Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boston: A love letter

I'm not a drinker, but every Cambridge grad student hung out at Grendel's den. Photo by abbyladybug.
I lived in Boston for two years, from the ages of 21 to 23. I guess you could say I spent my Girls years in Boston, only instead of trying to sponge money from my fabulously wealthy parents and having unprotected sex with strangers, I went to graduate school and spent a lot of time in libraries and quirky bookstores, performed briefly with a bargain basement improv comedy troupe, and listened to classical music, show tunes, and Irish folk songs at Tower Records, which I passed through every day on my way home from classes. Some days I would sit in the drama library and watch BBC Shakespeare and fantasize about moving to England.  There is a reason they didn't make a television series about my life, I guess.

Boston was very good for me and it was exactly what I needed at the time.  I was unhappy, of course, because all graduate students are unhappy and all young twentysomethings are ungrateful about their opportunities. I missed out on a lot of things during those years, feeling sorry for myself, but Boston took care of me.  Whenever I felt blue, I could wander around the quaint brick buildings of Harvard or meander up to Kendall Square to gawk at the pristine, space station-like beauty of MIT.  I loved the student-friendly prices at many of the cafes. I loved going shopping at Filene's Basement. I loved the user-friendly T (underground/subway system).  I loved the fact that I could wear crappy boots and jeans and no one looked at me funny, like they did in Manhattan.  I looked like a morose graduate student, and for all of my angst, I did feel like I belonged somewhere.  I didn't like Good Will Hunting that much but I loved that line in the film, something to the effect: "Let's go to Harvard Yaad and beat up on some smaat kids."  Even though I wasn't so dumb that I thought my Harvard Divinity School degree made me smart.

There is something about being in Boston--I don't know if it is the cobblestone streets that are all one-way and are designed to confuse drivers rather than lead them to their destination or the many pristine, austere white churches--that makes me feel as if I am connected to history, in a way that I've never felt in another American city.

I know that people who live in New Jersey or New York are supposed to hate Boston: its stubborn lack of fashion (I admit I rather like the fact that I don't see women in flip-flops in the winter, trying to air their freshly manicured toenails on the streets, carrying bags that cost as much as I make in a year like I do in New York); its stubborn Irishness (I'm part Irish, so what do you want); and the Red Sox (I came late to baseball fandom, and without great sports rivalries, what's the point).  It doesn't have Broadway, but it does have lots of nice little theaters and the American Repertory Theater and I'm more of a classic drama kind of girl.

I am certainly not a New Englander, but like the many students at the nine bazillion schools in the area, it was my home.  It is, at least in part, a student's city, which made it feel welcoming to me, and why the recent attacks feel so bruising to read about.  Another great Boston joke:

Student comes to the 'Seven items or less' aisle of the grocery store with fifteen items.  Clerk says: "What?  Do you come from MIT and can't read, or Harvard and can't add?"

Let me tell you--if you haven't lived there, you have no idea how true this is...

I think the comparisons of the Boston Marathon bombings to 9/11 are rather pointless--if you're the person maimed, or your loved one is dead, than it doesn't really matter what the eventual death total was.  Unlike 9/11, instead of the cinematic glory of a plane, it seems like the humble instrument of a pressure cooker was used to construct the crude devices.  There is a ghoul in me that wonders: will this help or hurt sales of pressure cookers and what does Google say about people searching for pressure cooker recipes?

Instead of ordinary people going to work on an ordinary day, people were coming back on the very special Boston holiday of Patriot's Day, either flushed with a recent Red Sox win, or running in an elite marathon that requires all runners to have completed a marathon below a specific time.  There is a big difference between being a runner, even a marathoner, and being a Boston Qualifying (BQ) marathon runner. This should have been a glorious day for so many people.

I didn't eat particularly well in Boston. I reveled in the greasy pizza at Pinocchio's and although the bagels were kinda crappy, I mainly used the bread as a cream cheese delivery vehicle to eat Brugger's awesome spreads.  I lived on carbohydrates and coffee while studying.  I did run around the Charles back then, but my current body could easily 'lap' my older, out-of-shape self. I think I maybe ate one or two nectarines as fruit and veggies go, unless you could the strawberry jelly in doughnuts.

I'm glad I'm no longer a graduate student, living that life, but sometimes I miss Boston, and I miss it particularly, acutely now, all the more so because I know that something has likely changed irrevocably, and I am no longer there even to mourn it.


  1. I've never been to Boston but have always wanted to visit. If you asked me why, I wouldn't have a specific reason; it just seems like a city everyone should see at least once. Your post reminds me of a postcard I received once from a friend who had to travel for work at least once a month and who would send me a card from every place he went. For some reason, the one from Boston has always stuck with me: "I'm here in the east, where buildings are historical and close together and people know how to make good pizza." And he was originally from Brooklyn, so that's saying something.

  2. @flurrious--I think you would really enjoy it, particularly since you like history. It's a great, low-key place to travel, without the massive crowds which plague New York. New England pizza styles are very unique--of course, there is the ultra-thin crust New Haven style, but also the deep dish 'Greek' style which is popular in the region. Around Harvard Square though, it is mainly greasy pizza student joints that get the majority of their sales after 10pm.

  3. Love the post. I was a student in Boston and would go back in a heart beat...and this is such a great description of my feelings as well.