Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

View The Rude Awakening Journey in a larger map

Monday, May 25, 2009

Boston, MA

The cradle of the revolution. The birthplace of American culture. The beginning of the New World. The home of the Red Sox.

Speeches. Battles. Flags. Ideologies. Tea parties.

I could naught but reflect on the steps which walked the very streets upon which my humble feet now trod. Well, the flagstones beneath the streets upon which my humble feet now trod. Well… the cobblestones beneath the flagstones beneath the streets upon which my humble feet now trod. Well… somewhere rather close by, to be certain.

Which of these narrow streets along which we drove, as we entered the city and drove to our Craigslist apartment, saw the carriages of John Adams, of Benjamin Franklin? Which of the cramped alleyways were ambled by Thomas Paine or Samuel Adams? Which of these incredibly narrow and god-forsakenly awkward little frickin’ passageways – oh, for God’s sake, where were we going to park the car to unload?!

Let it be said here and by me – our forefathers designed a brilliant Constitution. Their urban planning left a little something to be desired.

Where else, truly – in what other city, for example, can you turn left on Tremont street, a ninety-degree rotation, and end up on PRECISELY THE SAME STREET? This being one perfect example of a flood of such navigational nightmares that, in their entirety would be perfectly dismal to recount, I will simply say this – if you’re driving in Boston, get a GPS or a local Bostonian, and put them in the passenger’s seat beside you. Otherwise, I cannot be held responsible if you end up in New Hampshire.

Once you do find your destination, make a clear mental note of it, because you may never return there again. There are enough one-way streets to require fifteen minutes to simply go ‘around the block.’ And it you are nearing your destination, and you plan on actually parking, might I suggest you park at a garage a few blocks before you arrive? Because I can assure you, there will be no parking on the street. Wherever it is. There will be no parking. I believe it may be in their bylaws.

Unloading our gear was a bit trying – take out a couple suitcases – have the traffic behind you honk because there’s no way around you – drive around the block – repeat the cycle 3 or 4 times, and then find a place to park the car temporarily until you can grab a bite & take the car out to park at your friend’s place in Jamaica Plain for the duration of your stay.

You see, in some cities it was an advantage to have a car. Boston was not one of them. In Boston, having a car is a liability. And it can be a costly one. Fortune, however, provided parking in the form of Angie’s friend Doug Lockwood...

... who lives with his now-husband (more on that later) Antonio in a condo in Jamaica Plain, just outside of the downtown area. In Jamaica Plain, there’s street parking that you don’t need a resident permit for. So Doug offered to keep an eye on the car & move it from time to time, and that’s where it stayed for our Boston residency.

I say ‘now-husband’ because at the time they were living in sin. Engaged to be married, Doug had actually served as the officiant at Angie’s and my wedding, certified as he was – and legally so, I might add – by the Church of Spiritual Humanism Dot Org. (You see, the Universalist Unitarians, they’re just a sham. But the good ol’ COSH, that’s as kosher as matzoh, according to the State of New York. It’s the sanctity of marriage we’re talking about here.) Now, as Doug and Antonio prepared their own nuptials, Angie was to serve not as ‘pastor’ but as MC. Thus was the circle of life complete...

The place where we stayed - in Back Bay - was great. Greta & Hamid were our hosts. They owned the brownstone whose basement apartment we enjoyed. Greta teaches archaeology (anthropology?) at one of the 12,462 universities in Boston, and although he has a doctorate in robotics, Hamid now works in ‘finance’. Both are American, but Hamid is first generation Moroccan, and every year they have a Moroccan bash which – this year – was scheduled for the Saturday evening of our first week. In scheduling our stay, they had forgotten the date and told us about it only when we checked in, but it was really fine by us. We work Saturday nights anyway, and although they had invited us up to join them – an invitation of which we would gladly have taken advantage, had we not been out with friends ourselves – we got home only towards the end of the soiree, as the faux tent ceilings strung up inside the first floor and visible from the street were the screens for the shadowplay of guests making their departure, lit by warm candlelight and soft 40-watt bulbs. It sounded a bit like riding in an NYC taxi for a bit, with the tangy, Eastern melodies overhead, but it didn’t intrude on our rest at all. And the following day we were treated to an overflow of food from the party. Pastries and such with names that escape me but flavors like you’d find at an outdoor bazaar.

Boston had very enthusiastic audiences, and while they were on the slim side, they made up for it in cheers and shouts. I suppose May in Boston is Graduation Month, it being the education capital of the Eastern Seaboard, so perhaps that explained it. Whatever the reason, while our producers might have been a bit disappointed, the actors themselves were not. Always better to play to a 50% house of fans than an 80% house of dutiful husbands…

Boston was also the site of the first canine eye exam I’ve ever attended. As part of the Dog Swap, Tag – being the service-dog-in-training that his is, was scheduled to have an eye exam to ensure that, while not properly a seeing-eye dog, he nonetheless had properly seeing eyes. I am glad to report that Tag can clearly see every piece of dropped kibble, every roadkill carcass, every mudpuddle and tennis ball in his line of sight….as if we didn’t know that before…

Speaking of Tag, Boston was the home of the Boston Common. Which is, of course, home to much grass. Much grass. And flowers. And other dogs. And … FETCH. Tag is, of course, as excited by an impending game of fetch as anyone or any animal has ever been excited about anything – at all – in the world. Ever. He frickin’ LOVES fetch. Now, the Common has signs posted about ‘No Dogs Off Leash,’ but it didn’t seem to stop everyone and their uncle from letting their dog run off leash in this one field, away from the flowers, natch. And while we always kept an eye out for people with uniforms and badges and evil looks in their eye, we figured, “When in Rome…”

So – out came the Chuckit. Now, the Chuckit is an invention that harkens back to the days of Indians hunting buffalo. Or playing lacrosse. A long stick with a molded cup on the end that holds the ball perfectly and extends the throwing radius by a factor of two or three. It also handles the increasingly spit-laden ball for you, saving you the drool factor. So, every morning, Tag and I went to the Common, or maybe Blackstone Park, and I would HURL the ball a good hundred yards or more and Tag was off, dashing like a buck in the hunter’s gunsights. There are some lovely sights in the world. Sunset over the Grand Canyon, the Northern Lights in Fairbanks… But the sight of a young dog, in perfect health, tearing off down a field where every muscle, every sinew, is taut and purposed with the one intent of GETTING THAT DAMN BALL BACK FROM THE IDIOT WHO KEEPS THROWING IT AWAY ranks among them.

Dining in Boston was, predictably, an endeavor full of options. Among them of which we partook were the following:

Franklin Café – We went here a couple times. The first time was on a Thursday evening, after the show, and it was terrific. Great food, quiet atmostphere, the kind of neighborhood jewel you’d love to have with a very eclectic menu. The second time was a Saturday night, and it was packed, loud, and impossible to talk. So if you go, go during the week.

Trattoria il Pannatino – Fun little place in the North End. We had lunch with Henry Stram and Doug & Antonio. Who cares if there are gaudy, glass grapes hanging from the ceiling? And go in the afternoon, when they have the windows open. There are few pleasures to my mind than a glass of pinot noir with the afternoon breeze licking your shoulder.

The South End Buttery – Great café in the Back Bay, a few blocks from where we stayed. Really good pastries, outdoor seating, dog biscuits at the counter, and pleasant neighborhood regulars, especially on the weekend.

Locke-Ober – Actually, we only had drinks here, around the corner from the Colonial Theater, where we were playing. But if you’re looking for dark wood, old German artifacts on the wall, and a finely made dirty vodka martini, you’d be well-rewarded.

We walked the length of the Freedom Trail, over a couple days. Not that you couldn’t do it in a day, but we were there for four weeks, so why push it? You go to the Old North Church (“One if by land, two if by sea…”), you pass Paul Revere’s house, you go to the Old State House, where they first read aloud the Declaration of Independence to the Boston public (and where, centuries later, Queen Elizabeth stood to greet the Boston crowd in what surely must have been the single largest meal of ‘crow’ ever had in one sitting…) and a couple dozen other sites that do their darnedest to make real for you the events of the revolution – and if they can sell you a t-shirt or souvenir book along the way, so much the better.

The closest I felt to actually envisioning said events was standing at the Old Statehouse, looking out over the scene of the Boston Massacre. The plaques, posters, and displays do a pretty good job of painting a scenario where the issues at the time weren’t so clear cut: Was this a justifiable revolution? Was the people’s outrage simply misplaced rage and poverty? Were the British soldiers just defending themselves? Were they provoked? In the end, you have to … follow the money. Or follow the power. Who was in charge? Who had the most to lose? Or to gain? And what measures are defensible, or not, regardless of the provocation? Can provocation itself be ‘provoked’ – in other words, is repression its own kind of provocation? Whether you saw it as repression or justifiable enforcement, then, depended on where your fortunes lay, I suppose.

I recall the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. “When it becomes necessary, in the course of human events…” It was the Jeffersonian take on “By any means necessary.” The revolution was fueled by noblemen and guttersnipes alike. It made heroes and martyrs of both. The same is true of American and British. But from a strategic point of view, to my modern view, it seems like a mad gambit on the part of the British. Suppress a rebellion from across an ocean? Of course, British sympathies ran very strong here as well. There was reason for King George and his posse to convince themselves that they were liberators. If they had won, that would probably be the history we’d be taught. Somewhere in the Divine Handbook, there is a formula for Repression minus History, divided by Martyrdom, multiplied by the Spoils of Victory, equals Determination of the Righteous Party of Any Conflict. If we had access to such mathematics, perhaps we’d be able to avoid war altogether. “Look at the numbers: you don’t jut lose, you’re wrong.” And the Party in the Wrong, faced with his miscperception, would hang his head in shame, walking away, tail between his legs. Until such time, however….

Other Boston highlights include:

A visit to the Institute of Contemporary Art which has got to be one of the cooler museums I've seen in awhile. The building was beautiful, and they had great exhibits. One of my faves was the Shepard Fairey "Obey Giant" retrospective.

An amazing walk in the woods in Marlborough with Doug's sister Amy and her two dogs and two more that she was dog-sitting and Tag so ... five dogs altogether. And Tag had his first swimming experience!

A very tired Tag in Blackstone Park in Boston’s Back Bay.

A day spent taking pictures in the Boston Common with my new camera.

Tag indulging in the inverted power structure of taking hold of his leash and walking us home.

The opening festivities of Boston’s Little League season, immediately adjacent to Chinatown.

Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, the highest piece of land in the North End, where lie the remains of

- Capt. Daniel Malcom, Mercht. whose request that he be buried “in a Stone Grave 10 feet deep,” safe from British bullets proved prophetic, as his tombstone still bears the scars made by redcoat soldiers who singled out this patriot’s gravestone for their target practice.

- Prince Hall, a leader of Boston’s early free black community. A leather dresser and former slave, Hall went on not only to serve in the Continental Army but to sponsor Boston’s first school for black children and founded African Lodge No. 1, the first Masonic lodge in America and the first black Masonic lodge in the world.

- Mr. Hopestill Capen and his wife Mrs. Patience Capen, who had two of the loveliest antique names I've ever heard.

There was also Cotton Mather and his father Increase Mather. C'mon - someone nowadays, name your kid "Increase"! I dare you!

Upon leaving, you’ll pass a funny little oddity - a private residence which is no more than 10 1/2 feet wide – which the travel guide says is, “most assuredly the narrowest house in all of Boston.” Good guess.

And at the bottom of Copp’s Burying Ground is the site of the Great Molasses Flood. I will leave the details to those intrepid enough to follow and read this link, but in a nutshell – if you ever find yourself beside a 2,300,000 gallon tank of molasses, such as was apparently used to make munitions (who knew?) during World War I, walk quickly on. On January 15, 1919, 20 people and uncounted horses lost their lives in the stuff. It’s like they say – sugar can be deadly.

[All these and other juicy details of the sites along the Freedom Trail can be gleaned from Charles Bahnes' The Complete Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail, a terrific walking tour which I recommend purchasing at the information booth at the beginning, if you plan on making the walk – or if you just want to make the trip in your mind’s eye.]

There is also a moving Holocaust Memorial on which are etched the serial numbers of the millions who lost their lives in Hitler’s gas chambers. Thinking back on my earlier commentary about the divine historian’s formula of morality, there are some equations that need no further figuring.

The Freedom Trail ends at Bunker Hill Monument. The single, great irony of the Battle of Bunker Hill is that it actually didn’t occur on Bunker’s Hill. It was on Breed’s Hill, half as high and more of a threat to British forces. But lesser known by British and Americans alike, and misnamed by British mapmakers as Bunker Hill, Breed’s Hill is where one of the most victorious losses of the American cause occurred. Again, I’ll leave it to those intrepid link followers to get the full story, but our fathers’ fathers' fathers' fathers’ fathers gained the respect of their enemies in a fight that lasted far, far longer than the defending American forces has the right to enjoy and even the British had to hang their head in shame that it cost as much in British lives as it did to attain. The monument does a good job of setting the scene, and peering through the portals at the top of the structure, I couldn’t help but think the sight of Boston today, with all its condos and businesses, its Big Dig and its Hancock Tower, must not hold a candle to the image of the land these brave souls fought to preserve. Maybe if I lived there, it would be different, and I would be filled with the swelling pride of place.

But then that’s just it. I don’t live there, and fighting that hard to hold onto it is hard to imagine. Home. Family. Right or wrong, these things make all the difference.

No comments: