I took a break last week from writing in order to try to make some order out of the chaos of moving to a new house. Finally, I sat down, ready to bitch about the North Koreans (or the Syrians or whomever I was on about that day). That’s when I turned on the news and saw it. Boston, the capital city of my youth, my city, had been attacked by terrorists.
The last thing I wanted to do was sit down and write or speculate about the attack. The fact of the matter is that I don’t know any more about who did this, or why, than you do. Sooner or later, we’ll know everything. In the meantime, the attack has brought out the worst cascade of asinine and insensitive comments I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m not going to join them. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Sean Hannity and Barney Frank, you callous partisan hacks.)
Since April 15, I’ve been vacillating between grief and anger, now that the plague of terrorism has touched someplace so dear to me.
Don’t misunderstand me: I cried for New York on 9/11, too. I lived in New York when I spent a year in school there, and I have fond memories and many friends who still live in the city. I still work there on occasion. But I am to my bones a New Englander. I was born and raised in Massachusetts, and I will always be a son of the Commonwealth.
So, I didn’t want to write about this because it’s too personal. But I can’t ignore it.
I grew up out by the Connecticut River, in the unfashionable 413 area code of Massachusetts. When I was a boy, I thought a trip into Boston was like a visit to Oz. (Actually, it was better than that. Oz was for girls.)
After an idyllic stay at Harvard Summer School when I was 17, there was no way I was going to college in any other city, and I went on to become a proud graduate of Boston University. (I love that I now teach at the Summer School, a job that is not only professionally rewarding, but which definitely gives me an occasional welcome rush of nostalgia.)
I arrived at BU in the fall of 1979, and my time on Commonwealth Avenue was far more than four years of college. I formed some of my closest friendships there, and took the first steps toward my career under the guidance of wonderful professors who not only educated me but helped me to grow up. Some of them are still friends. Others I mourn now that they’ve passed. For many years now, I’ve headed up each week to Cambridge to teach at Harvard Extension, but I always smile for a moment as I pass my freshman dorm, which is still one of the ugliest buildings in the city.
Now and then I cut over to my old neighborhood in Allston to buy imported Russian foods for me and my daughter. I have mixed feelings at how beautiful and gentrified my old neighborhood is. At one point, during a particularly impoverished summer, I shared an apartment with a foreign engineering student named Jesus, a female carpenter — still a oddity in those days — whose name I can’t remember, and about a zillion little insect friends who seemed immune to the lethal cigar smoke that used to waft up from the super’s apartment downstairs. (It’s true: roaches are survivors.)
Today, that apartment is a nice condo. Things change. But sometimes, I miss the dank.
I got my first real job over 30 years ago, while I was still in school, as a legislative aide in the Massachusetts State House — or to use its proper name, “The Great and General Court.”
I worked for a fine man, Ken Lemanski, who represented my hometown. He was as virtuous and conscientious a public servant as I’ve ever seen — better than his constituents deserved, believe me — and I pretty much worshipped the water he walked on.
I was just a kid, and could only afford cheap off the rack suits and department store shoes, but that didn’t stop me from hanging out for lunch or an after-work beer with the local sharpies in places like the Golden Dome pub on Bowdoin Street, where I could watch the politicos and journos plying their trades.
It’s also where I could pick up the kind of invaluable political gossip and intelligence that only comes from sitting (with mouth shut and ears open) next to tables of lobbyists, state reps, and Globe reporters.
On a few nights, I was privileged to join my boss for the 3 am dinners at Joe Tecce’s in the North End where the legislators trying to hammer out budgets in all-night sessions at the State House would take a break for dinner and really solve their problems together. I learned political science in college and grad school in New York and Washington, but I first learned about politics in Boston.
In graduate school, I came back to Boston for a year. I was studying at Harvard by day, but I needed to make some money the rest of the time, and so I became a licensed cabbie in Brookline, working mostly overnights. If you’re not from this area, Brookline is seamlessly wedged into Boston, and Brookline cabs work both towns. (We were not allowed, however, to pick up in Boston or Cambridge: poaching fares out of your license area was a good way to get your ass kicked and your cab keys thrown in the sewer. Trust me. I saw it happen.)
Driving around in the dark, I learned most of the city and its streets by heart — except Charlestown and Mattapan, which were no-go zones for us in those days due to crime. I knew downtown especially well, which is why I could tell exactly which block and cross street the bombs were on when I saw the first reports of the Marathon attack. I had driven by them hundreds of times.
A bit later, I worked as a writer and the chief (read: only) news editor at the now-retired Hellenic Chronicle, which was then one of the leading ethnic newspapers in the United States. It had a national circulation among Greek-Americans of about 30,000 — not too shabby in those days — and I was filling a job once held by another young Greek-American named Nicholas Gage. (He went on to more notoriety than I did, of course.) Our offices were on Newbury Street, just around the corner from the attack sites on Boylston, and I took a lot of afternoon breaks in Copley Square, crossing over the same sidewalks that are at this moment still stained with blood.
I know the Lenox Hotel well. When I was young and broke, I took fares there in my cab. When I was older, I took dates there for drinks or dinner, and sometimes stayed there when visiting my old haunts. The explosions took place on each side of the Lenox, across the street.
When I left Boston for good, it was worse than leaving home. We all have affection for our hometown, wherever we come from, but for me and a lot of other students who came and stayed, an old cliche was nonetheless true: Boston was not only the city we had adopted as our own, but the city that had adopted us. We became Bostonians not in the sense that we were now rubbing elbows with the descendants of the Cabots and Lodges over on Beacon Hill, but in the way that waves of Irish immigrants had become Bostonians by moving there, working, and generally taking over the place. (Those Irish toughs, to the horror of the British-descended WASPs, ended up running the city for decades.)
I never developed a Boston accent — my Pioneer Valley roots out in the western part of the Commonwealth were too strong for that — but I did end up speaking in the cadence and the argot of the locals. I still do.
I won’t catalog the way Boston changes those of us who’ve lived there. Well, maybe a few: “chowder” never needs to be prefaced with “clam,” nor is it
that disgusting red shit made in Manhattan, and it never has a tomato in it. “Coffee” means “Dunkin Donuts.” And if you shoot your mouth off without knowing the difference between Southie and the South End, no one will help you when you get what you deserve.
You’ll also find that if we have to, we will personally walk you along the Freedom Trail so that you and your kids won’t get lost. We will bend your ear and tell you really cool secrets about the city that are probably just urban legends, but that we choose to believe anyway, and we will insist you believe them, too. (Was the Hancock Tower built at that crazy angle so it never casts a shadow on Trinity Church? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s our story and we’re stickin’ to it.)
Any place that you visit more than once will treat you from that point on as a regular. (There’s a reason Cheers was set in Boston.) And no matter how intimidating they might seem, my experience has always been that Boston cops, along with their brother officers in Cambridge and their comrades in the Massachusetts State Police, are great guys.
Boston can be a rough and sometimes uninviting place, but if you spend any time there, you will end up attached to it. Your affection might be like the way you feel about a really smart and welcoming best friend who seems to know everything and never lets you down. Or it might be the grudging place you make in your heart for that boorish jackass of a brother-in-law you can’t help but love despite his taste in beer, sports, and dirty jokes.
A lot of it will depend on which part of the city you feel is really yours: you might feel more comfortable in Allston with the students, in the financial district with the suits, in the South End with the new hipsters, or somewhere else. If you’re there long enough, you’ll figure it out. And they’ll figure you out, too. It just takes a little time.
The city’s seen a lot of fighting, and it has a lot of scars. Now it has one more. It’s not the first hit the place has ever taken, and it won’t be the last. Like its big doofus of a younger brother and its decaying older cousin — I mean, of course, New York and Philadelphia — Boston is sometimes a magnet for trouble. Millions of people who don’t live here pass through the schools, museums, and historical sites every year, and that’s always a tempting environment for criminals and hucksters.
Now it’s been hit by terrorists. I think I know how the city will react over time: the Marathon attack will be a combat ribbon that Boston will quietly place on its collective breast. A plaque will be put on a wall somewhere on Boylston. Memorials will be held before every Marathon. And then everyone will get back to studying, working, and bitching about the Sox (which, I should warn you, only we are allowed to do).
There will be poems and encomiums written, too. Boston and its environs have produced more eloquence and learning than any other city in America. (Yeah, New York, even more than you, but to be fair, we started earlier.) I’m sure there will be soaring tributes from Boston’s educated classes to the Marathoners, the first responders, the victims, and eventually, to the people who will find the cowards who did this.
Still, I imagine that the average Bostonian will forego all that literary elegance. If I know the people of the city as I think I do, their reaction to the terrorists will probably boil down to a more typical answer, the kind of thing you’re more likely to hear in a townie bar fight just before, as we’d say here, you get “your derby hammered in.” It will involve the reflexive use of a Anglo-Saxon verb, in which the terrorists will be invited to do something anatomically impossible. I don’t think I have to say it, but I know more than a few Bostonians who already have.
Whether the terrorists are renegade Americans or foreigners with a beef, one thing is clear: they’re not from around here. If they were, they’d have known better. Either way, they’ve had their shot, and soon it’s going to be our turn. And when that happens, I wouldn’t be in the terrorists’ shoes for all the whiskey in Ireland.