For my second day in Boston I wanted to visit Harvard. I looked up the tour times and caught a train I thought would get me there just in time for the 10AM tour. When I arrived at Harvard Square Station I only had a few minutes to find the Harvard Info Center where the tours were supposed to take place. I took off immediately in one direction, but quickly realized I was going the wrong way. I began to speed-walk the other way and had gone a good four blocks before realizing that I was right the first time. I turned around and picked up the pace. I caught sight of the Info Center and practically ran through the doors and up to the woman at the counter as the clock struck ten.
“Unfortunately all our guides are students and we’re between quarters right now,” she told me. “Our summer tours ended yesterday.”
“Do you have a smart phone?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said out of breath and masking my disappointment.
“There’s a free audio tour you can download if you’d like,” she said with a smile. “It will take you all over Harvard Yard.” I thanked her and ducked into the hall to download the guide.
I followed my phone as it led me from building to building in the area I had so quickly ran past just a few minutes earlier. I listened as the polite voice explained the history of the structures and their uses. I couldn’t go inside any of the buildings, but the yard itself was littered with chairs for the tired student and/or tourist. As a professional tour group went by I overheard a young women explaining that the chairs were Harvard’s solution to the fact that they don’t really have a student lounge anywhere. My audio guide told me I could go inside the chapel, but there was a funeral going on and the place was surrounded by security guards tasked with keeping out lookie-loos like me. I found a set of steps nearby and took a few minutes to rest in the sunshine.
I’m not really sure what I was hoping to get out of a visit to Harvard, but whatever is was I didn’t find it. I suppose it holds some strange Ivy League mystique, as through you will show up and magically look through the past at the hundreds of brilliant people who have passed through its gates. But in the end, it’s just a school. The same old buildings that undoubtably feel too far apart in the winter when it’s cold and you’re rushing to class. The same prospective student tours parading through. The same silence inside buildings when you’re in between academic quarters. And while I’m sure the education one gets at Harvard lives up to the reputation, in the end, the reputation is what it’s all about. That’s why it’s in our consciousness. That’s why you’ve heard of it. But you can’t really visit a reputation. You can’t get off the train and take a look at renown. Harvard is just a collection of buildings, the sort you might find at any old and decently-funded institution. I went to a public school on the West Coast. There was ivy growing on our walls, too.
By recommendation I went to Mr. Bartley’s for lunch. I sat at the counter and, like at lunch the day before, I was served by a man who seemed to own the place. The logo in the window was a clover leaf, and a sign above the cooking areas said “Irish NEED NOT Apply.”
Having completed my short tour of the Harvard area, I caught the train back into town to visit the site of the Boston Tea Party. Like happens sometimes, there is a highly visible area commemorating the event with a museum, a reconstruction of a ship, and plenty of ways for tourists to spend their money. However the actual spot in which the city has erected a plaque (and the site of the real event), is set off to the side and around the corner. In fact it’s a bit difficult to find the Boston Tea Party Plaque. It’s attached to a seemingly arbitrary building with no other stores or signs around it. But I suppose that’s what happens sometimes with historical locations. Simply because the area was important once doesn’t mean it can or will stay that way. In the case of the Boston Tea Party, the actual shipping dock no longer exists at all, having long since been replaced by more useful docks in other locations.
In contrast, the site of the Boston Massacre is in the middle of a still busy and thriving intersection. It makes sense, as people rarely form mobs in out-of-the-way locations. The Boston Massacre is marked by a decorative ring on the ground, and is as easy to miss as the Tea Party sign for the complete opposite reason. A person could miss the Tea Party marker because it’s off to the side. A person could miss the Massacre ring because it’s so central. The intersection is packed and moving at all times, and it’s easy to let your eye move onto one of the impressive nearby buildings or an eclectic passerby.
I crossed the city to Newbury Street to see the shops. Shopping holds little interest for me normally, and no interest for me while traveling. Still, it’s sometimes fun to see the ways different stores appeal to different cities. I never miss an opportunity to slip into a comic book shop, and I saw a sign for one on Newbury. To my surprise, there were almost no comics in the entire store. Most comic book stores these days have large selections of related merchandise, and many make more money selling Superman action figures than Superman comics, but I’d never seen such an extreme example. I managed to find an aisle or two of comics in the back, and the rest of the store was music, movies, and clothing. I wondered what kind of transition such a place had to go through to start out as a comic book store but end up selling everything else. I wondered if they ever thought about changing the name.
With some effort I managed to find the statue of Leif Erickson on the nearby Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Per instructions from a priest/judge I know, I stood in front of it and sang “I’m a Little Teapot.” I like to think of it as a sign of respect to the first European to land on North American soil.
It seemed a bit early for dinner, but I was too hungry to care. A friend had mentioned the “Daily Catch” in the north end, and I hopped on the train again. The restaurant was very small – there were only five tables. One such table was extra long and had one couple seated at the far end. I took a seat on the opposite end as it was the only space available. The menu was written on the wall in chalk. The one and only waitress said hello and, upon request, endorsed the black pasta with ground squid. By her tone I could tell she got asked the question a lot, and that she rarely had complaints after patrons followed her standard recommendation.
As she went to hand my order to the one and only cook, a family walked up to the restaurant door. The man asked the waitress how long they would have to wait for a table of four. She turned around to look at her five full tables and told him at least a half an hour. In normal circumstances the wait times given at restaurants seem very abstract. I always imagine a series of equations involving the flow of staff and the time it takes to turn over a table. Of course in reality these calculations that are based on guessing how long it takes people to eat dinner. When this waitress said the wait would be 30 minutes, I knew exactly which table she was thinking would be finished around that time. And the people at the table knew, too, since the restaurant was so small we could all hear the conversations she had at the door. I think most people understand intellectually that restaurants know how we eat better than we do, but there’s something strange about seeing a group of people and knowing you are the only reason they are still waiting.
The man’s wife took the kids across the street to pick up some pastries for later. More people got in line behind them. By the time I left the Daily Catch, there were more people in line than inside. I walked down the street to pick up a treat from Modern Pastry. They packaged it up in a box and wrapped it in string with the same quick dexterity I had witnessed the day before at Mike’s Pastry. On the train ride back to the hotel I checked my list. I was proud of all that I had managed to see, and mournful of all the things that had been left unseen. Should I have spent more time on the Freedom Trail? Was one scoop of ice cream at JP Licks really enough? Had the New England Aquarium really been worth the two hours I spent there, or should I have spent some time at M.I.T.?
The problem with The Boston Challenge is that it goes on forever. Boston is a packed and beautiful city. There’s long history at The Old North Church and short history at Fenway Park. I think of it like Rome and Seattle. Some cities have too many nooks and crannies to ever get old. And even if they do, it’s so easy to find a new favorite park or restaurant or cafe. There’s always somewhere you want to go back to. And I will go back to Boston.
If nothing else, I still need to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees.