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My First Tour of Boston: A Hub about "The Hub"
My college-age daughter, Mary Grace, happy and cheerful in her usual way, envisioned a special celebration of her 19th birthday.
“Daddy, can we go to Boston?”
She said it as casually as if she were asking if we could go to the corner gas station and refill her car, or to the supermarket to fetch some eggs and milk. We didn’t live anywhere near Boston. I’d never been there in my life. But of course I gave her the only acceptable answer immediately:
“Sure, Mary Grace. Let’s hop on a plane right now.”
At that time, before I retired from corporate insanity to devote myself to a life of letters, I had regular access to commercial flights. Hopping on a plane was a routine to me. I knew we’d get to the Boston airport. What we would do after then was a total mystery to me.
“Good,” said happy and spoiled Mary Grace. “I’ll pack my bag now.”
In another essay I have described how we spent our first day in the Boston region, a visit with one of her friends who was a student at Harvard. My daughter stayed with her friend in the dormitory.
I, on the other hand, in order to avoid the specter of $300-a-night rooms closer into town (Boston is maybe the most expensive hotel market in the USA outside the island of Manhattan), fled to the distant suburb of Danvers, about 35 minutes north of town.
I met Mary Grace the following morning in front of a bank at Harvard Square. She was smiling and heavily made up. I objected as usual to the sheer volume of paint on her naturally pretty face and questioned why she had to overdo it.
“Because it looks better,” she said, and then fluttered her falsely extended eyelashes. “I want to go to see M.I.T. now.”
It was perhaps the most awkward segue ever, going from makeup to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but it worked. I negotiated the congested corridor of Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge about 3 miles until I crossed a river and landed in Boston and… realized I must have run by something.
“Wait a minute,” I told Mary Grace. “We went too far. M.I.T. is on the other side of the river, in Cambridge.” We were already by a sign which said “Boston University” and a cluster of ash-colored brick apartment buildings. In that area if you blink a few times in a car you’ll pass two or three universities and maybe miss the one you had intended to find.
“Where was it?” my daughter asked. “I didn’t see anything.”
We drove back across the Charles River, enjoying a beautiful view of the sailboat-studded Boston harbor on a crisp autumn Sunday, and then noticed an imposing masonry edifice with massive columns on our right.
“Oh, that’s it,” Mary Grace said. “The top of that building says M.I.T.”
Actually, it said MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, but to today’s acronym-obsessed youths words are not really words anymore unless their initials mean something. LOL. BTW. LMAO. WTF. PDQ. TMI. ASAP. I didn’t want to confuse Mary Grace by cluttering her brain with TMI. We were in a hurry so we needed to communicate info ASAP.
“You’re right,” I pretended to agree with her. “That’s exactly what it says: M.I.T.”
In comparison to the august grandeur and tradition of Harvard, the technical school is a come-lately, dating back only to 1861, and has a campus as drab and ordinary as its elder neighbor’s is inspiring and classic. And yet in today’s technology-driven world, M.I.T., boasting a historical affiliation with 81 Nobel laureates, is the godhead of geeks, a spirited challenge to the relevance if not the reputation of the older school.
What would have seemed absurd in 1861—that the research school shoe-horned into some riverside frontage on the edge of Cambridge might actually come to out-Harvard Harvard—has in many ways come to pass. The humanities are out. The microchip is in.
“I want to get out and look at the campus,” Mary Grace instructed me.
“What campus?” I wondered. “I see one building and then a sculpture across the street.”
“Let’s go look at the sculpture.”
I couldn’t find any place to park so I did a U-turn, crossed the Charles River again and illegally parked by one of the apartment buildings serving, I presume, Boston University. Illegality has served me well throughout my peregrinations. Without recourse to it, I would very often have been unable to find a place to leave my vehicle and perhaps would have permanently taken up residence in one by now.
We crossed the bridge by foot, savored the magnificent view of The Hub and its watery surroundings. Boston is without question the most aesthetically appealing of all the large eastern cities, with endless rows of elegantly restored brownstones and commercial buildings, leafy parks, a romantic waterfront, and antique churches, markets and historic houses.
“I love this!” my daughter sighed when she saw the boats in the water. The stop at M.I.T. consisted of a photo shoot in front of a piece of modern abstract sculpture, and then we were back looking longingly at the Charles River again.
“I hope our car hasn’t been towed,” I said, spoiling her dreamy reverie. The problem with age and experience is that they make it impossible, even in the midst of Paradise, to forget about car-boots, police and fines. O, to be nineteen again!
“I’m sure it hasn’t,” said the ever-optimistic Mary Grace. And she was right.
We followed a parkway into central Boston, where the 50-acre Boston Common, America’s oldest urban park, caught our eye. The parking predicament, a horrific challenge around Boston, was an ever-present concern of mine and I took full advantage of a tunnel that led to an underground parking garage. Fourteen dollars for the whole day. Whew, what a relief.
It was the first time ever in my life that I had been relieved to pay $14 to park. On a Sunday, no less.
As soon as we emerged on ground level again, we absorbed the sights and sounds of the city at play. Leaves were falling everywhere, the air was crisp, young mothers were pushing their babies in strollers, and people were having picnics on quilts. We passed pavilions and statues. A man dressed in colonial garb was conducting a tour. But my daughter had a problem.
“I’m starving, Daddy!”
We found a pizzeria across the street, named something like Alphonso’s or Adaggio’s or even Avocado’s, and we ordered a large spinach, feta and sun-dried tomato focaccia, which is a fancy way of saying a large box full of bread, cheese and a few garnishes. We sat on a park bench and stuffed ourselves and then Mary Grace had another idea.
“Let’s go on a walking tour of Boston! I’m full and need some exercise.”
We walked by a couple of lagoons in the park, crossed the street to the Massachusetts state capitol, and followed signs through the crooked old lanes of central Boston, by old churches fronting cemeteries with slanting weathered tombstones. We saw the water again through the canyons between tall buildings and followed the signs downhill to the North End. This was another tourist district, the area surrounding Faneuil Hall Marketplace, in the center of which was the old public market dating originally from 1742.
“I’m getting tired,” my daughter said. “Can we sit down?”
Sitting on the massive stones of the pier, we watched planes land at Logan Airport across the harbor, cars cross the old steel Tobin Bridge, and the orange ball of the sun drop down in the western sky. A friend kept texting me that I needed to see the John F. Kennedy library before it closed at 4:30. It was only 2:30 now so I thought we had time to drop by Fenway Park first.
I was badly mistaken in that.
The Common looked so inviting that we lingered there a bit long and by the time we retrieved the rental car most of the day was gone. Traffic was asphyxiating on Commonwealth Avenue toward Fenway Park, the hallowed home of the Boston Red Sox since 1912 and the oldest existing stadium of any North American professional sports franchise.
A sign said the baseball stadium was open to visitors every day. I was excited. I found a place to park the car (“pahk the cah”, in local parlance) just behind the left field wall, dubbed the “Green Monster”, on Lansdowne Street.
“Let’s go inside!” I told Mary Grace, who was about to fall asleep. I was sure this plan would work out perfectly.
But a construction crew was unloading large concrete cylinders by the portal on Yawkey Way and it was “temporarily closed”, a woman told me.
So we waited. And waited. And waited. Mary Grace almost fell asleep while standing.
After the last cylinder was forklifted off the truck, the construction guys started yukking it up, swigging coffee out of their thermoses and having a grand old time. “Temporary” became the entire afternoon. We never actually made it inside.
My phone started vibrating and whistling again.
“YOU NEED TO SEE THE JOHN F. KENNEDY LIBRARY”, it said.
I should have stayed at Fenway and waited for the construction rubes to finish with their coffee. As it was, I foolishly attempted to drive across town toward some place called Columbia Point, south of downtown on the harbor. I succeeded only in getting snarled in a traffic jam. Four-thirty came and went. Mary Grace was in a coma in the passenger seat, snoring with her head leaning against the window.
“On second thought,” I said to no one in particular, “we need to return the rental car and head to the airport right now.”
I said this only after I realized I had accidentally gotten into a tunnel which led to the airport anyway. When Mary Grace woke up we were at the rental car center.
“Did we ever see Fenway Park,” she said, “I can’t remember.”
“No, we had a construction crew in our way.”
She smiled and rubbed her eyes.
“Thank you for taking me to Boston, Daddy. We had a wonderful time!”
“I wish we could have stayed longer.”
“That’s OK,” the eternal optimist reassured me. “We’ll be back.”
I hope she was right, but I can’t be too sure. It took me several decades to get to Boston once, and the next time may not be as soon as I would hope.
© 2015 James Crawford