A Trip Home to Boston After the Bombing

"If you're a Watertown resident that hasn't been on TV, you're doing something wrong."

It was Friday night, and I was traveling north from Philadelphia to my native Cambridge, hours after the Boston area had been locked down. By then we had shifted from tragedy to thriller, and avoiding talk of the “manhunt” was not possible. The man sitting across from me on the train had been watching the marathon on Boylston Street when the bombs went off, and was heading back north from Newtown, PA to watch his daughter perform in a college play. He said he didn’t want to pass judgment, but jihad seemed to be the likeliest explanation.

Four hours later, I was on a plane from JFK to Logan (train service to South Station had been suspended, so I had to fly from New York), and our captain announced that he wanted to offer drinks on the house, “to celebrate the apprehension of those lunatics up in Boston,” but JetBlue wouldn’t allow it.

My trip had been planned weeks ago, and so I went; besides, it seemed inappropriate not to be home this week. Stubborn loyalty, useful in times of crisis, is the happy byproduct of Bostonian provincialism. By the time I arrived at midnight, Cambridge had already hosted the second act of the media event, and the crime scene had moved to neighboring Watertown, where three hours earlier, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being fished out of the bottom of the Slipaway II.

The next day, relative normalcy. Except for a 1.2-mile stretch of Boylston, the deserted streets had been repopulated and the Sox were back at Fenway. Boston’s two dailies, meanwhile, assumed their respective roles. The Globe, sober and careful. The Herald, not bothering with adjectives like “alleged,” announcing in boldface that the kid had been a stoner. “Uncle Sam lets another bunch of leeching future terrorists into the country,” Howie Carr wrote in his Saturday column. “And this is the thanks we get?” MSNBC “moonbats” and “sharia-crazed Stone Age” Muslims too. The game hadn’t changed—just the players.

In Cambridge, where our “People’s Republic” moniker won’t soon die now, I traced by foot the story I’d followed remotely the day before, which itself read like a geographical survey of my own childhood.

Outside Rindge and Latin, where the suspects went to high school, the willow tree I used to play under is beginning to fill in, and a crew from CBS waits for Dzhokhar’s high-school wrestling coach. They had scheduled an on-camera interview for 2:45 p.m., but he’s stopped returning calls and is already an hour late. A little before 4 p.m., they bag the interview, and the cameramen head to Watertown to set up for a live shot. Their New York-based producer says he doesn’t begrudge the coach for bailing.

“Have you ever read that quote from Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer?” he asks me. This one, he means:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

As national film crews trawl about Cambridge for Tsarnaev nuggets, and others do the same in Medford and Dorchester, seeking information about those on the receiving end of the bombings, the passage seems appropriate. “But I don’t quite agree with it,” he says, and heads for Watertown to join his crew. “If you’re a Watertown resident that hasn’t been on TV, you’re doing something wrong,” he says.

On the other side of Inman Square, at 410 Norfolk Street, where 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev lived with his wife and child, close to a dozen TV people mill about, doing very little. A People reporter on crutches finds one willing neighbor, but most passersby are like us, rubbernecking, seeking new data. Someone from a Japanese TV station even walks up to the entrance of the creaky, brown three-story house and tries to open the front door, as if no one had thought of that yet.

Two houses down, 32-year-old Kara Tontz watches the street from her front yard, a toddler tossing around chalk at her feet. Like everyone else, she’d followed the news on television Friday morning, until she saw that the “guys with the big guns were going into the brown house” down the street, and the FBI told her and her family to scram. She’d come home earlier that morning and had since been interviewed five times, mostly by international media.

Thirty minutes later, around 5:30 p.m., I make my way to M.I.T., where a crowd of 30 stands in front of a makeshift memorial for slain 26-year-old campus police officer Sean Collier, believed to have been killed by the Tsarnaev brothers as they began their getaway from Cambridge to Watertown. A mile south of the TV trucks on Norfolk Street, I’m the only reporter present, and it’s impossible not to consider Janet Malcolm’s words again. What appears at first to be a group of well-wishers is upon closer examination the roster of Collier’s recreational kickball team, which begins its season in two weeks.

Before coming to the memorial, they went to Tommy Doyle’s, just around the corner, where each of them drank two shots of Jameson—Collier’s favorite drink. They saved him a bottle and two shots of his own, which were poured into two small plastic cups and laid at the center of the memorial. They also brought him a small red kickball and an orange team t-shirt, on which they inscribed goodbye messages.

Sean, Way to drop that ball. We didn’t need that out anyways.

Sean, You got them. Gone, missed, but never, ever forgotten.

His friend Matt, who’d known him five years, is wearing a Bruins jersey, telling me about the photo of Collier that everyone’s seen, which had been printed out and placed at the memorial. “He hated that picture,” he says, smiling, shaking his head.

Shortly after I arrive, several policemen clear a path for a middle-aged man in khakis and dark sunglasses. As the crowd stands back, the man kneels at the memorial and weeps. It’s Collier’s father. He thumbs a few pieces of memorabilia, staring at the bouquets and teddy bears and notes people have left for his son. After a few minutes, he follows police to the squad car, eventually returning by himself to sit on a nearby bench, away from the crowd.

The next morning, I open the Herald to find Collier’s death notice in the obituary section, just a paragraph long. Adjacent to the text, a little badge commemorating his police service, and above it, a photo he never wanted us to see.