Off The Map: My First Year in Boston

I moved to Boston 25 years ago today. I’ve commemorated past anniversaries with photo essays, listicles and, five years ago, an account of my first 48 hours in town. Below is a follow-up essay on how I spent (and survived) my first 12 months as a Bostonian.

***

I wore out a City of Boston street map my first year living there.

Accustomed to Milwaukee’s perpendicular street grids (see also Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and nearly every other major Midwestern city), little prepared me for this layout. An ungainly mess of former cow paths and meandering post roads dating back to the 17th century, I likened it to the messy imprint left behind by a fistful of linguini with sauce, misidentified as spaghetti and flung against the wall by Oscar Madison in the film version of The Odd Couple (upon which he proclaims to Felix Unger, “Now, it’s garbage!”) As a longtime map enthusiast, I was determined to know it by memory. In this pre-smart phone era, I carried it with me, often unfolding and consulting it everywhere I went from the student and immigrant ghettos of Allston Village (where I resided) to the shores of Wollaston Bay in Quincy on a Saturday spent scoping out its beach and multiple clam huts.

My first week in town, I composed in my journal an itinerary of Places To Visit based on obvious landmarks, Boston Phoenix listings and random hearsay. I included major tourist destinations (Quincy Marketplace, the North End, the friggin’ Freedom Trail), cultural institutions of the sort I usually seek out in any big city (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Public Library’s central branch) and naturally, since I moved here to earn a graduate degree in Film Studies from Boston University, independent movie houses (Brattle, Somerville, Coolidge Corner.) A few items on this list now baffle me—I can understand wanting to check out massive community garden Back Bay Fens (even if I had no inkling of its after-hours reputation as a cruising spot) but wherever did I hear that Chestnut Hill Reservoir, while a pleasant place to visit was a must-see spot amongst the myriad of more-than-adequate parks closer to my apartment?

Inevitably, some places didn’t live up to the lofty reputation I assumed of them simply because of their names. Take Downtown Crossing, a shopping district home to Filene’s and Macy’s. Sounds like a hip, happening neighborhood, no? I remember my spirit dissipating the first time I walked along pedestrian-only Winter Street and took in the shabby storefronts, the pathetic Corner Mall (laughably dated even in 1997!) and the rundown Paramount Theatre (a few years before its glorious renovation.) All that held interest for me there was the modern, massive Borders Bookstore at the intersection of Washington and School Streets. Though I miss the now-defunct chain, even then it was nothing worth getting too excited about.

In time, I’d stumble upon places I’d actually want to revisit: the original and relatively spacious outpost of AIDS Action thrift store Boomerangs located down the street from the TD Garden (then called the FleetCenter); Pipeline, Looney Tunes, Second Coming and every other used record store strung along Mass Ave. between Central and Harvard Squares in Cambridge; Deli Haus, a venerable Kenmore Square greasy spoon that I described in my journal as “the dumpy, unpretentious lunch spot I’ve been looking for”; and a handful of local coffeehouses. Having formerly lived in a city without any Starbucks (Milwaukee’s first opened around the time I left), I had a somewhat irrational aversion to them. To my delight, late 90’s Boston was teeming with plenty of alternatives from the workmanlike Caffe Romano on Newbury Street and local mini-chain Carberry’s to funkier, more exotic joints such as the richly painted little rooms of Curious Liquids just across the street from the State House or Iron Lung, a homey, cozy place to sip a Chai Tea near BU’s South Campus. (All of these establishments are sadly if inevitably long gone.)

Often craving to escape my apartment (which I had dubbed the “Shitbox”), I took refuge in whatever beautiful green space I could find (at least until winter arrived, and sometimes even then.) I’ve written before about Knyvet Square, a tiny oasis of a neighborhood park in Brookline just blocks away from the Shitbox; I also often rode my bike down to the Esplanade in hope that one of a group of four benches flanked by three giant trees overlooking the Charles River and the Longfellow Bridge was available. I eventually made my way up and down Frederick Law Olmstead’s famed “Emerald Necklace” of linked parks: venturing south along the Riverway, I fell hard for Jamaica Pond and the Arnold Arboretum, both places considerably expanding my city view by offering acres of space for hiking, reading, sunbathing and solace.

One of four favorite shaded benches overlooking the Charles.

The Public Garden is also a major and more centrally located part of this chain (and one of the notable places in Boston that hasn’t seen too many significant alterations over the past quarter century.) After biking along the Esplanade all the way down to the Hatch Shell, I’d cross over the winding, monolithic Arthur Fiedler Footbridge where the Garden’s northwest corner awaited on the other side across Beacon Street. I’d walk my bike on the central path circling the lagoon teeming with wooden swan-shaped boats (and often, some actual swans), seeking a bench overlooking the peaceful milieu or perhaps another spot along the secondary paths that broke off from the main drag. Some of them led to elegantly manicured rose bush displays or such hidden wonders as a monument dedicated to the invention of ether.

One late Sunday afternoon in early October, I lounged on a bench there reading The Portable Jack Kerouac. A middle-aged man sat down on the next bench over, clad in a blue suit and striped tie, sporting early traces of a receding hairline. Before long, he introduced himself as an out-of-towner here on a business trip and asked me for suggestions regarding stuff to do. Our conversation about the best Boston had to offer rambled on innocently enough for five minutes until, slightly nervously, he asked, “I was wondering if I could take you out to dinner with me tonight.” So, this guy wasn’t just looking for tourism advice. I’m certain I turned beet-red realizing that a man twice my age was trying to pick me up. In a tone straining to be as polite and least awkward as possible, I blurted out, “Oh! Sorry, I actually need to go. You know, homework to do before class tomorrow.” He seemed less disappointed or embarrassed than apologetic as I wished him a good rest of his time in town, got up and left.

Biking home to Allston, I was extremely weirded out. With my green-flannel shirt and short blonde hair, I must’ve resembled quite the young twink engaging in conversation there with an older man looking for some action (no matter how discreetly.) The thing is, I was actually yearning to connect with other gay people. My coming out happened to coincide with moving to Boston, though at this early phase it was more about my own coming to terms with it. After years of denial and despair, I was finally able to admit it to myself and accept it. However, given my introvertive nature, I didn’t yet know how to be actively out. I kept hoping the gays would come to me, that I’d magically stumble upon them. Perhaps if this guy had been more attractive (not to mention much, much closer to my own age), I would’ve taken him up on his offer. Instead, it was what it was and not what I wanted my first homosexual encounter to be.

When I look back at this period, learning how to take comfort in being out defines it as much getting used to being completely on my own. I took on two massive changes simultaneously and struggled with both. Although grad school offered plenty of structure, it threw into relief the part that didn’t—a mostly nonexistent social life. A brief attempt to meet up weekly with my fellow classmates for movie nights and visits from my parents and a close friend from home broke up the monotony somewhat. Still, I generally had way too much time to myself. I did adjust to moviegoing alone, catching a matinee of the then-new The Big Lebowski at the Nickelodeon near BU on Easter Sunday; I also attended the occasional party, including one where I tested the outer limits of my alcohol consumption. I even once worked up the fortitude to check out gay night at Avalon, a spacious nightclub on Lansdowne Street (now home to the local House of Blues.) I paid my cover and lasted less than an hour, dancing by myself a bit and downing a Rolling Rock (my brew of choice as an impoverished student.) No one spoke to me and vice versa; I was likely too nervous to actually notice if anyone was checking me out. I quickly decided it just wasn’t my scene—the insistent, anonymous house music thump held no allure, and everything was too loud, too dark.

I longed for much more, missing the life I had in Milwaukee while knowing it would do me no good to go back there permanently. When I did return for a two-week visit after the Spring semester ended, I wrote in my journal, “I’ve been trying too hard to recreate good memories here.” Back to Boston on Memorial Day with no classes until September, I spent weeks devising productive ways to occupy my time which, given my responsible Catholic work effort would ideally result in a paying job. Combing through the classifieds, looking into summer work-study opportunities at BU and filling out applications at local businesses produced few desirable prospects. I finally resorted to temping, scoring an eight-week term as a desk receptionist at the Massachusetts State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain. It was dull but manageable work, sadly cut short after a week when one of their night watchmen coerced them into giving him the job instead—my older co-worker Linda dismissed the guy as “psychotic” to the point of her having to take tranquilizers to deal with him, so perhaps I dodged a bullet there. Either way, by then the staffing agency was unable to find me another short-term assignment.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Ether Monument! (at the Public Garden.)

The summer dragged on. I biked nearly everywhere until the chain on my cheap ass Trek jammed up. After taking it by the local shop (the pretentiously named International Bicycle Center) and being told by a snotty employee it was “horribly unsafe and not worth fixing”, I unceremoniously dumped it into the massive communal trash bin in back of my Shitbox. Given that my lease was up at the end of August, I began looking for a better place. For a week or so, I believed I’d found one, a three-bedroom unit on Beacon Street in Brookline that was tiny but sunny and at least much cleaner than the Shitbox. Unfortunately, within two weeks of seeing the place, the current resident suddenly decided to move herself; the landlords gave me 24 hours to either put down a first and last month and security deposit for the entire unit or find two roommates willing to go in on it with me. Neither option was going to happen.

I felt like I was slowly losing my mind. Perhaps a combination of the relentless summer heat and my continued inactivity was to blame but I began witnessing sights that seemed exceptionally surreal: the middle-aged, Middle Eastern, pink-shirted man practicing ballroom dancing steps by himself in Knyvet Square, or an army of kazoo-wielding toddlers marching and tooting past my bench in a park in the middle of Cambridgeport. My hometown and adopted home began merging in my dreams where, instead of the spot Commonwealth Ave curved at Packard’s Corner, I’d find myself getting on the MBTA Green Line Subway at, say, Forest Home Avenue a few miles from where I grew up.

It all came to a head frightfully early one morning when I awoke to the CLICK! of a door abruptly locking behind me. Inexplicably, I stood outside the Shitbox wearing nothing but my tidy whities (good thing I didn’t sleep in the nude!) A 6:00 AM sun beamed down but I found this bright, cheery tableau utterly disorienting and baffling—this was decidedly not a dream. I don’t recall ever having sleepwalked before, but as the old cliché goes, there truly is a first time for everything. Knowing only one of my two roommates was home (the other had gone out of town), I rang our buzzer five, ten, twenty times, to no response. Heck, if I’d been in bed and heard it this early, I would’ve ignored it too.

Thus, I had no choice but to exit the lobby and walk barefoot in my undies around to the back of the building and shout at my roommate’s first floor window, “Abel! Wake up, I’ve locked myself out!” The window was open (no A/C for us in the Shitbox!) but I had to repeat my plea a few times in an increasingly louder (and more desperate) voice. Finally, Abel got the hint, got up and walked to the building’s auto-locking front door to let me in. I thanked him profusely, embarrassed but knowing I had no other choice than to seek his assistance. We both went back to our respective bedrooms and never spoke of it again.

Thankfully, this was my first and last time sleepwalking (that I know of.) It was even more disturbing than that failed pickup in the Public Garden, but I was determined to move beyond it. Later that day, I wrote, “I’m not going to let this city drag me down,” and I meant it. I contacted another staffing agency and scored a few brief assignments in August (including one office job that I summed up as “A world of cubicles, fruit platters and coffee creamers.”) I found a better apartment all the way over in North Cambridge in the right half of a townhouse where I had two roommates (one of whom became a good friend) and, as my bedroom, the entire basement to myself. As the days grew shorter, I could see my limbo approaching its end, for September would bring new classes and work-study opportunities. When the fall semester began, I purchased a new map to replace the old, seriously creased and tattered one, though my familiarity with the area was now such that I didn’t have to use it nearly as much. If I learned anything that first year as a Bostonian, it was that a map can only lend so much direction—the rest comes through various experiences, mishaps and the occasional success.

If shoes are hanging from a telephone wire, it must be Allston, circa 1997 (or whenever.)

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.