Boston, Twenty Years Ago Today

“Shitbox” on the right, foreground, 1997.

 

I’ve previously commemorated both the tenth and fifteenth anniversaries of my 1997 move from Milwaukee to Boston; for the twentieth, I thought I’d actually write, in detail, an account of my first 24 hours in town. I considered including journal entries from around that time, but they really don’t capture the experience in all its thrilling, sweaty, mind-numbing glory…

***

I arrived at Logan Airport on a late Saturday afternoon at the end of August to begin my new life in Boston. I had with me everything I could reasonably board or carry on my flight: my parent’s ancient brown leather American Tourister suitcase (sans wheels), my forest green Jansport backpack, a decrepit Puma duffel bag and a black garment bag (holding what, exactly, I can’t recall since I had no reason to bring a suit with me.)

I trudged all my stuff over to a dull, gray fiberglass bank of pay phones (cell phones were still considered a luxury item in 1997) to call my roommate Miles and let him know I had made it to town. It went straight to an answering machine (which threw me a bit—my 22-year-old self half-expecting him to be waiting by the phone for my arrival), so I gathered up my luggage and stepped outside. I was already sniffling and sneezing due to a stubborn two-day-old cold, and the immense, sweltering, near-100 degree heat further pulverized my sinuses as I waited in a queue for the next available taxi.

I gave the cabbie my Allston apartment’s address; he proceeded to dig out an ungainly, worn, spiral-bound, yellow City of Boston road atlas to look up exactly where it was. Windows rolled down since the car had no air conditioning, we headed straight to the Sumner Tunnel, emerging minutes later out on Storrow Drive, the Esplanade and eventually the Hatch Shell on our right. We exited Storrow at the intersection by the high-rise DoubleTree Suites my parents and I had stayed at two months before when we came out to explore Boston for the first time and find myself an apartment. As we made our way up Cambridge Street to Harvard Avenue, traffic slowed to a crawl as a hazy sun penetrated all matter of rail yards, pockets of industry and finally, the laundromats, dive bars and student-infested tenements of Allston Village.

We didn’t know my street was one-way until we tried turning on to it from Harvard (precisely the wrong way), so we spent another ten minutes negotiating traffic (bombarded by more than a few horn-honking, typically hot-headed “Masshole” drivers) until we reached our destination. That entire first year living in Boston, I always referred to my building as a Shitbox apartment because it was literally, bluntly shaped like a box (the “shit” part requires no further explanation if you’ve ever lived in a student ghetto.) That’s what stood before me and my belongings now: the three-story, sixteen-unit, mid-century Shitbox I’d call home for the next twelve months.

I was buzzed into the building not by Miles (whom I had met back when I looked at the place in June) but by my other new roommate, Payam; he introduced himself at our first floor unit’s front door and showed me to my bedroom. First asking what my major was at Boston University (I’d moved over a thousand miles away to earn a Master’s in Film Studies), he responded that he was an Engineering student, “typical, since I’m Iranian,” he added, with an accent honestly not too far off from what the world would come to recognize as Borat’s. I couldn’t tell whether his intent was to self-deprecate; when he then asked me if I wanted to hear a racist joke, I noted to myself that we were probably never going to be close friends.

My new bedroom was bare except for a twin-size bed (to be picked up by the former occupant the next day.) It had not one lighting fixture apart from a lone bulb dangling from a string in the closet. Still, it was bright enough thanks to a large picture window overlooking the Shitbox’s parking lot. My furniture from home would not arrive for a few weeks (I’d picked possibly the least expensive way to transport it from Milwaukee), so beginning the next night, I’d have to make do with an air mattress and a sleeping bag.

After splashing some water in my face from a sink in a bathroom entirely swathed in layers of grime possibly dating back to 1992, I ventured outside to explore my new hood and find a bite to eat. As I turned onto Brighton Ave. in the still quite oppressive early-evening air, I felt as if in a heavy, sleepwalking daze. Every single thing, from the International Bicycle Center building to a giant rooftop billboard hawking soon-to-be-bust website Petopia.com, was completely foreign to me. To this day, I can recall both how frightened and exhilarated I was that first day in Boston; upon further reflection, I was also considerably overwhelmed.

Turning left onto Harvard Ave., I encountered late-‘90s Allston in all of its transient, grungy glory: the soon-to-be-defunct ground-level CD Spins where I’d one day find a used WFNX promo copy of local hero Jen Trynin’s second album Gun Shy Trigger Happy; Blanchard’s, the only liquor store to ever card me at the front door (I’d end up buying most of my booze at the aptly-named Discount Liquor Store further down the road); Riley’s, that late-night corner fast-food emporium specializing in reddish-purple roast beef sandwiches and greasy curly fries. The Wonder Bar, Grecian Yearning, Mr. Music, Flyrabbit plus an assortment of consignment and cheap furniture stores completed the treeless, slightly downtrodden thoroughfare.

Regarding dinner, I settled for something familiar—a three-piece rotisserie chicken plate with mashed sweet potatoes and cinnamon apples at Boston Market (which had come to my hometown the previous year, attracting out-the-door lines of customers who thought it to be some sort of novelty—myself included. Within a few years, this Allston location would become a McDonald’s.) I wolfed down my food, retraced my steps back to the Shitbox and sprawled out on the edge of my-bed-for-one-night closest to the closet lightbulb, reading Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust… All Others Pay Cash until I could no longer keep my eyes open.

Beaming, uncompromising sun and a car alarm (blaring a consecutive series of four distinct sounds, all of them excruciating) that I’d come to know very well over the next year got me out of bed around 10 AM. Running into Payam in the hallway, he asked, “Did you hear about Princess Diana?” Already woozy from the move and my cold, news of her death only disoriented me further. However, I had important stuff to do, like getting my own keys for the apartment and finding a lighting fixture for the bedroom. I borrowed Payam’s keys and walked over to Model Ace Hardware on Harvard Ave. I settled for one of those tall, sixteen-dollar floor lamps that were a staple of ‘90s dorms and twenty-somethings’ bedrooms. At the exact moment I gave my roommate back his keys, he liberally spritzed them in Lysol—again, we weren’t going to be close friends.

Comm. Ave at Babcock St., looking inbound, 1997.

I walked up Commonwealth Avenue (or “Comm Ave” as the locals call it) to BU’s College of Communication, the building I’d be spending most of my grad school time in. It took me twenty-five minutes, not too bad considering I was saving 85 cents (!) on T fare (I now have to strain to remember when it was under two dollars.) Along the way, I passed now long-gone landmarks such as the former Armory (demolished for luxury dorms in 2002), the giant “Ellis The Rim Man” billboard at the corner of Comm Ave and Babcock Street and the Guitar Center near the Mass Pike underpass (which BU, having made it part of their campus, oh-so-creatively dubbed the General Classroom Building.)

After grabbing a quick lunch at a Bruegger’s Bagels in Kenmore Square (the old Kenmore Square—even The Rat was still open), I turned on to Beacon Street, outbound towards Brookline. After a few blocks, I came across Amory Playground for the first time and I probably breathed a sigh of relief: open, lush, gorgeous green space at last. Not long after, I arrived at more green space surrounded by streets on three sides with paths leading from each of its four corners to a circle at the center dotted with flowers, big trees and quaint, old-fashioned lighting fixtures; I’d later identify it on a map as Knyvet Square. I was immediately taken by its compact, perfectly-formed beauty. Right then and there, I knew I had found an urban oasis that, weather permitting, would serve as an escape whenever the Shitbox felt too constrictive.

Knyvet Square, 2017.

I sat down on one of the eight benches arranged circularly around the square’s center. A wave of loneliness overtook me as I thought of my parents and all the friends I had left behind. When I had told the former I wanted to move to Boston six months earlier, they looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears (to borrow a phrase from Jean Shepherd.) I knew the months before seeing them again at Christmas break would be tougher than any prior period of time I had been away from them, going back to my first week of summer camp ten years before. Still, as I sat in this hidden gem of outdoor public space, I also felt a little giddy—I couldn’t begin to imagine what the days, weeks, months ahead would bring. I had desperately wanted to live somewhere other than my hometown, and I was doing just that.

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