Last Exit to Brooklyn
So I've finally experienced a rite of passage that makes me feel like a true Bostonian. I've moved to New York. I did it for the same reason I moved to Boston: for a chick. Back then, Megan was my girlfriend; today she's my wife. Back then, she was a temp; today she's a bigwig. Back then, her company was housed in a brownstone on Beacon Hill; today, it's been “consolidated” into the Time-Life building in midtown Manhattan. In the interest of keeping the two of us consolidated, I have agreed to give New York a shot. It was a tougher decision for me than for all those “here today, gone to New York tomorrow” types I met during my 16 years in Boston. What can I say? I liked it there.
I didn't always like it there. I arrived in the winter of 1987, another dopey twentysomething without a job, an apartment, or a pair of decent gloves. In other words, I embodied the socioeconomic profile of Davis Square. I found an ad on a telephone pole for an apartment and moved into an uninsulated sublet with my buddy Tim. At that point, Somerville was still known as Slummerville, and rightly so. The only scene in Davis Square transpired at Barnaby's Tap, where a coterie of elderly alcoholics gathered every morning to exchange racist repartee over a few breakfast beers. I once made the mistake of going inside to use the bathroom and was promptly called a “Barney.” I still don't know what that means, but I'm sure it's not nice. Especially since the context was, “Sorry, Barney, we don't have a ladies' room.”
What I'm getting at here is that Boston didn't seem like the sunshiniest place on earth. But what was I expecting? That my downstairs neighbors, four BC grads who also didn't have decent gloves, would invite me to their Super Bowl party instead of just asking to borrow ice? That the creepy man next door would refrain from scraping my car door with a key the time I removed a mysterious chaise longue from an on-street parking space and pulled in for the night? How the hell was I supposed to know that beach furniture on the pavement meant that some Somervillian had staked a claim to a parking space for all eternity? I was an outsider, defined in Boston terms as a person who didn't already know everyone else.
It didn't take long to learn that meeting people in Boston required vigorous effort. “Why, hello there, friend!” I'd say to any random resident who hadn't keyed my car that day. “Whaddaya say you and I get to know each other over a refreshing beverage some time?” The ones who didn't take me for an escapee from McLean would sometimes feel sorry enough for me to oblige. Everything would go swimmingly until I revealed that I had moved to Boston from New York. Suddenly, I would be viewed as a threat to the Bostonian's very way of life. “Buddy,” they'd always say, “I wouldn't live in that city if you paid me.” Then they'd tell me why. New York was too expensive/dangerous/filthy, and the people there were too pushy/superficial/good-looking, and there wasn't enough outdoor space/indoor space/parking space.
Everyone seemed to be protesting too much, as if, at any moment, they expected me to start stabbing them with a jumbo “I Love NY” pin. As if they expected me to cry, “My God, man! What kind of operation are you people running up here?! Last call 1 a.m.?!”
With the gentle winds of change, Barnaby's became Redbone's, the Somerville Theatre tarted itself up, and the Someday Café crowd showed me that folks in Boston weren't all hostile: They just hadn't had their coffee yet. You stay in a place long enough, you wind up growing with it. By the mid '90s, I fancied myself a Davis Square denizen, intimately acquainted with the rich fabric of triple-decker dumps. By the time Megan and I could afford renting a dump of our own, our jobs had become careers. She'd climbed midway up the corporate ladder, and my first book, Entry-Level Life, had landed me on the Today show. No longer was I a displaced dork with a gash in my car door. I was a displaced dork with a gash in my car door who locals were treating like a hometown hero.
Then, one fateful day, a hotshot agent from New York tracked me down to talk business:
“So! You live up in Boston, huh?”
I realized then that I'd officially switched teams. Now I was protesting too much. I told her we had great restaurants, and you could walk from one end of the city to the other, and there was this funky theater in Coolidge Corner, and we have this Museum of Fine Arts, see, and Â—
“Yeah,” she replied, “we have some of that stuff, too.”
I shifted gears and played my Mother Nature card: You could get to Vermont in about two hours, New Hampshire in 45 minutes. “The great thing about Boston,” I bragged, “is how easy it is to get out.”
At the time, I didn't realize how bizarre this boast was, this notion that the highlight of living in Boston was that it was easy to leave. I mean, what exactly did that say about the place? Now that I'm gone, let me boldly put forth one crackpot theory: Maybe, just maybe, behind all the defensiveness is a lingering dissatisfaction with the parts of the city that are supposed to make it, you know, a city. The gripes I heard from Somerville to the South End were the same for 15 years: Back Bay had all the vibrancy of The Mall at Chestnut Hill; Harvard Square was overrun by teenage mutant meatheads; when Â— if ever Â— would the “Theater District” get some balls and chuck the Blue Man Group already? At one point or another, everyone I knew seemed to sense they were living in a giant Starbucks. It wasn't exactly a love/hate relationship, more of a like/don't-care-for attitude. But, hey, you got used to it. New York might be cool, the justification went, but Boston was livable.
When I reached my thirties, I found living in a livable city more appropriate than living in a cool city Â— or at least what passed for cool when I was still stumbling around Slummerville without decent gloves. Now it was cool to get married, to get a dog, to eat an early dinner at Hammersley's instead of drinking a late one at the Hong Kong. It was fitting that my new book would be called The Day I Turned Uncool, the proceeds of which would help to pay the mortgage on what I'll generously refer to as the “fixer-upper” Megan and I bought in North Cambridge. And once we had it all fixed up, I never looked back. Unlike Boston proper, Cambridge was just urban enough, just suburban enough. You want shrubbery? You got Danehy Park. You want pierced heroin addicts? You got Central Square. Making that ultimate transition from renter to owner, I felt something more powerful than any pull to any other city. I felt settled.
The movers hauled our stuff to New York the week we learned my wife was pregnant. And though her office had relocated to Manhattan, we didn't relocate our forthcoming family to Manhattan. Are you kidding? It's too expensive/dangerous/filthy, the people there are too pushy/superficial/good-looking, and there isn't enough outdoor space/indoor space/parking space. No. We moved to Brooklyn. And I'm not going to lie to you: It doesn't suck. Okay, it doesn't suck a lot. It kind of looks like Beacon Hill, except with some black people. Last night, we walked five minutes to this Peruvian place for dinner. A few weekends ago, we saw Hairspray. Every morning, I take my dog for a hike in Prospect Park. Even she likes it here Â— so many new faces, smells, places to pee. Frankly, I couldn't agree with her more.
When I tell New Yorkers where I moved from, I brace myself for the Boston bashing. But the most derogatory reaction I ever get is this: “It's too provincial.” This is ironic, considering it always comes from the guy who hasn't left New York since birth because he's not aware that there are other cities.
I, for one, know better, having spent nearly half of my life in a certain New England province. And by the time I took off, let me just say I was sporting one superdeluxe pair of Gore-Tex gloves from Bob Smith's Wilderness House in Brighton. I had become an insider. Not an insider in the sense of a “player,” but an insider in the sense of a “shmo.” A regular shmo who stuck around long enough to figure out what was what.
For example, probably the thing I miss most about Boston is knowing where the secret parking lots are that have signs threatening to tow you even though they really don't. Ah, what the hell, this is my last column, for Christ's sake: behind the Indian restaurant across from the Porter Square T station.
I miss knowing Joe the bartender of Central Kitchen, formerly of the Enormous Room, formerly of the B-Side, formerly of Toad, formerly of Chez Henri, formerly of the triple-decker dump on Cherry Street where he lived upstairs from me. I miss knowing that you have to dress in layers when you see a show at the Orpheum; that you can get free movie and concert tickets merely by calling WMFO, the Tufts radio station; that there is but one sausage guy worth trusting at Fenway Park, and he goes by “the Sausage Guy.” I miss knowing that, wherever I venture, I'll run into someone I know.
Excuse me a second, would you? I suddenly feel the need to curl into the fetal position and sing myself the song from Cheers.
Okay, I promised myself I wouldn't cry. So thanks for putting up with me all these years, Boston, and please get over this thing you have against New York. There really are a lot of things I like about living here, not the least of which is that it takes me only four short hours to drive back home.