Like many others with ties to Boston, I started working the phones as soon as the pictures and videos hit the air on Monday. Are you OK? Have you heard from so-and-so? No I didn't go this year. What, you mean like 9/11 again?
Raised in New York and educated at Boston University, I had ties to two places hit by an inflicted tragedy. Yet on Monday, I also thought of a woman from Illinois. I only saw her for a few minutes in lower Manhattan and know only that she made a mean carrot cake. More about that later. Several friends mentioned a link to the two events. If there is one, it is not so much in their devastation or morbid nature, but more in the humanity that ensued.
In 2001, volunteers from every race, age, profession and economic platform pitched in to offer what they could. How can I help? What do I have to offer? Tony Hall was a caterer from Rhode Island who brought his food truck and his expertise to the city. Even after the health department closed down other makeshift operations for sanitary reasons, Hall was cleared to stay to serve meals to rescue workers, because of his knowledge of and adherence to safety codes. It wasn't long before he had a rotating posse of 1,200 volunteers serving meals.
In the very first week, when people set up a collection depot at the Javits Center, there was an unforgettable scene of two small legs walking behind a mound of rolled up socks and wobbling toward the direction of a sock bin.
"It's Pat," my colleague said, a reference to the "Saturday Night Live" character whose identity confounded friends into wondering, "Is Pat a man or a woman?" In this case, the mound of socks the child was carrying obscured the child's face as the two legs made their way to drop the haul into cardboard boxes. Carry what you can.
Letters poured into the Salvation Army and local churches. One message included a haul of coins taped to a paper with the simple request that the combined allowance of a 6-year old -- two dollars and 47 cents -- go to families who needed it. Send what you can. Chefs raised money by cooking. Entertainers raised money by singing. Anything you can.
A woman whose name I wish I knew arrived in a van at 3 a.m. to deliver a loaf of carrot cake. She had driven with her husband and two children, now flopped over the other seats, all the way from Illinois to find a way to give her best cake to the rescue workers. How did she get past the barrier? Does this have to be factory-sealed?
The actual cake wasn't the point. If what you do best is bake, then bake what you can. Remember when you told us, Officer Browne, that nothing you had ever seen or heard on your beat, no matter how wrenching, had ever made you cry? ("And I seen 'em all"). Yes, but then you saw that carrot cake. It happens. Some days it takes valor and kindness in the face of tragedy to embrace and appreciate humanity. We're too busy trying to get somewhere.
And then there was Boston. It was a short walk to Boylston Street from my old dorm at BU's Myles Standish Hall. I had been to the marathon there a dozen times as a spectator, reporter and also-ran participant who finished past the four-hour mark, about the time of the explosions this year. One friend who emailed reminded me of her old college job at the Marathon Sports store, at the doorstep of the first explosion. Reports said the employees there left the store en masse to help form an improvised triage unit until medical teams arrived and police secured the area.
Check the videos. Some people stopped running forward and then ran in another direction to help. They weren't gawking, but kneeling, calling for medics, offering coats. Joe Andruzzi, a former New England Patriots offensive lineman, used his strength to carry a fallen runner, a stranger, to safety. His three brothers had been first responders in New York on 9/11. Others who'd crossed the finish line kept running to the nearest spot to donate blood. The Eastern Massachusetts Red Cross was asking people to schedule donations in the future because it had more volunteer donors than it could accommodate.
Twelve years earlier the Red Cross had to turn away donors from its blood banks. Sadly, there weren't many survivors who needed blood, though the Red Cross could always use reserves. Except that within a few weeks, the city's donations were being sent to fill reserves for the rest of the country. Give what you can.
When Google set up a page to connect people in Boston offering free rooms to those affected by the tragedy, 116 families promptly signed on with beds, couches and futons. Others offered up space on Craigslist, placed ads in papers or simply taped up fliers. "Tufts students with plenty of space and extra mattresses," read one. "We have extra clothes and food and can come pick you up," read another. "If you can step around some of my artwork, you can have my couch," said still another. A student at Boston University apologized for having no spare room but added, "more than willing to swipe anyone affected by the explosions for a free meal in one of our dining halls." Another asked for a quiet boarder because, "I have the biggest job interview of my life tomorrow," but offered a room anyway.
For families and friends of victims, there isn't a bigger picture to be found in the aftermath of loss. For those who cower behind anonymity to lob hate from a safe distance at innocents, there may be a more sinister, but misdirected, goal beyond an immediate swath of carnage -- not just to take lives, but to inflict an erosion of will and an attrition of identity.
That failed in New York as it failed in Boston because bombs and planes alone can't do that. Granted, our sporting arenas and other gathering places will surely become more guarded venues that bring more caution, more expense, more somber realities in places meant for celebration. Still, an echo says reflect and be thankful, but don't stop going, don't stop running, don't stop doing whatever you can. Think of New York and Boston -- both blessed with peoples armies of caterers, artists, musicians, students and bakers all fiercely resolved to lift their cities from the ashes. Bursts of hatred won't keep them away tomorrow.