Years ago, I moved to Boston and made it my home town. Here’s why.
Who lives in Boston?
Boston is America’s most intellectual city. It bulges with about 100 wonderful colleges, and its suburbs contain others that are even more prestigious, such as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), Wellesley College, and Tufts University.
M.I.T. is New England’s top engineering school. Most students at M.I.T. are tops in engineering (and science & math) but weak in humanities. Many students at Harvard are the opposite: bright in humanities but weak in science & math. Hence this incident:
Boston subways are packed with students. The main subway station treats you to free music by student musicians.
In Boston subways, the image is “students” — unlike New York subways, where the image is “drunks.” I’ll never forget when I returned from a trip to Europe and found myself on a New York subway, where I saw a charming young couple cuddle. Behind them, out of their view, an old drunk woman was cursing them and pointing her finger at them. Her finger finally touched the back of the young woman’s neck. The young woman jumped out of her chair and yelled out a fearful scream. Then the old woman vomited all over the subway car.
That could happen just in New York, not Europe, not Boston.
Many Bostonians are escapees from New Jersey. As youngsters, they lived in New Jersey, graduated from fine high schools there, and got admitted to prestigious Boston-area universities. When they graduated from the universities, they’d fallen so in love with Boston that they didn’t want to leave — and certainly didn’t want to return to New Jersey! So they decided to live in Boston permanently. On the walls of their Boston apartments, they hang Kliban’s cartoon showing a man running away from a smokestack and entitled “Houdini escaping from New Jersey.”
Though Boston can charm you awhile, many Bostonians eventually move beyond it, to Maine’s countryside, just a few hours away. Maine is populated mainly by escapees from Boston, just as Boston is populated by escapees from New Jersey. Ornithologists call that the “migration pattern of creative humans.”
Before escaping to Maine, intellectual students are torn between a love of Boston and a love of San Francisco, whose suburbs include the great universities of Berkeley and Stanford. But San Francisco is worse than Boston in three ways: its monotonously foggy climate denies you the thrill of seeing golden sunshine and snowstorms; its steep hills, like warts, prevent you from jogging across the city smoothly; and it lacks Boston’s old-world charm. On the other hand, Bostonians visiting San Francisco are forced to confess that compared to San Francisco, Boston is a third-world country, technologically and socially 3 years behind.
Boston is a magnet that draws visitors from all over the world. We get to shake hands with proud parents (of Harvard students), French Canadians (coming “south” to Boston to spend an enjoyable day), history buffs (gaping at the birthplace of the American Revolution with its Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s ride, and Battle of Bunker Hill), engineers (analyzing the high-tech companies encircling Boston), and nature lovers (wandering through Boston while searching for beautiful fall foliage).
Yes, they come from all over. On the sideway leading up to my Boston apartment, I even found a matchbook saying, “Toot’n Totum is the only home-owned chain of convenience food stores in Amarillo.” I feel proud that my sidewalk’s magnanimous enough to receive litter from Amarillo, Texas.
What Europe gave Boston
Boston is America’s most European city. The street I’ve lived on is so pretty and quaint that my visitors believe they’ve been magically transported to an English fairy tale.
Boston has a history of being loads of fun, beginning with how the city got its name. Centuries ago, England had a saint called “Saint Botolph,” who started a town called “Botolph’s town,” which got shortened to “Bo’s town,” then further shortened to “Boston.” That’s how the English city of Boston got its name. America’s Boston was named after England’s.
Boston’s a patchwork of hundreds of tiny neighborhoods, each 4 blocks long and a fascinating microcosm of society.
The most famous neighborhoods are:
But those neighborhoods are just the obvious ones. Walk 4 blocks in any direction, and you’ll discover yet another neighborhood!
Moreover, in Boston, every single block has its own character — and its inhabitants are proud of it. Whenever a Bostonian reveals his address, he gives it with pride.
My own neighborhood I lived in Boston on Saint Botolph Street, which years ago became famous for its prostitutes. One of my elderly readers sent me a letter admitting that while a student back in the 1940’s, he flunked his freshman year at M.I.T. because he spent too much time on Saint Botolph Street.
The prostitutes eventually left Saint Botolph Street and moved to lusher pastures, but the street’s reputation lives on, and it’s attracted a strange bunch of folks — such as me!
My own neighbors My neighbors on Saint Botolph Street were lots of fun.
Down the hall from me was a pair of bedrooms whose occupants shared my kitchen and bath. That pair of bedrooms became home to many of Boston’s finest citizens:
Those characters living down the hall can’t compare to the neighbors in the adjacent buildings. For example, one night at 7PM, while I was lying in bed after a hard day’s work, I heard someone yell “Jump!” I looked out my window, and saw a guy jump out of the window next to mine. His whole building was on fire. The 5-alarm fire needed 11 fire trucks to put out the blaze. The building was totally ruined; but we weren’t surprised, since it was the 5th fire there in 5 months. We figured it was arson for insurance money. Sure enough, the building was converted (at no expense to the landlord) into one of Boston’s finest condos.
The building on the other side of me also burned to the ground, in a dramatic blaze that was the highlight of the 11PM news. That building’s occupants escaped by athletically leaping from their windows into ours. The poor guys in our own building were shockingly awakened from sleep by guys leaping into their windows while shouting “Fire!”
It was probably arson again, since it had the same result: the building was replaced with one of Boston’s finest condos.
So now I have condos on both sides of me. That’s how Boston’s neighborhoods improve.
But before that latest fire, I got a real kick out of the people who lived in that building:
In that building, the main source of income was drugs and fencing stolen goods. Truly an outstanding tribe of entrepreneurs!
But in that building, my favorite family was the one where mom and dad would disappear each day and leave their two 5-year-old girls alone in the apartment. Those two cute little girls spent the entire day there, every day, smoking cigarettes — except whenever they left their room, climbed up on the roof, and pretended to jump off. I’d give them a friendly wave from my window, and they’d wave back. To solidify the friendship, they came over to my building, found the circuit breaker, turned off all my building’s electricity, then lit my building on fire by cleverly setting a match to the lobby’s rug.
When my landlady tried to explain to them that nice little girls don’t set fires to buildings, those two cute little girls told her, “Go away, ya old biddy!” When my landlady told their mom they’d been lighting fires, their mom said it was impossible because the girls couldn’t get matches. When I told the mom her girls were indeed using her matches daily to light cigarettes, she wasn’t upset that her girls had been smoking, playing with matches, and lighting fires; instead, she was thrilled to find out why she was always short of matches.
When the police investigated, they found her tiny room housed not just her two daughters but also her many boyfriends and a big collection of scattered whiskey bottles. The police took the girls into protective custody. Shortly afterwards, the girls’ building burned, totally. I wonder why.
Edwin Arlington Robinson When I was hunting for a room to live in, I happened to wind up at “92 Saint Botolph Street,” because it was fine but cheap. After moving in, I discovered that one of my neighbors was one of my heroes: the famous poet Edwin Arlington Robinson lived just a few doors away, at 99 Saint Botolph Street. Years earlier, when I was a high-school kid in New Jersey, I loved reading his poems, so I was thrilled to discover he lived just a few doors away. Unfortunately, I never met him, since he died 22 years before I was born. We were both tortured writers.
In case you don’t remember who he was and can’t spend much time to learn, here are my abridged versions of poems he wrote in 1897, as part of his book called The Children of the Night.…
Recite this poem when you’re jealous of a rich person or think of killing yourself:
Recite this villanelle (poem with repeated lines) when you move out of your home (or the White House’s occupant changes at the end of the 4-year term, or the House of Representatives goes on vacation):
Give this retort if your friends complain you waste too much time writing poetry instead of making big bucks:
Boston’s old-world charm keeps getting struck by lightning thoughts from its professors and students:
As you walk down Boston streets, you’ll meet the Dickensian characters who give Boston its special charm.
For example, a guy on Boylston Street wears a green plastic garbage bag on his head. An art professor named “Sidewalk Sam” has painted beautiful pictures on the sidewalk. “Mr. Yankee Doodle” has the amazing ability to whistle Yankee Doodle so loudly that he can be heard for many blocks — but with his mouth nearly closed, so nobody knows he’s the culprit. Another guy sports a black beard, black sunglasses, black cap, and black shopping bag and spends his whole life standing against a wall.
Boston is friendlier than New York. In New York, everybody is distrustful, expects to get ripped off or mugged, and lives in fear. In Boston, muggings are equally popular and prices are even higher — but nobody minds, because Boston’s crooks all smile.
Boston is more manageable than New York. New York is too big: it overwhelms. Boston’s buildings are shorter and its neighborhoods are tinier, so a brief walk through Boston lets you feel you’ve mastered it all. In Boston, you feel you own the city; in New York, you feel the city owns you.
My dad called Boston a “toy city” because of its tiny buildings, tiny neighborhoods, and tiny inhabitants (mainly kids who are students). He was a serious German who preferred New York, which he called the “real” city. (Cynics call New York the “real” mess!)
I love Boston, because I love to live in fantasyland.
Boston’s in Massachusetts, whose biggest fantasy was George McGovern. In the 1972 Presidential election, Massachusetts was the only state that voted for McGovern instead of Richard Nixon. After Nixon won, botched Watergate, and had to resign, Massachusetts cars sported proud bumper stickers saying, “Don’t blame me — I’m from Massachusetts!”
Boston is the 3rd windiest city in the United States. It’s much windier than Chicago. According to our beloved government, the only cities windier than Boston are Oklahoma City and Butte Montana (if you don’t count Washington D.C.’s windbag politicians).
Boston’s average wind speed is 12½ miles per hour. But that “average” is misleading. Sometimes, the air is perfectly still. At many other times, the wind whips by at 100 miles per hour — especially near Boston’s Hancock Tower.
Boston’s in New England, where the weather continually changes, quickly and unpredictably. Back in the 1800’s, Mark Twain said, “If you don’t like New England’s weather, wait a minute.” He also said:
Everywhere else, the weather is created by God. But in Boston, the weather is created by God’s son, “J.C.,” who’s a student at M.I.T. For his student project, J.C. launches the most daring weather experiments, using Bostonians as his guinea pigs. Whenever Boston’s passionate suffering excites him sufficiently, he exports the weather to the rest of New England and finally to the rest of the world.
Here’s mankind’s biggest challenge: driving through Boston.
For example, suppose you’re trying to visit a friend who says he lives on “A Street.” If you look at a map, you’ll find that Boston contains three streets called “A Street.” There’s an A Street in the part of Boston called “Charlestown”; but 2½ miles southeast of that, you’ll find another A Street, in the part of Boston called “South Boston”; and 6 miles southwest of that second A Street, you’ll find a third A Street, in the part of Boston called “Hyde Park.”
Similarly, Boston contains three B Streets. Boston also contains five Lincoln Streets, five Pleasant Streets, and six Park Streets.
After figuring out which A Street to go to, your next problem is to figure out which streets will take you there. That’s a major challenge, since practically every street in Boston is curved.
Boston was planned by meandering cows: each old street was a cow path, curved to avoid hills and ditches. When Boston city planners lopped off the hills to fill the ditches, they forgot to straighten the cow paths, so Boston’s streets are still curved, to avoid the hills and ditches that no longer exist. In Boston’s intellectual suburb (Cambridge), Massachusetts Avenue curves so sharply that the natives describe Harvard University as being “at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue.”
Traffic signs To make Boston driving a challenge, most of the popular streets are marked “One Way,” usually in the opposite direction from where you want to go, and with no obvious alternative route in sight. Those signs were put up at the request of neighbors who don’t want to deal with folks like you. To increase your challenge, Boston city planners consider street signs to be optional, so that you’re never quite sure which street you’re on. The few street signs that remain are often wrong.
My favorite signpost is on the outskirts of Boston. At the top of the post, a sign says you’re going south; underneath it is a sign that says you’re going north. Altogether, the signs say you’re going south on route 93 and north on route 128. Which direction are you really going in: south or north? The correct answer is neither: you’re really going west!
But suppose you’re nerdy enough to bring a map that even shows which streets are one-way. Your troubles aren’t over yet: you’re just about to turn left onto the street you wish, which even goes in the direction you wish, when all of a sudden you’re confronted by a sign saying “No Left Turn.” To be legal, you try to somehow drive around the block, but you get a surprise: each side of the block has a combination of “One Way” and “No Left Turn” signs designed so that you can’t reach your destination. “You can’t get there from here” is a popular saying in Boston. Every taxi driver knows the only solution: interpret the “No Left Turn” sign to mean “Turn left as fast as possible, before anybody notices.”
Traffic lights You can always tell a newcomer to Boston by the way he reacts to traffic lights. He’s under the mistaken impression that a red light means “stop.” In Boston, a red light does not mean “stop”; instead, it means “think about it, slow down a little, stare at the other cars, honk your horn at them, then continue straight through.”
A yellow light means “drive faster, before it turns red.” A green light means “wait for the cars in the other direction to finish going through their red light; then race.”
Rotaries Boston city planners suffer from one major fetish: rotaries. Maybe it’s because Boston’s run by Irish Catholics, who misspell “rosaries”?
Driving experts have discovered that Boston and China are the only places in the whole world that have so many rotaries.
Driving into a Boston rotary is like jumping into a washing machine, filled with live sharks during the “spin” cycle: coming out is either miraculous or bloody.
Jams Boston traffic is so heavy that you’re guaranteed to find yourself in a massive traffic jam before you reach your destination.
Three of Boston’s main arteries are Storrow Drive, the Southeast Expressway, and the Mystic River Bridge. Because they’re the sites of so many traffic jams, they’re called “Sorrow Drive, the Southeast Distressway, and the Misery River Bridge.”
Parking To park, seasoned Boston drivers use the “Braille method,” which consists of bumping the cars surrounding you until you finally nestle into the space between them.
When you come back the next day to retrieve your car, don’t be surprised if it’s gone. Boston’s become famous as the car-theft capital of America. If you park your car, and it’s still there the next day, you’ll pat yourself on your back for being lucky — until you burst out in tears when you see the parking ticket. Nearly every parking space in Boston is marked “illegal.” A parking ticket can cost you $100 or more, depending on how cleverly you found an illegal place to park.
Jargon Instead of saying “turn left,” Bostonians say “bang a left.” Instead of saying “U-turn,” Bostonians say “U-ey” (pronounced “yoo-ee”). Instead of saying “make a U-turn,” Bostonians say “bang a U-ey.”
Boston’s a Democrat city. In Boston, calling somebody a “Republican” is equivalent to calling the person an “ass.” The Phoenix (Boston’s underground newspaper) has run many personal ads where women say they want to date a man, any nice man, but “no Republicans.”
In Cambridge (the town containing Harvard and M.I.T.), Democrat Al Gore beat George W. Bush during the year 2000 elections, of course. But here’s the shocker: during that election, even Ralph Nader beat Bush. Yes, Bush came in 3rd.
Charles River The Charles River separates Boston from its intellectual suburb, Cambridge (home of Harvard and M.I.T.). Three major bridges cross the Charles River: one bridge goes to Harvard; one goes to M.I.T.; and the middle bridge comes from Boston University and goes to nowhere.
The bridge that comes from Boston University is called the “Boston University Bridge.” But the bridge that goes to M.I.T. is not called the “M.I.T. Bridge”; instead it’s called the Harvard Bridge, because Harvard owns it.
As you walk across the Harvard Bridge, from Boston to M.I.T., look down near your feet: you’ll see a surprise! Painted onto the sidewalk is a marker saying “10 Smoots.” As you continue walking, you come to a marker saying “20 Smoots,” then markers saying “30 Smoots,” “40 Smoots,” etc., until you reach bridge’s far end, where the final marker says “364.4 Smoots, plus one ear.” Here’s why:
The Charles River is beautiful, especially during the spring, when it’s dotted with sailboats. But its beauty is just on the surface: underneath, it’s polluted. One hot summer day, the water’s surface evaporated, to let the polluted water underneath reached the air and give off such a strong sulfurous stench that the drivers on Storrow Drive were overcome by the fumes, lost control of their cars, and crashed into each other!
Scrod Boston is famous for a fish dish called scrod (young Atlantic cod & halibut, split for cooking) and for intellectual cab drivers (often foreign students), which combine in this tale:
Wednesday Boston’s the only city where “Wednesday” has a special meaning. In fact, the best way to determine how long a person’s lived in Boston is to ask, “What’s Wednesday?” If the person can’t answer the question correctly, the person isn’t a true Bostonian.
For many decades, Boston was covered with signs proclaiming the answer: “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day.”
Those signs were courtesy of the Prince Spaghetti Company, whose first factory was on Boston’s Prince Street and whose owners were Italians who believed that “midweek” ought to mean “pasta.”
John Hancock Tower The John Hancock Tower is Boston’s tallest building, but you can make it disappear! Here’s how.…
Stand on Boylston Street, on the block between Clarendon Street and Dartmouth Street. Stand directly under the “R” of the green “STATE STREET BANK” sign.
From that position, the entire John Hancock Tower seems to “disappear.” Specifically, the building’s longest sides (which are a whole city block long) hide from your view (because they sit at a peculiar angle), so the entire Tower seems to be just a narrow, fragile, tall wall of unsupported glass.
Street performers The best street performers are the ones you find each summery day in front of Quincy Market. One group, called the “Shakespeare Brothers,” has an amazing way with words. The other group, called the “Dueling Bozos,” juggles on unicycles. Both groups include magic, audience participation, and practical jokes; they give you the best laughs to be had in Boston.
I remember the first time I saw the Shakespeare Brothers; I’ll never forget their act, which consisted of fake magic.
And that’s why we all love Boston. Boston isn’t a city: it’s a joke. It’s the world’s best-kept zoo. And we love it.