September 08, 2005

Boston Trip Log


To tweak Cal Coolidge's famous phrase: ‘the diversity of America is diversity’ and I saw a lot of it up here in Boston. What a variety of nationalities and ages and ethnicities! And cheering that they easily mix; in Columbus, we have mainly whites, blacks, Hispanics and, oddly enough, Somali Muslims. But in Boston there was a greater mixture and they all run together (in Columbus there are separate enclaves and the downtown only comes alive during concerts or Blue Jackets games, both of which tend towards homogenous groups. Which reminds me of a recent experience in the fitness center locker room. I was coming back back to my locker and I saw an Asian guy holds up a watch someone apparently left and asked if it was mine. I replied that it wasn’t. I saw him again a few seconds later and he asked me again and it began to register that he’d just asked me and I said, “we all look alike!” and we laughed. It’s nice we can joke.)

Walked along the Freedom Trail stopping at all the historicities. While touring a museum, the silence was interrupted by the Mexican hat dance song that I'd chosen as my cellphone ring. Since I only have a cellphone because my wife insisted, and since she pays for it, and since she’s close to the only one who has that number, and since she normally doesn’t call, I never bother to turn it off. But I’d given the number to Boston blogger Mark Sullivan, curator of the high quality Irish Elk blog, and he called to discuss possibilities of getting together for a pint. Unfortunately the schedules didn’t mesh but he proffered some suggestions we took him up on, such as visiting the Irish pub “the Burren”.

The Old South Meeting House was the place where many firebrand revolutionaries spoke just before the Revolution and where Bostonians pride themselves since then on giving anyone a platform. Margaret Sanger was conspicuously featured, as if we might be ashamed that some wanted her not to speak. Not me. They had a form you could fill out and then be displayed and I offered a few details on Sanger that are missing from modern history books.

One of my favorite stops along the Freedom Trail is the earliest extant cemetery (‘burying ground’ they call it) in the United States. It's so deliciously Puritan-y and feels so "other"! The King’s Chapel Burying Ground, circa 1630, contains the remains of Elizabeth Pain, the model for Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”.
Blessed are the dead, for they have returned
To original clay and primeval earth.
Blessed are those who died in a just war
Blessed the ripened sheaves and the harvested wheat…
Blessed are those who died in an ancient way
Blessed are pure vessels and anointed kings.

- Charles Peguy

At King's Chapel Burying Ground 

We had lunch at a mom & pop Italian joint across from the Old North Church served by a young Sophia Loren. Then it was on to Bunker's Hill, and after walking most of the day I was sad it wasn’t called “Bunker’s Ravine”. A traveling companion noted that that would require you to have to climb out of it. (Good point Sandy!)

At Sacred Heart Church in the Italian district, triumphalism reared its ugly head when upon seeing a statue of a saint holding a platter of eyeballs I said, “You won’t find that at a Protestant church!”.

In Sacred Heart Church 

Stayed at the Parker House hotel, which my aunt’s family owned for awhile. (I’d misspoken to Mark claiming they were the original owners.) Mahogany everywhere. It dripped of beautifully carved wood, as did the Adams library and the Boston Public Library and the Old South Church. Ornately carved dark mahogany is an enduring impression of Boston.

Made our way to Harvard and went to Mass at St. Paul’s. When we found that Mass was held in a little community room instead of the main church, I was ready for a liturgically-suspect Mass but was pleasantly surprised. And a personally challenging sermon, although that might be considered redundant. Later, at the Harvard Coop, I bought a biography of Simone Weil for just $4.99, both for the price and on the basis that Hernan has such a transfixitude on her.

Arrived at the Irish pub "The Black Rose" and the music starts just before my usual bedtime. I must’ve aged and not realized it. The crowd is young and hip, although I do recognize my limitation in accurately recognizing the latter. The girls seem to be competing to win most likely to have not changed out of their pajamas. There was a time bad dreams consisted of leaving home wearing such. I was surprised to learn that Neil Diamond had become chic. The whole bar exploded when the Irish singer began the opening words to “Sweet Caroline”.

We tried to get to a Red Sox game but even the standing room only’s were sold out. The town seems Sox crazy. I had tried to buy then online a couple weeks ago but it was too late them, so the SROs were our only hope. Too many people chasing too few tickets.

Sunday at Quincy

Saw the humble home of "Deacon John", the preacher whose son became the 2nd President of the United States, and after that the equally humble early home of son John. Then came the prestige: John became ambassador and needed a more ambassadorial abode. Then came money: Charles Francis married into it great gobs of it and tore down the barn, an act which symbolized the end of the "farmer sensibility" that his father and grandfather and great-grandfather so cherished. The family would now be citified intellectuals and scholars, not farmers. And while no one can judge, it seems a corresponding diminuation of Christian faith, from Deacon John to Henry Adams.

Delightful day at Adam’s library in Quincy, or “Quinzy” as the locals say. The crown jewel – 14,000 books gleam in their beautiful space, a fire-proof library that John Quincy mandated when deciding to leave his books to son Charles Francis (Jefferson’s lost library was still fresh in JQ’s mind). Oh the smell in that library! The portraits of John, John Q. and Charles Francis hang among the fragrant volumes - the smell is deep and lusty, almost alluvial, a bouquet faintly similar to the stacks of the Ohio State library but as I closed my mouth and breathed deeply I recognized a difference, as that between a cognac and Koolaid.

This is almost obscenely unrepresentative of the beauty of the library. Seriously, this postcard image is unrecognizable compared to the original. I shouldn't have scanned it.

John Adams wanted most to be a farmer and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to Harvard, where he was expected to go to Divinity school but changed to law after he feared he was not orthodox enough. The school was kicking out students with liberalizing tendencies, and though Adams theological opinions were still forming he didn’t know if he could remain sufficiently in tune with church views. He was a serious Christian and it was surely disconcerting that his church eventually became a secularistic Unitarian church. The guide, not a member of the church, smiled when I asked the politically incorrect question, “wouldn’t Adams be spinning in his grave today?”

He was also an “indifferent student”, according to the tour guide. Part of the attraction of figures like Adams and Stonewall Jackson and Ronald Reagan and others like them is that they were completely unambitious until events forced otherwise. They did not go out seeking mission, but they answered the mission when God and mission called. I was watching a PBS special on Laura Bush and I was struck by a comment Laura made. She said that after 9/11 she began to take herself more seriously when she saw that her words were taken seriously and that consequently she could make a difference. In that great crisis she saw she could fill a need. Reagan did likewise with respect to Communism and the welfare state, and Adams did the same with respect to the Revolution. If not for the Revolution, the Civil War or Communism, we would never have heard of Reagan, Jackson or Adams. Contrast that with Bill Clinton, the pluperfect example of a self-seeking politician. We would’ve heard from him whether we wanted to or not. There’s a comely modest in Laura Bush, Ronald Reagan and Adams that is very attractive.

Had lunch at the Fowler House in downtown Quincy, and the waitress looks very Queen Noor-ish but says “Oh sho-ure” every third sentence. I love accents and languages, so I eavesdrop (is that a sin?) on an couple in their ‘50s sitting nearby: “You take car-rer dear. (hangs up) Goodbye.’ She means well Johnny, you just had a falling out.”. The small detail of making the word “care” into a two-syllable word and calling a man in his late 50s “Johnny” to me are indicative of the diversity I always seek out in travels.


Monday and we continue walking along like Lawrence of Arabia, albeit under wonderfully temperate conditions. We walked from Hahvad Yard to the Plough’s & Stars & back. We walked downtown to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Perhaps these don’t sound like amazing exploits, but for someone with a sedentary job it might've brought on tremendous gastro-intestinal distress. After three days and twenty miles of walking, it seemed Montezuma’s ghost had relocated to Mass Ave. When it became apparent this minor illness would not abate on its own I considered two alternatives: Imodium or Guinness. I had both. I’d only had one Guinness on Sunday and it seemed likely this illness could’ve been prevented had I more of that black elixir of health.

We tried to get to Salem today and catch the witch museum and tour the “House of Seven Gables” but we missed the train by all of three minutes. I asked the lady at the window when was the next train to Salem and she said, “foe-were thoity.” Just incredibly rich in accent and syllables that I involuntarily repeated after her, “foe-were thoity?”. "Yea-ah."

I’d heard the accent before of course, on television and in movies, but it had taken on by now a kind of cliché’ness – no one really talks like that anymore, do they? But they do! Archie Bunker’s accent lives. Mark Sullivan, despite an encyclopedic knowledge of Boston, does not betray the hint of accent.

This is a city of booksellers and so I felt obliged to visit if not support them. I would unfortunately do a bit of both. Found Brattler’s Bookshop and was mesmerized by the bargains outside. Shelves and shelves and rows and rows of books for $1, $3 and $5. I picked up volume of “Barnes Notes on the Gospels” from 1840, Frank J. Sheed’s “Christ in Eclipse” from 1978, Iris Murdoch’s “Henry and Cato” and biographies of Yeats and Mozart all for $12. At Quincy I bought a volume of Abigail & John’s letters.

Dr. Johnson says that he who is tired of London is tired of life and perhaps the same could be said of Boston. But one thing I don’t understand is why the guidebooks all recommend “people-watching”. I did tire of that. One book said that Boston Commons was the place to do that but in my limited experience, i.e. one hour on Labor Day holiday, I find I am more fascinated by people who people watch than I am by people-watching itself. If by people watching we mean looking for “freaks” such as the street person who hasn’t cut her hair since the Nixon Administration or, conversely, attractive members of the opposite sex, then both seem rather superficial and shallow. Though perhaps enjoying accents is similarly so. People-watching gets more interesting if it’s people-listening, when they let their guard down. Like the couple in their late ‘50s snuggling together on the same side of a bench at Fowler’s restaurant in Quincy. He was quite slumped in the booth and they acted like newlyweds, which perhaps they were. Then I recall a quite elderly lady entering a bank not far from Filene’s. An older gentleman saw her and said that this was the fifth time he’d seen her today – she gets out and about he said. Then he added, “you’re not getting older, you’re getting more energetic!”. A good exercise to stretch the imaginatory system, by the way, is to walk down Tremont and see the toothless and homeless and see God disguised in each and everyone you pass. More difficult than you'd think, but more surprising that it surprises you.

Heard that Chief Justice Rehnquist died. Sad. And Bob Denver also. On Wednesday my wife said a co-worker saw all the flags at half-mast and said, “all that for Gilligan!”. One sour note was when a co-traveler told me that Rehnquist didn’t retire before his death because he was very much focused on becoming the longest serving Chief Justice. He was keenly aware of the longevity record. And this seemed a bit off-key somehow. Playing out the string for a personal stat like that? It’s all well and good that Cal Ripken plays over 2,000 consecutive games but that’s a sport and it is mostly about him. Or at least the Orioles. Serving on the Supreme Court is different, isn’t it? To try to hang on in order to be the answer to a trivia question is a very human thing and it’s understandable that public officials care deeply about their legacy. But still, I don’t know, it just struck me the wrong way. I suppose you don’t get to be President or SCOTUS without personal ambition like that but… I suppose it’s no different than comparing blog hits.

Harvard seemed of limited appeal because it’s locked up so tight. Can’t get into Widener Library unless you’re a student, for example, and I’m not one to shop unless it’s for books. I guess over time vacations should be less about physical objects and more about people. The author of the travel guide books, Stephen Birmbaum, said that his favorite place to visit is Ireland – for the people. Of all the natural wonders of the world, the great art, the spectacular restaurants and architecture - and he has seen much of it - he chose a place with its main claim to fame being a garrulous, friendly people. (At least pre Celtic-tiger.) Reminds me of what the National Park guide said at the Adams’ house: as wonderful as what they left us is, “the families are even more interesting, so ask me about the families”. And my own self, while speaking a few words to three young men, German tourists, I thought afterwards that they’d be more interesting to talk to than touring King’s Chapel. I wish I’d asked them where they were from in Deutschland. Sandy was impressed that they were interested in American history when we were so less interested in German history. Speaking a couple words to them in German was perfectly ridiculous since they could surely speak English (everyone over there learns it as a youth) and it took longer for me to say things in German than in English. My wife is looking forward to using her French on a forthcoming trip to Canada. What is that little thrill that we get in speaking to another in their tongue? Is it mere showing off on our part? Speaking of linguistics, the author David McCullough thinks John Quincy Adams was our most intelligent president. Said that when you closely compare Jefferson to Quincy Adams, the latter’s linguistic ability (fluent in seven languages) gives him the edge.

I’ve heard it said that earth is an elaborate description of the spiritual, the seeming infinity of space a metaphor for the infinity of God, the physical laws of gravity comparable to those of sin, and so on. Eternal life is not something easily grasped from nature, other than to say that the seed dies in order to become wheat; in some ways reincarnation would be easier. We live with the knowledge we could die physically at any time and we live with the knowledge we could fall spiritually any time. It’s a heavy burden to carry, the knowledge that our physical and spiritual health are so fragile. Carrying the burdens effectively requires great trust. The finest verse in the bible for man is surely “Things that are impossible for man are possible for God,” for upon that verse our salvation hangs.


Went today to Marblehead, an old New England village about 17 miles north of Boston. The sun was gallant, we ate fish at Barnacle Bill’s, and we strode through a find olde book store. The harbor was full of boats tied up with strings and with masts sent up like prayers. Three ladies sat next to us at Barnacle’s and told the harried waitress to hurry for they were busy. We saw them later entering the Marblehead Yacht Club.

      To Be Continued -- (Part 2 of Boston trip log here.)

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