‘This Is Scary, He Could Be Anywhere. He Could Be Anywhere.’

Today was a strange day for Cambridge.

Standing on the corner of Cambridge and Elm Street this morning, I overheard two teenage boys talking.

“This is scary, he could be anywhere,” one of them said. “He could be anywhere,” the other agreed. Then, quite earnestly, one of the boys said he wanted to find his mother.

It’s not often that you’ll find teenage boys admitting vulnerability, let alone saying out loud that they need their mom. But these are strange days. It’s felt at times this week like we’re all stuck in a terrible, horrifying movie. In what actual universe could two kids in backwards hats carjack a Mercedes, huck bombs at cops, stage a wild shoot-out, and shut down the entire city of Boston?

Thanks to the stay indoors order, when I left my apartment in Cambridge’s Central Square this morning, a little after 9:30 am, the streets were eerily empty. Apparently “Zombie” was the movie genre of the moment. The two bombers, Dzhokhor and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, grew up on nearby Norfolk Street, and as I headed that way across Mass Ave, the area was deserted. This is what the normally bustling street looked like:

Photo by Jason Schwartz

Photo by Jason Schwartz

To find people, oddly, I had to walk toward the Tsarnaev home. Police had cleared the area within a block of their apartment, so I found a bunch of people hanging around the corner of Cambridge and Elm Streets.

Some simply wanted to catch a glimpse of what was going on, but many others—despite the general order to stay indoors—had been forced to evacuate their homes and head out onto the street. “I found out by text that there were FBI trucks outside my door,” an unshaven guy wearing a T-shirt, mesh shorts, and crocs told me. One man was holding a crying baby; across the street, people hung out of second story apartment windows, trying to figure out what was going on.

Carole Sousa, who lives nearby, said that first the FBI came by this morning, telling people to get inside their homes. “Then the Cambridge police came door to door, saying, we’re evacuating, we have to leave now,” she said. “It was really scary.”

photo by jason schwartz

photo by jason schwartz

photo by jason schwartz

photo by jason schwartz

The mood on the street was hardly dour, though. The morning was sunny and pleasant and people were chatting amiably. There was even occasional laughter. A bike shop on the corner ran an extension cord out its door for phone chargers, and a man walked around giving out cold water. An employee from Bom Cafe, across the street, distributed hot cheese bread. Later, one man brought a box of donuts to try to give to police, but when he offered them, the cop replied, “There is no way I am going to get caught on TV with a box of donuts. But thanks.”

But mostly, people were just waiting for something to happen so they could get back into their homes. “My neighbor says it’s like waiting for the Portugese Parade to go by,” Sousa said. “Just waiting, mulling around.”

A few feet away, another woman mused, “My daughter went to school with the youngest one.” Another man wondered, “How many times have we walked by the kid?” A neuro-scientist on a bike wheeled by and told me he couldn’t resist seeing a piece of history. “I don’t expect anything to happen,” he said, “I just wanted to be here.”

A little later, I started chatting with Cheryl Hall, a woman whose granddaughter went to both grade and high school in Cambridge with Dzhokhor Tsarnaev, the remaining suspect who authorities are currently hunting for. “To think that my granddaughter went—that’s hard. She was really shaken up this morning when she came running downstairs,” Hall said. “She was really shocked, she said, ‘I just can’t believe it.’ This is sick. This is really sick.”

All day, choppers hovered overhead and police and FBI agents shuttled by, heading toward the Tsarnaev apartment. At one point, a suspicious looking car parked illegally on the corner was checked for bombs and towed away (but not before, of course, a Cambridge cop stuck a ticket in the windshield). Reports also came that police would stage controlled explosions on Norfolk Street, but they were inaudible to the folks waiting on the corner.

By late afternoon, Cambridge Street was re-opened to traffic and residents were allowed back in their homes. Later still, Governor Deval Patrick lifted the order to stay indoors. But the whereabouts of Dzhokhor Tsarnaev remain unknown. The corner of Cambridge and Elm may now be empty again, but we’re all still just waiting.