(written April 16, 2013)
Track 1: Flowers in December
Tonight is a night for thinking about Boston. Boston before tonight. The Boston that grew-up John Updike and Emily Dickenson, Jack Kerouac and Edith Wharton. Dennis Leary. Henry David Thoreau. Fucking Aerosmith. The Boston where Mother Goose’s tombstone is just across the street from a pub that smells like piss and serves the best damn Bangers and Mash that you’ll ever have. It’s on the Freedom Trail. The Boston with that building that shoots up into the sky like a razor blade and a harbor that gets overrun by oozy looking jellyfish every spring. Really. Boston Harbor turns into tapioca pudding for a few weeks out of every year. You can pass this on your way to the North End if you take a couple of wrong turns which, inevitably, you will. Because Boston doesn’t make sense. And the locals won’t be shy in telling you this: “If you can’t navigate by landmark, you don’t belong here,” they’ll say. They’ll say this to you as you wander through their neighborhoods, past the goopy Harbor, on the way to a great Italian meal. A remarkable Italian meal. Which will be, if you’re lucky and take another fortuitous wrong turn, in the converted living room of a house belonging to an old Italian-American woman. She’ll be in that kitchen cooking for you. Her bedroom is upstairs. Or, maybe you’ll opt for the lobster roll at Neptune’s. A couple of oysters to chase the roll.
For me, Boston is this big adventure that I went on once. It took almost six months for me to gain enough courage to drive alone in that city. No joke. From Porter Square in Somerville to Harvard Square in Cambridge and back again. It may or may not have been raining that day. But, I did it. I drove from Somerville to Cambridge and back again, without injury, for the first time in the spring of 2001. I remember that.
And I remember my first apartment in Cleveland Circle. 500 square feet of space that I didn’t have to share with anyone. And the old black and white subway-tiled bathroom floor.
The smell of old parchment paper in the Rare Books Room of the Boston Public Library. I got to touch those pages. The first printings out of Boston. Those first modes of mass communications. Pieces of pulp printed with entertainment and God, teaching people how to read. I got to reach in and touch those conversations. I felt the pulse of those words.
The bomb went off there.
Boston, for me, is about the Public Garden. A good burger at Bartley’s. Author events at Coolidge Corner Bookstore and getting my books signed by the very people whose words I took in at night. About getting a shot at something really good and taking it. About my students and everything that they taught me. About walking with them over to the JFK Library from the main UMass campus and watching them work through the Hemmingway Archives when we studied The Sun Also Rises. About whale watching. About Plum Island and the horrible biting sea bugs. About growing into a space that was already so full of life and history and brick and memory before I got there and began to grow into it that it was almost suffocating to me.
The sun broke outside of Seattle today. I sat inside of it and ate my pasta on a cement step outside of Whole Foods Market. 15 minutes before, I learned that Boston had blown up. Thinking that the mushroom pesto on my pasta was a tad bitter, I flipped through my phone thinking of who to call. Who might have been hurt? Who had I lost? I didn’t call anyone. I sent one text: “Are you okay? Just read about the bombing…hoping you weren’t at the marathon this year. Let me know, please.”
Walden Pond is just a short drive up the road from Cambridge. In the fall, the leaves catch fire in places that you would least suspect and cherry blossoms cover the sidewalks like snow in the spring. The best Spanish restaurant, Tu y Yo, is in Powderhouse Circle, just West of Ball Square: those recipes have been in that family for generations. The last stop on the Blue Line, up past the airport, is called Wonderland. I had my very first blueberry beer at a restaurant across the street from Fenway Park. In Boston, in the winter, carts of roasted nuts plant themselves through the Commons and spice the air. Sometimes, in Boston, time stops. You can feel it, there, in Boston. And the jagged architecture and the spiced air and the jellyfish harbor and the beginnings of a conversation written by those first Bostonians seeps, sinks, settles into your blood. That’s how it is, there, in Boston.