Walk through: Notes from the line to see Ted Kennedy this morning
Someday we'd like to meet the guy who types the messages and flips the switch so that every digital bus and traffic display in Boston suddenly proclaims "Go Pats!" or "Go Sox!"-- or, as is the case today, "Thanks Ted." As we traveled south on I-93, the signage already knew what we were up to, blinking out directions to the JFK Library even before we hit the tunnel. It was around 6:30 am, and we'd decided to get there early: at 11:30 last night, the Kennedy family Twitter account was reporting a three-hour wait, and this morning's news had it that the Library had stayed open until after one in the morning to accomodate the crowds.
To reach the JFK Library from the only available parking lot, just up the road at the Bayside Expo Center, we walked down Mount Vernon Street, which took us past the Geiger-Gibson Community Health Center. Its nondescript offices, which back in the mid-1960s were fashioned out of four housing-project apartments, can't hold a candle to the cool, tall, erect building down the street. But Geiger-Gibson is more than a monument to Ted Kennedy's legacy -- it was, is, the inspiration for his life's work. Founded by a pair of Tufts professors, it became the nation's first federally-funded community health center. It was the inspiration for Ted Kennedy to call for a network of such centers to serve families and children who'd fallen through the cracks, to provide that care right in their own neighborhoods. Once legislation was passed, Geiger-Gibson became the prototype for hundreds of federally-funded health centers nationwide. (Just don't let the right-wingers Google it: the first result that comes up for "Geiger-Gibson Community Health Center" is, for some unfortunate reason, the Massachusetts Commission on End of Life Care. Which in Republican-speak might as well be www.deathpanels.com)
By the time we reached the campus of U-Mass Boston, there was a trickle of foot traffic behind us. We passed two elderly women, one making the walk with the aid of a cane. Most people were dressed for the office -- like us, they were stopping early before heading to work. We cut across another parking lot, up the gently-inclined entrance to the Library, following the hum and glow of broadast-TV lighting rigs. Even if you've seen it before, the Library is striking -- a shorter but no less vertically-inclined version of the skyscraper-tall buildings I recall seeing as a child visiting the Kennedy Space Center. Winding away from the entrance to the Library is a walking path along Dorchester Bay, with a small slope of grass leading down to the water. Along it, a few hundred people were in line, quiet but social. The sun was just risen and even on a day like this, when the sky is not pretty, the view across the bay is clean and broad.
In front of us, a black professor holding the Globe and a white man carrying a Herald carried on a polite but oppositional conversation about immigration reform. Further down the line groups of people in twos and threes stepped out onto the grass to pose for cell-phone photos with the Library in the background, or rested their backs by sitting on the squat cement cylinders that punctuate the footpath. We were about thirty yards from the entrance, next to the port-o-potties, and soon the people in line stretched far enough along the curve of the path that we could not see the end of them.
A woman producer from NBC, pretty but not plastic enough to be on camera, asked if anyone wanted to be interviewed about being in line. She picked a middle-aged black couple with a teenage daughter. The man demurred, but the woman spoke softly and elegantly and afterwards the people standing around her smiled and congratulated her on her eloquence. The daughter giggled and said, "I didn't know what to say." "We're here to be part of history," her mother said. We were happy she said it, because up until then our purpose in coming here had not been entirely clear to us -- we wanted to make our own small claims, without knowing what we were supposed to add. But a reminder that the simple act of bearing witness could be its own end made us stand a little taller.
Around 7:30 the line moved forward, not because they were letting people in but because a man from the Library asked us to fill up the full width of the path. Someone asked if they were opening the doors soon and the man from the Library said, "8 o'clock sharp," but ten minutes later they let us in, 13 minutes early by my watch.
Within a few minutes we were off the path and on the lip of the concrete plaza outside the entrance. To our right was a roped-off clutch of identical TV-news setups like a stand of trees, their square-jawed cameras glaring at us mutely, like bored pelicans. Randy Price, whose crew had pride of place, grinned and waved at someone he knew or pretended he knew. There were no metal detectors. The Library's security guards allowed people with cameras to take pictures right up until they walked into the viewing room. To get there, we walked down a hallway in which family photos of Ted (here a young child on his father's knee, there with his brothers) were propped on easels. The photographs were handsome but flimsily-mounted and the display had a reassuringly thrown-together feel, the way funerals should, even if you've known the guest of honor was dying for quite some time.
line moves quickly: seconds after you're through the doors and past the family photos, you're into a
scene that, like all Kennedy scenes, seems composed for a movie. We'd
forgotten how impossibly perfect the view is in that room. Today, Teddy's flag-draped casket is watched over by a statue-still honor guard, behind you a thin scrim shades the wall-length picture window which frames unbroken the city's skyline across the bay. To say goodbye to the casket, and address the four silent, frozen family members behind it, you have to turn from the view.
You can stop at the summit of the graceful, velvet-roped arc around the coffin, or not. Some made the sign of the cross. On television last night I saw a man salute. I looked at the coffin and then past it into the camera, and kept moving.
The line was moving quicker than we expected. You're in front of the coffin and if you aren't going to do anything you ought to move on and make way for someone who has something to do there. So we moved on, the exit just a few feet away. We looked back to the casket as we rounded the arc. The youngest soldier blinked.
Outside the line had grown but no one seemed in much of a rush. We were now behind an older woman whom we'd seen before we'd entered -- she'd been frantically shouting into her cellphone because her friend, who'd been waiting since 5:30 am, had gone to the bathroom just before the line started moving. The shouting seemed intended to make a scene, so that when the friend returned, no one would think she was cutting the line. Now they walked side by side, the phone-shouting one saying to the late one, with great emotion, ". . . because I remember them, when I was in fifth grade, you had the posters all over your wall!"
Outside the Library, shuttle buses move like clockwork. Here and there are City Year volunteers, in bright-red jackets, and boy scouts in full dress, waiting at the bus stops with spare wheelchairs for the elderly and infirm. It was 8:07 a.m. We'd just settled into a soft seat on a Peter Pan shuttle back to the parking lot when, out the window, we saw a golf cart zip into view and two men began unloading what looked like old-fashioned wooden tables. Then another golf cart pulled up with boxes full of bound volumes. It began to dawn on people that these were the condolance books, arriving late. A half-dozen ladies scrambled to get off the bus to sign the books. A woman behind us considered getting up and then sighed. "I think I'll sign it in my mind," she said, "and remember that I signed the real ones."