Monthly Archives: February 2012

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The Barker

Summer St. and Melcher, just over the bridge into South Boston where I catch the shuttle bus to the warehouse and my data entry job. That’s where The Barker sets up. Sandy brown hair, scraggly beard over a face that looks like the moon, voice shredded from years of unfiltered smokes and yelling over traffic. He has his own signature call, like a home run call.

Globes and Heralds!
Times and Wall Streets!
Buy a newspaper!

It’s August 1998, the final days of a roaring hot summer, just before the humidity breaks and the bite of World Series weather settles in. The world is abuzz with McGwire and Maris and Sosa. Every day The Barker has my Herald ready and as I approach he says, “Got another one yesterday!” I don’t need to ask what he means or who he means: the McGwire home run chase is the news. As the season ends and the unbreakable 61 is about to fall, The Barker starts to ask, “Ya goin’ to the game today?!” I return his ribbing with ribbing and we banter until my shuttle bus arrives. Just a minute, two minutes, four minutes. Nothing more.

Nothing more, but The Barker is my everyday man, my regular bit player in my daily Boston drama. And even though the protagonist starred in another great baseball city 1,500 miles away, The Barker brought the news home and made the greatest season in the greatest game a Boston association.


The Biker

I hear him long before I see him.

In the early morning of Copley Square, having been up all night writing and drinking coffee, I’m sitting at my bench. The great lawn spreads before me, saturated with dew, and beyond is H.H. Richardson’s masterpiece Trinity Church. The city is still and soft, save for the flutter of pigeons and the thunk of a stack of newspapers dropped on the sidewalk.

I hear him approaching on Boylston St. from the Common. His cry is somewhere between a “WHOOOOOOP!” and a “YOOOOUUUUUUUP!” and he repeats it several times per block. Suddenly he is in view, riding his wheelchair bike like a Big Wheel, orange safety flags flapping in the dawn. He always wears a gray hooded sweatshirt, and the effect, along with his beard, is like a medieval warrior bedecked in chain mail. He is now on my block of Boylston, between Clarendon and Dartmouth. “WHOOOOOOP!” … “YOOOOUUUUUUUP!” …

He passes and continues on toward Mass Ave and the morning continues to brighten.


The Vendor

Her flower stand is at the front of the food court in the Prudential Building mall. She’s always setting up as I’m passing by, usually on my way back to my brownstone to call in “sick.” Jet-black hair, Cramps patch on her bag. I like The Cramps, so therefore we have a ton in common and we’d get along and fall for each other if she’d only stop me and say hi, right? Maybe this morning…? Maybe tomorrow…?


The Bride

Chill October Friday nights bring me a paycheck and a weekend of solitude. I often find myself drawn to Harvard Square, writing and watching the kids. I take note of the clock under the CAMBRIDGE SAVINGS BANK sign, and start my dispatches on CSB Time. By the time I leave for the evening, my notebook is full of observations, ashes and coffee stains.

The best nights are when I see The Eight Foot Bride of Harvard Square. She is a vision of spectral beauty. Black bob wig, porcelain white skin and wedding dress and gloves. She. Does. Not. Move. No movement at all until you drop a donation, at which point she subtly, oh so subtly, hands her donor a flower. She is tranquility in a sea of creeping gentrification, creeping menace and choking diesel clouds. She is the center of the square.

Later, after I find success as a Boston musician and find myself in the process, I learn that the Bride is Amanda Palmer, leader and visionary of The Dresden Dolls, and that we have many mutual friends. But I still see her as the beautiful Bride and myself in awed solitude before her.


The Writer

I moved to Boston when I was 24, September 1996, to attend Berklee College of Music. I was alone and very green, with surprisingly limited life and social skills. I stayed for nearly six years, leaving when I was 29, engaged and a self-made musician and writer. I failed spectacularly as a restaurant worker and delivery boy, failed miserably schlepping credit cards, did very well in the lucrative field of data entry and survived many periods of being “in between positions.” I bounced $300 rent checks and slept on floors and wondered if I’d ever amount to anything. I came of age, I made friends, I made myself. I lived dreams and paid forward whatever I could. Boston made me. Boston and her people and her civic institutions. And her characters. These are just a few I met along the way.

Image Sources:

City Profile


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My feet in lockstep: the song of the morning. Jackboot corporate lockstep, navigating another detour around ever more construction. My fellow commuters and I, lockstep to offices, feet pounding on the stairs, echoing into the day that will not be free for us. I hate the station in the morning. Hate the Red Line platforms, and the stairs and the detours, the smell of mud and welding sparks, the sound and feel of concrete-busting drills and ball-busting foreman. Plywood barriers, vinyl tarps, broken PA announcing broken trains. Cold concrete of the walls, always the hint of a rebar about to pop out and always a drip of water from the ceiling. I hate the broken station, hate the broken morning.

Until I reach the top of the escalator and emerge in the station proper, under the giant clock, like the old destroyed Penn Station. The light pours in from the floor-to-ceiling windows in front of the tracks, and I’m suddenly liberated from the bowels of commuter hell and gently placed in a grand civic institution and a distant era. I smell coffee from Rosie’s Bakery and croissants from Au Bon Pain and fresh flowers. I peruse the stacks of the news stand looking for a book instead of heading for work. I am stimulated and liberated and the day is new.

After work my head pounds from the day. I return, buy bad food served in cardboard and Styrofoam and find a table in the grand concourse, not wanting to go back to the subway and back to my room and roommates. The voice of the conductor booms through the station, in the most wonderfully enunciated, stilted English I’ve ever heard.

The Prov I dence local…with stops in ….CAN ton… MANS field… AT tle boro… and …SOUTH… AT tle boro… now boarding on …track… niiiiiiiiiiine

All around the sounds of suitcase wheels, and the good hustle of fleeing from offices and heading home. The automatic doors open to the tracks, and puffs of frigid air hit my table. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to go back down into the depths to the subway. I linger, observing, taking it all in.

It is the late 1990s, yet I am sitting in a magnificent temple of rail travel. Like all of Boston, a modern throwback. It’s 1998: it could be 1988, it could be 1978, it could be 1948. Rail travel is the constant. This show is better, more noble and fulfilling than anything on television. The show does go on…

I linger, observing, taking it all in, and then descend the escalator to the subway, already looking forward to doing it all over again in the morning.

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Bridge and Tunnel Club

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050660 09 00I
Image Source: Nick DeWolf

There’s a kind of poem to remember what the weather light on the Berkeley Building means:

Steady blue, clear view
Flashing blue, clouds due
Steady red, rain ahead
Flashing red, snow instead

Now the only exception to this is flashing red in summer, and that means that the Red Sox have been rained out. But that’s what that light on top of the tower is all about. I always think of that poem when I’m on the trolley and the tower comes into view. I don’t speak about this sort of thing too much, but it’s one of those little things that make me happy and proud to be a Bostonian.

I especially love seeing the light of the tower on a good spring night, while walking through the Public Garden and Boston Common, with a light fog to make the new flowers pop. The city is just so damn pretty then: warm and proper, but just a bit mysterious, too. And it works so well because of the scale of the skyline.

I’ve heard talk about putting up a couple of new glass towers. I hope that doesn’t happen. I suppose everything has to change, but I’d hate to see something so cockeyed. The scale of Boston is manageable. That’s what makes it so livable.

Here we are freshly in 1960. Boston is nearly two hundred years old, and the connection to history is still there at every corner. And yet you can go out to the corner store and get a bottle of milk anytime. To me that’s a livable city. It has problems, to be sure. But all those problems seem to be erased on a night like this, with a view of that magnificent tower.

I hope that doesn’t change. I can’t imagine the new poem. Glass and steel, rain real? It just wouldn’t be the same…

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Image Source: Ashley Noelle

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise…

Kate and Alex, having survived the wedding and skipped the reception, were back home together on the couch, Neil Young: Greatest Hits on the stereo, air conditioner going full blast. She packed a bowl and inhaled deeply, the flame from the lighter curving over the edge and practically into the shaft, and passed it on.

“Well, that was not the greatest time of my life!” Kate said.

“Ah, young doomed love,” Alex said. “Makes the heart go pitter-pat, doesn’t it?”

“Seriously,” Kate said. “I mean, I like them? But really, there’s nothing there.”

“This wedding was…..helpless, helpless, heeeelllllllpless,” Alex sang along with the chorus. “Nothing there. And those vows! ‘Oh, I’m so glad God brought us together!’ Um, no, a bottle of Cuervo and a slippery condom brought you together, hon.”

“BAAHHH!” Kate said. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

“Purity is a many splendored thing,” Alex said. “And believe me, I’m not at all slamming genuine faith. But I know the bride all too well, and let’s just say that her Jesus has a lot of blind spots.”

“Her own personal Jesus, as it were,” Kate said.

“Yep,” Alex said. “You should see the psalms all over her Facebook wall. Which psalm is ‘Get thee obliterated and pregnant whilst thy boyfriend is on a business trip and thy will still be more righteous’ again?”

But only love can break your heart,
Better be sure, right from the start

“Great point, Neil Young!” Kate said. “So their whole marriage is built on a suspect platform of holy matrimony? I’m shocked! What about the sanctity of marriage?”

“Man, this stuff is good,” Alex said, holding in a toke. “Yeah, this marriage is about as sanctified as a Kardashian wedding. Meanwhile, some of our best friends can’t legally marry. How fucked is that?”

“Don’t let Old Frothy Santorum hear you say that!” Kate said. “Agreed, though. It was a nice church, at least. I really liked the chandelier and the window.”

“Yeah, we should do that in here!” Alex said. “I can imagine the slant of afternoon light coming in.”

“That would be kind of a reverse Amish all-seeing-eye,” Kate said. “A peephole for Jesus!”

“Shit, you’re right!” Alex said. “I’d melt in a pool of sinful mush.”

“Wouldn’t want to mess up the rug,” Kate said.

“I guess the light slants wherever you want it to, Jesus window or not,” Alex said. “And it still keeps me searching for a heart of gold…”

The afternoon went on, and Kate and Alex talked, smoked and drifted in and out of naps while new marriage bloomed, old love was shoved under the rug and the world spun on a slanted axis.

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Image Source: NYPL Digital Gallery

She was meant to be a shadow. Nothing more than looming black across my light. That’s all she was and all she’ll ever be.

I first saw her in winter. Back table against the wall. She was pure, raven-haired seduction. Alone, reading an early afternoon edition of the Herald Tribune. I came in without my hat, and the snow in my hair melted and ran down my neck, onto my collar and down the small of my back, and there she was. Instant sensory association. I wanted to marry her on the spot, but I couldn’t even say hello to her.

The winter went on and on, and I always hoped for snow, so I could feel the drips down my back and thus feel her. She almost always got the same table, and I almost always got the same table, one in the middle where I could sneak glances at her all lunch. I always came alone, hoping she’d see me and catch on and say yes. Hoping she’d come over and make me the happiest lug in the cafeteria and the world. But she never did.

Summer came, and sometimes I would take an ice cube and hold it on my neck, so I could feel the drips down my back and thus feel her. We both kept the same tables and the same routines. And she still never noticed me.

And she never would. Her star could never hang so low. So every day she’d eat alone and bus her tray alone and go back to her office alone. And every day I’d eat alone and watch her alone and go back to my life alone. Just another lonesome guy, madly in love with a shadow.

And then she was gone. Just…gone, off to another job or another city or another life with her man. Like she never existed, and never sent her shadow across my path. Like she never took my heart and made it gasp. Like…nothing there.

Like the shadow she was…

Image Source: Library of Congress

“So they call this all Back of the Yards neighborhood now. Know what they called it when I was your age? Union Stockyard, was called. Where we sittin’ right now, would have been ankle deep in hog blood or suddenly caught between two locomotive cars!”

Joe Lutkowski and his grandson-to-be Rich Goldman were sitting on Joe’s porch drinking Old Style and thumbing through photo albums. Except for a few Sox games, Rich had never been to the South Side, and Joe didn’t get out too far too often lately. But the two families had spent a wonderful day together gallivanting around Chicago and getting to know each other. It was a beautiful night and the Goldman’s had gathered at the Lutkowski’s for cake and ice cream. Rich flipped to a picture of train tracks and industrial buildings.

“Tell me about this one,” Rich said.

“Ah!” Joe said. “This is where I worked! Was brakeman for Chicago & North Western Railroad. Lined switches and made sure signals worked. Twenty years, worked at 40th Street yards, until they shut whole thing down in early 70s. Trains I worked on carried pigs away from slaughterhouses. Was stink like you wouldn’t believe!”

“I can’t imagine!” Rich said. “So this entire neighborhood was train tracks and slaughterhouses?”

“Ja, was all train yard and stock yard,” Joe said. “Hog butcher of world, Chicago was! Hard to imagine now, but was all different. You know Millennium Park downtown?”

“Yeah, with the Frank Gehry bandstand and the Cloud Gate statue!” Rich said.

“Ja,” Joe said. “Was Illinois Central tracks for years, then nothing. Abandoned tracks. Big change all over Chicago!”

“I barely remember the tracks being there,” Rich said. “I can’t picture trains actually going back and forth through the park!”

“Was different time!” Joe said. “I don’t mean bad now, but was different.”

“Hi, grandpa!” Joe’s granddaughter Casey came out on the porch and gave him a big kiss. “Have you scared my man away yet?”

“We get along just fine, ha?!” Joe said, holding up his beer for a clink with Rich’s. “Am showing Chicago I knew when I was young. Is boring story from crazy old man, ja?!”

“I’m loving it,” Rich said, holding up his beer for a clink with Joe’s. “Tell me more…”

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Image Source: New Orleans Online

Tim and Shaien weren’t particularly Catholic, or particularly anything. But when in Rome, or in this case New Orleans…

They were on the sitting balcony of the honeymoon suite of the Creole Gardens, making the most of Fat Tuesday with beignets, king cake and a pitcher of Hurricanes. The B&B was just off the French Quarter, allowing the young couple pockets of quiet in between waves of Mardi Gras revelers, and they were greatly enjoying their own private festivities.

The evening was warm, comparatively speaking, the gentle breeze an intoxicating perfume of Cajun and Creole cooking, flowers, horse leavings and the salt of the gulf. The atmosphere was heavy with the usual Mardi Gras enchantment, of course, but there was something else.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Shaien asked.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” Tim said. “You feeling it?”

“I’m feeling…something,” Shaien said. “Something kind of …dark. Like …voodoo and mystery. It’s kind of eerie.”

“Now that you mention it…” Tim said.

They were quiet for a few minutes.

“Like, I can almost hear ghosts whispering from the past,” Shaien said. “It’s almost like some spectral presence has kind of wafted over me. I know it’s nothing…..but…..”

“I do believe in powers that are beyond us,” Tim said. “Obviously I’m not very religious, but yeah, I’m spiritual. And I believe in spirits of all religions, including voodoo. So yeah, there’s something here. Some…kind of presence.”

“So you think there’s something out there?” Shaien asked.

“Yeah,” Tim said, taking a pull from his drink.

“Do you think there’s something here?” Shaien asked.

“Yeah,” Tim said. “I’m not sure what. But there’s something …or someone… here.”

“Whooooooohhhhoooooo!” Shaien said, breaking the spell. They pulled their chairs together and held each other a little tighter than usual.

Later they fell into an unsettled sleep, with more questions arising than answers as the night went on.

Image Source: Bridge and Tunnel Club

The first summer-feeling weekend of the year had arrived, and seemingly all of Brooklyn was out soaking it in. The lawns of Prospect Park were filled with picnickers, flying Frisbees and sun worshipers, and the paths of the Botanical Gardens were mobbed with promenaders spilling out to the farmers market on Grand Army Plaza. It was a glorious weekend to be alive in any corner of the borough.

On that Sunday, as always, the line outside Tom’s Restaurant snaked around the corner. The owner, as always, walked the line, handing out cookies and greeting his customers-to-be.

“My friends!” he said to Ray and Clem. “Thank you so much for coming on this beeuteeful day!” He handed them both cookies, clasped their hands and forearms and moved along the line. Ray gnawed off a cookie in one bite, adjusted his shades against the blinding sun and pointed up to the sign above the window.

“This isn’t it,” Ray said. “You know that, right?” He stood back a little, lit an American Spirit and waited for Clem to ask what he meant.

“What do you mean?” Clem asked.

“This isn’t the Tom’s Diner from the Suzanne Vega song,” Ray said. “Most people think it is, but nope. I know a guy knows someone that used to do publicity for her, and he got the real story. Her Tom’s Diner is the one on Broadway in Morningside Heights, by Columbia.”

Ray actually read that in an article somewhere, but close enough. Finally seated, he ordered a Chocolate Egg Cream and Clem ordered a Cherry Lime Rickey, both of which were the best in the world.

“Oh yeah, I know that one!” Clem said. “They used the exterior for the café on Seinfeld!

Ray was slightly taken aback at having his command of the conversation breached, but he handled it deftly by changing the subject.

“Oh, have you seen the ‘Hipster Trap’ poster?” he said. “It was on Laughing Squid, I think. Hilarious. It’s a bear trap, with a PBR, a pair of Ray-Bans and a pack of American Spirits. Friggin’ riot.”

“That’s a scream,” Clem said. “Tools of the trade for tools, right?”

“Damn straight,” Ray said. “Buncha wankers. ‘Oh, look at me! I’m ever so hip and ironic!’”

“’Yeah, look at my seventy-five-dollar Pabst tee!’” Clem said. “It looks original!”

“Damn, that reminds me: we’re out of beer!” Ray said. “Let’s pick up some Brooklyn. And some PBRs, in case we score!”

They sippedd their drinks, ordered BLTs, got beer and smokes at the bodega and headed back out into a beautiful Sunday.

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Image Source: SI

It took forever, or so it felt. It always seemed like hours on the 7 from Grand Central, even though it was only eighteen stops. You were on an endless journey to a place called Flushing, and by the time you stepped off the train at Willet’s Point, you were already thinking of humping your way back.

Willet’s Point, Flushing, Queens. The Valley of the Ashes immortalized by Fitzgerald in Gatsby. Used to be the city dump, and when they built Shea Stadium, the rubbish of the city was still smoldering underground.

And the stadium was a crumbling, decaying dump on top of the dump. Flaking paint, nasty bathrooms, exposed pipes and exposed ramps that dropped off hundreds of feet to death by concrete. If you were sitting in the upper deck, you were going to be holding on to your sun-scorched arm rest for dear life, as the pitch down to the field was enough to make you feel like you were about to tumble and roll off the face of the earth.

But it was OUR dump and OUR Amazin’ Mets.

It was a kids game played by grown men seemingly cast from an episode of Fraggle Rock: Davey and Mex and The Straw, Nails and The Kid and, fachrissakes, Mookie. And there was joy in their game, and the unspoken swagger that says you will NOT beat us today.

You showed up early for batting practice. You sat in the blazing sun and gladly felt like passing out from the heat trapped in the not-fully-enclosed Shea stadium. Your seat was only a few hundred feet below the flight path of LaGuardia, close enough to be able to read the numbers on the wing. Pilots approaching the runway used to gun their engines so they could hear themselves on the radio play-by-play. And you loved the noise and the atmosphere because it was New York and it was Shea and the Mets and it was where you wanted to be.

It was 1986, and it was THE year. 108-54, smoked Philly by 21 1/2, beat Houston in 16 unforgetable playoff innings, Game 6, Buckner. The greatest team having the greatest season playing in the greatest dump in the greatest city in the world.

It was worth the longest subway ride ever, and so much more.

RIP, Kid

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Image Source: Tracey Capone

Ann was starting to get pissed as she stood in front of the AC unit trying to get it off of the ARCTIC BLAST setting. She and Melissa didn’t get much sleep, between the cold and rattling of the air conditioner and anticipation of the homestretch of their trip.

The morning, grey and muted, flicked across the carpet in thin shafts of light as Ann bumped into the heavy motel curtains. She rolled the immense 1970s climate control dial, pressed buttons, punched the panel. Eventually she gave up and went back to the bed. Melissa had pushed the comforter to the floor, and was lying with the sheets pulled up to her chin.

“I would get starkers for you, but it’s too fucking cold in here!” she said. She made a show of her shivering and chattering teeth.

Ann held up her arm, which was a relief map of goose bumps.

“I’ll forgive you,” she said. “This time. We need warming coffee! Wanna stop at the coffee shop for some Route 66 Americana, or would you rather fuel up when we fuel up?”

“Hmmm…” Melissa said. “When will we ever be here again? Let’s linger for a few minutes.”

“Let’s!” Ann said. “And if I happen to see a sombrero or some other form of dumb-ass local ware in the gift shop, and if it happens to end up in the car, weeellll….”

“Yeah, don’t make me change my mind before we even get home!” Melissa said.

300 miles to go. Ann and Melissa were starting the day in a frigid, run down New Mexico motel room, and they would end it at the beginning of their new life together. They lingered at the door before returning the key, knowing that this was a moment they would both remember for a long time. The last miles before home. Then they got in the car, turned up the heat and hit the gas.

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