A strange thing happened while I was visiting Boston. Regular readers of this blog will know that these posts are no longer in real-time, and that by the time you read about an adventure here, I have long since moved on from it in the real world. This means that I was in Boston the day I published my post on the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.
Occasionally I will get nervous before publishing. There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes I worry that I’m making too bold a statement, and that perhaps I haven’t thought it through enough first. I worry that people will read it and instantly point out all the holes in my argument I never considered. The WBC post was my first big post of this nature, my first post to really make an argument. It was also about a very controversial subject. A subject that inspires the worst in people. And I was suggesting a position I hadn’t heard put forth by anyone else. I was very worried.
Because I almost always publish between 7AM and 8AM Pacific Standard Time, the post didn’t show up until after 10AM in Boston. By then I was on my way to the Boston Public Library near Copley Square. I had been told by friends that the library was worth checking out, and I found it to be a large and lovely place in which to get lost. After wandering in and out of the hallways for some time, I made it my mission to find the rare books section. It was somewhere up on the third floor and in a corner. I went back and forth, up and down. Not all of the elevators reached all of the floors. Not all of the floors were continuous. As I walked I started to wonder how people were reacting to my post. I finally reached the reading area right in front of the rare books section and pulled out my phone to check the responses on Facebook. A few of my friends had hit the Like button. Whew. At least I wasn’t completely crazy.
There were different levels of rare to the rare books section. The first seemed to be books that were generally interesting and old, but not fragile. The room wasn’t remarkably different than others in the building. Off to the side was a collection of old marionettes in glass cases. To get to the next section, I had to go through through a glass door. This was no ordinary door. It was the sort that seals completely when closed in order to maintain the temperature of the room behind it. This was the main section of rare books. The lighting was very dim. A woman was seated at a desk, explaining in whispers what they had in their catalog to a pair of patrons. Everything was delicate. Everything was unusual. They were featuring works by Daniel Defoe, including first editions of Robinson Crusoe from 1719. Behind another glass door was a third room, but this one was available by appointment only, and only to researchers. You couldn’t casually look at the books in that room. You had to prove yourself first.
I left the rare books area and went back out into the reading section. I couldn’t help it – I checked my phone again. There were a few more Likes, and now some Shares. My friends were saying very complimentary things about the post. What a relief.
I walked back out of the library, taking a quick detour to the map room because maps are great. I walked across the street into Copley Square and took a photo of two women taking photos of a turtle sculpture. The square was a nice open respite from the large, imposing city buildings. I saw a small fountain off to the side of the square, the shallow kind that kids will jump around in when the weather becomes too hot to bear. I sat on the edge of the fountain to take in a bit of sunshine. I pulled out my phone again. I read more feedback, now from strangers. People I didn’t know were sharing what I had written. People I didn’t know were complimenting me on it. I laid down and smiled.
I know many writers suffer from a sort of perpetual doubt, myself included. No matter what people say or how many times you hear it, there will always come those days when you think what you’ve written is not good enough. One might even say it’s what makes you into a good writer – the obsessive need to improve what you’ve created for fear that it is secretly worthless. I have received compliments on my writing before, and I can only hope I will receive them again in the future. But on that post, I actually got people talking. I got people arguing. Shirley Phelps tweeted about me, which was something I didn’t even realize was on my bucket list until it happened. No one pays me for what I do. I’ve never had anything traditionally published. I am still a beginner, an amateur. But on that day, leaning back onto the warm stone of Copley Square, I felt like a real writer.
I approached Boston as a sort of mission. I didn’t know anyone in the city, but I knew plenty of people who had lived there in the recent past. The day before I arrived, I posted a Facebook status asking for suggestions on how to spend two full days exploring Boston by myself. The response was overwhelming. I set out to experience as many of their suggestions as I possibly could.
I check into a nice hotel on the west end of the city, right off the subway line. The building is an old three-story walk up, clearly renovated from a previously wealthy home. The rooms are all named with titles meant to remind you that you are in Boston, such as John F Kennedy, Paul Revere, Boston Common, Constitution, and Old Bay State. Parking is at such a premium in the area that I have to pay extra to get a space in the back, and even then I am double parked and must leave my key at registration in case they need to move it later.
I settle into my room and start combing through the suggestions. I plot them out based on location and proximity to the subway stops. There is a collection of suggestions in the North End, and some more over near Harvard. Still more are in the area around The Common. I open tab after tab on my computer, trying to figure out the best route. An hour later I finally have a plan and I make my way to bed.
The next day begins with a tour of Fenway Park. In an ideal world I would get to watch a Red Socks game in Fenway, preferably against the Yankees. Unfortunately chance hasn’t favored me in this regard, and the next home game won’t be for two more nights, at which point I am supposed to be setting up my tent in Maine. So the tour is the next best thing.
The tour group is huge, and the guide is old. He takes us from place to place, showing us the visitor’s locker room and the old bleachers. We sit in the seats placed on top of the Green Monster and learn how hard they are to acquire. There are, in fact, many seats in Fenway that one can only get via lottery because demand is so high. We hear over and over again how in 1947 Ted Williams hit the longest home run ever hit in Fenway. It’s marked by a special red seat, which is sold like any other ticket in the section.
I am surprised by how small the park is. I didn’t realize that its size is part of its legend and charm. I was expecting something huge and overpowering, but Fenway is about the small things, and the not-too-distant past.
I hop back on the train and make my way to The Commons, a beautiful public park that reminds me of Central Park in New York City. There are people sitting on blankets on every patch of grass, and ice cream carts attracting children on every corner. An old friend and fellow Episcopalian told me to check out St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I near the end of the park I see a prominent church on the corner and assume it must be St Paul’s. I am mistaken, but I wander inside anyway. It’s an old church, though it’s been restored. The design is simple and plain, and everything has been rebuilt over time. It’s hard to find the appeal in sitting somewhere that neither looks nor feels like it belongs to the past. I walk out, disappointed.
I check my map again, sure I’m in the right place. I look all around but St. Paul’s is nowhere in sight. I begin to walk down the block, pulling out my phone every few feet to see if my tiny dot is going towards or away from the church’s tiny dot on the map. I circle around the entire block before ending up almost directly across from the church I was just in. I look up to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, hidden in plain site. It is massive and wedged right in with the rest of the big city buildings. It feels old and imposing, like the father’s bank in Mary Poppins. I walk inside.
The church is very dark. It looks as though it hasn’t been restored at all. Below each aisle seat the carpet is worn down to the wood, marking years of anxious parishioners taking the first spot available and tapping their feet during a lengthy service. There are cushions for kneeling, but they seem to be made of hard sand, making them only marginally more comfortable than the floor. A small Chinese woman with glasses is at the organ, practicing for Sunday. I find my way towards one of the older pew boxes in the back, the kind that still have doors. I sit and listen. We are the only two people in the cathedral.
After the cathedral I stop by the Copley Public Library, then walk over to The Esplanade for a leisurely stroll along the water. I see a few tourists unsuccessfully trying to windsurf on rented contraptions, and I watch their guide go from one tourist to the next, helping them get back upright. It is the first time my mind has ever considered the extremely difficult mechanics of windsurfing. Until this point it had been an activity strictly reserved for clipart and neon designs from the 1990s.
I’m starting to get hungry. My friends had made it clear that the North End was the place to eat, saying, “You can’t go wrong in the North End.” I get off the train and start walking up the street. I pass by many good-looking restaurants, and eventually step into a place called The Florentine Cafe for no specific reason at all. I take a seat at the bar, and the bartender hands me a menu. I find myself torn between two raviolis: a butternut squash and a lobster. I ask the bartender for his opinion, and he says without a doubt to get the lobster.
“Voted best lobster ravioli in town by Boston Magazine,” he tells me.
My plate comes out and the sauce is made of heaven itself. I have to fight the opposite urges to slowly savor each bite or to shove everything in my mouth at once. When the ravioli is gone I start lapping the sauce up with my bread, cursing myself for having eaten some of it as an appetizer with mere oil and vinegar.
I manage to pull my head up from my feast enough to witness the bartender transform into the owner. Vendor representatives keep coming up to the bar, each time having a small business meeting while the owner wipes down the glasses. A woman from the printing company has him approve the new menu layout, followed by a man who confirms the restaurant’s next order for drink supplies. A third rep comes in on behalf of a business I couldn’t quite catch, but he offers to do for $1200 what the bartender/owner had been paying $1300 for from another company. Sold.
After lunch I stop by the Old North Church where, as usual, The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. There is no entrance fee to see the church, and a laughably small fee if you’d like to get a guided tour. The Old North Church is famous for giving the signal to Paul Revere via lanterns in the window that the British would be arriving by sea rather than by land. While the real history does involve Revere and lanterns and a water attack, the true story is more complicated and less poetic than, well, the poem. Of course the church would be a site worth visiting even if the whole story was a complete fiction, since it would still be the setting for one of the most well-known and frequently quoted poems in America. Imagine if the local zoo had, through some miracle of time and space, acquired the actual raven Edgar Allen Poe had mused on – you’d want to see it.
I take a walk through Fanueli Hall and catch a quick show from some local buskers. It’s been a long day and my feet are complaining. I walk along the Greenway for a short while before finding a welcoming patch of grass. I pull off my shoes and turn my purse into a makeshift pillow. The sun is warm and comfortable. I don’t know how long I sleep. An hour. Maybe two.
When I wake up I’m still not hungry. I have stuffed myself too full of food throughout the day to stomach dinner, but I figure I can probably manage a dessert. I have recommendations for two nearby pastry shops, and quickly find myself at the front of a long but fast-moving line at Mike’s Pastry.
“What’s your best cannoli?” I ask the man behind the counter. I had been told to get a cannoli at Mike’s, but I wasn’t prepared to choose between so many options.
“I’d say the chocolate chip is our most popular,” he replies.
“I’ll take it.”
He constructs a beautifully simple white box around my treat, and pulls at a line of string suspended from the ceiling. He wraps the string twice in every direction, moving with the speed and precision only pride and repetition can create. I carry my little white box on the subway all the way back to my hotel. In the seat across from me, a fashionably dressed woman holds a beautiful white orchid in a pot. There is something fantastically cosmopolitan about the whole scene. I felt like a true city-dweller. I felt like I was living in New York City again.
And that was just the first day.