USA October 2009 : VI – Boston, MA
The experience was instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever had a track break on an electric trainset, except that in the real world trains are heavy and have significant momentum. Thus, deprived of current they don’t skid to a sudden, plasticky halt but rather slide on for half a mile, slowly but inevitably losing speed. Everything bar the fire escape signs suddenly and simultaneously went out, and slowly, deliberately, the whine of the engine dipped and eventually ceased. After an ominous silence, the first of a succession of interruptions began. The hilarious announcements from the man on the tannoy (who probably had a ridiculous job title, but it’s slipped my mind) who seemed to know remarkably little about the man who was apparently trying to “recycle” the engine, let alone whether such a process was wise or likely to succeed. The banter between the passengers was fascinating, and delightfully American in its world-weary but essentially optimistic humour. The English train traveller would have been swearing under his breath at some unseen authority figure responsible for all such disasters, whereas the Americans started sharing anecdotes and advice, calling ahead to their relatives or cracking jokes. At one point we seemed destined to be shunted onto another train in what sounded like a spectacularly dangerous line-up-the-trains-and-jump-across manoeuvre, but then, miraculously, it sprang to life again and we were off, our 45-minute stay in that particular stretch of Rhode Island over with.
New England is everything you expect it to be, even in the rain. Beautiful trees, clapboard houses with boats tied up at the jetty.
Returning to Manhattan had enabled me (either through the availability of the internet or the additional self-confidence I seemed to acquire, depending on your viewpoint/my honesty) to get a place to stay in Boston after all. Apart from a general desire to see a bit of New England and explore the history that lines the streets of Boston, one of my reasons for going was to catch up with an old school friend who had just started at the Berkeley College of Music. Berkeley is the stuff of legend to musicians, a mecca for popular music students from across America and, as in this case, the rest of the world. I had, unwittingly, booked a self-catered apartment right in the heart of the Back Bay area, a short walk from the Berkeley campus and two blocks from where he lived.
I had an address and a phone. A door key, not a swipe card. I was a real person. I went shopping for food, cooked a simple meal and watched television. I walked out into the night and up to Boston Common, anonymous in the mist.
Like every self-catered holiday home in the world, it had a ring binder full of information about the locality, a map and lists of recommended shops and restaurants. I ventured out to the shop that looked the best and realised why; it was an expensive deli where every item seemed to have justified its presence by some sort of demonstrable health benefit. Avoiding most of this, I bought bread, jam, apples and, unable to resist a small slice of nostalgia for Italy, San Pellegrino limonata (you know, the ones with the little foil lids on the cans). I then returned, dropped these things and followed my little map to the local Trader Joe’s, where I found real food at real prices and bought pasta, a tomato sauce from a jar for said pasta, bacon, butter, croissants, cheese. On this lot I could exist quite happily for a few days; bacon sandwiches and croissants with jam for breakfast, toast whenever I felt like it, cheese sandwiches packed up for lunch (with apples and cans of delectable Italian lemonade) and pasta for dinner, throwing into the tomato sauce bacon and/or cheese for interest. Set up like this, I was liberated for the first time from the dull, repetitive and expensive, not to mention lonely, habit of eating alone in bars and cafes.
I set up home, put my books on the table in a little row, unpacked my shaving kit in the bathroom and hung clothes in the wardrobe.
I woke the next morning, made a breakfast, watched some CNN and looked out at the rain from the comfort of my sofa. I made my way down Newbury to the (immaculate and very convenient) internet cafe and confirmed my rendezvous with Dave that afternoon. I then walked into the centre of Boston for a while and followed the “Freedom Trail” in the misty grey weather.
It rained a lot, which meant Boston wasn’t as spectacular as it might have been, but I got to catch up with Dave and go to a couple of concerts at Berklee. I got a full guided tour from Dave and was hugely impressed with the place and the talent on show.
The moment that stays with me is a filmic one; walking down a corridor with practice rooms on both sides, the sound like flicking the dial on an old radio, stations fading in and out, each snippet a tiny sliver of immense worth, each room radiating talent, commitment, potential.
It is surreal meeting someone you know in a new environment. Sure, I’d never seen Kellie or Erin in the places I saw them this time, but at least in some senses they are American and belong there. Dave is as English as Earl Grey with lemon in it and definitely does not belong on the corner of Massachusetts and Boylston, sitting on a windowledge and scribbling in a manuscript notebook to pass the time. We repaired to Starbucks and swapped anecdotes as Englishmen in Boston.
The sun burst forth eventually, and in a mad three-hour dash I took the photos I’d wanted to take the previous day, ending sat on the end of one of the wharves watching the yachts on the bay, drinking pretentious Italian lemonade and eating decidedly unpretentious chocolate.
Downtown Boston doesn’t feel like America. It has streets with names, with twists and bends and cobbles underfoot. There are moments when you could be in the Georgian parts of any number of English towns, others when, if you squinted, you might just be in continental Europe. Look up at the aforementioned street names, however, and you could only be in the cradle of the revolution and the nation as we know it now. The names of English earls Fairfax, Arlington, Devonshire, mixed with the American revolutionaries and politicians; Lafayette, Washington, Lincoln, Harrison, Franklin.
Back Bay reverts to the orderly geometric form one comes to expect from American cities, but even there its heritage is exposed. I was on Hereford Street, and nearby Exeter, Gloucester and Dartmouth streets suggested someone knew the south-west of England.
I also took a walk across the river and into Cambridge, through the MIT and Harvard campuses, both of which are beautiful in their own right. Boston itself was beautiful for the three hours that the sun came out, during which I ran around taking all the photos I wish I could have taken on the other days.
Boston was everything I needed at this point. With my apartment away from the city centre I had peace and independence. I could come and go as I pleased, write and take photographs, read endlessly, watch TV.
My last day was spent on/in just about every mode of transport; Acela train from Boston to New York Penn, then a manic four hours rushing around buying souvenirs and finding dinner, jump into a cab to JFK and catch a plane home.
Leaving Boston. Acela to Penn Station, cab to JFK, 777 to LHR, tube to St Pancras, train to Sheffield. And I have to explain why I’m not looking forward to this?!
Somewhere near Bridgeport, CT (according to my hastily-scribbled journal entry) I was struck by a passage in a Fitzgerald short story, so much so that I wrote it out verbatim, for fear, apparently, that it was all I could do to preserve it somehow and thereby capture the sensation of falling for its brilliance.
The little girl who had done this was eleven – beautifully ugly as little girls are apt to be who are destined after a few years to be inexpressibly lovely and bring no end of misery to a great number of men. The spark, however, was perceptible. There was a general ungodliness in the way her lips turned down at the corners when she smiled, and in the – Heaven help us! – the almost passionate quality of her eyes. Vitality is born in such women. It was utterly in evidence now, shining through her thin frame in a sort of glow.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Actually, it wasn’t as simple as not wanting all the travel hassle. This was true, and borne out; rip-off cab, lugging my own bag to the belt after struggling with self check-in at Kennedy, delayed flight and tedious company. But more than that, I knew it was going to be a wrench to leave the place, all the more so because I was going to have four hours in New York. Like a look back over the shoulder after an emotional farewell, this wasn’t going to be fun.
Penn Station is, all the same, deeply ugly. I’m sure there’s a good reason why they demolished a beautiful old station to build the subterranean hellhole under Madison Square Garden (think Birmingham New Street on a serious bulking-up program). It has served as the warning that most civilisations seem to need to wake them up to the fact that their stations are beautiful things; as Euston was sacrificed to save St Pancras, so the old Penn Station has ensured that Grand Central will never be messed with, preserved forever as a memorial to a bygone era of American railroads.
Checking my bag into left luggage at Penn, I made my way out. Emerging onto 33th and 7th, New York hit me afresh. It was grey and rainy, 4 o’clock on an unremarkable late October afternoon, nothing special at all, but the majesty of the city came screaming into my senses. Midtown Manhattan at its most traffic-choked, concretey and mediocre, and I loved every square inch of it. In a peculiar city-bred ecstasy I stared up around me, somehow astonished that fortune had gifted me these last four hours, a reprieve before she tore this most magnificent of cities away from me. I made the best of them.
I cut through onto Fifth and began to run around buying souvenirs (including the now-traditional espresso cup for my father and a Yankees cap for my new godson) then got back on the subway one last time (faintly surprised that the seven-day card I’d bought at the start of the week was still functional; it seemed like a lot more than four days since I’d last done this) and walked down through Chelsea from the Flatiron building to the top of the High Line, alighting at the bottom to eat dinner.
I couldn’t resist staying on one more stop and returning to Times Square. I didn’t even like the place the first time I’d seen it, but now, so close now and so far so soon, it drew me in. The total, irresistible blaze of the place hit me only now in the final minutes.
The benediction of the neon light
Jackson Browne, “Tender is the Night”
I wandered through the crowds, marvelling at a place where even the NYPD and the subway have their names in lights. The world screamed from every direction, see this show, eat this dinner, buy this product. The epicentre of the western world cried out at the crowds below.
I wanted to share the unshareable. I wanted to preserve that which is by its very nature transient, ephemeral. Now that it would be gone so soon I stopped taking it for granted. Yellow cabs were novel again, every street number thrilling.
Meet me on the corner of 44th and Broadway
Ryan Adams, “Tonight”
The hour arrived, I picked up my bag and hailed a cab on Seventh for JFK. From there, it all seemed to fall apart. The cab driver charged me the fixed airport rate that only applies *from* the airport, my plane was an hour delayed, I fought with self check-in and had to carry my own bag to the belt. I sat in a fake bar drinking a $9 Sam Adams and watching the boards for news of my flight. The people sat around me were grumpy or silent, too short to put their bags in the overhead and too bitter to thank me for my help in doing it for them. Seven sleepless hours later, London finished up where New York left off.
Arrival in London was a rude awakening; suffice to say that trying to use the Piccadilly Line when Arsenal are playing Tottenham is a very bad idea.
One sleep-deprived, jet-lagged Englishman with a very large bag and several hundred football fans were delivered to King’s Cross St Pancras. I knew exactly what I needed, and lunch at Le Pain Quotidien at St Pancras proved indeed to be the perfect antidote to everything; an hour spent eating tomatoes, mozzarella and ciabatta drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar whilst calling various friends and relatives. Conversation with the two elderly ladies opposite (LPQ runs a communal long table dining experience) was delightfully British. People-watching the upper-middles of the south-west of England educate their children about bread, cheese and wine (and polo shirts and loafers) whiles away the minutes. Soon enough I was speeding north, feeling the last part of the adventure slip away behind me.