THEY COME IN PAIRS AND THEY COME IN SMALL GROUPS. Many come alone. They come in blue windbreakers and they come in work clothes. Some come in yesterday’s running shorts.
All day long, they file past a formation of reporters and TV cameras camped outside the granite fortress, past the police officers defending the door, and into the cavernous high-ceilinged hall that Guardsmen once used for drills and that the Boston Park Plaza Hotel across the street now uses as overflow function space.
The former armory, better known as “the Castle,” sits at the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Arlington Street. That puts it just a few blocks from the stretch of Boylston Street where madness had struck.
The building’s assigned function on April 16, this sad day after the Marathon bombings, is of the unemotional type, as a depot. When thousands of runners had been hurried off the course after the twin blasts, they were prevented from receiving their medals and collecting the bright yellow bags, marked with their bib numbers, that stored their phones, wallets, and change of clothes. Now they are showing up to reclaim what is theirs. This should be a straightforward transaction conducted inside a cold gray building made more imposing by the menacing dragon carved into its granite tower. There is no indication that the place will turn into a house of healing.
This same armory had played an important role a century earlier, when terror in Boston had also commanded the attention of a horrified nation. During the police strike of 1919, Boston descended into darkness, with widespread looting, mob violence, and a heavy-handed military response that led to nine deaths in two days. Governor Calvin Coolidge had called in the State Guard, using the armory as headquarters for machine gun-armed motor units.
On the morning after the Marathon bombings, the city is still visibly shaken. Yet some of the runners who have shown up seem intent on simply picking up their stuff and leaving. It turns out to be a bit more involved than that.
A Marathon staffer has placed a small handwritten sign on the hall’s carpeted floor. It reads FINISH. Laid down beneath it is a nearly 3-foot-long segment torn from the actual blue-and-yellow Marathon finish-line tape. Each marathoner is instructed to hand over his or her smartphone and then stand on one side of that tape while the volunteers gather on the other. With the media crews kept outside the Castle door, all photography inside will be handled by amateurs. When the runner is given the signal and steps over the line, one volunteer bestows the medal, another snaps the photo on the runner’s phone, and the rest of them bathe the athlete in applause or hugs.
Some runners can only gamely go along with these reenactments, like the middle-aged guy who offers the self-conscious smiles of a dad sipping from a china cup at his daughter’s tea party. Others grin as they begin to cross the makeshift finish line, but then lose their composure and dissolve into sobs. As some of them explain later, at that moment they hit the wall emotionally, overcome with a jumble of sadness, fear, pride, guilt, anger, and fatigue. One woman holds it together long enough to receive her medal and collect her belongings. But after fishing her cellphone out of her yellow bag, she involuntarily plops onto the floor. For her, the exercise of listening to the voice mails from loved ones that had accumulated in the 24 hours since the attacks turns into a forensic audit of fear.
And then there’s Jess Bryson, a 26-year-old charity runner from Jamaica Plain who breaks down the moment she steps into the hall. During her five months’ training for her first marathon, she’d been imagining the exhilaration she would experience as she turned left from Hereford onto Boylston and headed for the final straightaway.
“I was at mile 25.6 when they stopped the race,” Bryson tells Lisa Fliegel, a trauma therapist who had shown up to volunteer her services. “I could have made it to the finish line.”
“You’re here. You’re getting your medal,” Fliegel counters. “You didn’t just finish the race. You won the race.”
After the last runner has left for the day, I chat with Fliegel, whom I’ve known for years, about her determination to get the marathoners to frame their stories around strength rather than defeat. She lived in Israel for two decades of upheaval, and her day had started with a text from a friend who still lives there: “What a sad morning after. Same pictures and stories, but in English.” That’s not the reality she wants for Boston.Continued...