THE BEST OF CITY LIFE:
Boston, you're my home
By Camille Dodero
I want to tell you a story
I want to tell you about my town
I'm going to tell you a big fat story, baby
It's all about my town.
The Standells, "Dirty Water"
IT'S FITTING THAT a raucous gang of garage punks from Los Angeles penned the
definitive Boston rock-and-roll anthem. Because as much as I would love to tell
you a big fat story about my town, I can't. After spending years upon years
kicking around these parts, I'm starting to think that the only way to see the
city with any clarity -- beyond the cliché sobriquets like "Beantown,"
"Athens of America," "Hub of the Universe," "Land of the Bean and the Cod" --
is from the somewhere else. Every time I return from somewhere else -- be it
Chicago, Montreal, or New York City -- the Hancock Building shrinks as if it's
moored in quicksand, the accents in the air sound sharper, the strangers on the
train appear more familiar. And so I'm wondering if the best possible way to
distill the city into a big fat story -- maybe even to see it for what it
really is -- is to see it from somewhere else.
I could tell you about Boston when I was five, when I lived 25 miles south.
Boston was the ultimate Metropolis, the twilight cityscape that Superman
circled with Lois Lane cradled in his arms. Or that's what I used to think
every time my family zipped into town on the Southeast Expressway. As we'd zoom
past the Boston Gas tank decorated by Corita Kent, with its rainbow swaths
rumored to ape the profiles of Ho Chi Minh and Frankenstein, I'd watch Boston's
buildings poke over the crest of the dashboard and excitedly point, "Look,
look! Those are the buildings where Superman flies!"
Back then, I didn't know that this was not the bustling backdrop where
Superman: The Movie was shot (my parents humored me), or that
Christopher Reeve would someday become a celebrity symbol of life's cruel
ironies, or even that Boston was not the most impressive American concrete
jungle with the tallest skyscrapers. I did know that Boston was the capital of
Massachusetts -- my capital, the only one I knew -- where the flamboyant
trapeze artists and car-stuffing circus clowns came annually to perform in a
huge, ramshackle building with rib-like rafters and championship banners. I
knew that Boston was where a freckled Irishman named Ray Flynn ruled, the
Museum of Science's enormous Tyrannosaurus rex stood, and a television
show that my mother wouldn't let me watch because it was filmed in a basement
bar took place. I also knew that a section of town called "Copley Square" was
one of the windiest places in the city -- not because I'd ever been there on a
gusty day, but because one night when I sneaked a peek of that verboten
Thursday-night program, the fluffy-haired ladies' man named Sam invited one of
the regulars to Copley Square to watch all the women's dresses blow up in the
Back then, Boston was a place of superheroes, circuses, basketball
championships, politicians, dinosaurs, and beer. But more than 20 years later,
after living here for almost 10 years, the city isn't so easily distilled. That
could be because I love Boston by default, much in the unconditional way one
loves a sibling or a parent or an appendage. Or because I've felt trapped,
frustrated, and angered by it at night, but then found myself loving it again
in the morning. Even the town's traditional stock characters -- the crooked
politicians (Mayor Curley, Billy Bulger), the Boston Brahmins (Oliver Wendell
Holmes, John Kerry), the legendary criminals (Whitey Bulger), the old-school
Irishmen (Mayor Flynn, Mayor White), the Massachusetts dynasty (the Kennedys)
-- seem inappropriate, more like caricatures of the past than archetypes of the
present. And since these stereotypes persist, the disconnect makes me wonder if
I really know the place at all.
What I can tell you about Boston from the midst of it is how lush and idyllic
the Public Garden is in the spring, with the elegant swan boats sliding across
the pond, the lacy brides swooning over their tuxedoed grooms, and the quixotic
lovers cuddling on the park benches. I can tell you about the Garden's grittier
neighbor, Chinatown -- a milieu where the strip clubs stay open until 2 a.m. on
Fridays, but can't lawfully purchase a bottle of liquor after 8 p.m. -- and its
puddled alleyways, its murky-watered aquariums of plump fish, its smudged
restaurant windows, its sweet, dark oyster sauce. I can tell you what it's like
to work two blocks away from Fenway Park, to grow disgusted with the boozy,
besotted Sox fans treating Brookline Avenue like a toilet bowl and then to feel
strangely flattered when the gum-splotched sidewalks of my daily commute become
a cynosure of American sports for two weeks in October.
I can even tell you what it was like to spend Saturday night kicking around
Lansdowne Street when Springsteen came to town, to duck into the bustling Cask
'n Flagon for a brew and to discover the jukebox playing "Hungry Heart" when a
live version had been sung a couple hundred feet away a few minutes earlier.
And what it was like on that same night to wander back into the September
warmth and to hear the Boss rasping "Dirty Water," with Peter Wolf as his
encore. And then to wonder if the Jersey boy on the stage realized that he was
singing a love song to Boston that only an outsider from somewhere else
Camille Dodero can be reached at email@example.com.