Jewish World Review August 9, 2005 / 4 Av,
Travel notes: Boston or bust
BOSTON Ah, the marvels of air travel. I finally make it here by midnight, only three hours late. They tell me my luggage won't make it in for another hour. So I call my daughter and tell her to forget about picking me up; I'll take a cab. She tells me to stay put, and I consent. What the heck, as the mother of two children under 3, she hasn't had a full night's sleep since circa 2001 anyway.
Half an hour later, thanks to the new Ted Williams Tunnel, and the dearth of even Boston traffic at this hour, she's here bearing a cup of coffee and something from her neighborhood Dunkin' Donuts.
Maybe it's the coffee and lateness of the hour, but I begin to have visions. On the way out of the airport, I spot a sign I thought I'd never see in my lifetime:
of the World Championship
Boston Red Sox
We're barely on the road when I realize that after all her years here, my daughter now drives like a Bostonian, that is, like a crazy person. She's even mastered the Boston Feint, which is the accepted way of indicating a left turn up here. No need to signal. You just sort of halfway edge into the path of oncoming traffic, see if it won't give way and hope for the best. It takes some getting used to. I don't think I ever will.
With the exception of certain parts of Italy, this city has to have the worst drivers in the known universe. Anyone who ever doubted Calvin's theology, particularly that part about the natural depravity of man, hasn't driven in Boston.
Even after all these years, I'm proud to note, the girl has retained the unerring Greenberg sense of direction. Soon she and I are deep into talk and barreling up I-93 in precisely the wrong direction.
Turning around, we head back toward downtown Boston, which is now straight ahead and awash in shimmering light blue, green, white, purple against the dark night sky. Like some sci-fi fantasy straight off an old cover of "Amazing Stories."
Not all of Boston's glare can rival the light that goes on in the mind at the sight of a sign that says: Quincy. That's Quincy as in the home of John and Abigail Adams. The Adamses (John, John Quincy, Charles Francis, Henry . . .) are no longer prominent forces in American politics and culture, but their light still shines.
Will Rogers once said there were only four unique American cities: San Francisco, San Antonio, Boston and New Orleans. Why not Charleston? And what makes a city unique anyway? Not so much its locale but its spirit. No matter how many times you've visited such a city, you're filled with expectation.
Boston remains a personal city. One reason it has kept its human scale is because it really is small, at least compared to the standard American megalopolis. Its population of 600,000 is only a quarter the size of the borough of Brooklyn.
Boston is small enough for its assorted flavors, Irish and Italian, Boston Brahmin and Immigrant Moxie, to co-exist without being diluted into some bland, uniform vanilla. It's more like Neapolitan ice cream, a combination but with clear borders.
Other cities have their landmarks and monuments and historical air. What sets this one apart is its only-in-Boston institutions like the Gardner Museum and the Red Sox. The legendary Isabella Stewart Gardner, the great patroness of arts and of artists East and West, reconstructed a 15th century Venetian palace on the Fenway. Yet she was also a great Red Sox fan and would regularly have the team in for tea. When the Sox beat the New York Giants to win the 1912 World Series, Mrs. Gardner attended a performance of the Boston Symphony wearing a red-and-white headband emblazoned with the motto, "Oh, you Red Sox!"
Every August, as the pennant race enters its feverish period, the same message is emblazoned outside the unique museum she built. The Red Sox are to Boston what their charioteers were to any of the rivalrous Italian city-states during the Renaissance.
Like the Boston Common, a common team not only makes a city a community but elevates and clarifies its spirit. Much as the art of tragedy does, certainly in Boston's case. What Yankee fan could savor victory the way long-denied Red Sox fans did last year?
The spirit of a city does not maintain itself automatically. It requires steady refreshment. Each time I return to Boston, the unstoppable forces of a globalized Americanism have made further inroads. It's a sad, familiar process to a Southerner.
Once I was told by a well-dressed passerby that he really wouldn't know where one could find a copy of the Herald. He himself, he sniffed, read only the New York Times.
Happily, just beyond the condescending, circumscribed, artificial world of the Globe and the Harvard faculty, just beyond the world of Beacon Hill and the Kennedy-Kerry axis, there's a real Boston. But these days you have to search for it. In "1984," George Orwell's Winston Smith comes to believe that "if there is hope, it lies in the proles." Here it lies in the readers of the Boston Herald.
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