Celebrating Boston: The Classroom Of The Real
I went to Boston in search of real life and Transcendentalism and the wisdom of the seasons -- the grit of a tough, small, resilient red-brick city -- and I was never disappointed. I'd grown up between my parents' home in California and my schools in England, and when I graduated from college, I wanted to see what might be in the middle, not quite wide-open and not quite cloistered. Where better to land than Boston?
All the city's many myths, accumulated over decades like the slush upon the sidewalk, came in on me the minute I arrived: The surfaces of the place seemed weathered, broken, tight, but the minds were sharp and pungent as their famous "Pahk your cah in Hahvad Yahd!" My first week there, Allen Ginsberg came to my newly favorite Beatnik coffeehouse, Passim, to shout out Basho haiku in home-made translation: "Old pond/Frog jumps in/Kerplop!" The leaves began to turn and, on my initial trips around Concord and Walden, I saw how an individual soul's cry for independence could be set against a young nation's struggle for same. The first week that our obligatory seminar on "The History of Criticism" met, the whole city more or less stopped for a one-game playoff between the Sox and the hated Yanks. In the seventh inning, a scrappy, ninth-hitting shortstop, Bucky Dent-smasher of just 40 home runs in his more than 5000 plate appearances in the majors-hit the ball out of the park and the Sox were gone, again.
That tragic sense, spiked with a stubborn passion-a rowdy sense of community and partisanship at once-all came together in what quickly proved to be the best sporting town I'd ever meet. The Celtics fans were so committed to the struggle that they'd make space even for a solitary Laker man as we crowded into the Garden for the latest phase in the eternal Workingman-vs.-Showtime match-up. At Fenway, both home team and visitor sometimes seemed to attain double figures, so that games became four-hour slugfests in which each fighter ended up exhausted and bloody against the ropes. Sometimes, on Saturday afternoons, I traveled to beat-up areas in Dorchester to engage in table-tennis tournaments; much of what I learned in Boston came through long walks after midnight back from the Harvard Law School dorms, where I'd gone to watch the latest Magic-Bird confrontation, broadcast from the West Coast starting at 10:30 p.m.
Boston's pleasures were particular and grounded and had none of the sleekness or international swagger of California or New York. For me they consisted of Chinese food at Fresh Pond and the hunks of meat on sale at Savernor's market. Charles Laquidara on WBCN and the poky bars of Somerville and Central Square. Elise's burgers and little suburban cinemas and drivers who would train you for winning grand prix in Varanasi or Marrakesh; the perfect place to watch Springsteen shout out, with rough warmth, his hymns of imprisonment and escape. I devoured the Boston Phoenix and the Real Paper every week, and the name of the latter caught something of what the town was imparting to all of us.
I spent only four years in Boston, but they were years of transformation. I made friends whose raptures and doubts would be with me for life-their names were Emerson and Thoreau, Dickinson and Melville-and I saw how a city could nurture some of the hopefulness of California, but in a frame that had everything to do with realism: Boston was the home of revolutionary heroism-and hard luck ever since. It opened my eyes to Indian miniatures and the work of Cartier-Bresson, but only after I'd negotiated an unglamorous ride on the T to Commonwealth Avenue. After four years of weekly trips to the Three Aces pizza joint, I was accorded the ultimate effusive greeting-a single raised eyebrow from the taciturn Greek owner, Stan.
In the end, Boston gave me the two most important things any city can give you: a sense of possibility and a sense of limits. It was exactly this that it had conferred on so many visitors from far away, not least my grandfather, who'd ended up studying Economics here just after World War I, and both my uncles on my mother's side, who'd come to Boston to do Science just as the next war broke out (and had not been allowed to go home). The place was harsh and uncensored and thick with grimy tradition, and that gave it a humanity, even a solidity that other places I'd haunted often lacked.
The lessons of Boston I learned came from those sturdy New Englanders called Henry and Waldo who told us that we have more power inside us than we know, and that true learning is found only on the streets. The American Scholar is one who turns his back on the classroom and absorbs things on the pulse and in the clamor of right now. There was nothing airy-fairy or abstract about Boston, as there could be about parts of California and Oxford; it was home to the Combat Zone and Filene's Bargain Basement and a wind-chill factor you could feel in your bones.
I learned about the weather in Boston, and what costs it exacts and the rough sense of camaraderie it fosters. I learned that nothing is new under the sun and that that is how we remain unbroken. I learned about challenge and contention and how that makes loss as temporary as victory, whether you're a city or a person. Boston seemed eternal as sunshine and grime.
Adapted from an essay in "Our Boston: Writers Celebrate the City They Love," to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 15, 2013, the six-month anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombings. For every book sold, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will donate $5 to The One Fund.