I was on the T on Saturday and decided to look at the headlines in The Boston Globe. A bad accident on the corner of Beacon and Charles. Really bad accident. A young woman – 29 years old – on a motorbike, crushed under the wheels of a duck boat. The accident had occurred at 11:30 a.m., an hour or so after I’d left for a walk and lunch with a friend, so I wasn’t around to witness it. Otherwise I might have been. Beacon and Charles is right outside my front door, and I’m standing on the corner where the accident happened once or twice a day. Whether you’re on foot, on a bike, in a car, or in a duck boat, it’s a really bad place. Not as bad as some of the other Charles-Beacon turning “opportunities”. But overall Charles-Beacon is a complex set of intersections, not easily explained. You have to see it to believe it but, as with so many spots in Boston, it was not designed with safety in mind. There may, in fact, be no way short of banning all vehicular traffic, to make it safe.
When I got back home around 2 p.m., the intersection was closed off with yellow and black crime scene tape, the duck boat was sitting there abandoned, and cops were all over the place. I didn’t stop to gawk, but you couldn’t miss it. And it was all over the news.
Anyway, worrying about our terrible intersections was likely not on my young neighbor Allison Warmuth’s mind on a bright and gorgeous spring day when she went out with a friend for a spin on a Vespa. I didn’t know Allison, but I’ve no doubt passed her on the street, seen her in a store, or stood next to her on the corner waiting for the light to changed. I didn’t know Allison, but I may have seen her tootling around on her moped, as I’ve noticed a few young women doing so of late, and I’ve envied them their youth, their beauty, their charming Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday” insouciance.
I didn’t know Allison, so the grief at her loss isn’t mine. She could have been the daughter of a friend. But she wasn’t. The grieving belongs to her parents, her family, her friends, her colleagues, to those who knew and loved a woman who was, by all accounts, as bright and gorgeous as the day she lost her life. And the grieving also belongs to the duck boat driver and the passengers who were touring Boston on a bright and gorgeous spring day.
Taking a duck boat tour is one of the most fun tourist things to do here. I’ve taken folks on it a half-dozen times, mostly recently last summer when I took some family members – including 5 and 8 year old boys – on it. It’s tremendously enjoyable. The narration is hokey, but it’s fun to be riding high above the fray in an restored WWII amphibious landing craft. And the kids, if they want to – the 8 year old did, the 5 year old didn’t – can take a turn at “driving” the boat when it’s in the water. But if you think about it, as vehicles go, with our narrow, crowded streets, their not really fit for land. And with their bulk and canopy coverings, they’re probably not all that fit for the Charles River, either.
But they’re a big business around here, and when a Boston sports team wins The Big One, as they do with pretty heartening regularity, the teams load up on duck boats for a tour through our narrow, crowded streets while a million fans line those narrow, crowded streets screaming.
I’m sure there will be calls for the duck boats to be banned in Boston. This may not be necessary, but maybe it’s time to equip them with better safety features and signage warning other vehicles to stay out of their way as they lumber around.
But whether the boats stay or go the real story, of course, is that somebody’s daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend, colleague is gone in the blink of an eye.
Plenty of people I’ve loved have died, but none were gone in the blink of my eye. The only close friend or family member I can think of was a much younger cousin in Chicago who was killed in a car accident when she was in high school. I’d met her a couple of times, but by the time she came along, my family had outgrown the semi-annual Chicago pilgrimages. I knew my close-in-age cousins very well; the others, not so much. (My youngest aunt and uncle were young enough to be my mother’s kids.) While Janet’s death saddened me, I wasn’t bereft. I do know that my Aunt Kay, her mother, never recovered. How could you?
But me? I haven’t experienced much by way of sudden death.
Oh, one grandmother died suddenly. But, while it was unexpected, just how unexpected can death be when it occurs a few weeks before your 97th birthday? And my wonderful Aunt Margaret also died without giving us any notice. But Margaret was 85. It was most certainly a gut punch. But there’s unexpected and then there’s unexpected.
Most of “my” deaths have taken a while, which means you get to rehearse things in your mind, and work through at least part (admittedly a small part) of your grief in anticipation. Coping with a blink-of-an-eye death is unfathomable to me (especially when multiplied by the unimaginable of losing a child). If it’s someone who’s 97 or 85, you tell yourself that’s the way you want to go. (Absolutely!) But if the person dying is only 29 years old… Sometimes life and death are just plain lousy.
We’ll have plenty of nice bright spring days around here. I’m sure the duck boats will be back in full tourist-packed swing. I’m sure I’ll end up on one again at some point.
But it’ll be a while before I see on quacking by, or stand on that particular corner of Beacon and Charles, without thinking of Allison Warmuth.
RIP to a young neighbor I didn’t know, gone in the blink of an eye on a bright and gorgeous spring day.