Toronto Star July 23, 2014, Boston, Mass–The conversations and the good humour start pretty much immediately after you get off the plane in Boston. A chatty Albanian bus driver takes me on the 10-minute ride from the airport to Logan Docks to catch the water taxi for the quick ride downtown.
I climb on board and the middle-aged group from the suburbs invites me to join their birthday celebration before Roy, the water taxi driver, teases another passenger, a Parisian philosopher, about his signature: “What, is your name Mr. Scribble?”
A visit to Boston is a series of delightful interactions, between strangers on a water taxi, between reverence and irreverence, between tourists zigzagging along the Freedom Trail that traces the American Revolution and locals going to work.
Downtown Boston is a compact hodgepodge of streets that have been around long before the car was even imagined. This makes for unimaginably complex intersections and traffic jams. I’d use the term “gridlock,” but that would imply there is an actual grid.
At every intersection — confluence of streets is a better description — drivers and pedestrians take part in a complex choreography underpinned by looks, nods and blind faith. Walk lights and crosswalks are merely suggestions in this subtle dance.
When inevitably, I get a little turned around, I stop a guy in a suit and he advises with a grin: “Just head for the water!” This is entirely useless information, because, not only is the core nearly encircled in water, you can’t see a drop of it from this particular corner.
A handsome young man, who has a tidy beard and a sense of humour, sits cross-legged on the street with a cup of change and a sign that reads: “Ugly. Broke. Travelling.”
Wit is also alive and well across the Charles River in Cambridge, home of MIT, Harvard and the third most photographed statue in the U.S., that of John Harvard.
Gangs of tourists wait their turn to pounce and get a photo of themselves touching the statue’s foot. It’s what the locals call “Going to the John.” After our guide explains the joke — it’s a Harvard student ritual to pee on the very foot that tourists line up to touch — he points out where a couple of famous students (and pee’ers?), JFK and Matt Damon, have roomed.
Our guide looks like Damon and is likely better at walking backwards while telling stories. On this occasion, the tales are about the spelling mistake in the stained glass of the Memorial Hall; the six-hour food fight in the dining hall in 1818, and about the military computer scientist, a woman, who is said to have coined the term “debugging” in the 1940s, when they hauled a moth out of one of the first ever computers, the Harvard Mark II.
History of a kind is being made in miniature at Polcari’s Coffee in the North End, where owner Bobby Eustace and his cousin Nicky mention that, after 82 years in business, the store has just that very day started accepting credit cards.
People have lived in the North End since the 1630s. For a time, it attracted the wealthy. Later it was a slum. Now it’s a delightfully crowded collection of more than 100 bakeries, specialty food stores and Italian restaurants.
There is no end to the history you can learn and plenty of your own to make while you are walking, and talking, your way around Boston.
Just don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Even if you know exactly where you’re going.