30 July 2011

The Meaning of Boston

For all of its charms, Boston isn’t one of the first cities I’d list among the most significant places I’ve known. And yet, in a gradual, almost stealthy way, Boston has accrued significance in my life, over the years, as I’ve been reminded the past few days.

It was on the campus of Harvard University, for example, that I first began to understand that going to an Ivy League school was within my grasp, and the campus that had seemed like a tourist attraction only a couple of years before — we went to see the Glass Flowers, for instance, when I was a boy — became a sort of template for my ideas about college, and myself at college. The school rejected me, when the time came, and I’m convinced I got a superior undergraduate education at Brown, but it still looks like a university, and to walk there is to remember the ribbon-cutting that opened the path to my future.

On the Avenue: I get the “wealth” part,
but what’s so “common” about it?

When I was in college, and the pressure of undergraduate life got to be too much for my delicate sensibilities, I used to take a Peter Pan bus to Boston. The fare was cheap, and I was anonymous. I’d walk up and down the darkened streets, take the T to Cambridge and buy books and a snack, then hurry downtown again before the midnight bus back to Providence. I never went to a movie or a play or a bar, or did any of the things you might expect, or I might expect of myself. I hardly know how to explain the modesty of my program, except to say that it was a relief simply to be a face in the Boston crowd.

Today, my college roommate is a Harvard professor, and one of the few people likely ever to recognize me when I get off the T at Harvard Station.

The stage upon which we strutted and fretted —
for a few hours, anyway.

Twenty-five years ago, I spent my only weeks as an official resident of the city, when the Broadway musical Rags settled into the Shubert Theatre for a month of tryouts, and I settled into a little apartment across the alley from the stage door. It’s hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since that summer, and that so many of the people who were so important to me then are gone. And yet the Theatre District is nicer now than it was then, even my apartment building looks rather posh, and I know I’m not the boy I was then, the production assistant bedazzled by everything.

I’ll have more to say about the show as we draw closer to the anniversary of opening night in New York, but for now it’s enough to say that those weeks in Boston were part of one of the greatest adventures anyone has ever known — and I knew it, even at the time. Even when things went wrong (and they did), there was something epic in the wrongness, and a more mystifying magic whenever things went right.

The street where I lived.

A few years later, I held my first godchild for the first time in an apartment on Commonwealth Avenue, and strolled with him and his mother along the tree-lined mall. A baby at the time, only a few weeks old, William slept soundly in the Snuggli I’d strapped to my shoulders, his little head pressed against my heart.

Now he’s a college student, and I’ve got lots of godchildren who’ve come along since (including a few who live on Commonwealth). Yet the sweetness of that first afternoon in March has never left me; spring had begun to stir in the trees along the avenue, and so had something inside me. I was launched, yet again, on a path. It’s to be wondered whether I’d have pursued my career as a godfather quite so avidly if William hadn’t behaved himself so angelically that day. But in the event he made it absolutely clear to me that my friends’ children must become my friends, too, and they’re an indispensable part of my life.

When William met William.
(The torn bluejeans were an essential part of my graduate-student style.)
Photo by Elise Goyette©

Thus I recognized as an honor that another of my godsons deigned this week to invite me kayaking on the Charles. Never mind that I’m less sporty than I used to be, and I was never as sporty as he. Never mind that I hadn’t been near a rowboat since I was Jeremy’s age. No, the thing must be done; it was a privilege even to be asked, and there was no question of refusal.

My original understanding — that Jeremy and I would share a two-seater — was fallacious, and folly. Fortunately, I hadn’t dared to suggest to him that he board anything other than a single. He is a serious oarsman already, and once afloat on the Charles, he sneered at the doubles. Amateurs! Landlubbers! We would never be like them! I didn’t even notice the blister that developed on my left — or “port,” if you prefer — hand, until long after it had burst and torn open; and I never felt the sunburn, despite having slathered on my shoulders sunblock sufficient to ice a wedding cake.

That’s a paddlin’.
-- Jasper, The Simpsons

I no longer possess the sense of direction I developed from all those winter nights during my college years, when a wrong turn on the way to the Boston bus station might mean hypothermia in the darkened streets. But as we rowed downstream, I could identify a few landmarks, and I could persuade myself that I knew where we were going. Jeremy retains a gratifying tolerance for my conversation and my jokes — I availed myself of the occasion to inform him that the Colonials, in their zeal, dumped so much tea in the Harbor that the waters of the Charles are tinted brown to this day — but talk meant most often that our boats collided.

“There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing
as simply messing about in boats.”
-- Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I’m not very good at steering. I’m better, in fact, when I don’t use the rudder. That is the sort of boater I am. But I wouldn’t have known this without the agency of my godson. Now, each time I see the Charles, I’ll think of him.

And Boston has gained one more reason to mean something to me.


Anonymous said...

Great photos! What a bonus that you were able to kayak on the Charles. And a great reminder of your experience with "Rags."

Elaine Fine said...

Michael and I both lived (before we knew one another) near the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Havard Street. When I was growing up there was always that "saying" that you will always see someone you know coming out of the Harvard Square station, but then when I lived in Boston as a young adult I knew that Commonwealth Avenue and Harvard street was the true "center of the universe."

Our son is moving to Boston in a couple of weeks, but I don't expect him to get in a kayak on the Charles. The swan boats in Boston Common serve as adequate (and challenging) "water sport" for the people in our family.

William V. Madison said...

I took a few pictures of the Swan Boats when I was on the Common (where the statue stands, as seen in the first picture of this post). But since I've never been in a Swan Boat, I decided to save the images for another time. A meditation on Lohengrin, maybe?

latebloomingmom said...

Introduced Things 1 and 2 to Boston in July and it was so nice to walk the streets with them, eat a big Italian family-style dinner in the North End (remember "Prince Spaghetti Day?") and take them to the U.S.S. Constitution. The more I go to Boston, the more I like it and wonder why I didn't hop that bus more often when we were at Brown. Though of course the many alumns in and around it make it all the more fun to visit now.