11:04 AM, Nov 2, 2009
What I did this Halloween
I did a bit of traveling over the weekend. My employer sent me to Massachusetts to conduct a site survey for an upcoming simulation exercise. The actual work portion of shaking hands, establishing a point of contact for receiving the equipment we'll be using at the simex, taking measurements of the room, and noting all the power outlets took no more than thirty minutes. I'll be doing it again this weekend in Lincoln, NE. Fortunately, I'd previously arranged to meet up with my fellow Kansas City friend Karen, who was in Boston for a conference of her own, by coincidence.
Though the site survey itself was at a mostly shut-down Army base near Leominster, MA, I was instructed to find accommodations in Worcester, a small city of roughly 170,000 about 15 miles down the road. In Massachusetts, fifteen miles will cover a lot of ground. In my seemingly short drive from Worcester to the site, I passed a half dozen decent-sized towns and three state parks. Massachusetts, though it's small and dense, is a very wild place outside the inhabited parts. Mountains, thick forests, and swamps abound. In late October it's truly a sight to behold. Though the biggest frenzy of vivid leaf colors had passed perhaps two weeks earlier, there was still an abundance of dazzling color in every direction.
People at work advised me that I should avoid flying into Boston, as there's traffic. Instead they recommended that I fly into Providence. I wasn't into this idea, but I did understand the futility of depending on Boston's Logan airport with a car, and instead chose to fly into Manchester, NH. I flew out of Boston to come home though, because I was there anyway, with my friend Karen. I had never used Manchester's airport before, and it was an absolute breeze. From gate to street was roughly three minutes, and that includes a pee. I had no trouble getting a rental, and hopped on I-93 to speed southward to my destination.
About seventy minutes later, I rolled into Worcester, a city named for the British city in the center of the region that gives my father's favorite steak sauce its name. As is the custom in Massachusetts, Worcester has a salad bar of colleges, large and small, and so of course has a significant youthful population. Undulating hills score its landscape. This combined with its considerable age of 336 years (ancient for America) make for an incongruous mishmash of streets that follow no particular pattern and heed no address numbering scheme of any kind other than buildings just incrementing addresses on a particular street. I noticed this on Massachusetts' highways as well. They most certainly do have mile markers, but the exit numbers have nothing to do with them. Anyway, this all comes together to form an excellent built environment in Worcester, and it goes without saying but I'll say anyway that it's an extremely walkable city.
I walked to Armsby Abbey on the advice of the hotel staff, and they instructed me to "have one" for them. They love beer in Massachusetts, and it shows. I went inside and found that the bar had a selection of about forty beers available on draught, including several Belgian flavors. I'm not a big enthusiast of Belgian beers, as they're on average too sweet and bready for my taste, but I do acknowledge that the commitment, both monastic and commercial, to the craft is a time-honored tradition in Belgium, and here in the States, people flap their arms for Belgian beer.
I helped myself to a local IPA and a local Porter, and got a lot of turned heads when my food came. Some kind of gouda-based concoction that featured bacon and potato salad, and that almost made me start looking around for an apartment guide, was dropped off in front of me. It was a late dinner and I was very hungry, but even so it was an explosion of flavor. I asked the bartender who was, of course, from the Midwest, like everyone else in cool coastal cities, where would be a good place to go after this. She recommended the Boynton, but admonished me that without the benefit of a car, it was "a hike." I told her I didn't mind a walk, as it was a beautiful night. She reluctantly gave me directions.
It took me fifteen minutes to walk there with a full sidewalk and respected priority crosswalks on every step of the route. I don't know what she was talking about with it being, "a hike." I walk farther than that in Kansas City all the time, and have to keep my wits about me to avoid getting flattened by motorists who don't take kindly to people walking on their roadway. Anyway, the Boynton had an outstanding draught selection, but almost everyone there was drinking bottled grey beer. The bartender dusted off the 90-minute IPA handle for me, and I watched the Phillies lose game 2 of the World Series. I was back at the hotel by 11pm, and went leisurely to sleep.
I awoke the next morning in no particular hurry, as I had no specific obligations until after 2pm. I checked out at noon, and drove up to the site just to do what database partner Paul calls, "recon," on the location and the route. With an hour to spare, I periscoped for some lunch. After a pretty sad showing (ie. nothing), I finally came across a Wendy's in Ayer, MA. I ate a 99-cent burger that isn't available in Kansas City, while I watched with quiet humor a revolving door of something you don't hear a lot about in the Midwest: New England Rednecks.
I've been to Massachusetts many times, but never before in my adult life had I visited the provinces this extensively. The natives, especially in the country, have the thickest New England accents I could have imagined. My friend Carl told me several years ago that the accent had "left Boston," and removed to the surrounding areas. I had forgotten this until it was brought home to me at that Wendy's in Ayer. After I finished eating I had perhaps twenty minutes to make the five-minute drive to the site, and I got a phone call. It was my point of contact, letting me know that the site survey wouldn't be possible for another ninety minutes. So, I had some time on my hands.
I decided to head into Leominster for three reasons. One, it has my middle name in its name; two, it was very close; and three, it's the purported birthplace and hometown of Johnny Appleseed. So I headed into town and encountered a ridiculous traffic jam just outside the downtown area. I pulled off and found a spot at a Catholic Church aptly named St. Leo's, suited up, and walked into town. Leominster's downtown is a New England-style modern-art puzzle crammed around a sunny lawn with a Gettysburg memorial reverently erected in its center. No fewer than six church steeples were visible over the orange and red treetops. I took a couple of pictures, but realized that really, there's nothing remarkable about Leominster. It was very different and interesting and exciting to me, but to the average Leominister(?) it's just another town. Even so, I wandered around downtown, peeking into shop windows and trying not to act surprised when people smiled their hellos as we'd pass on the sidewalk. It was a very agreeable town.
I got a call from Ed, my point of contact, as I was heading back to the car. He said he'd be at the site in perhaps thirty minutes. We met at what used to be the Post Shoppette (basically an army gas station), but was now just a regular gas station. I got there first, so I used the bathroom, picked up a hawaiian punch, and sat outside and read a chapter of a book I've read a hundred times already. Ed arrived and we made short work of the work for which my employer paid an extensive sum to finance.
My work obligations complete, I had nothing to do but have a good time. So I hopped on Highway-2, and zoomed into Boston for Halloween weekend. The highways directed me toward the Masspike, and soon I was $2.50 lighter, and headed toward the Prudential building to Neil Diamond in open 60mph traffic. It was a very exciting for me. For a moment I forgot about my debts, my obligations, my troubles, and just enjoyed a sublime point in time.
I dropped the car off at the airport, happy to be rid of it, and jumped on the silver line "train" to the World Trade Center stop. Karen was waiting for me there, and we shared a weird sideways hug. Karen and I are two pretty different people. She actually enjoys things that are good for you. To me they're a necessary, but entirely unpleasant aspect of life. When I travel I abandon the pursuit of making myself a healthier person, in favor of enjoying myself as fully as I can. Beer, meat, potatoes, cholesterol, sugar, refried beans, guacamole, loud music, walking at leisure- these are all things of which I usually avail myself fully when I'm traveling for fun, while Karen is more of a mind of staying the responsible healthy course she has set for herself in her daily life, and which she has come to love and enjoy.
I wish I could enjoy that sort of thing, but I just can't. So I chew my greens and wash them down with water to get the horrible unprocessed veggie taste out of my mouth, and press on. But even so, Karen and I got along just fine when we spent the weekend. I think she was being a little more accommodating than I was though, and I feel the need to apologize to her for that. I need to remember to do that the next time I see her, and to remember that she gave up her weekend for me. I'm not sure I ever fully conveyed my thanks to her for that.
Anyway, she walked me back to the hotel, and I did a five-minute unsweating of my face and armpits in the bathroom when we arrived. I had already arranged with Carl that I'd meet him for dinner and drinks that night. (It was Friday.) Karen had an opening reception to attend for the weekend's conference, and said she'd try to meet up later. I had outstanding luck with the trains, and managed to catch one as soon as I arrived at each platform. As a result, I beat Carl to the rally point by a good ten minutes. This was in the middle of Allston, so the streets were alive with beautiful young people. Carl strode up soon after, and we hugged, not having seen each other for the better part of three years.
We went to a bar called Deep Ellum, which as I recall, is the name of an artsy neighborhood just outside downtown Dallas, TX. As such, I had the theme music from Dallas
stuck in my head all night, along with images of Charlene Tilton. We shared a table with a friendly couple, had dinner, drank some delicious local beers, and caught up. It was really wonderful to spend time with Carl on Friday, brief as it was. After we'd been there a little while, I got a text from Karen, proposing that we meet at the Publick House in Brookline. We heaved sighs, but Karen had never been there, and it's definitely a place that everyone needs to visit at least once.
I'm sure there were plenty of buses and cabs that would have been happy to carry us the mile and a half that lay between Deep Ellum and the Publick House, but we agreed that it was too nice of a night not to walk it. Even on foot, we still beat Karen there by at least twenty minutes. We grabbed some beers, and wedged ourselves into a window-side table among the spent glasses of the table's previous occupants. Karen appeared in the picture window about halfway into our beers, and the three of us sat and talked for perhaps an hour before other people from her conference that were walking by recognized her, and split us into conversation groups of Carl and John, and Karen and the conference people. It was actually really nice.
The conference people persuaded us to join them at a costume party about a half mile away. Carl excused himself for the evening when we arrived, and after a couple of beers and laughs, Karen and I left too. It was after 1am, so the buses and trains were not an option. We grabbed a cab, and were stunned at the short time it takes to drive from Brookline to South Boston, compared to our previous point of reference: the T. We went upstairs and were asleep in minutes. Karen reported the next day that not only was I snoring loudly, but I was also growling and speaking in complete sentences, presumably, to people with whom I dreamily interacted.
We met Tobias at a bookstore and brunch place called either Trident or The Trident, on Newbury St in the Back Bay. I had an eggs benedict and too many potatoes, while Karen and Tobias each had some kind of fruit-stuffed french toast dish. it was all extremely tasty. We left there and cruised down the sidewalk of Newbury St. We got our hands lavishly and pungently washed at a Lush store, and we browsed the inescapably expensive wares at Louis Boston, which had a Ferrari parked out front. Karen spotted a pair of glasses with wooden frames, ambitiously priced at just over five hundred dollars, not counting the cost of actually fitting her prescription lenses therein, and was tempted enough to talk about them until we were considerably past capable of purchasing them. I suggested she run the search through google.
We wandered across the Public Garden, and found ourselves in Beacon Hill. Tobias told us stories about how this was his first home in Boston, and the place from which he first began to know and appreciate his new home. He pointed out places where he loved to eat, shop, and walk, and had more stories about people that he knew and had known in various parts of the neighborhood. Beacon Hill, clearly, is important to Tobias, and it's easy to see why. It's almost unimaginably scenic, and its location is the stuff of cliche. If the housing stock wasn't protected as historically significant, it would all be towering highrises now. I knew one business in Beacon Hill: the Beacon Hill Pub; a lone cash-only dive bar in the middle of the charming opulence of Charles St, conveniently situated within 100 yards of the Charles/MGH Red Line stop. We drank beer from faux pint glasses constructed of shatterproof light plastic, and talked some more about nothing in particular.
We agreed it was time to head north, so we got on the Red Line nearby, and traversed the Longfellow Bridge with the afternoon sunlight glinting off the whitecapped Charles River as a foreground to the view of the skyline of the Back Bay to the west. Karen looked up at me, smiled, and said, "I think I like Boston."
We got off the train at Harvard Square, and were immediately shocked by the much greater numbers of people on the streets in Cambridge than there had been in Boston. But it then occurred to us that it was late afternoon on Halloween in America's most overtly collegiate town. Of course people would be out en masse. We weren't quite ready to sit down yet, so we walked around Cambridge for a while. It's very surprising how abruptly the commercial storefronts give way to quiet, tidy neighborhoods of immaculate New England-style houses, but it is so. Cambridge is a singularly lovely town. I've always enjoyed visiting.
Again on my suggestion, we went to Shay's, a basement beer and wine bar about three blocks off Harvard Square. We grabbed a table and some beers, and watched the place fill up around us. Probably half the people we saw were in costume. One woman came in, dressed as a flawless Chun Li from Street Fighter 2. Shortly afterward, six men, dressed perfectly as six-foot tall versions of Oscar the Grouch, Bert, Ernie, Grover, the Cookie Monster, and the insufferable
Elmo, sat down at a nearby table. We liked this very much. Even so, after one beer, we felt the need to ramble.
We walked for a bit more in Cambridge, and wound up, on Tobias' suggestion, at a fantastic pizza place called Cambridge 1. We shared a pizza with lobster, sorrel, goat cheese, and corn on it. It was delectable. We didn't even leave any crumbs. Out the back window of the restaurant, next to which we were seated, was a centuries-old cemetery. We decided we wanted to have a look. It fronted Mass Ave, but we took an intentionally circuitous route through the neighborhood behind it for aesthetic reasons. We saw 300-year old headstones amid the falling yellow leaves and late afternoon sunshine. We left there and crossed Cambridge Common, for a bar of the same name.
Our waiter was dressed as Marty McFly, so I called him, "butthead," when I thanked him for our drinks. He laughed appreciatively, as there had been few people that had known what his costume was. Full credit must be given to Tobias though, for first spotting the costume for what it was. We had a couple of beers before we set off again, toward Tobias' home of Somerville, where we had planned with Tobias' wife Tessa, and Ted, one of the people that Karen had met at the conference. We hopped on the red line at Porter Square and rode for one stop to Davis Square, and grabbed a table at Damaskar for some excellent Indian Food.
The food, drink, and conversation were delightful. Nobody could finish their dinner, so Tobias and Tessa gratefully and graciously accepted everyone's leftovers. We said good-night to Ted, who had a party to attend, and went to Tobias and Tessa's apartment about 3/4 of a mile away. We watched some football while we talked, and Tobias and I discovered that his mother and my sister attended the same small girls' college in Terre Haute, IN. Tessa brought me close to tears as she played us a beautiful piece on their new piano, and we watched an episode of Saved by the Bell
By this time, it was about 11:15pm, and Karen and I had an early flight the next morning, so we thanked them for their friendliness and hospitality, and retraced our steps to the Red Line stop at Davis Square. On the way, the weather went from sprinkling to drizzling to raining to pouring. We hastened to put electronics into protected pockets and bags, but everything got wet. We alighted at the T stop bedraggled and soaked, but I still rather enjoyed it. It was certainly wet, but the temperature was very pleasant, and I always enjoy walking in the rain. Also, though it did rain, neither of us made any effort to hurry. I think we had a silent understanding of our mutual appreciation for the simple novelty of finishing our weekend with falling rain.
It had been almost three years since my last visit to Boston, and though the visit was brief, I can't imagine how it could have been improved.