Seeking shelter -

Seeking shelter

Taking stock of boston’s ordinary pleasures when the entire city is treated as a crime scene


‘Shelter in place’: The massive house-to-house search in Watertown yielded nothing

The phone call came soon after 6 on Friday morning. A recorded male voice announced that all public transport in greater Boston was suspended until further notice. Members of the public were urged to be vigilant. Then came a second phone call. The cities of Boston, Allston, Cambridge, Newton, Waltham and Watertown were in lockdown. “Shelter in place,” we were told, an oddly Orwellian phrase. Only answer your door to a member of the police with valid I.D. The one exception, by special request of the city, was Dunkin’ Donuts. Specific shops in the iconic Boston chain were to remain open, offering coffee and sustenance to the police.

In the days following the marathon bombings, Boston had been both the same and different. A huge area of downtown was being treated as a crime scene, and bags were searched on the subway. But such is the force of ordinary life that, even by Thursday, when the names and photographs of the two suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were released, the streets were full of people going to work and school. Coming home from a bustling restaurant late that night, I was startled to see a dozen heavily armed policemen outside the subway, but no one stopped me or searched my bag.

After the bombs, the normal city sounds of Boston were transformed by sirens and helicopters. Now a profound silence fell. People are the lifeblood of cities; when streets and buildings are deserted they become eerie, unnatural places, as was apparent in New York after 9/11. My neighbours’ doors remained resolutely closed. In my city, Cambridge, where the Tsarnaev brothers lived, I saw only a few exceptions to the lockdown: some cars, a solitary cyclist, a desperate dog owner. Late in the day, one of my neighbours sneaked out to tidy his garden. But for the most part we obeyed orders. A million people waited indoors while a 19-year-old American, a college student, struggled to avoid capture.

Meanwhile friends telephoned and emailed from Toronto, London, Tel Aviv, other parts of the U.S. They often knew more about the manhunt than I did. Soon after 6 p.m., lockdown was lifted—not with any sense of jubilation or achievement, but with a weary acknowledgement that people needed to get on with their lives. The massive house-to-house search in Watertown had yielded nothing. My husband and I went for a drink with friends, savouring the ordinary freedoms of walking down the street, enjoying a larger conversation.

But an hour later, as we made our way home, the situation once again changed. An unmarked car screamed by. In its wake came news of more gunfire in Watertown. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hiding in a boat. Having driven down Franklin Street only a few weeks earlier, I could picture the boat, looming on its trailer, tightly wrapped in white plastic.

The following morning, on the street corner opposite my house, was a large handmade sign: “Love is strength. Stay strong, Boston.” I applaud the sentiment and would add that perhaps even stronger than love is the force of ordinary life that fills the city streets every day. Terrorism brings us up against the chilling fact that, as we work and study, go to the library and the playground, we assume a pact of peaceful co-existence. On Wednesday, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, like many other students, went to the gym. On Friday he kept a million people indoors. “There’s no art,” as Shakespeare says, “to find the mind’s construction in the face.”

Margot Livesey is a novelist whose books include The Flight of Gemma Hardy, The House on Fortune Street, Criminals, The Missing World and Banishing Verona. Born in Scotland, Livesey lived in Toronto and has Canadian citizenship. She currently lives in the Boston area and is a writer-in-residence at Emerson College.

Filed under: