Back to Normal

When I was in college, Marathon Monday simply meant getting drunk and having a great time.

The Boston Marathon begins in Hopkinton at 10 a.m.  For us in our dorms near Kenmore Square, that meant waking up at 9, breaking out a 30-pack of Bud Light a few minutes later, and eventually hobbling over to Beacon Street to see the race’s leading men, women and wheelchair-bound pass by, followed soon thereafter by 20,000 or so runners-up.

It’s a perfectly sensible tradition in our fair city.  Drinking beer with friends is a joyous experience, and cheering on thousands of ironclad runners is a joyous experience as well.  To do both things simultaneously—well, the word “orgasmic” would not be too far off.

The theory is that the third Monday in April—Patriots’ Day, as it is officially known—is the one day when Boston cops don’t bother citing people for public intoxication.  (Note:  This is not necessarily true.)  For spectators, the Boston Marathon is such a merry, mellow and family-friendly event that any outbreak of inebriation is of a decidedly harmless and good-natured sort.  (Patriots’ Day is also understood as the one time in which you can drink in the morning and not be considered an alcoholic.)

A decade and a half earlier, the relevant marathon liquids were water and orange juice, which my short schoolboy self would help distribute to runners along the course.  This was an especially high honor in 1992, when my father and uncle ran the marathon together.  I remember it well:  I had lined up two plastic cups along the curb—one for Dad, one for Uncle Roy.  As soon as we spotted the duo coming up the hill, I dashed for the first cup, handed it off to Dad with perfect precision, then dashed back for the second.  When I returned to the edge of the street, expecting Roy’s outstretched arm, he and Dad were both long gone.  I guess they had some place to be.

There are plenty more Marathon Monday stories I could recount, and they are all indicative of the Boston Marathon’s core cultural purpose, which is to bring together virtually every resident of the Boston metro area in a display of total, unadulterated gaiety.  If you aren’t an actual participant, you attend the marathon for no reason except that it’s so goddamned enjoyable.  For all the boozing and tomfoolery, it’s just about the most innocent mass gathering in all of the United States.

And now, of course, it’s not.

As the city executes its final preparations for Monday’s race—the first since the moment when last year’s went horribly, horribly wrong—we are forced once again to deal with this concept known as the “new normal.”  Like boarding an airplane or sending an e-mail, the act of watching (let alone running) the Boston Marathon is no longer as innocuous or carefree as we long assumed it to be.

As a consequence of last year’s madness, this year’s festivities will be subject to extraordinary security provisions, including new restrictions on bags and other personal items, random searches by police, and prohibitions on strollers, large bottles and costumes.

Some of these regulations are perfectly reasonable; others seem needlessly excessive.  In any case, they illustrate how the Boston Marathon has joined the ever-growing list of public spaces subject to uncommonly intense scrutiny by the authorities, in the interest of keeping the peace and ensuring that nothing goes awry—a task that is ultimately impossible, since any marathon is an inherently open event.

In essence, the “new normal” is about the tension between security and freedom, with the implication that the former has taken precedence over the latter.

On better days, I take the view that safety in America has always been something of an illusion, that one assumes a million and one risks the moment one steps out the front door, and that the notion of national “innocence” is an absurdity that never existed and never will.

And yet when it comes to the Boston Marathon, I prefer the old normal.  I wish we could have it back.  I wish we didn’t have to think about the possibility of terror and violence at such an otherwise happy occasion, and I think it’s an obscenity that it took just two people with one bad idea to force us to think otherwise.

But our hand has indeed been forced, and there is no turning back.  As such, we are left with the second-best course of action, and that is to descend upon Monday’s race in record numbers and have the time of our lives.  Just like we always used to.

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