I grew up on Heartbreak Hill so the Boston Marathon was an annual celebration for us. My parents would throw a big party with platters of deli meat, bulkie rolls, potato salad, and coolers of beer and soft drinks. After eating, we'd head over to Commonwealth Avenue with jugs of water and Dixie cups. It was a source of pride to cheer the runners on and help hydrate them on their way to the finish line. In Boston it seems you always know someone who's running the marathon. I'm not much of a runner, but one of my sisters ran it twice, with my other sister joining her once for the last five miles. This year my son's middle school advisor ran, so we cheered him on at mile 20 in Newton, just below Heartbreak Hill. When I saw the bombs go off on TV later that afternoon, it felt way too personal. And on Friday, following the news as the events unfolded just a few blocks away in Watertown, it felt way too close.
My family slept through the shoot-out in the early hours of Friday morning, completely unaware of what was happening just a mile down Mt. Auburn Street from us. We keep our phone ringer and answering machine off in our bedroom, so we missed the call from the Watertown Police Department telling us to stay inside. My husband woke up at 6:00 a.m. because my cell phone was vibrating with a call from my son's school. When he looked at the phone he saw a text message from friends in Newton reading "Don't leave your house." That's when we knew something was up.
From that point on we were glued to the television. The phone started ringing and emails poured in from friends and relatives all around the country who were watching the dramatic events taking place in our town, in our very neighborhood. I'm not an avid Facebook user. I update my status occasionally and post pictures of family vacations to relatives and friends, but that morning it felt like a lifeline. When I signed on I learned from one Watertown friend that her husband watched the shoot-out and killing of the first suspect right next door from his bedroom window. Many had been woken up in the middle of the night by the Police Department call and had been communicating on Facebook throughout the morning. A Cambridge friend wrote that his son had gone to grade school and high school with "Johar," and had spent some of his winter break with him. He wrote, "It is not an overstatement to say this is shocking." As usual there was an abundance of both accurate and inaccurate information floating about, but mainly social networking was a way to stay connected to people, to share our fear and concerns. That day it was a way to communicate to friends and family in and out of the country what was going on literally in my back yard and at the forefront of the unfolding drama.
On TV we saw the familiar images of Watertown just blocks from our house -- the Arsenal Center for the Arts where my son does children's theatre, the sign for the public school art exhibit at the Watertown Mall where my daughter has a piece, the Town Diner in Coolidge Square where we go for breakfast as a treat. It was surreal to see these landmarks, my town's streets, overrun with SWAT teams, FBI agents, countless local and state police troopers, even the mayor of Boston and the governor. My town was transformed into a war zone.
Outside it was a beautiful day, tropical and breezy, in the 70s. The green buds were popping on the trees lining our road. Daffodils and crocuses were in full color in front yards. Normally on a day like this, people would be parading back and forth with dogs on leashes, babies in strollers. They'd be mowing and weeding in their yards, their front doors swung open. But on this day our street was deserted, not a soul in sight, doors shut tight. Then the SWAT vans and police cars started rolling by.
I saw them walking down the street -- men in green camouflage and boots carrying guns. When my doorbell rang, I answered it quickly and reassured the man that we were fine and hadn't seen anything suspicious. After checking our back yard, he came back to ask me about writing on our shed wall -- something about getting your weapon and meeting me in the driveway. I didn't know anything about it and for the first time all day I felt genuinely frightened. Could the bomber have been sending a message to a collaborator on our shed wall? I called my son downstairs. He reassured us that it was part of a ninja game he'd been playing with a friend next-door. To relieve the tension, my family joked that he was a "person of interest" for about ten seconds.
As the news droned on with no new leads I felt progressively trapped in my house and brain-dead from the constant barrage of speculation, interviews with high school classmates, uncles and aunts -- anything the reporters could use to fill in the lack of any real breakthrough. Back on Facebook, neighbors were posting shots of SWAT teams with dogs in their yards, military vans in front of their houses, police cars gathered at the ends of their streets. On our street it was dead quiet. Finally after the day had somehow slipped by, the news reporters announced that we could leave our houses.
We were released. Neighbors poured out onto the streets with their dogs, clustering in groups, abuzz with the excitement. I was nervous about night falling, knowing that he was still out there somewhere, possibly even in my neighborhood, or even my back yard, but for that moment, I was glad to be set free. The evening was still warm and we gulped down the fresh air.
As we walked down our street, chatting with neighbors, our daughter, hooked into the social network of her Watertown friends, reported there was a body found in a boat in a back yard on Franklin St. at the home of a friend of a friend of hers. Then we heard the gunshots. Franklin St. is five blocks from our house, down the hill and across Mt. Auburn St. We had lived in an apartment in a friend's house there for six months when we were renovating our house. Another friend who lives on the corner texted me that there were men with machine guns in her driveway and a shoot-out was taking place.
We all felt compelled to go. After all, this was happening here. We wanted to witness it firsthand. We started running down the hill. I just wanted to get to the edge of the barricades where we'd be close but not too close, but when we got to the next block, a woman poked her head out and said she heard there might be a gas explosion. Thinking the better of it, we came to our senses and turned back to go home.
With friends who'd come over from two streets away, we all watched tensely as the reporters confirmed, 10 minutes after our daughter had, that the suspect was in a boat on Franklin St. at a house that hadn't been checked because it didn't fall within the 20-block perimeter. Helicopters whirred noisily above our house as reporters told of a standoff. Finally, it ended. He was in custody. We watched the crowds on TV cheering and clapping down the street for the law enforcement. I was glad they had caught him, that there were no further injuries to innocent bystanders, that I could sleep easy that night, but I was also saddened to see such a promising young man stray so far and wreak violence on my city.
Later that night a group of us walked down to the barricade. There was still a sizable crowd, including friends from that neighborhood and others farther away. We shared stories and marveled at the intensity of the day, feeling the need to connect with each other, to be there at the site of such a major event that took place just blocks from where we live.
There's still a blockade on Franklin St. with policemen guarding the barricades on each end and news reporters camped out, but otherwise Watertown life has returned to normal. As we breathe a sigh of relief, our thoughts turn once again to the families of the victims and hope for collective healing for everyone affected by this tragedy.
Bonnie Waltch is a writer in Watertown, Mass. Recently, she published "Making the Internet Work for Filmmakers: Case Studies from Boston" on the National Association of Media Arts and Culture website. She is currently at work on a young adult novel.