When I was a teenager, I fantasized about going to college in Boston. It started on a trip my family took to the city when I was sixteen. We had visited a bunch of random places when I was a kid (Hawaii, New Mexico, Fresno), but Boston was my first experience with what I thought of as authentic east coast culture, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Growing up in San Jose, California makes one feel detached from the big moments of American history. While San Jose dates back to the Spanish colonial days of the late eighteenth century, you don’t see much evidence of this outside the missions. What history was visible when I was growing up revealed the tension between what San Jose had been, a suburban orchard town, and what it has become, Silicon Valley, and all that that entails. I really haven’t spent much time there since I left about a decade ago, but when I visit I am still struck by the lack of aesthetic consistency of the place: bungalows from the 1920s are around the corner from run-down apartment blocks from the late 1970s, which are across town from gleaming new Shiteaus in planned communities. At the time it was hard for me to knit together a good narrative about the place, though now I understand that this is true of most places, Boston included.
Still, as a young nerd who loved American literature and history, my first trip to Boston was like walking into a novel that reconciled old and new in ways San Jose couldn’t. The buildings looked like they had been built in conversation with one another. It seemed like every other corner had a sign noting some historical event of the colonial period. And yet there were cool looking young people all around me too. Beautiful girls a few years older than me who dressed like they were going to work in art galleries even when they were just going for coffee. Dudes wore clothes that fit. Now, a part of me thought these people were tools. I was in my shoegazer/monstrously depressed singer-songwriter phase. I thought I was deeper than guys in khakis. And yet I could see myself there, walking the brick-lined streets, a college student studying literature or film, wearing sweaters, going on dates with pretty girls, maybe even getting to go back to their apartments. Things seemed possible for me in Boston in a way they didn’t in San Jose. And this was all before I set foot on the campus of Boston College.
I went to high school at an all-boys Jesuit prep school in San Jose that regularly sends dozens of kids a year to the Ivy League, Stanford, Berkeley, and other schools of this ilk. I wasn’t going to be one of those guys. For my school I was probably a little above average. I didn’t take AP classes, I only got through as much math as I had to, and I am stunned I didn’t pull C’s in French before dropping it after my junior year. My SAT scores were good though, and actually made me look like an underachiever, but as I explained to some of the college admissions people who interviewed me, I like tests. And my grades weren’t that bad. I was in the market for a college that was excellent, but not elite. And BC, the best Jesuit school for guys without the grades for Georgetown, seemed like the perfect fit.
When we wandered around the campus I was kind of numb. My folks and I had been on college campuses before, but never one that felt so, well, collegial. Most universities in California, no matter how old they are, feel like they were built in the 1960s. This is because most of them were, or at least most of the parts that we see today don’t date back much before the days of Pat Brown. Boston College felt old and important, just like the city, but it felt old and important in a way I had been trained by years of Jesuit education to recognize. I can’t describe it really. It’s a combination of stone, trimmed grass, stained glass, library books, and leather that just makes sense to me. This was the place I would have to go to college. It was the place that would get me out of San Jose and make me interesting. It was a real American city. And, hell, I didn’t have my heart set on Harvard. I was a good Jesuit boy with decent grades and great test scores. BC would have to let me in, I thought.
Of course, they didn’t. In fact, they wait-listed me in April of my senior year, and then sent me two rejection letters on the day I graduated from high school, one addressed to “Dan,” and one addressed to “Daniel.” I have no idea how that kind of clerical error happens, but it felt personal. I’d spent the year and change after my trip telling all of my smarter friends that I would be going to Boston College. It sounded almost on par with their Columbias and Yales, but also like I had chosen something different. Like I knew something they didn’t. When it became clear that I wasn’t go to BC, or even BU (I got in, but we couldn’t really afford it), a certain sense of what my life could be like kind of disappeared. I didn’t really mourn it, which actually surprises me. I was all about college radio and coffee shops, both of which, at the time anyway, promoted a culture of self-indulgent introspection. Instead, I think I simply shut a door between myself and this life I had been desperate to lead. For the next decade I moved up and down the coast of California, from LA to Santa Cruz, from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara, from Santa Barbara to back LA, from LA back to Santa Barbara, and finally back to LA. I can’t imagine myself as anything other than a coastal Californian, and I am happy I went to college and grad school at the three places I did. I know most of the people who mean anything to me because Boston College rejected both Dan and Daniel, and I live in a city with a culture and history that strikes me as every bit as important and authentic as Boston’s did when I was sixteen.
But that door I closed thirteen years ago (!) opened a little on Monday when I heard about the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon. Even though I have never been in Boston for Patriots’ Day, I have always been aware of it because it means the Red Sox play a really early game, at least out here on the West Coast. The whole idea of a day that only means something to one city excites me. I wish LA had something similar. The fact that evil people decided to prey on a city’s desire to celebrate is not surprising. The kinds of people who would blow up a crowd of strangers can’t possibly understand love and community in the simple way Bostonians embrace a day of baseball, running, and drinking to their shared history. No doubt whoever did this has some allegedly complex grievance they think must be taken seriously. But it shouldn’t be. This was cowardice. Cowards don’t get taken seriously, and cowards ultimately can’t ruin the world for the rest of us. They may try, but they can’t if we don’t let them.
There were a lot people down at the Marathon on Monday who weren’t originally from Boston. Many, I would imagine, were even from San Jose or the dozens of other history-less suburban hubs like it around the country. People who got to go through the door at some point in their lives, and who have experienced the culture that seemed to me so essentially American when I was in high school. To them, the native Bostonians, the runners from around the world who just wanted to race, and to everyone else who was touched by these acts of cruelty perpetrated in the name of nothing of any value, I wish eventual peace. And for the people that committed these crimes, may they never know peace as long as they live.