I'm sure you have noticed the sudden, recent absence of updates on the Next Level and PhysiQademy websites. Apologies to those who have missed us and thanks to those who have stuck with us. And I'm happy to now post that we're not going anywhere and that there is a powerful reason behind why the absence occurred. This sudden, unexplained hiatus was two tragedies, both of which befell me quite directly.
On April 11, 2013, my father, Philip John Matyi passed away after declining from stage IV pancreatic cancer for over two years. The loss, while anticipated, was profound for me. And the process of mourning, which I feel will continue for at least a year and probably longer, has been beautifully embellished with a symbolism of comfort and hope. The meanings behind this symbolism, I am grateful to report, will echo positively into the lives of those I coach and the athletes who work together in our program.
The largest piece of the puzzle for me was my father's last words. Spoken just a day before he passed, they were cryptic yet compelling. He delivered the statement matter-of-factly, with a shrugged nod, as if letting me in on a grand secret:
"The mountains are on the snow."
Now, towards the end of his life, between the medications for his extreme pain and the cancer entering his blood and brain, my father's words became sometimes unreliable. He was one moment literally hallucinating and speaking things that made no sense, the next minute completely lucid and present, followed by yet a third state where he would struggle to remember words because, even though lucid, his mind and memory was fogged. Between these three states and their unpredictable alternations it was hard to tell when he was trying to say something of purport, or when he was just momentarily befuddled.
So it's quite reasonable to think his final statement to me could have just been one of those muddled moments. Yet it could also have been something far deeper and grander; a riddle that I have not figured out. And I will never fully know what his state of mind was in that moment. For many, an inability to know the certainty behind something like this may be frustrating, but to Philip Matyi's son a puzzle like this is actually more gift than mystery.
am a thinker. A ruminator. A contemplator. Everyone who has worked with me knows that. I delight in the multiple meanings of things, and thrill at the re-working of ideas. So the fact that the statement is so cryptic – and the reality being that I may not know if it was prattle or purport – is exactly the type of thing my mind thrives on. These last words, whether intended or accidental, have been among the greatest gifts my dad could have given me. Contemplating their possibilities keeps me insightful while conjecture to their meaning will keep me sharp.
As a coach, sharp insight and wits are key, so a statement with which I can continually hone those tools is a huge gift for me. These qualities are among many gifts my father gave me that that will live on in the legacy of the athletes around me. I am grateful. I am deeply saddened by my father's loss, and cry often, yet underneath it all is that bedrock of spiritual gratitude.
But it was this state of gratitude that next brought me, ironically, to another tragedy. Right up close to it, to be exact. It starts with a touch of back story, when the two stories really first intertwined.
A few years ago, when my father was diagnosed with cancer, I knew I would need a little financial boost for when the "dark day" arrived. here were many ideas for part-time work I thought of (generic personal training was one of them, but I have no patience for the work). And the answer to the financial need came from something I had been doing since I was two years old: riding a bicycle.
The bicycle, for me, is one of he not remarkable things in the world. I use this incredible machine for everything from errands to entertainment; as a form of exercise to a form of expression. And for years, in boston, I would see another pedal-powered vehicle rambling around: the pedicab. Giant, lumbering passenger tricycles, always with drivers who smiled and passengers who seemed utterly thrilled. It was not long before learned that the pedicab shop for Boston Pedicab was literally two blocks from my front door. So, to get that extra income to survive my father's inevitable passing, I decided to take up a part-time job pedicabbing during the heaviest of my father's illness.
Not many people knew that the original reason I was giving tours and joy rides on a ridiculously massive trike was because of my dad. The only thing people knew – and the only thing that eventually mattered to me – was that this hilarious part-time job was at once addicting and ood-enhancing. TO my surprise it began benefitting me in ways far more valuable than financial; ways I could have never imagined when I first saw these huge pedal-powered behemoths. In short: I fell in love with it. Thought his work I've met some of the most wonderful people in my life, and have enjoyed had more late nights of side-splitting, genuine laughter than I can recall ever having in such a short span of time. For a physically active, creative person who loves to laugh – like me – this job was perfect, even if only part-time.
Now, on April 11, 2012, when my dad passed away, I felt it apropos to o do a shift in his honor. I mean, he was the reason I got the job in the first place. It just felt symbolically right; a full-circle; an alpha and omega of sorts. As sad and dazed as I was from his death, somehow it seemed right.
The day I chose was the day before my father's wake: Marathon Monday – the day of the 2013 Boston Marathon. However, still prone to fits of tears and pensive moments, I took the day calm and slow. I was not hustling for big money, just rolling along and enjoying this quirky, funny job that was one of the gifts of my father's tragedy.
Being the day before the services for my father, I also had a second task I was doing on the pedicab that day. Being a graphic designer, I had decided to help arrange the printing of the Mass Book for my father's funeral. The print shop we were using was at the corner of Gloucester Street and Boylston Street, less than 800 yards from the finish line. It seemed, then, to make perfect sense to include this errand in my "gratitude shift" and head to exactly that location during the day.
Now, for those unfamiliar, the Boston Marathon literally divides the city in half. The wall is so absolute that Boston has taken to making the day an official holiday to alleviate some of the chaos caused by a major city cut in half. And the half where I had to get to – the Gloucester and Boylston intersection – is also the half that us "slabs" (the pedicabber-slang nickname which we use to refer to ourselves) warn against. That side is not a great one for finding rides, and it is easy to get stuck in a trap of heavily enforced one-way streets. One only goes over there for a good reason. I had one: my father's funeral. My pedicab buddy Dylan Tremblay also had a good reason: a fat tip.
And there Dylan and I found each other, at about 2:20pm at the corner of Gloucester and Boylston, poking fun and laughing at each other for being so foolish to have gotten our asses stuck in the same place we warn so many "noob" pedicabbers to avoid. And whenever pedicabs pull up, people always turn and stare. But there were a couple of guys who downright glared at us; a solid, scrutinizing look that transcended the normal look of curiosity a pedicabber gets. Yet we wrote that brief moment off and got ourselves ready to hunt for a ride in this impossible-to-get-a-ride zone.
And then we heard a sound I have never in my live heard. Loud and sudden and deep. And there was a lull, and we thought it was some silly celebrational stunt. Until I went to the corner to look up Boylston.
Then I heard the sound again, but also saw a blast hat created a cloud so thick you could not see down Boylston past the Lenox at the block of Exeter Street. A wall of white smoke. An explosion.
And then silence. 5,000, maybe 6,000 people all suddenly dead silent. It could not have lasted but a second or two, but a silence so absolute n the midst of such a massive crowd that it felt like minutes dragged on in the apprehensive moment. Then a woman beside me collapsed and wailed in tears. Two more clung to the guard barriers sobbing, bags and cameras spilling from their hands. More and more dropped in instantaneous anguish, and then the cries of thousands of terrified people rose up in unison; the horrible, shocking sound of wailing and panic and pleas, in a uniform din that blocked out any sensible sound.
rom the white wall of smoke up the block suddenly emerged dozens of runners. They had just run 26 miles, but were now impossible sprinting back, in spite of their exhaustion. The Boston marathon literally reversed back on itself.
Most of the runners were screaming to "Go back! Go back! There's been a bomb! Go back!"
Yet some of he runners did not run a way. Instead, they desperately ran to the barriers, clinging to the metal rails, which were just too high to jump over for someone who was not exhausted. They were panicked and calling out, screaming and hoping they could be heard by the loved ones they had just run past, and now had disappeared into he crowd. Were they blown up? Were they alive? I can only imagine what those poor runners must have thought, one minute waving to their families, and the next minute unable to find them after the chaos of a bomb.
Up[ and down the rails the runners cried out. "I'm okay! I'm okay! Where are you?!"
"Where are you!?! I'm okay!"
"I'm okay! Just go – get out of here! Run!"
And with that, the sidewalk at Gloucester Street in front of Whiskey's literally vomited people.
Burly, drunken men clinging to the hands of petite women barreled through couples from Europe and children there to cheer on moms and dads. Jamming, jamming into one another, because due to the barriers there was only one way out: that 7 foot wide opening at the corner of Gloucester and Boylston. From somewhere deep int he screeching mass of human panic came a tidal wave of shoving and pushing. People were flung out of that tiny gasp on the barricade and into the open street, knocking each other down and nearly trampling one another in fear.
Not knowing where else to go, the freed crowds began running North up Gloucester Street, past Newbury Street and across the "alphabet blocks" of Back Bay towards the Charles River. Running just because no one knew where else to go.
The phones were dead.
The screaming continued.
It was panic.
"DYLAN!" I shouted jumping onto my trike. "DYLAN, GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE"
Dylan hopped onto his own trike. I shouted again to him:
"DYLAN, GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! TRY TO FIND THE OTHER GUYS, BUT JUST GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!"
"If I find them," he shouted back to me. "Then what?"
"Then get back to the shop!" BUT JUST GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!!!"
That was where Dylan and I parted ways for a bit.
I thought I was sending him to the shop and safety.
Now that I know what he was going to see, I wish instead I had told him to follow along with me, and ride towards Kenmore Square. Unfortunately, instead, Dylan's path accidentally put him closest to the worst carnage. Dylan was there before the ambulances and medics and saw the blood.
So much blood.
A few other pedicures saw the carnage as well. Bt avoiding horrible sights was not the first thing on my mind. My first concern is whether we lost any of our own. I was close enough to the explosion to see it in detail. Could another pedicure have been closer?
So as I sped towards Kenmore Square, my first job – the first job of all 30 slabs out that day – was to find each other. As incredible as it may seem to you who have never done our job, without a phone and only through a coded and quick system of shouts to one another, we found all 24 moving objects of Boston Pedicab and all 6 from Boston Rickshaw in quite literally 10 minutes. That kind of echo-location is a daily skill for us. A pedicabber's remarkable ability to relay information precisely across distances – even in the midst of chaos – is a skill we possess so refined that, within moments of the blast, every cab was accounted for. Because of our refined (if primitive) version of the phone tag game – a skill we have mastered over the years – we were kept safe.
Now counted, the slabs immediately began doing what slabs to best: work crowds. That was why I had been dashing off to Kenmore Square. You seem the pedicabbers all realized something before anyone else was able to strategize – a realization which was came to me when I split up with Dylan. While everyone in Copley was panicked, we all realized one very chilling fact that could make this tragedy a whole lot wose:
The Red Sox game that day was just letting out; thousands of people. And those crowds were all currently headed directly towards Copley Square – directly opposite the flow of the crowds in panic! The naive hoards were literally on a slow moving collision course with panicked masses – and all being directed towards each other by those goddamned barriers!
We were safe. So it was now obvious that we had to use our "advance intelligence" to help direct these crowds away from harm, We were the fastest thing in a barricaded city, and the most informed. We were about to become hundreds' of people's irst point of contact with the tragedy.
It was essential that we herded these crowds.
And that is exactly what I did: I started herding – even bullying – crowds towards the River. I know the power of my giant wagon to move crowds, and to become a literal rolling pulpit from which to address throngs.
"Just go up Marlborough and Beacon Streets," I implored upon grandfathers with baby strollers and mothers with their broods.
"Just AVOID COPLEY!"
Most refused to believe at first. I looked and sounded ridiculous. Why would anyone believe someone whom to the unfamiliar would seem, even on my best day, like a street clown for hire? Was this a scam? A ploy for rides? Who is this freaked out man bullying us from a tricycle?!
But I was the first being for the thousands at Kenmore to spread word of the bombs. No one believed me, but seeing so many people, I had to try.
And I tried.
And no one believed me.
d me even argued me.
A few even shamed me! How dare I tell such horrible stories! What a terrible way to sell rides!
was panicking a little. I was Cassandra of Kenmore, and no one had any reason to believe me or heed my warnings.
But then the sirens.
And the sirens.
And ore sirens.
Soon a constant chorus of sirens.
Then the helicopters. In the dozens. Helicopters upon helicopters, all overhead, all drowning out the noise and shifting the sound of the crowds. No one was believing me, but the helicopters began proving my words. SO I did the only thing I could think to do: I screamed for attention.
Then I pointed.
Up, up, up at the horrible, growling sound raining down on us; to the roar of propellers in the dozens. The sound explained vividly what I could not convey fast enough in words: that something was very, very wrong in Copley. Whatever this panicked man in green is saying, we better listen . . .
Soon word from the slabs started trickling to me; trikes would roar by and we would shout more of our phone game lingo. We were the pony express while the phones were down, relaying reconnaissance at the speed of our pedaling.
The word was this:
Several pedicabs had found doctors who needed to get over the the Beth Isreal Hospital. The BI was the first point of triage for the wounded.
Unfortunately, for a car – or more accurately, for an ambulance – if you were on the "bad side" of the marathon – the side we were on – it would mean wasting almost an hour of time circumventing around the wall created by the race and the panicked, jammed crowds now clumping up the intersections. No automotive vehicle could not get through these crowds, much less cut across the race path and shorten the distance.
Meanwhile, police who could have dispersed crowds and opened barricades o make room for cars and ambulances were (rightfully) all diverted towards the disaster. There would be no police escorts. There was no way across this race path, except for maybe a few very narrow spots.
A few narrow spots only a pedicab could navigate. And likewise, spots which we slabs had already ferreted out far earlier that day. We knew we could get people through the "Marathon wall" faster, safer and more directly than anything on the street. Soon the shouts to me revealed that that was exactly what was happening, sometimes directly sometimes in slab-code:
"NICK HAS A DOCTOR! HE'S NEEDS SPACE ON HUNTINGTON!"
"MALCOLM HAS MEDICAL PEOPLE! HOLD TRAFFIC ON BAY STATE BECAUSE HE'S GONNA WRONG WAY IT!"
"ERIC'S AT THE BLAST AND NEEDS TO ALLEY OOP!"
One by one cabs zipped around, nudging crowds and relaying information. We were driving like we never drove before. On a normal day, pulling these maneuvers would have had any of us in cuffs. But this was not a day to look over our shoulders for cops. When you have two or three doctors who need to cut across the panic ad you are the fastest way to do it, you need someone who is trained to improvise routes and keep things moving safely. hat's us. Everyday, that;s what we do. This was just a far more urgent demand, but that is part of our skill set.
Typically, that skill set – coded and systematic hollering, improvising routes, staying calm in weird situations, crowd herding and panic control – seems utterly arbitrary; little more than random assembly of job skills for a rather silly job. But that day, these skills suddenly became precisely what was needed.
Gallantly and heroically the pedicabbers started volunteering their help to get people to safety, doctors to hospitals and the thousands of Boston-naive tourists pointed in a safe direction. In Kenmore, I even helped clear way for a couple to get through. By literally going against the marathon – counter-intuitive to most cars – we could find a break in the crowds and shuttle doctors tot he hospitals where they were needed in a matter of minutes. The routes were those only a true slab could invent. Improvisation is our skill, and we know how to safely break a law" in a pinch. And this was quite a pinch. Our ability to understand the complexities and nuances of Boston's streets and the fickle mentalities of nervous crowds saved precious time that day. I can only hope – and presume – it also helped diminish more tragedy for a few.
Within a couple hours after the bomb, we were ordered off the streets by the Boston Police. Of course we wanted to keep helping – after all, we held so many skills to make a difference. But the importance of helping the police was far more urgent, so in we came.
Back at the Pedicab Shop, after about a dozen head counts (we just had to be sure), our own tears and fear erupted; back home at the shop. We otherwise refer to that moment after a rough shift as "shop therapy," where we blow off our steam and frustrations. But this day it was far more grave. And our razor-accurate ability to get reconnaissance allowed us to piece together a version of the story the news was not ready to report, and which the police could only reveal in pieces:
The two bombs that were detonated were NOT the only bombs out there. We slabs, in our ability to gather intel and keep our stories straight amongst ourselves – a talent ultimately essential to success in our job – counted a tally far more than two.
Which is where this story reconnects to my dad. Of course, by this point you can imagine how much I "felt his protective presence" in the chaos. But there was one piece of information which was revealed in the following days which might make many of us begin to believe there is life after death.
Remember the corner of Gloucester and Boylston? Where Dylan and I were laughing and teasing each other for being foolish enough to get stuck on the wrong side? Well, when the authorities began the hunt for the villains behind the tragedy – the Tsarnaev brothers – a photo emerged. It was released to help identify the younger brother – one of the famous "white hat" photos. It was a capture from a monitor above Whiske's Pub at Gloucester and Boylston.
It was passed around the pedicabbers quickly. For up in the corner you see a blurry green box, right at a point from where Dzhokhar Tsarnav, the 19-year-old younger brother, had just walked away.
The pedicabbers were in shock. There it was: captured on film. My pedicab. Minutes before the blast, I was an arms length and eye-to-eye with the very cowards who committed the heinous atrocity. I was in shock.
But there was one more twist to the story.
It happened during the historic Manhunt. Many outside of Boston have perceived the consequences caused by this bombing incompletely; most just see it as a one-day horror. In reality, the terror lasted many days, and the consequences are still adding up. You see, Boston was held hostage. An entire city and the surrounding communities held hostage by two men. The hurt was far deeper than the tragic, pointless deaths and the horrifying injuries. The wound was gouged deeper by the ensuing days where a city was halted, livelihoods apprehended, money lost and normalcy apprehended.
The good people of this amazing metropolis, however, showed bravery, moxie and solidarity by cooperating profoundly and fully with the voluntary lockdown. Everyone stayed in, the streets were deserted, and the officials began doing their job.
I fled the city, and began the harrowing process of mourning my beloved father, Philip Matyi. And was so grateful that this man gave me so many of the tools that held me calm and rationale on a day that was so horrifying. When I returned to my home, the lockdown was still in effect. And I stayed still. Very, very still.
But at the very end of the voluntary Manhunt for the last Tsarnaev brother, I had an urge. As a mentor and coach, I always tell people to look carefully at their urges. Not every one ought be followed, but they will all reveal a truth. And for me the urge was to see the streets; to go back to the crime. It would be the first time I went to the place of so much tragedy and panic since the day occurred. And I wanted so badly to see these places before the throngs arrived, while the city was still mostly silent and things could be seen calmly.
So out I went. I said a prayer to my dad, and then hopped on my bike and was off.
The things I saw were remarkable, sad and brought me to tears. It seemed the others who survived that day and were as close as I had been were just as eager as I was to visit this now doleful spot. The stretch of blocks from Hereford Street along Boylston Street up until Berkeley Street were all blocked off strictly, and guarded diligently. Copley Square had turned into an entire camp of of investigators and bomb experts with tents, military vehicles and control outposts. It was surreal and fascinating. But not nearly as startling to me than a single conversation I was fortunate enough to have with an official working that day.
As the pedicabbers deduced, there were more than two bombs planted by the Tsarnaev brothers. They were not reported on at first to protect the process of the investigation. But there were intended to be far more than two explosions, which was why Copley had transformed so completely into an explosions investigation camp. There were still undetonated devices in this city, and they had to be sure there were no more.
And one of the devices, the officer told me, was "Right over there." And he pointed; pointed directly up to the corner of Gloucester and Boylston streets. he was pointing directly to where my pedicab was parked, and where it was captured on the surveillance image so close to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Dylan and I were probably not imagining things. We were being eyeballed by the Tsarnaev's that Monday. They had just dropped an IED, and here were these two goofballs who rolled up almost literally directly on top of their device. Of course they would watch us coldly. A look which we at first brushed off is now etched in my mind.
Then the chilling and terrifying reality of the information sank in to me: that, but for the fortunate incompetence of these two horrible men, I myself, along with Dylan, the print shop producing my father's funeral Mass Book, the wailing women, the runners clinging to the barriers and maybe a few hundred others would have all, also, been blown up that day.
I was this close to my own death.
I am certain my father was with me. I ask that no one share my conviction, and assume many will shrug it off as mumbo-jumbo. But the series of events, feelings and coincidences makes me believe Philip John Matyi protected his youngest boy that day. I am so grateful.
So, you can begin to see why, between the sadness of losing my father, the horror of living through a terrorist attack, the creepiness of being so close to the terrorist and the shock of knowing I was almost blown up led to the operations at the Next Level to be shut down temporarily. Everything got turned upside down and backwards. Everything was confused and jumbled.
The mountains were on the snow.
However, with this post, we will resume our work here. For more than anything else these tragedies have reaffirmed my spiritual commitment to gratitude. Gratitude practice is how these programs came to be in the first place. We are all lucky, and have much to be grateful for.
Just as I am grateful to you for reading this entry. I wanted to explain, recount and regale, both to inform but also to show how we are, here, all working at the "human scale." Cold business mindsets would try to push forward prematurely; demand that things continue in spite of tragedy in death. But this attitude offers no insight, no hope and worst of all, little gratitude.
We who work here believe that we, ourselves, are our own best resource. And in order to go on we must honor the pace of humanity, not perceive it as limited.
There is much to be grateful for. I have experienced loss and tragedy, but am somehow granted gain and hope. So, thanks Dad. Thanks for keeping me strong. Thanks for keeping Boston strong.
I guess the mountains really are on the snow. And that, for now, makes perfect sense to me.