August 21, 2007

Day in Boston

I'm over my cold just enough to take a stab at updating. I'm better but still not well, so I beg forgiveness in advance for grammatical errors and stylistic faux pas in excess of what usually appears here.

Not wanting to drive, and particularly not wanting to park, in Boston, LL and I set out to the city on Sunday morning on the MBTA commuter rail from Worcester. It's been a long time since I've lived in a city with something approaching real mass transit and it's nice to have that facility again, even if track work on the line shared with CSX Transport meant that the ride took much longer than usual. We got in at about 11:30 instead of the scheduled 10:55 AM. Nonetheless, riding the train itself was a break from routine and LL and I can make a good time out of just about anything when we're together. A couple of older Brazilian gentlemen boarded the train at Framingham and provided a soundtrack to our trip, with one of them rattling on incessantly about the house his cousin had bought and all the work that needed to be done on it and about how attitudes about money and family are so different in the US than they are in Brazil. He talked and talked and talked and the other fellow listened and listened and listened. LL asked every so often what he seemed so excited about and I translated what I could from Portuguese to English, and so we passed the time until our train arrived at the Back Bay station. Then we hurried over to the Orange Line platform and grabbed another train to State Street and from there we walked a few blocks through thick, international crowds to the New England Aquarium. Along the way, there were snippets of conversation in French, Japanese, Portuguese and other languages wafting through the air. It felt good to once again be in an international, cosmopolitan city. I like natural places and I also like big cities, and the attraction for both, I think, is the presence of diversity, whether biological or cultural.

I've always enjoyed aquariums and, if it weren't for my great love of certain filamentous, chitinous life forms, I might well have gone into marine biology instead of mycology. There's a certain alien appeal to both sea creatures, particularly the invertebrates, and fungi. The New England Aquarium is one of the better aquariums I've visited; overall, I'd rank it just behind the New York Aquarium and the Academy of Sciences Aquarium in San Francisco, but far ahead of such lame attempts as the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

The special exhibit at the aquarium was penguins. Penguins bring with them a massive cuteness factor, of course, and so even getting near enough to have a good look took patience. Little kids can watch them for a very long time, Penguins at the aquarium enjoying a shower of cold water.and there was no shortage of little kids present on this perfect afternoon. I'm not sure how many different species they'd gathered together, but certainly the critters seemed to be getting along. So did the throng of visitors, thankfully. Despite the crowded condition, everyone seemed to be in a good mood early on their day off with the family. As long as we took care not to step on anyone's toes, everything was fine. Fledgling penguins are among the fluffy-cutest animals on earth, of course, as much for their inquisitive stares back at onlookers as for their rounded, baby-like heads and downy feathers. Awwwwww.

Everyone has their favorite critters at the aquarium. LL can find something admirable about nearly any living thing, and so she was taken even with so ugly a sea-beast as the goosefish as well as with psychedelically-patterned showoffs like the mandarinfish. A lobster, happy that it finds itself in a tank instead of on a plate.As for me, I'm always partial to cephalopods, and cuttlefish are among my favorites. There's an inquisitiveness and communicativeness about them that hints at an intelligence behind those oddly-shaped but better-than-human eyes. If one stands in front of a tank of cuttlefish for awhile, they'll soon be checking one out and flashing messages back and forth to one another with their uncanny chromatophores that turn their bodies into the marine equivalents of neon billboards. Sometimes it's easy to believe that they're trying to send a message to the viewer, though what would a cuttlefish have to say to a human other than, "Hey, don't eat me!" or "Get me out of this damned tank!" Another tourist, a young woman in her twenties, stepped up o the same tank where I was staring into the eyes of these marvelous aliens and proclaimed, "Ewww! They're gross!" To each her own. Do young cuttlefish ever think the same of us, I wonder? Do cephalopods have a sense of aesthetics?

We spent about two hours enjoying the aquarium despite the pushing of tourists from certain Asian countries that I'll leave unnamed. LL outside the New England Aquarium, a bit of the Boston skyline in the background.By the time we were done, it was time for lunch and LL and I were both more than ready. Before this trip, it had been more than 15 years since I'd been in Boston, but even after all that time I still remembered how to find my way to Durgin Park. I've been wanting to take LL to that Boston institution since before we got here and we finally had our chance. In a world of fast food restaurants and shifting trends, Durgin Park stands like an unchanging rock. The food was just as good and the service just as informal as I remembered and the place still has the best clam chowder I've ever had. It makes no sense to attempt reviewing the place other to say that it's Durgin Park and it's not quite like any other restaurant I've been to.

We didn't have an itinerary for the rest of the day, so we spent the next couple of hours wandering around the city, crossing old bridges and staring up at towers as I'd imagine practically every visitor to the city must do. Plaques proclaiming historic events are everywhere, of course, as are American flags paired with Red Sox fans. We saw many a Red Sox cap and sweatshirt and such and a few items of more hostile (to LL and I, anyhow) "Yankees suck!" sportswear. As a lifelong fan of the team hated before all other things in Boston, I'll never quite get that animosity. A view across the harbor; Old Ironsides (the USS Constitution) is on the right.OK, so the teams are rivals. Big deal. No sense getting aggressive about it. I've never owned a "Red Sox suck" sweatshirt and have never known anyone who has, though I'm sure such apparel exists. It's just a game, after all. Boston itself is full of contradictions, like most large American cities. Glass-and-steel condominium towers rise over humble 19th century buildings at every turn. Faded paint on the sides of brick structures commemorate wagon wheel makers beneath billboards advertising body sprays touted as potions that transform everyday women into nymphomaniacs. Everything and anything is there if you stare hard enough and long enough.

Eventually, I decided that we should make an attempt to check out some of the historic tourist attractions and found the Old North Church on our walking map. Blue and orange confetti left over after the Feast of the FishermanWe crossed through the North End on our way there, stumbling across a festival for the Feast of the Fisherman marked by a small marching band. We decided that the crowd was too much for us and skirted around the blocked-off streets. Along the way we passed banners proclaiming a list of Italian Catholic festivals for this saint or that, giving us the impression that there must be such an event in this part of town every weekend. Catholicism has a saint for every purpose, and apparently a feast for each and every one of them is held here in the North End of Boston sooner or later. I wonder how much confetti they go through in a year doing this, or maybe the little streamers are all recycled for every festival. Someone knows, but it isn't me.

We arrived after a little walking at the Paul Revere Mall. With our feet getting a bit worn out by now, we decided to take it a bit easy before going on to the nearby Old North Church. LL is being considered for full US citizenship at present, so I told her that the numerous plaques affixed to the brick walls of the mall all contained material that might show up on her test and got her to read each and every one of them. Few people know about Ben Franklin's HP DeskJet printer.We paid special attention to the plaque commemorating Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is more intimately connected to Philadelphia than to Boston, but he was actually born in the latter city and bought a house there for his sisters. Franklin is my favorite of all the founding fathers of America, perhaps the most radical thinker of the lot and certainly the least bound by any stultifying religious morality. As much as Jefferson, the man was a true genius — a statesman, an author, an inventor and a ladies' man all rolled into one. Here's someone who had a hand not only in creating the Constitution but also found time in his busy life to pen essays on flatulence and advice on how to choose a mistress. We all know that Franklin invented bifocals and the Franklin stove, but few people realize how truly ahead of his time the man really was. The photo above, for instance, documents one of his earliest inventions, the HP DeskJet printer; he bequeathed his boyhood prototype to the city of Boston and it now sits beneath the plaque commemorating him on the Revere Mall. His anticipation of the personal computer by more than 200 years is astonishing. This is a man to whom all Americans owe a great debt. Were it not for Ben Franklin, we Americans would not know how to pass gas, nor would we be able to print the pornographic images we find on the Internet and thereby consider the possibility of taking a mistress. Our Constitution might be quite different and Ron Jeremy's portrait might instead grace our $100 bills.

LL engages in a little bit of blasphemy with everybody's favorite bird-conversing martyr.In a little alcove just of the Revere Mall stands a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most popular of all the Catholic saints. After a little cajoling, I convinced LL to let me take her photo with the saint. I had not anticipated the electricity between the two of them, though, and it soon became clear that sometimes a man has to back off and let his partner have her way with a holy man. In the photo shown, LL prepares to plant a wet one on the famous martyr who spent a good deal of his time talking to birds, both the feathered sort and, apparently, the kind indicated by the British when they use that word. In any case, LL and I were on our way to a working Episcopal church and wanted to insure that our asses would burst into flames upon hitting a pew, both as a scientific test and because, hey, those pews can get awfully chilly.

After resting on the mall a bit, it was time to check out the church from the inside. The Old North Church is a wonderful antique building made famous in Longfellow's historically inaccurate poem, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." It's steeple towers 14 stories tall and is perhaps one of the most familiar images in patriotic Americana. The steeple of the Old North Church, sans lanterns warning of British troop movements. Next to the church proper is a gift shop (shoppe?) stuffed full of trinkets and post cards by which to remember one's visit to the place. Just inside the door is a bronze plaque set into the floor reminding everyone of how much Jehovah loves a good gift shop, this one having been erected by "the grace of God" in 1918. As I reminded LL, if you think the Old North Church gift shop is something, you ought to see the one in Heaven, though for some reason none of the postcards bought at that one ever get delivered in the mail.

All kidding aside, the Old North Church was one of the first places I'd ever gone in Boston, having toured it as part of a fifth grade field trip to the city for an American History class. The inside is quite beautiful in that squeaky-clean, gleaming white New England way. The pipe organ, clock and privateered Belgian angels inside the Old North Church.The place boasts a pipe organ that's been in the building longer than there's been a United States, the oldest working clock in a public place (fabricated in 1757), and a collection of four wooden angel sculptures crafted in 17th century Belgium and seized by privateers before they made a gift of them to the church. Even with the inaccuracy of Longfellow's poem about the events surrounding the place, there's a certain inspiring air to it when one considers its place in history. Thankfully, my rear end did not, in fact, catch fire when it contacted the bench in the box pew once rented to Edward Stanbridge (I think that was the name on the brass plaque affixed to the door). Hypothesis falsified; if anyone's buttocks would have burned on contact with the seat, surely mine would have.

After we'd seen the church, our intention was to visit Copps Burying Ground, just a couple of blocks away, where A very few of the old headstones in Copps Burying Ground.many noteworthy Bostonians of the Revolutionary War Era and before were interred. I had only enough time to enter the gate and snap a couple of quick photos, however, before the police showed up and kicked everybody out, announcing that the place was closing. According to the sign affixed to the gate, the site is open to the public from sunrise to sunset. Why the police decided that it should be closed at 4:50 PM on this particular day, I do not know. Sunset isn't until about 7:30 PM this time of year. LL and I, as well as the 20 or so other tourists in the place at the time, were all rather disappointed at this. There's always next time, but I do feel a bit cheated at not having had the chance to track down and photograph the headstone of the (in)famous witch-finder Cotton Mather, among others.

Dave the Juggler balancing a stroller on his face.Most of Boston's historic sites close at 5:00 PM, so we made our way back to Quincy Market to kill some time before dinner. We looked at the shops a bit, bought a postcards to send to friends and family, and then caught a street performer, a juggler, doing his shtick. This fellow's name was Dave, a Canadian he informed us, and he was quite funny and self-deprecating. He started off his act by balancing on his face a stroller given him by members of the audience, then proceeded through various other tricks to his grand finale, juggling machetes while suspended from a metal pipe by his knees. The kids loved his act and it looked like he made a good bit of money from donations judging by the crowd of children (as well as LL) who rushed in to fill his velvet bag with bills.

When the act was over, we decided that it was time for dinner, so we walked back to Long Wharf to try out Legal Seafoods. We'd read that this place was considered one of the best seafood restaurants in Boston and had won several awards and, at least as of two years ago, was rated by Zagat's as the most popular seafood restaurant in the city. As much as I didn't think it was necessary to say much about Durgin Park, I have to say something about Legal Seafoods because, having eaten there, I can't understand why this place should still be so popular. On our visit, the place was crowded, hot, and so noisy that my ears were ringing by the time we left. It wasn't even particularly clean. I discovered a squashed and melted pat of butter hidden under my napkin; the melted butter had soaked into my place mat and found its way onto my forearm before I realized it was there, and for such a large, obvious bit of waste to be left on our table and presumably hidden from view by the bus staff for some reason, I must assume that our table really hadn't been cleaned in any but the most cursory manner before we were seated (did someone think we wouldn't notice the sizable mess?) Our waitress was curt and perfunctory at best and seemed to generally be irritated whenever we asked for anything. This is a place that feels justified in claiming that "market price" for a lobster, a vegetable and some potatoes is in the neighborhood of $60 in Boston where, if one visits a local fish store, one can easily find the same lobster for $7/lb. and boil it oneself in a few minutes. The prices were really outrageous; a simple cocktail from the bar runs in excess of $10. Deciding to be a little more conservative in our spending, LL ordered a cioppino and I opted for lobster and crab ravioli. The cioppino was bland and the seafood it contained a bit overcooked, and clearly nothing to get excited about. My ravioli was alright but, again, nothing special. I've certainly had better and far less expensive. It might have been an off night for the place, or perhaps they've won all the awards they care to and are now contented with serving food a couple of notches above your local Red Lobster while charging exorbitant prices. I can't say why the place was mediocre at best, only that it was. Also, stay out of the men's room. Just take my word on that one... although going in there before ordering may save you a little money if you have to go to this restaurant at all. As for LL and I, next time we're in Boston we're definitely going to try one of the many little seafood restaurants that don't pride themselves on past awards so much. Maybe we'll get lucky and find one that's still trying to win one. There are too many other restaurants within walking distance of just about any point in Boston to waste time and money on Legal Seafoods, though. BY the time we were finished with the main course, all we wanted to do was get out of the place and find somewhere quieter and less full of itself, so we didn't bother with dessert and decided instead to make our way back to the train station to start the trip home.

After a bit of puzzlement, we found our way back to the Orange Line stop at Forest Hills station, caught the subway and arrived at the Back Bay MBTA terminal, at which point LL let out an "Oh shit!" She'd read the train schedule wrong and, as it turned out, we were stuck until 11:45. The train she'd though we were taking back to Worcester actually ended its run at Framingham and the last Greyhound bus, she found out, had left for Worcester at 8:30. We were stuck for more than two hours with everything closed in the vicinity and nothing to do. Statue of Phillips Brooks outside of Trinity Church.We sat on the platform bemoaning our error for awhile, then we headed up a flight of stairs and came out onto Dartmouth Street. We walked around a bit and eventually arrived at Trinity Church. It was night by now and the homeless were camped out in front of every door, but the church itself is an architectural triumph of imposing grandeur and gaudy spectacle. As we walked around the building, we came upon a statue of a 19th century clergyman named Phillips Brooks. We were initially drawn to this particular bit of sculpture by the presence of what we thought was the Grim Reaper peering over the theologian's shoulder, but it turned out to just be a depiction of a rather bony Jesus. LL was quite taken with the statue; there's something appealingly cheesy and pompous about the thing. She was trying to take a picture of it with her cell phone camera in the very dim light so I instead snapped the image for her that you see above. I was rewarded for my efforts with a pack of cigarettes, which is more than I've been paid for my photography in some time now. Having gotten our fill of Trinity's exterior, we walked awhile more and found an open Starbuck's at which to kill time until it was late enough to return to the station and catch the train home. By the time we did so, I realized that I was coming down with the cold that kept me in bed sleeping almost all day yesterday and is only today loosing its hold on me.

Despite the rather anticlimactic dinner at Legal Seafoods, LL's miscalculation of the train schedule and my bout with a rhinovirus, we had a great day in Boston, which remains one of my favorite cities. The trip was a fine way to cap my longest break from school in the past five years; I have my first orientation as a new graduate student tomorrow and a second one for new TAs on Friday. I formally begin work on my PhD this coming Monday. I expect to have a bit less time for road trips and the like thereafter, but I'll be headed back to explore more of Boston as soon as the opportunity arises. As for today, I believe there's a good deal more bed rest and hot soup in my immediate future.

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