BOSTON -- Really, now, did you expect anything less?
Did you think the fans weren't going to show? That the T would screech to a halt, that the Charles would stop flowing, that the Citgo sign would go dark? That Boston would roll over and die?
No. You knew it would all play out exactly the way it was supposed to Wednesday night, when the Boston Bruins held the first sporting event in the city since two bombs ripped through the finish line at Monday's Boston Marathon, killed three, maimed 176 more, and left a gaping wound in very idea of sports in America. Because that's what the day called for. That's what anyone fearful for the future of the marathon needed. And if there's anything Boston knows how to deliver on, it's the oft-cliched idea that mere fun and games can somehow serve as community bond and balm.
"It was incredible," said Boston left winger Brad Marchand after the loss to Buffalo that no one minded, 3-2, in a shootout. "You really see why Boston's such a special city. Everyone's come together and united through all this, and tonight's another example of it. You're out with thousands of people you don't know but it's like we're all one."
Because if what we talk about when we talk about a "great sports town" is a city that, despite its historic and intellectual heft, still sees the best of itself reflected in its pro teams, a city that manages to eye said teams with seen-it-all cynicism while loving them like a teenager, then we are talking about Boston. It is the model. No city more organically unites its rich, poor, black, white and everything in-between residents under a crazy-quilt umbrella -- equal parts red, white, blue, gold, black, white and green -- of loyalty to its Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics and Patriots. No city, not even New York, is more obnoxious in its pride. And no city knows how to make such a lunatic misplacement of priorities feel so perfectly right.
Still, on Wednesday night Boston outdid even itself. There was the stunning moment, unforced yet overwhelming, when longtime national anthem legend Rene Rancourt stopped singing for the first time anyone could remember; the organ died, and Rancourt then conducted 17,565 Bostonians -- yes, packing TD Garden for the 149th straight Bruins sellout -- as they bellowed, "The Star-Spangled Banner". There was the sight of men holding up huge American flags, that wrenching video montage of marathon carnage and courage and, perhaps best of all, a cute lad in a Tyler Seguin jersey holding a hand-inked message: "You Cowards Messed With The Wrong City."
But there was also this, small moment in a night of huge ones: Two women, 27-year old paralegal Stephanie Walker and 33-year old caterer Shannon Sweeney, hustling through the concourse beforehand, trying to raise money for bombing victims through the newly created, "One Fund Boston". Walker, a resident of South Boston, had run her first-ever marathon Monday, but was stopped with a mile to go when the race dissolved in horror. "I was robbed of being able to cross the finish line," Walker said. "I start crying thinking about it."
She seemed more mad than sad. And neither woman was shocked to see the Garden full. "No: It's Boston," Walker said. "Everyone comes together. You see on Twitter and Facebook, everyone just wants to be together right now. And the Bruins are such a face for the Boston people that I think they just want to come out and scream and just let it all out. We're just proud. It's who we are."
"Nothing's going to stop us," Sweeney said.
This was, of course, wonderful to hear. Defiance, even the reckless kind, is always the most gratifying response to viciousness. No one argues against the clear need these days to be more wary, more vigilant, to "see something, say something", and since Monday experts have been scolding the culture for letting down its guard. Maybe. But maybe it's just that a piece of the national heart recoils at the notion of paranoia as community value. Everybody likes a fighter -- hockey fans especially -- but spoiling for a fight 24 hours a day, year after year, isn't our style.
Indeed, though everything now happens at warp speed, and it's tempting to check off Wednesday's game as a handy catharsis, Boston's walk back to a feisty normal is still in its early stages. The day was full of reports of a suspect taken into custody, all premature; closure, be it emotional or investigative, is not something that can be rushed. For those hit, of course, the initial shock of the blasts is far from wearing off. And for some who had walked away seemingly untouched, it has only begun.
Eric Larson, a 61-year old warehouse worker from Cottleville, Missouri, kept breaking into tears Tuesday morning as he described the hysterical mother next to him in the crowd at the race the day before, his efforts to calm her, the frantic texts -- "I love you.thank God he protected you ...." -- from his normally stoic grandson. "It shook him to the core," Larson said. "But for us? For me? I don't think it shook me until I saw that picture."
Larson had been at the 26-mile mark, waiting for his wife Linda to finish her first-ever Boston Marathon when the bombs went off. At the time he thought he was handling it; he helped calm the panicked woman, found Linda -- whose usual pace would've put her at the finish near the fatal moment if she hadn't stopped twice -- within a couple hours. But later, as he saw repeated still shots of the second bomb, as he found a way to zoom in and realized that the white hat near the lamppost was him, Eric felt something like a dam break inside his chest.
"I blew (the photo) up a little bit ... and you could see this gray stripe," he said, voice quavering now, pointing at his hat. "Seeing that fire and how close I was to it, and feeling it and smelling the gunpowder, all that stuff: It's finally starting to sink in. That's why I'm getting emotional. Because, totally, we were blessed. She had to stop at the restroom twice -- or she would've finished then -- and I would've been down there trying to help find her."
Out on the Boston streets, too, you could see fan and runner alike struggling to place themselves within the new and terrible context. There seemed a great need to see the course again, to take in Boylston St. and the blocks surrounding and understand that, yes, they were right there ... or there ... or there, and had by some mean luck escaped harm. Just after 1 p.m. Tuesday, at the corner of Clarendon and St. James, a shifting clot of people stared at the shadowy block leading down to Boylston. A biting wind starched the half-masted flags at Hancock Tower, then dove and lifted up half the cups and paper plates and tissue and garbage bags, usually cleaned up by now but today left untouched as possible evidence, into a small cyclone. A steel barrier banged over onto the street. The soldier on duty hunched his back against the chill.
But away from that barren stretch, the sun shone. Runners walked the sidewalks down Arlington St., wearing Boston Marathon medals, their commemorative gold nylon tops. And as the sun warmed the mood began to edge away, just a bit, from numb reverence. By 2:30 p.m., the thick crowd standing at the police barrier at Arlington and Boylston, pointing to the spot down the empty street where the first bomb blew, holding up cellphones and clicking, turned to see a man with a clown nose held up a sign offering "Free Hugs". Another group of men arrived with a "Don't Tread on Me" flag, bouquets, a string of American flaglets. Then a sax player, wearing a discarded silver runner's blanket, walked in playing, "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a porkpie hat.
It was hard to say what human feeling was being served now. A desire to pay tribute? To get attention? To see history? To feel? A man, wearing a 9/11 sweatshirt, held up rosary beads and a sign reading, "Justice Will Prevail". A flock of cell cameras turned as one in his direction.
Then, suddenly, a deadpanned, wide-eyed police officer announced that the barriers were coming down and a part of Boylston would be open. Bodies jockeyed for position at the front. At 3:03 p.m., -- "Alright! Everyone up on the sidewalk!" another cop yelled -- the street was opened and the crowd pushed forward, streaming down both sides of the street, past empty storefronts with signs gone obsolete: "Marathon Day Bathrooms for Patrons Only"...."Celebrate and Commemorate Your Marathon!" It was like walking into a ghost town.
A few blocks away, at the Park Plaza Castle, runners had been spilling out all day after picking up the bags they'd left behind in the chaos, and receiving the medal for finishing even if they didn't finish. Toni Biggerstaff, 43, of Keller, Texas, has run 13 marathons. This was her second Boston. No other race, she said, can compare; from the qualifying requirement to the volunteers to the massive, eternally supportive crowds, everything about the Boston Marathon conspired to make it a true runner's dream.
"It's a celebration," she said. "I found this as I was running: I'm tired, I'm shuffling, I'm tired...then I would run over to the right and stick my hand out and people would just scream, 'Yahhhhh!' and they'd stick their hand out to you -- and you'd run faster. They're cheering for you. If you have your name on the front of your shirt? Your name is going to be called over and over and over. 'Come on, Toni! You can do it!'"
Biggerstaff refused to think it could be any different, even now. She intends to be here next year. "This is the best thing ever and people are still going to come here," she said. "I haven't heard anyone say, 'I'm never going to run Boston again.' And it's going to be even better, because now it's a patriotism thing. Now it's a cause. We're going to run for Boston, because we love America and this is not going to stop us. This will just make us stronger."
When the horn sounded and the game was over, there was one last gesture. The Bruins had suggested it to the Sabres players beforehand, and really, did you expect anything less? Instead of filing off to their locker rooms, both teams stayed on the ice for a moment Wednesday night, stood on their blades with helmets off and holding up their sticks in salute to the city and the dead. A "U-S-A!" chant rose and fell and faded. Then the crowd hurried out.
After, there was an oddly right vibe around the Bruins: Better than the journalists, better than the fans, the players sensed that the galvanizing power of a mere game had its limits. Boston qualified for the playoffs Wednesday. No one dared overstate the case.
"I think when something tragic happens, people want something to believe in," Marchand said. "It could be such a little thing, but people take time out of their lives to watch us, and our job is maybe give a little inspiration or whatever it is, give people something to rally behind. We took a lot of pride in that tonight. We know that that's our job: Even if it's a couple hours where people get their minds off what's going on, that's what we want to do. We want to give them something exciting to watch and to enjoy, and just try and help any way we can."
That its teams will help, of course, is an article of faith in Boston, maybe the only one left. Wednesday's game was a start. But even as the city edges back into its old rhythm, a new reality is taking hold. Stephanie Walker's office is on Boylston St. "I actually work right at the finish line; I walk by it everyday," she said Wednesday night at the Garden, marathon number still pinned to the front of her shirt. "But I haven't returned to work yet. I'm going back tomorrow."