now we have to choose whether to continue being awesome and curious and moving forward, or whether to turn to the same hatred that planted those bombs. Whether we become a city that responds with love, or a city where it's not safe to be a certain color or attend a certain religious service because of a rumor on the internet about who's responsible for this, or an assumption that everyone who shares an ancestry or faith with the ultimately-discovered culprits must be equally guilty. If we do the latter, then this opera is going to end like Tosca, in which the enemies' dying comfort is that they can keep fighting their battle in Hell. Seriously, Boston, let's not turn this into Tosca. Nobody wins.

We must love one another or die. Auden, later in life, scorned his own line as stupid, because we die anyway, but if we don't love one another what's the point? You might as well be dead; you are living a death-in-life, which is what hatred brings you. Hatred takes you to the grave like Tosca, hoping only to get another chance at your own toxicity in the afterlife. 

We're the scrappy underdog, Boston, the clever servant, the one acting out of love. We're Figaro, and we've got to keep laughing and hoping. We can't hate because of this.

Questo giorno di tormenti,          
di capricci, e di follia,
 in contenti e in allegria
 solo amor può terminar.

This day of torments,
of caprice, of folly,
in content and happiness
only love can end it.

Only love can end it.

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