The Boston Challenge: Part One

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.

Green MonsterI 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.

Boy at FenwayThe 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.

Loge BoxI 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.

St. Paul'sI 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.

View from the PewThe 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.

Old North ChurchAfter 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.

A Nap in the GrassI 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.”

Ted WilliamsHe 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.