The Argument: A Turncoat’s Manifesto
Why I left Boston, and why that’s not the unforgivable offense it once would have been.
Boston has always been the kind of place that pushes you away and then never forgives you for leaving. A city of avowed begrudgers, we have a symphony of grievances as our civic dialogue. Resentment is a primary virtue, woven into our very DNA. But while I once felt the city and I were united in our resentment of various foes (who included, frankly, a broad swath of the area’s population), I now realize that alliance expired long ago.
Truth be told, in the handful of years that preceded my departure, I found my ardor for Boston diminishing. I discovered, to my dismay if not surprise, that I was turning into an intolerably nostalgic mick at the age of 31, roughly 40 years ahead of schedule. I spent much of my time pointing out to newcomers all the great things that used to be there, and there, and there, before Boston became a prettily arranged mall of cell-phone stores and million-dollar condos. Increasingly, I could go weeks without the city surprising me. When I found myself feeling especially warm toward Boston, my mind never stayed in the present. It inevitably went back to Morphine at the Plough & Stars, waiting in line for a new record at midnight at the old Tower Records, drinking coffee and staring at the State House from the frozen windows of Curious Liquids on Beacon Hill (today a shiny Fox 25 studio), or late-night beers and BLTs at the long-defunct Deli Haus in once-wonderful Kenmore Square, now locked in an epic battle with Boylston Street to see which can host Boston’s ghastliest hotel structure.
Right up until the global economy completely broke down last fall, metro Boston was riding a wave of sustained prosperity and good fortune unseen since the days of Bulfinch. Yet it was one that came frighteningly close to obliterating the city’s unique character and style. Our studied reserve failed us. Money and winning sports teams made us dull and obvious, just another nouveau riche burg aquiver at the possibility of whoring itself out for another Gucci store. Things had gotten too easy, they came too readily.
It’s a sentiment almost ludicrous in its Irishness, to resent victory or fetishize struggle. But then, if the Irish had trounced the English at will, their books wouldn’t have been any good, and the people themselves wouldn’t have been as funny. It wouldn’t be Ireland. It’s the same here: With all the city’s recent successes, the point has been lost. Boston has ceased to be Boston. And now we don’t even have a tax surplus to show for it. There’s something to the idea that the Hub is in a better position than most American cities to weather the years ahead, but I still can’t escape the sense that we’ve been strip-mined.
I know: bitch, bitch, bitch. Everyone ruins everyone else’s city. That’s always the way, no matter where you are. But that feeling had really accumulated in me over the past few years. After I left, it felt like a relationship that had long since cooled, and the only thing holding it together was force of habit. You break that habit, and suddenly you realize you’d actually checked out months or years before.
But do I miss it? Not any more than I did when I still lived there. It’s a common enough sensation. When you grow up in a city, it’s not that you can’t go home again—it’s that you can’t go home again even if you never left home to begin with.
In any case, at this point the physical Boston doesn’t much matter. It’s what I’ve taken away from it that does. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to live up to the Bostonian ideal: tough-minded, smart and unpretentious, brooding and funny, and equipped with the world’s best accent and a suspicious and disdainful nature that, under the right circumstances, has been known to give way to an indomitable sense of loyalty. (I’ve sometimes indulged the pet theory that Bostonians are so angry because the rest of the world turns out to not prize loyalty the way we do, though I’ve also suspected that might be malarkey.) It’s those things that I’ll remain loyal to, regardless of where I end up, be it New York or even back in Boston, down the road. It’s those things that will ensure a future of feeling like Pigpen in Peanuts, carrying a visible dust cloud of Boston around me, hoping that the wind doesn’t blow it away.
It’s an effect that will only be heightened by the Sox sweatshirt I bought for the sole purpose of antagonizing my new neighbors.
Ultimately, what’s become clear since I moved away is that it’s that very same set of Bostonian ideals that helped shape me into a person destined to be disappointed and disheartened by what Boston would turn into. That’s the tragedy of loving this city. Not liking it, but actually loving it. And it is worth loving, worth making that effort, even if it breaks your heart in the end.