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Charlie Hatton
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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
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A Boston Compendium in Three Acts

A blog? Something my body needs already! I like that…

So, I live in Boston. I just registered with some sort of Boston BlogRing, so I thought I ought to mention it. Just to stay in the club, you understand. Anyway, let me tell you about Boston.

Generally speaking, Boston’s a cool place. I’ve lived in a couple of places and (when I can strap my anklet on the dog and duck the parole officers) I occasionally get away to visit others, as well. Of everywhere I’ve been, Boston’s probably my favorite.

“Air conditioners are rarer in Boston than Republican guest speakers at Harvard graduations.”

(Favorite for living, mind you. There are plenty of better places to vacation, as far as I’m concerned, and certainly you wouldn’t want to be caught dead here. No, literally — it’s fine to be seen here; just don’t dream of dying here, at least not if you fancy yourself the burying kind.

See, Boston’s an old, old city (by US standards, anyway), and they’ve been burying people here for so long and in such a small space that I’m convinced they’ve got cadavers time-sharing the coffins. Plus, it’s hard to get into a good graverhood these days, what with people dropping off and being shoved in the ground every day. You don’t want to be stuck in the ‘new money’ section, with the obelisks and fancy holograms and crap like that.

On the other hand, you don’t want to get mingled in with the old schoolers, either. You think your parents or grandparents give you shit about the ‘old days’; some of these jokers are going on 400 years old. How’d you like to be lying there forever having to hear about how things were so much better before automobiles, or sliced bread, or the Louisiana Purchase. Or non-webbed fingers, for Chrissakes.

No, much better you should live here for a few dozen years, then get away on vacation somewhere quiet, like Oregon, maybe, and just park your carcass right there for the rest of eternity. Or better yet, arrange to have yourself charcoaled up after you’re dead, and get yourself sprinkled onto the mound at Fenway Park. Maybe if we can get enough ghosts on our side in that damn place, we’ll finally beat that fat-assed Babe and his curse into submission…)

Right. Now where the hell was I? Oh, Boston.

Okay, so you probably know some things about Boston, good and bad (the aforementioned baseball Mecca, the Broons (there is no ‘I’ in team, and I swear to God I’ve never heard the ‘I’ pronounced in our hockey team’s name, either), the schools, the Cape and the Vineyard (for those more fortunate and/or fiscally fortified than I), the Tea Party, the horrible drivers, the Big Dig, and so on, et cetera.

So, I won’t tell you the same old boring shit about all of that. Here’s what I can offer to the visitor to the Boston area, the wary traveler unwise in the ways of the wacky New Englander tribes:

First, there’s the whole idea of ‘Boston’ as a city. See, I’ve been lying to you from the very first sentence of the post. (Right, so what else is new?) I actually don’t live in Boston, nor do I work in Boston. To be precise, I live in Watertown, and work in Cambridge. Both of these abut Boston, of course, as do a half dozen other towns, but they’re technically not ‘Boston proper’.

(For those of you unfamiliar with Cambridge, it’s much easier to explain. Cambridge is home to Harvard, MIT, and just about everyone who ever attended either institution and is still interested in lording it over the rest of the world. It’s filled with free thinkers, liberal philosophy, coffee bars (no Starbucks, please!), and poetry readings; it serves microbrew beers only (or better yet, mead), crosses the street whenever it damn well feels like it, and doesn’t own a television. Or if it does, it only watches PBS, C-SPAN and the snooty parts of BBC America. If you live in America and look toward the East, you may just see it among the clouds, peering disdainfully down its nose at the rest of the country.)

Damn, lost it again. Oh, right, ‘Boston proper’.

So, Boston itself is roughly the size of Oprah. Big Oprah, of course; it’s a city, after all, but the city limits really don’t rope off that much area. Watertown’s similarly postage-stampy, as are many of the itty bitty ‘cities’ in Eastern Massachusetts that somewhere along the way thought they’d be better off as separate entities. I imagine it went something like this:

‘Screw Boston,’ said these clever young bucks way back when. ‘Who wants to be a part of all that history and fame and money dripping all over? Who needs access to the port and the ocean and the mouth of the Charles River? Instant credibility and recognition? Feh! Not for us.

No, better we should separate ourselves into tiny anonymous townships and fiefdoms, and then fight like hell to maintain our independence, making sure that none of that dirty ‘big city money’ shall ever come into our coffers. We’ll be Belmontians and Watertownies and Medfordites, proud and poor, and some day trivia questions will be written about our hallowed acreage. And there will be much rejoicing.’ (Yay!)

That’s the geography of ‘Boston’ in a nutshell, really. ‘Boston’ is just a little bit Boston, and largely Brookline and Cambridge and Somerville and Belmont and Charlestown and a hundred other runty little villages who didn’t want to be called ‘Boston’, but still are by the 99% of the free world that doesn’t give enough of a rat’s heinie to make the distinction.

So what does all of this mean to you, a potential visitor to the asylum? Well, first of all, it means that you can’t swing a dead cat anywhere between Cape Cod and Maine, at any time of year, without hitting at least a dozen of those bullshit campaign signs that people string all over the goddamned place. See, more towns per square mile just means more town council members, and treasurers, and selectpersons (selectpeople? What’s the PC term here?), and comptrollers per capita than just about anywhere on the planet.

(And of course, as every good politico knows, the only right way to get elected, to spread your word among the constituents and separate yourself from the competition, is to plop thousands of signs — with nothing but your name and mug shot on them, natch — all along every highway, parking lot, and philosophically-aligned neighbor’s yard that you can possibly reach by car or on foot. Throw those bitches up everywhere — street corners, electric poles, shop windows, you name it — and if you win the election (and there’s any slush money left to support it), maybe in a year or two, you can think about taking them back down. Or not. By that time, you’ll be up for re-election, and you’ll just need more, anyway.

Okay, I know this tangent gets me a little edgier than most, but I just can’t leave it at that. Who told these guys that a good way to get elected would be to mingle their litter together and throw it all over God’s creation? Has politics really sunk (or risen, for all I know) to the level where it’s justifiable to fight that damned hard to get a name in front of a potential voter’s eyes as they cruise down I-95? Do they really think that the person is going to go into the booth on Election Day and just blithely pull the levers (or punch the holes, or tap the screens) of the people whose names he/she can remember, or of the stooge who had a ‘kind face’ on the placard across the street?

And if that is what they think, ye gods help us, are they right???)

Okay, went way off base that time. What was I saying before? Ah, what all these little dink towns mean. Gotcha.

So, of more importance to the casual traveller, I would think, is this: despite the historical differences and petty arguments that must have served to separate these little towns at some point, it seems that there’s one area in which they all have very similar tastes: street names. You’ll find that certain street names (Beacon, for instance, and Washington, and Main, of course, but also Harvard and College and a few dozen others) pop up in just about every single place you go. In some cases, the name continues unchanged through several towns, as it should in any normal place with city planners who are neither drunk nor gibbons. (Beacon Street, for instance, passes from Boston to Brookline and is handed over relatively unscathed to Newton, where it finally peters out.)

As you might expect (by now, from me), these cases are vanishingly rare. Most of the time, Boston will have a particular Street, and maybe an Avenue or a Place, while Brookline will chime in with a totally separate Street of its own, and perhaps a Terrace, and then Cambridge will throw in a couple, and Arlington gets in the act, and pretty soon you’ve got to carry your own GPS with you just to get a cabbie pointed in the right direction.

Even the cases where it should be easy, it just isn’t. I know that Harvard, besides being a school in Cambridge and a street name in several other towns, also runs continuously from Boston to Brookline. However, in one place it’s ‘Harvard Street‘, and in the other it’s ‘Harvard Avenue‘, and no one short of a Boston University historical scholar seems to know which is where, when they switch, and for the love of Pedro Martinez, why? Why, why, whyyyyyyy?

What’s the bottom line? Well, you have a couple of options, short of buying the GPS for your fanny pack. You can usually get around okay if you have a map, but you need to know enough beforehand to get the right map, of course, and if you’re planning on travelling more than about 600 feet, you’ll need two or three maps, because you’ll end up crossing through several different cities on your trek.

While it’s possible to plan that well ahead of time, the best bet is to arm yourself with a whole frickin’ Eastern Massachusetts atlas, and just hope it’s not open to Woburn when you think you’re looking at Wellesley, or Medford when you’re trying to make a left turn somewhere in Malden. In fact, maybe it’s better to scrap driving altogether and just use the public transportation system.

Then, there’s the public transportation system.

Thankfully, they opted not to simply call it ‘Mass Transit’, which is good. There’s one less groaner we have to walk around with every day. But there are some issues nonetheless. For one, I’m still trying to figure out how the real acronym (MBTA, ‘Mass Bay Transit Authority, I think it is) gets shortened to ‘the T’ when people talk about the trains.

Maybe it was originally the ‘M’, and they threw that out because people got it confused with that guy in the James Bond movies; and so they tried the ‘B’ and people started calling it the ‘Bee-yatch!’ instead, so they just kept moving down the letters, and the third time was a charm. Really, I don’t know. But it doesn’t make any damned sense, as far as I can tell.

Or maybe it’s just ‘T’ for ‘Train’, like in some pre-schooler’s alphabet book. There are many, many well-educated, literate, eloquent people here in Boston, let me assure you, but I can understand the need for simplicity at the times when you actually need a train (namely, 8am, when you’re still drooling on your tokens as you board; 6pm, when you’re too fried to zip your fly, much less dither about whether you’re catching the ‘M’, the ‘T’, or the ‘Bee-yatch!’; and 1am, when all you really want is somewhere to pee and sleep (neither of which are allowed on the ‘T’, as it happens, though many of the cabs in Boston smell as if they’re rather flexible with one or both of the rules)).

Which brings us to the more damning problem with Boston’s public transportation system. I would very much like to meet another city that has decided, as Boston seems to have done, that it’s a Good Idea™ to stop train and bus service one half hour or more before the bars spill their payload of drunken businessfolk and fraternity brawlers into the cobblestone streets.

So you can either stay sober and drive yourself home early, with the option of taking a ride on one of Uncle Sam Adams’ trolleys, or you can whoop it up until the bouncers hustle you out the door, and be stuck with the ever-more-depressing options of:

A) walking home (if you live in, or on the other side of, South Boston, this option is not open to you under any circumstances)

ii) bumming a ride home, which means your chauffeur for the evening is either also loaded or likes to hang out late enough to close bars without drinking; either way, he/she should be considered dangerous and unstable

3) paying a grumpy Eastern European fellow wearing a wife-beater and someone else’s toupee $40 to sit in his stench for half an hour to get you home in his cab/mobile bedroom

So, a word of advice re: the Boston ‘T’. Treat it like the restroom in a Taco Bell. (No, that doesn’t mean pee on the walls when you think no one is looking…. what it means is:)

Feel free to use it when there’s not much action around. At those off-peak times, it’s likely to be (relatively) clean, roomy, and you won’t necessarily have to clinically sterilize your seat before using it. Oh, and you’re fairly likely to find some reading material that no one else is using, too. But — avoid it if possible during rush hours, unless you enjoy rubbing elbows (and knees and thighs, oh my!) with random sweaty unattractive people, some of whom will be quite chatty.

And finally, if you think you may be on the verge of an, ahem, emergency, try your damnedest to be sure that you can get home on your own rather than be forced to use the facilitiies under duress. It never works out quite the way you want, and often ends up necessitating a change of clothes and a long hot shower.

Okay, that takes care of the ‘T’, I think. What’s for dessert? How about the weather?

I’m not sure that the weather in Boston is really that different from anywhere else, except maybe places that get warm ever. Actually, that’s unfair. Certainly Boston gets its fair share of snow. Plus it hogs most of Connecticut’s, and steals a bit of Rhode Island’s, as well. But it’s not particularly colder than a lot of wintry places, just really white and really wet (think Clay Aiken poolside after a Ruben cannonball).

Anyway, moving along quickly to get that image out of my head… the snow usually melts by May or so, just like most places (most places north of Canada, anyway), and then spring comes along. It’s all good from there on — we get about two months of spring, and about two months of autumn, and there’s always that 17 minutes or so in between where it really gets warm! Eighty, almost. Relatively almost, anyway. In Kelvin.

Okay, I’m just lying now, though most people in the area would tell you a similar story. My real beef with the weather is just the opposite: for all the bitching and complaining that there’s no summer around here, July and August are generally pretty miserably hot (on the north end of 80, and often 90) and humid (the frickin’ city’s built by a river, on the ocean, and it snows like hell during winter; how humid do you think it gets?).

So, fine. It’s not Alabama, I hear you saying. (And I kiss the ground outside my door every day that continues to be true.) It’s not Arizona. How bad can it be? See, this is where the attitude above really hurts. Because everyone around Boston focuses on the cold six (okay, eight, and maybe nine) months out of the year and bitches about how it’s never hot, no one prepares for the heat when it does manage to haul its ass off the beaches on the Gulf and get up here. Air conditioners are rarer in Boston than Republican guest speakers at Harvard graduations. It’s hot all damned day, hot in the house all evening, and the bed at night feels like a big sleeping bag full of hot fudge (and not in a good way, if you can believe that).

Anyway, I suppose I can understand why there’s no air conditioning to be found around here. Most of the buildings are older than Strom Thurmond, though usually somewhat less rickety. But they’ve been through waves of upgrades over the past few years — indoor plumbing, electric wiring, coat after coat of lead paint… I suppose they deserve a bit of a rest before jamming ducts from their basements up to their chimneys (sounds like a prostate exam, doesn’t it, fellas?) to add A/C.

I suppose the only advice I can offer to beat the Boston heat in summer is to stay in a hotel, where the booze is expensive but the amenities are modern, or try sleeping on the ‘T’. Not only is it air-conditioned, but you’ll get a good night’s rest. They call ‘lights out’ at 12:30, and they’ll make sure you’re tucked away safely before any of those nasty drunks come out to bother you.

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