Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith

Boston’s loss of innocence

“Tonight I write the saddest lines”, so begins a poem by Pablo Neruda, in it he talks of a love lost, but for me, I mourn the lost innocence of the city I love.

Boston gave me back my life. When I arrived here in late 2010 I was sick, physically and emotionally. I was exhausted. A friend and neighbour had been murdered six months before in South Africa, another neighbour and I investigated and then when it became clear that the police were nervous of the killers — Nigerian mafia — and would do nothing, we stopped.

I could no longer cope with the violence of South Africa; the harm, the hurt, it was killing me. I came here and the people were initially unfriendly, I spent my first Christmas alone with a mini bottle of Moet and a turkey breast, I had a bed, a table and a chair, while I waited six weeks for the rest of my things to arrive from South Africa.

On Christmas Day I pulled the table to the front window of my home and lifted the blinds. I watched fascinated as my neighbours shovelled and used snow blowers, which I wrote to friends, “sound like lawnmowers and shoot snow into the air” to get rid of the blizzard that came on Christmas Eve. Outside it was white and magical with a beautiful pink light. I was content, and that contentment had a lot to do with the fact that I had no burglar bars, no alarms, no armed response just a panic button away.

I watched fascinated as parcels were left next to front doors by UPS and FedEx and no one stole them. I made friends with the school guard, with bus drivers, with an Irish packer at the local supermarket who would carry my packets two blocks home so we could chat. I made friends with illegal Brazilian migrants and put my head on the table and cried when they told of how they’d swum the Rio Grande and four children drowned in their quest to come to a country where they could have enough money to send to the families they could never return to.

The antique storeowner would regale me with tales of how a sect once owned his store and had group sex in the basement in the 1970s. The second-hand bookstore manager once chatted to me for two hours while men were shovelling huge spadesful of snow off his roof. The Algerian pizza makers took me as one of their own and gave me Algerian music CDs. A local realtor who I never rented nor bought from would buy me coffee. My colleagues warmed to me and my nephews began visiting. The ice began melting, brightly coloured birds returned, the neighbours realised that the reason we had so many squirrels was because I fed them — and tolerated that, brave little plants put their heads above the snow and spring entered my heart.

And so now I really love this place. I’m active in the Democratic Party; I’m an elected delegate to the July convention. I judged a section of the American Journalists and Authors awards recently. Last week two Boston friends took me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum of Fine Arts and at lunch discussed Boston politics — they’re pretty dirty.

Here my health is so perfect that I go cycling 10 miles a day in summer and 50 at weekends. I’m studying for a master’s. My writing has improved so much that when Random House asked me to check my first Mandela book for an update 18 months ago, I wrote back, and said, “it’s awful, how could you have ever published it?” And did a complete rewrite; it has never sold better.

Yesterday a South African friend who lives in downtown Boston, called and said, “did you hear those two big bangs?” And then the air filled with sirens. I realised my nephew was at the marathon. He lost his mom almost exactly a year ago (April 11). My body went ice cold and I started phoning. His phone was dead. I left a message. I phoned his brother, who had also just heard about the explosions, he asked, “have you heard from Luke?”

I tried Luke’s phone again and this time a soft, uncertain voice answered. He had been opposite the first bomb and started running, toward the second bomb, which went off a few seconds later. “Get out,” I said, “if it’s a bomb, there might be another”.

I kept hoping it was gas blasts but the second blast told its own story, this was planned.

When covering violence as a journalist I always became hungry, I’d go into conflict with samosas, now I bought chocolate, and drove to Boston. Damn conflict journalists we can’t stay away.

Traffic was backed up coming out of Boston, many were walking because some subways had been closed, blue lights were flashing, coast-guard ships were anchored across the Charles River where that morning I’d admired canoeists and yachts. Yellow tape sealed roads, no entry to the city. I wanted to put my head on my steering wheel and sob. I couldn’t understand it; I’ve covered so much conflict, I’m always so calm, why was I so terribly upset now?

This is why,

Boston has given me my life back, here I am calmer, healthier, I am the person I always wanted to be.
I walk or cycle on streets late at night with no fear. I go out and leave my doors unlocked.
In two years in this apartment I haven’t had a key for my backdoor, it’s never locked.
In summer all the doors are open.
I chat to the postmen, and UPS delivery men, I have my neighbours for tea, I photograph the wild turkeys that think they own the neighbourhood, I rejoice in the yellow forsythia in spring, the majesty of the maples, and the beauty of the dogwood. I love the gentleness and patience of New Englanders. I love the incredible beauty of America and the quirks of its people even though I often want to bang the heads of politicians.

I’ve always said the great loves of my life have been my children and South Africa.

But my heart has grown bigger than the borders of the United States, greater than the 310 million people that live in it, I am passionate about this country, I owe it so much, I will defend it and honour it and be loyal to it. I love its people, and their scant experience of harm.

In other places I’ve lived or reported on there has been an expectation of harm. Violence has been part of the fabric of life. But not here. In Boston safety is what people expect, it is what they are accustomed to and so this is the most terrible of violations. I mourn because their innocence has been taken.

Today, these friendly-yet-reserved, quiet, rather prim people will look at everyone anew. The kind, laidback police officers will see us all as potential foes. And so the South Africans who live here are in mourning because we have let these kind people into a world we know, a place where fear lives and none of us want anyone in that place. It is a place that deforms.

We have sadness ahead of us. We will learn more about Martin Richard, the eight-year-old who died, we pray his mother and sister recover. We will learn the names and faces of those who have had limbs amputated. We will see the photographs of those who died, and some will think of the children and teachers of Sandy Hook who died just four months ago.

In my mind I have had echoes of a bomb blast in Germiston the day before democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. I arrived soon after it happened. I walked on roads where there were bits of people smaller than a coin, flesh stuck to my shoes. There was an arm jutting from a wall, a head on a second floor ledge, and men with black plastic bags picking up bits of flesh. There was a boy sitting in the front of a supermarket whose body was shot through the supermarket and out of a wall that fell. Nineteen people died that day. It was a right-wing bomb, as I suspect these are.

I can’t fathom what enters the heads of those who do this.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

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