I run a set of stairs each day that everyone in Boston calls the Government Center stairs. There are exactly fifty of them. The final few at the bottom come close to flowing, as if liquefied, into Congress Street, which one crosses to enter Faneuil Hall, where young men from Dorchester breakdance and crack jokes about white tourists late of Cleveland, who play along and drop some bills in the rusted container formerly known as a Maxwell House coffee can. A man beats tribal polyrhythms on buckets and paint trays, a hint of Elvin Jones—via trip hop—in his sound. There’s an Asian woman whose heels I've noticed are always bleeding, bowing rocked-up Beethoven on a transparent, disembodied violin whose strings suggest a ghost with a sad comb over that’s nonetheless integral to its ability to speak.
On one side of the stairs is the hulking, concrete building with hard-edged architrave that tour guides cite as a defining example of Brutalist architecture, a style harsh on the eyes, and which is the city's seat of government. In the opposing direction is a statue of Bill Russell, thirteen-time champion as a player and coach with the Boston Celtics and an indomitable spokesperson for the rights of Black people, an irony as it was at the tops of these stairs during the busing crisis of 1976 that a white teenager tried to impale an African American man with a flagpole bearing Old Glory, in what was supposed to be the season of celebration of the Republic’s Bicentennial. But there is Russell, about to distribute the rock, demonstrating the fundamentals of perfect chest pass form. People touch the ball he is holding, even hang from it, as though they might knock it free long enough for them to practice their “handle” for a few nostalgic bounces recalling long-gone driveway games. It’s common for me, upon hitting the highest stair, to hear a man from other parts inform his wife that this must be a statue of Larry Bird, whom you can't say looked like Bill Russell at all.
I run up these stairs fifty times, and I run back down, trying not to acknowledge my growing fatigue by placing hands on hips so as to better catch my breath. I notice what is on the ground. Discarded light-blue masks from the COVID pandemic stained with nasal drizzle. Fresh wads of gum only starting to dry and harden. Melted pieces of penny candy dropped by a child. Off-brand BAND-AIDs the taupe-white color of freshwater clam shells. Swirling wrappers from Mike's Pastry in the North End, all but imprinted with the impassioned words of recent familial debates whether Mike’s or Modern Pastry makes the better cannoli.
A man comes out at regular intervals in a city maintenance uniform, with a sweeper brush and one of those collecting-cartons on a stick. I'll pass him four or five times as he ostensibly gathers this detritus, but after he's gone, I notice everything that theoretically ought to have been swept and subsumed is exactly where it was before. I know because I will use these slim, discarded portions of humanity as part of my extemporized obstacle course, which changes by the day and the influence of the wind, weaving my way up the stairs, aiming to have the soles of my sneakers meet with the granite of the steps and nothing else, no matter how thin and otherwise unnoticeable. I can feel a gum wrapper between me and the earth, or me and these stairs, anyway, for I know about partitions, and if you know about partitions you understand it's never the thickness of the wall that matters, but where it has been put.
And one day, as I was running in the early autumn—and in the late winter of certain personal affairs—I came to notice the hornet.