Journal of Writing & Environment

“A marvelous and sad invention. So roundabout, ingenious, human.
It was like a philosophical argument rendered in terms of the things in the world
—water, metal, brown beans. I had never looked at coffee before.”
–Don DeLillo, White Noise


I wonder if they took it black. Maybe Tamerlan would have asked for a bit of cream. At 19, Dzhokhar might have even been too young to be a coffee drinker. I doubt either would have justified a $4 latte, but I still wonder if they had their morning cup of joe on Marathon Monday, if a potent mix of caffeine and adrenaline coursed through their veins as they dropped the duffle bags at thousands of sneakered feet. Perhaps an extra shot of espresso would have made for a faster getaway during the manhunt three days later.

In April 2013, both Tsarnaev brothers lived at 410 Norfolk Street, in the same triple-decker house in which the Chechen immigrants spent most of their adolescence. Their crooked third floor apartment was cast in the same mold as my first place in the neighborhood that straddles the line between Cambridge and Somerville. Equidistant from the Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology campuses, Inman Square had everything you needed in one cozy stretch of connected storefronts: a post office, a fire station, a communal hot tub, and specialized stores for toys, used books, and terrariums. No franchises or corporate logos in sight, only commissioned murals and welcome graffiti.  I called it home for four coming-of-age years, often not leaving the half-mile radius for weeks at a time. I loudly boasted that I lived in the best, just-gentrified-enough neighborhood outside of Boston. I thought I’d never leave.

For decades, Inman Square was an affordable haven for immigrants, graduate students and Peter-Pan-types. But deeper into the 2000s, the rent increased exponentially with the number of craft cocktail bars on the main drag. Once the Whole Foods broke ground, it was official; the bourgeois had discovered us. By spring of 2013, Tamerlan, along with his American wife and their child, had numbered days in the house at 410 Norfolk. After a non-negotiable rent increase, the landlord had given the Tsarnaevs until June to move out, though they would be gone two months earlier.


I worked at 1369 Coffee House, on 1369 Cambridge Street, the true hub of Inman. Armed with thick-rimmed glasses and various higher degrees in the humanities, the baristas were a sitcom-ready cast of twenty- and thirty-somethings. I was one of the rare regular customers who successfully schmoozed my way to the other side of the counter; when prompted to “stand out,” I cut a paper snowflake out of the last page of my job application. I wanted them to think me adorable, to accept me into the family. We thought of ourselves as the it-girls and boys of Inman, not the kids who sat at the cool table in the high school cafeteria, but the ones who snuck cigarettes behind the bleachers in between classes. The ones who were rumored about from afar. But aside from the standard espresso bean snobbery, even at 6 am a smile would emerge from under the curtain of our side-swept hair. Instead of upselling squirts of vanilla syrup, we were told to pitch community, that local flavor you can only taste when the person who asks “How can I help you?” actually means it.

The staff at the coffee shop held a competition every September to see who could learn the most names of our regulars; the adjunct professors, construction workers, and attention-starving artists who popped up in line more than twice a week or more than twice a day. We each claimed our “crush-tomers.” We would argue, make bets even, about whether that red-headed girl was Angela or Alicia, or whether the man who sold burritos across the street was Carlos or Roberto (turns out we weren’t being racist, he really went by both).

But there was never a Dzhokhar, or a Tamerlan. We would have remembered writing those names on the side of a paper cup. The Islamic Society of Boston, at which the Tsarnaev family sporadically attended services, is just around the corner on Prospect Street. I passed it every day while walking to the train. The building, plastered with blue and silver tiles and swooping Arabic lettering, stands across the street from the Lost Sock Laundromat.

Every Friday, nearly 1,000 people congregate at the mosque for prayers, and yet, even from a few steps away, their culture never blended into ours. Of course, statistically we served plenty of Muslims, there was no conscious bias. But there was no verbal engagement, no flyers for events, and rarely did a customer walk through the door wearing a hijab or prayer cap.

Often called the “Wine of Islam,” coffee was first cultivated in Sufi monasteries throughout  Yemen and Ethiopia around the 13th century, eventually spreading to the rest of the Middle East and Europe. Some mystics began to incorporate coffee-drinking into their daily recitations, as aid to remain alert and energetic as they repeated the same prayers over and over again for hours at a time. According to Persian legend, the angel Gabriel once served coffee to the prophet Mohammad to curb sleepiness.

When coffeehouses began to open in Italy in the 16th century, advisors to Pope Clement VIII unsuccessfully campaigned to ban the beverage, branding it the “drink of infidels.”


In an interview with NPR nine days after the bombing, Suhaib Webb, the imam of the Islamic Society of Boston’s location in Roxbury, described how the members of his mosque reacted in the days before the suspects were revealed:

“I started talking to people in my congregation, and this was the common theme: Pray that it wasn’t us. Pray that it wasn’t anyone who would claim to be part of our community.”

I worked the closing shift on the day of the Marathon, couldn’t have been in Copley Square if I wanted. The pressure cookers detonated at 2:49 pm and speculative tweets fluttered by 2:50. In the hour before my shift started, lost voices from every crack of my memory called and texted and confirmed. I’m okay. I must have said it 300 times. I was safe across the Charles River, in a neighborhood impossible to resent. Sure, it was tragic, terrifying. But it might as well have happened in New York or Washington. Inman wasn’t Boston, or even Cambridge. Inman was Neptune. Yet, that night at 1369, customers were somber. It was “Have you heard?” instead of “How’s it going?” I didn’t charge extra for soy milk.

In the three days between the Marathon and Dzhokhar’s capture, I defended my Masters Thesis, saw the boy I had a crush on play guitar in a show with his band, and poured lopsided white hearts into dozens of low fat lattes. Not once, behind the register or waiting for the bus, did I stop at one of my neighbors thinking It could have been you.  I thought the bomber mostly likely to be a white hermit on the far right, retaliating against the city on tax day. People like that didn’t live in Inman.


Tamerlan was radicalized on his computer screen, not on Prospect Street. Twice in 2013 he stormed out of services at the Islamic Society of Boston; first loudly voicing his objections to Muslims celebrating Western holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, and later his disgust toward an imam who reverently quoted Martin Luther King Jr. during prayer. His younger brother Dzhokhar had raised fewer red flags, a well-liked pothead who had been captain of his high school wrestling team. He was 19 years old the day he dropped that duffel bag in front of the Boston Public Library.

Both brothers attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin, the public high school on Cambridge Street that hosts students of more than 50 distinct nationalities. You can’t walk from 410 Norfolk Street to the Cambridge Rindge and Latin campus without passing by 1369 Coffee House. We all wondered, how could two boys raised in Cambridge, one of the most ethnically and economically diverse cities in the world, feel like outcasts? How could they resent the safe haven where they sought refuge from their life in Chechnya, a life supposedly marred by oppression and poverty? How could they hate the country that for years granted their family food stamps, subsidized housing and college scholarships?

“Cambridge got some real, genuinely good people, but at the same time this city can be fake as fuck,” Dzhokhar tweeted on January 15, 2013.

In the same NPR interview, Imam Suhaib Webb responded to the countless pundits who’d asked how the Marathon bombings could have been plotted in a liberal place like Cambridge—why didn’t Americanization stick?

“Last week alone we had twelve instances of people getting shot in the city of Boston,” he said. “What aspect of Americanization are we talking about?”

After a high-speed chase through Harvard Square, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was gunned down by Watertown police after a ten-minute shoot-out, shortly after midnight on Friday, April 19. Dzhokhar sprinted away into the suburban labyrinth. The City of Boston, and all the towns it touches, pushed the pause button.


“We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.”

Dzhokhar lay bleeding in a red and white boat named Slip Away II, writing his confession on the wall. Perhaps he’d found the ballpoint pen in the spiral of the captain’s notebook, but I’d like to think he kept one bouncing in his pocket throughout the carjacking and the chase and the scurry from one backyard hideaway to the next. That if he fell to gunshots or shriveled from starvation, his motive would be known. He referred to his four victims and the 260 wounded as “collateral damage.”

His scribbles, partially obscured by bullet holes and blood stains, weren’t all so intellectual: “Fuck America.”

Dzhokhar had been a United States citizen for less than a year, becoming naturalized on September 11, 2012.


On April 19, 1369 Coffee House remained closed for the first non-Thanksgiving or Christmas day in its 20-year history. Official lockdown had emptied the streets of the entire Metropolitan area, but Inman was particularly frozen, except of course for the bomb squad that had stormed 410 Norfolk. The internet warned us we might hear a blast in the next two hours, that a dismantled bomb was loud but benign. I sat in my attic bedroom with music off, and pressed my ear to the starboard window, requesting to be startled, waiting for the boom, the resounding chord that meant we were safe. No cars on the road, no dogs on a walk, I wasn’t used to hearing my own heart beat at 2 in the afternoon.  The bomb squad found seven improvised explosive devices in the house. All remained silent when defused.

We were already celebrating by the time Dzhokhar was captured, not for victory over evil, but freedom to leave the house. The lockdown ended at 5 pm, and by 6 the doors of the Lilypad, a small jazz club and art gallery, opened for an impromptu dance party. “DONATE/DANCE: Freakazoid Stir Crazy” was the name of the Facebook event. We called to passersby on Cambridge Street, inviting them to come inside and take back the neighborhood. We collected donations for the victims, served the morning’s pastries and iced coffee that 1369 didn’t get to sell, and hugged complete strangers. When the soul music started, our legs kicked and shuffled with the exquisite mobility we’d yearned for all day. Our eyes finally gazed at each other’s instead of at auto-refreshing webpages. We weren’t the sideline hipsters too cool for Red Sox games and duck boat tours anymore. We were part of something—one Inman, one Cambridge, one Boston.

Around 8 pm, I was dancing with the guitar player when I felt the vibrations on my thigh. “We got him!” my sister texted, and I shouted the news to the sweaty room. Some had already heard. There was a reluctant cheer and then a pregnant pause. The DJ placed the needle on Stevie Wonder’s cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” and soon our hips were shaking again. Try to see it my way, we sang.

Down the street, the mosque stayed dark. All Friday prayer services had been cancelled.


Fourth of July, three months after the bombings: the date the Tsarnaev brothers had originally planned to drop the pressure cookers, onto the banks of the Charles River where an entire city gathered to celebrate America in all her faults. The fireworks show and accompanying performance by the Boston Pops is nationally televised live every year, making for much higher ratings than the Marathon. The symphony would have provided a magnificent score.

That guitar player, Warren, was now my boyfriend. The night before he had whisked me away in his silver SUV for an impromptu camp-out in New Hampshire. With Dzhokhar in a jail cell across the state line, Warren and I spent two hours sauntering through the aisles of Walmart, filling our cart with ironic star-spangled tank tops, Bluetooth speakers and two-for-one beef jerky.  Nothing felt more American.

And now we were standing on the roof of the Ray and Maria Stata Center, the deconstructionist monolith on the MIT campus. Warren was pursuing a PhD in robotics at the university, though he spent more of his time studying how to break into forbidden corridors of various academic buildings. Using his knee as a boost, I hoisted myself up a system of wide pipes, pausing on each floor to read encouraging graffiti from hackers-past. Coated in specks of fiberglass and dust, we emerged to the roof and found a view of Atlantis. On top of eight stories, Boston’s iconic skyscrapers were eye level, forming not a skyline but musical notes on a ledger. The liquid crystal river hummed front of us, Inman Square waiting patiently behind.

We were too close to make eye contact with the fireworks, as if they were dripping sparks of direct sunlight. So the blasts remained rainbow static in our periphery as we posed for photos and nuzzled. Below us, the turnout was the largest in years, and chants of “Boston Strong” echoed every couple of minutes. Hundreds of spectators sat on the very spot on campus where Tamerlan shot MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, gazing at the heavens in search of his fractal blessing. I scanned the panoramic view of industry and tradition and first kisses, enamored with the boy next to me, and the city we had conquered. Boston was back. Which meant Inman could be special again, back to its own orbit.

It was no secret that security would be heightened in light of the report that the fireworks show had been the Tsarnaevs’ original target. (Though one wonders what idiot would then decide to pick that day for a copy-cat attack.) Still, we could see hundreds of police hats peppering our birds-eye view of the crowd. During the spectacle, I suddenly heard the spittle of a helicopter’s engine overhead.  I was particularly nervous considering we weren’t allowed to be on the roof anyway, risking a charge of trespassing, breaking and entering, or worse. But the helicopter just continued its laps, miles above the man-made explosions but light years under the stars.


I opened the coffeeshop the next morning, hungover, and love struck. Brian, a middle-aged, stocky Boston native, came in as he did every morning. I rung in his double shot without him even asking.

“How was your Fourth?” he asked me.

“It was…magical, probably my best yet,” I gushed. “My boyfriend and I watched the fireworks from the roof of the Stata center at MIT!”

Brian raised his eyebrows. “Oh, that was you?”

I paused in the middle of counting his change.

“I was on surveillance duty last night, flying around in my partner’s helicopter,” he continued. “I work as a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security.”

“You saw us?”

“Yeah, it had to have been you. There were much fewer people on the roofs than in the past years. We were looking for suspicious activity.”

Warren had wanted to set off his own stash of smuggled fireworks on the roof after the official show was over. I felt relieved that for once he listened to my nagging.

“Well, thanks for doing that,” I said. Would I have felt the same exhilarating rush on the roof top if I’d known the helicopter wasn’t flown by a stranger, that we had actually been seen? My neighbor was watching over us, serving me far more essentially than I ever served him. And he had deemed the top of our heads harmless. I tamped espresso grounds into the porta filter, thinking about how many conversations I had with Brian about the weather, a new pastry in the case, and whether or not he was going to make the next bus. We smiled, politely inquired, opening the channel for a connection, but not a friendship. Because he would always be a customer, and now I would always be another white wave captured on his night vision camera. We spoke nearly every day for two years, and knew nothing about each other. And neither of us really cared to. The smiles must have been enough.

I handed him his espresso, chiming “See you soon, Brian.” I learned later that his name is actually Rick. I’d gotten it wrong and he never bothered correcting me.


And soon after, Dzhokhar, now a teen idol, was pouting on the cover of Rolling Stone, in an issue banned from every magazine stand in Massachusetts. I’ve no doubt that if Tamerlan had been the one to survive, his thick eyebrows and large, crooked nose wouldn’t be gracing the front of any glossy magazines. He doesn’t look American enough. I’ve read through all the feature stories, the exclusive interviews with childhood friends and former teachers. I know that Tamerlan heard voices in his head, that Dzhokhar was failing out of college, that the rest of the family had a history of misdemeanors. But there are no answers in the pages of brash speculation and amateur psychoanalysis. The “why” is just as irrelevant as the “where.”

When the suspects’ home address was released, my immediate reaction was: “I had to have served Tamerlan coffee.” And later, when more biographical details emerged, it was “My friends must have bought weed from Dzhokhar.” I used the imperative not so much out of likelihood, though the vicinity felt uncanny. I grasped for any thin thread to connect myself to the tragedy, to tell a better story. I didn’t know any of the victims, but I knew the villains. Or rather, I could have.

But if I had taken Tamerlan’s order, if Dzhokhar had smoked a joint behind the dumpsters, what difference would it have made? A memorized drink order won’t thwart a terrorist attack. One more person knowing your name doesn’t grant acceptance into a community.

In the service industry, your job is to fake a smile and humor whoever’s in front of you.  Because the next person in line could be one who takes your life, or the one who saves it.


For reasons unrelated to the bombings, I started to drift from Inman in the fall of 2013. But I’m the one who changed. I had crossed back over to the other side of the coffee counter for a white-collar teaching job, effectively popping my bubble. There certainly wasn’t any animosity—my interactions with the staff stayed warm, and my baby picture remained taped to the side of the cash register with the rest. But I had graduated; I went to bed early during the week, and I always had to take my spiced chai to-go, on the way to the city. Warren broke my heart less than a month after my last shift at the coffeeshop, citing incompatible lifestyles. The fireworks were over.

Whatever stopped the Tsarnaevs from coming into 1369 Coffee House—class, religion, pure disinterest— is something that has and always will exist in Inman Square. I’d realized that despite the best-intentioned outreach, no coffeeshop can make everyone feel welcome. Some customers we invited to house parties, and some we just gave coffee. A community can only be intimate if it is exclusive. If no one is marginalized, then no one can shine. There must always be outcasts.


I hate the taste of coffee. There, I said it. This dark secret roasted inside of me for the two years I worked as a barista. I wrinkled my nose through cuppings and grind adjustments. “Earthy,” I would say, drawing from a bullshit tasting palette. “Perhaps slightly under extracted.” I worked at a coffeeshop for rent money and people to sit with at the bar. Caffeine makes me anxious.

But here I am at a Barista Lavazza coffeeshop, which hosts one of the only proper espresso machines in all of Delhi. I signed a contract for a teaching job in India within days of the one-year anniversary of the Marathon bombings. I decided to leave what was left of my cushion to see how the world functions outside of Inman Square, to see what it’s like to be the outcast.

New Delhi is in many ways the antithesis of Inman Square—that is, incredibly spread out. Sidewalks are still a novelty, usually obscured by litter and cow dung. As a white woman, I have to take a cab or rickshaw to safely go from the post office to the book store to the fruit stand to the temple. For the first time in my life, I’m a minority. And I am predictably lonely.

When the first coffeehouses opened in Istanbul in the early 16th century, many Muslims lightheartedly referred to them as mekteb-i ‘irfan, or “schools of knowledge.” The beverage itself had become secondary; patrons came seeking conversation, spiritual guidance, and international news. Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote their first novels sitting in Parisian cafes, and Bob Dylan first assured us “the answer is blowin’ in the wind” performing in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. Coffee is an aside.

Today, a globalized, “developed” country is one with a Starbucks. Coffee’s cultivation follows a familiar progression of white appropriation—the beans grown in Africa were stolen by the Arabs, and then the Italians, the French and the Americans boycotting British tea. But after capitalizing on exoticism, each population modified the brew method or the glassware or the wall decorations to take ownership of the craft, to create something catered to the neighborhood, something local.

Despite limp corporate signage, the coffeeshop in Delhi offers healing familiarity, where even on the other side of the world, harsh brown beans are filtered into comfort and inspiration and human connection. When the man at the register smiles and asks how he can help me, I want to answer honestly.

But instead I order a cappuccino, hoping that the bitter taste will be sweetened by the vicarious flashes of recognition around me. When the barista spells my name wrong on the paper cup he hands me, I don’t correct him. He doesn’t have to know who I am. He just has to know that I’m there.