Gimme Shelter, in Place

I will never complain about crowds or traffic in Harvard Square again

I swear, I’ll never complain about the traffic in Harvard Square again.

Yesterday, pre-lockdown, I was drafting a reflection on why I’ve always resisted self-identifying as a Bostonian. This is where I left off:

I wasn’t anywhere near the finish line of this year’s Boston Marathon, and even if I hadn’t been out of town, I never would have braved the crowds in Copley Square to be there. Nothing against the runners, I steer clear of Boston’s other signature events, too. I don’t have the slightest interest in attending First Night, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, or the July 4th Pops concert and fireworks on the Esplanade. I just can’t stand large crowds.

So, where was I on Marathon Monday? In tranquil midtown Manhattan, at Museum of Modern Art, along with throngs of others taking in the “Inventing Abstraction” exhibit. Critically acclaimed and set to close the next day, the show documented the explosion in the art world that began 100 years ago and radically changed how we see the world. Nothing would be the same after 1913, in art or geo-politics.

The museum was teeming with visitors, perhaps even more so than usual, as the day before, a heavily promoted new show had opened, featuring Claus Oldenburg’s iconic sculptures of hamburgers, ice cream sundaes, and pastries – the perfect art-picnic fare for families visiting over the April school break. Earlier I had walked to MOMA from Penn Station, wheeling a small overnight bag that I had hoped to be able to leave in the coatroom. I was only half-surprised to learn that MOMA does not permit visitors to check suitcases, or to wheel them through the galleries. As we all know, nothing is the same after 9/11.

Central Square, Cambridge, on lockdown today

Central Square, Cambridge, on lockdown today.

Luckily, I was able to drop off my suitcase at my ex-husband’s office a few blocks away, where, while I was waiting to meet him, a security guard asked me not to lean against the lobby’s glossy marble wall. The guard did not appear the least bit suspicious when I handed off my bag and exited the building. How could he be certain I wasn’t sending a bomb up to the 33rd floor with my ex-?

Museum legs set in around 3:00, so I went to MOMA’s bustling second floor café for a late lunch, and was seated at the long window counter overlooking 53rd Street. To my left was a young woman with her iPhone plugged into an outlet on the wall; I wished I’d remembered to take my power cable out of my suitcase, as my phone’s battery was running low. We sat elbow-to-elbow, silently fingering our phones, alone together in our virtual bubbles.

Breaking the silence, she let out an audible gasp, and an “Oh no!,” which I politely ignored, as good netiquette demands. Seconds later, breaking news from the Boston Globe popped up on Facebook: “Multiple people are injured after at least one explosion near the Boston Marathon finish line.”

“I think I know what you just saw,” I groaned.

“I’m from Boston,” she explained. As if any explanation was needed.

“Me too,” I said. “Well, Cambridge actually.”

I immediately regretted making the distinction. Later I wondered, why do I still resist self-identifying as a Bostonian when I’ve lived just across the Charles River for the past 20 years?

Mass Ave bridge from Cambridge to Boston: not business as usual

Mass Ave bridge from Cambridge to Boston: Not business as usual.

Sure, I share Boston’s 617 area code and the first three digits of its zip code (021-), but I never say, “I’m from Boston,” or that “I live in Boston”– because I’m not, and I don’t. I was born and raised in Florida, went to college in New Jersey, and lived in New York and France for a decade before settling in Cambridge in 1993. Cambridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely comfortable in my own skin, and by now my two-decade stint in 02138 is my longest in any one place. I’m proud to label myself a Cantabrigian, even if the word is hard to spell and sounds Anglo-pretentious. I love Cambridge for its generous heart, mind and spirit. Cambridge is home.

I’ve never worked in a day in Boston either, though my current office in Cambridge’s Kendall Square lies less than a half-mile from two of the nine bridges connecting the two cities. I can’t vote in Boston elections, and my taxes don’t support its public schools or municipal services. Like a tourist, I’ve shopped on Newbury Street and dined at the restaurant at the top of the Prudential Center, but I’ve never spent a night (or had sex!) in the city. Driving in Boston, I’ve gotten lost more times than I care to admit, and I’ve only recently stopped confusing the South End with Southie. I go to Boston once, maybe twice, a month to visit a museum, attend a play or concert, or see a doctor. The rest of what I need I can find more easily right in my own neighborhood. After living in close proximity all these years, I stubbornly continue to hold Boston at an arm’s length. What right do I have to call myself a Bostonian, when I’ve made so little effort to be one?

It took a terrorist strike at the city’s heart and soul event to make me realize that I have every right, even an obligation, to call myself a Bostonian. The bombs [which it is now believed were planted by two young Cantabrigians of Chechen descent] killed and maimed without regard to their victims’ hometowns; among the casualties were a newlywed couple from my neighborhood, a senior at the high school my daughters attended, and a young woman who baby-sits two of my colleagues’ children. If the Yankees can play “Sweet Caroline” in solidarity with Boston, then who am I to split hairs?

Kenmore Square, Boston, no signs of life. Bring back the crowds!

Kenmore Square, Boston. Bring back the crowds!

Today, as I “shelter in place” in front of my computer and television, after a full day on living room lockdown, splitting geographic hairs seems even more absurd. Watertown is right next door to Cambridge, as the rest of the world learned this morning when the SWAT teams laid siege to the neighborhood around the mall where the nearest Target (store) is located. The 21st century world may seem flat to those of us who hold U.S. passports and spend a good portion of our lives online, but physical geography is still destiny for all of us. Being in, or being born in, the wrong place at the wrong time, can change the course of a life. If we are all Bostonians, so, too, are we all Chechens. The only way to make the world safe for our own children is to make it safe for the world’s children, wherever they begin their race.

All images from NPR.

1 Response to “Gimme Shelter, in Place”


  1. 1 Marion Levine April 20, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    Great piece, Jan. And that last line definitely points to the direction on which we need to go for any world peace. Thanks for the insights.
    Marion


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