Seven Mondays After the Marathon: On Leaving Boston

I’ve rejected Boston.

On a good day, I’d say we are acquaintances. Polite. Not invested enough to step on the other’s toes. On a bad day, I’d say we’ll both heave a sigh of relief when I’m gone. After all, neither of us is too good at pretending.

The truth is we’ve never tried too hard to get to know one another. I’ve been cautious here, uncharacteristically reserved.

“I live in Boston,” I tell people, and the words just don’t sound right. I try again. “Well not Boston. Cambridge. And not Cambridge really, more like a four-block stretch of sidewalk where I roost.” They ask do you like it, or will you stay, and I shake my head. “No. I’m just passing through.”

I can’t stand the way the snow turns to ice, and stacks into piles. I don’t like the tangled freeways, or the streets abruptly changing names. Once a cab driver drove off with my suitcase and he never turned it in. And no one says hello or thank you and everyone is all hardened jawlines and hardened humor. The plan was always to do just what I did – keep my head low, mark thirty-six months of law school off the calendar, board a plane at Logan to JFK, and move on to a place that understood me better.

***

I have barely seen Boston.

I’ve barely even seen Cambridge. I walked around a tiny stretch of the Charles once, the water shiny with slivers of late October frost. I’ve ventured across the river rarely, only in obligation or offering. And I glance at the city as I head to South Station or Logan, only fractionally interested by the sharp neckline of the horizon. Other than that, the entirety of my Boston experience has been in the confines of courthouses.

In Atlanta, where I’m from, I memorized the details of the city, in reverence to a place I love so deeply. In my five years in New York I had countless options and yet I got gluttonous, always in pursuit.

Here it is different. Here someone suggests “downtown” or “Davis” or “Allston” and I recoil. I don’t know those places. I don’t need to. Sure, Cambridge isn’t Boston, and Harvard sure as hell isn’t Cambridge. But I haven’t sorted them out. The map of my existence has been very tiny – friends, library, two bars, the few streets in between. ​

***

Seven Mondays ago, there was an explosion at the Marathon.

A few of us heard about it in the hallway. We were acquaintances, really, but in those few minutes after hearing something happened, we improvised as friends.

We walked out of the building and stood facing the square as if its squat, empty horizon would tell us something. “Bomb,” a few people said, scrolling frantic through the Internet on their phones, and I shook my head no.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” I said primly. “Maybe it was an electrical explosion or something.” I tried to think of other possibilities but electrical explosion was all I had. But they kept repeating it – bomb, bomb, bomb, and the tiny drops of dread multiplied in my gut.

After a few pictures of the gravel painted in blood I knew what happened.

The Marathon isn’t that far from where I live. I know because I can picture the street in my head, something I can’t say for most of the city. When people from other places called to check up, I talked about how weird it was to be in the same general area as someone who could do this. Reports of suspicious packages poured in. People on the streets looked somber, the bars filled up and we shuffled inside.

We speculated. One person? Ten?

“That fucker is far away by now,” an old man drinking beer told us from a few seats down. “If he has any sense he’s in Mexico on the beach.”

He wasn’t far away at all.

*** ​

For three years I’ve lived on a quiet street with small apartment buildings and houses you’d never find in the South – New England architecture to match the weather, painted bright shades of primary colors. My building is short and fat, brick, tucked out of sight from the road. Three blocks to the law school and ivy creeps up my windows so thick that in the summer my whole apartment is dim.

It closes me in.

I came here from Harlem, where, after five years, the claustrophobia started to grate away at my sanity. During my last few months there, I found myself unable to sleep, counting how long it had been since I had been alone. Really alone. Alone enough for a stranger to snatch me off the street without anyone noticing. Alone enough to scream without anyone hearing. Someone always wandered around the apartment above mine, and people slept on the other sides of my walls. “I know I’ve never met you but I need you to go out for a few hours,” I wanted to tell them all. “I need a little time to myself.”

A couple nights, I found myself sitting in the grass of Jackie Robinson at 2 AM. I just wanted to get away from people, but in New York you’re rarely more than twenty feet from the nearest person. And it’s never really quiet, like the quiet where you can hear the leaves talk. It was also never really dark, not the kind of dark where you can’t tell what color your shirt is.

Cambridge is different. I’ve looked forward to those nights where I don’t leave the library until well into the early morning hours. The street stretches empty for blocks, not even silhouettes in the windows. I am alone. The roads are empty and the traffic lights perform without an audience.

***

It’s an old story now. Admit it. That fear, the guttural response to the action flick that played out on the streets of Cambridge that night – you’ve forgotten it. I have too. That’s how the brain works after all, sweeping away the scraps of nuance and detail in order to make space for the next crisis.

There were four of us in a room on a Thursday beginning the long haul towards finals. We looked like the beginning of an off-color joke someone would tell in some small town – an Israeli, an Indian, an Iranian, and black me. MIT was just two stops away on the T. There was the influx of frantic messages telling us to stay inside. The beats of loaded silence once we realized these were the same people. The mix of privilege and fear and elitism that contributed to our incredulity. How could someone have possibly done this here? In Cambridge?

One of us stood up and silently locked the front door.

I stayed up all night, long after the others had gone to sleep, drinking Red Bull and refreshing Twitter. I followed the second brother on the Google Map someone constructed of his whereabouts. I counted the miles between us.

Five. Three. One-and-a-half.

I watched as the entire Internet identified him as a missing kid from Brown. I replayed the rapid drumbeat of gunfire in that civilian video clip and then I replayed it again. I watched a man affix a handwritten DO NOT LEAVE sign to the front door of my building.

The sirens began and didn’t stop, the crescendo of them coming closer relentless for almost twenty-four hours. I couldn’t sleep so I went outside and stood. After a while I sat at the bus stop, my knees to my chest, shivering on the street corner in the 5 AM darkness, watching as people outfitted for emergency hurried by. Sometimes they saw me, and they yelled at me to go back inside as they passed. It was 6 AM, and then 7. Police cars and fire trucks and ambulances, flashing lights cutting through the dark, filtering through the window.

​***

Three years of rejecting Boston.

I hadn’t realized that’s what I was doing, but crisis has a way of drudging up epiphanies. There’s more than just a little shame in my voice when I admit I never gave it a chance.

And yet, the city has accepted me anyway. There is a stock of pride in the people here, but somehow it’s not exclusionary. It’s a hard tightrope for a city to walk. I know, because I’m from a city that’s the opposite. In Atlanta we require adoration. We crave it. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are underdogs, and we’re quick to get unabashedly defensive if you don’t like our humidity or our rap music or the fact that all of our streets have the same name. In Atlanta, the overly critical just get edged out.

But Boston balances. Every Labor Day for literally hundreds of years, the city’s been infested by a new crop of students, people like me who turn their noses up at the weather, or the geography, or the people, or any of the other things we find inconvenient. Yet Boston does not begrudge us. It willingly accepts even the most conspicuous outsiders.

Still, understand – just because it will take you in doesn’t mean that it will change for you. To really gain traction here, to really affect this place, it’s not enough to just have the right intentions. You must understand the city intimately, something that you can’t accomplish in just three years.

Boston begets Boston.

This place has respected me, but it has never catered to me. It has more dignity than that. It has shrugged off my surliness without begging me for devotion. There is no marketing scheme to the city. It is exactly what it is. And what it is works.

*** ​

I’ve spent plenty of time trying to decipher the peculiarity of native Bostonians. Not the assorted anti-heroes of my law school saga, but the hodgepodge of other people I’ve encountered along the way. Cashiers, cab drivers, my hair dresser, the two men at the local magazine stand, my therapist, the elderly used book seller, the men who drive the free late-night shuttle, the smirking RN at Mass General. And, most importantly, my clients. The dozen or so I’ve had over the years. They get this place. Each of them sprouted from Boston soil, but it’s more than that. It’s that they’ve stayed.

I can’t explain, exactly, what makes people from Boston different. I’m not sure how to describe the quirks ingrained in people from here, translated in those ubiquitous accents.

I’ll tell you this, though – they don’t try to escape from their history. Things are old here, at Harvard especially. Established, maybe that’s the word. But old nonetheless. Old buildings, rectangular architecture. Old professors, brilliant and bearded and mumbling. Old law. And all around the rest of the city – the folk heroes, the narratives, the traditions – all old. Being the country’s eldest city comes with it’s own entrenched effects. It requires strength, it requires honor. After all, you can’t catch a clean slate here. Being surrounded in the remnants of your choices requires fortitude.

Another thing - they like to share. They’re not warm, really. At least not like people from Georgia. But they still crave connection. They know off the bat I’m not from around here, and so they inundate me with stories.

“Oh you’re from Atlanta? So was my ex-wife. You’re in law school? My cousin has had some trouble with the law. Just got a misdemeanor possession charge. You like the snow? Yeah, I thought the weather here was bad too - until those two summers in Vietnam.”

The stories here are always a little bit sad. Chock full of regret and struggle and history. But they are not told that way. I have been ashamed to find myself leaning back in my chair hysterical over stories of pain told with matter-of-fact humor. No one in Boston claims that life is easy and glamorous. But they only want my ear, if I’m lucky. Never my pity.

​***

Seven weeks ago I watched as the city reacted. This week I packed up to say goodbye. Both times, alone in my apartment, I voiced my regrets. “I took you for granted,” I said, towards the general direction of downtown. “I wasn’t fair to you.”

I have yet to see a Bostonian ask for help. I have only heard of those dying to give it. MGH packed to the brims with the limbless. The deep roots of responsibility, of resilience run through the people here, and I have seen it over the past couple of months – the people are careful but not dramatic, unyielding but not vicious. They care for their own. They muster the strength. Deep resolve exists in abundance here. Yes, they are different. There’s this self-assuredness without the ego, this persistence without pathetic.

I rolled my eyes at this place infinite times, turned my nose at the mere mention of its name. But this is not a mea culpa. Boston doesn’t care what I think, anyway.

All I mean to say is, Boston, I like you. The vulnerability in the voice of every cab driver, telling me details about their children’s love lives. Clients, hat in hand, polite and apologetic. The profuse gratitude from men and women I stood next to in court.

No, it’s not for me. It’s not home. I’ll forget about this place like I’ve begun to forget about that Thursday night. I’ll distill it down to one or two sentences that I recount at cocktail parties. But I’ll be doing this city and these people a biting injustice.

Atlanta taught me how to be fun. New York taught me how to adjust. But Boston taught me how to be tough. Tough through the relentless winters, tough through the stress-laden semesters. Tough for my clients. Tough with humility, quiet, steel-faced strength. It taught me how to push through; how to savor even the smallest rewards; how to find beauty even when it is not thrust upon you.

This place is both more fragile and more courageous than it lets on. It has taken care of me, but it has never tried to impress me. Push farther, Boston seems to say. Work harder. Don’t complain. Just finish. There is an implicit understanding among us that whatever needs to be done we will do it, because that’s what we do.

OK, I think, looking at my map, this is what I have. It is more than enough, and more than enough is plenty.

Josie Duffy recently graduated from Harvard Law School and will soon begin working as a staff attorney at The Center for Popular Democracy. She writes regularly at thetruefight.squarespace.com.

In a new project overseen by contributing editor Kiese Laymon, Gawker is running a personal essay every weekend. Please send suggestions to saturdays@gawker.com.

[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via AP]