These Little Town Blues

One night this winter I was browsing remainders outside a bookstore in Greenwich Village with a whispery, elegant 30-year-old woman, a Harvard Law School graduate who reads a lot of Henry James and watches a lot of Sex and the City. She asked what I was writing about, and I told her I was working on a story about Boston's rivalry with New York City.

“Boston's what?” she asked, distracted, flipping the pages of an oversized fashion book.

I explained. How, in every field, so many of our best people, from Babe Ruth to Bill Bratton, end up going to New York. How New York keeps buying up what's distinctive about our town — how the Times took over the Globe, and Macy's swallowed Jordan Marsh and took away our blueberry muffins. How Time Warner bought Little, Brown, then moved all the editors from Boston to New York, leaving Houghton Mifflin as the only major publisher still standing on the Charles. How we used to be the tryout town for New York's best theatrical productions — The King and I first opened here, and Our Town, and A Streetcar Named Desire — and how even though we still occasionally get something decent like The Graduate, it's mostly bones like Mamma Mia!

I rattled on for a couple of minutes but got no sign of recognition. None whatsoever. In desperation, I said, “The Yankees-Red Sox thing?”

And finally: “Oh. . . .” She exhaled a sigh, as if I'd just told her snowflakes had been falling in a forest up in Maine. “That's so . . . quaint.”

Cut to Boston's City Hall Plaza two days after the Patriots' Super Bowl win, a victory celebration that drew more than a million fans. Among the many players taking turns at the microphone was special teams captain Larry Izzo, who finished his remarks to the crowd by leading it in a rousing chant of “YANKEES SUCK!”

Try, for just a second, to imagine New Yorkers, even at a baseball game, chanting “RED SOX SUCK!” It would never occur to them, because the New York-Boston rivalry exists in just one place: Bostonians' minds. And that obvious fact raises a deeply and enduringly mysterious question: Why do we insist on doing this to ourselves?

Rare is the Dorchester housewife who frets away her days bemoaning Boston's supposed inferiority to New York. The complex under consideration is most prevalent among 1) sports fans; 2) club kids who wish this city didn't shut down just when things are getting good; 3) media types who covet glossier jobs in Gotham; and 4) people who like to be able to get pad Thai at four in the morning.

After the attack on the World Trade Center, Boston's ill will toward New York dissolved for a time, replaced by a surge of compassion that revealed the depth of the connection between the two cities. Boston's grief for New York also contained a flicker of a strange, irrational feeling about what happened that included something like embarrassment, and something like shame, and something like responsibility but went mostly unspoken, probably because it's not, in the end, a feeling. It's a fact. Virginia Buckingham, resigning as Massport's executive director, said: “The fact that our airport was used in an unimaginable plot that killed thousands of innocent people is something I will carry in my mind and heart forever.”

Time passed. In October, it was actually possible to visit bars in Southie full of Red Sox fans who were cheering for the Yankees. But the good feeling couldn't last. Boston slid slowly back into a mildly chastened brand of New York bashing, epitomized by Izzo's chant.

Boston's aggression toward New York is not entirely destructive. It inspires an exercise in comparison that effectively reminds this small city of its own disproportionate strengths: world-class universities, peerless medical research and treatment, booming biotech work, dominance of the financial services industry, and our museums, symphony, parks, and gardens (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who left New York to live here). And that's not to mention such intangibles as Boston's manageable size and its accessibility to the suburbs.

Yet one thing Boston's boosters can't claim for the Hub is New York City's elemental power of enchantment, the source of both our attraction to and resentment of Manhattan. Walking back to the hotel where I was staying, just off Columbus Circle, I found myself following a white, middle-aged couple in neat, unfashionable clothing. The man sang quietly, “If I can make it there / I'll make it anywhere,” all smoothlike, to himself, and then bit into the next lyrics, nudging his wife with his elbow — “It's! up! to! you!/New! York! New! York!” — and teasing from her a silly, guilty smile.

They entered the hotel just ahead of me, but I don't know whether they were tourists. I didn't ask, because I didn't want to break the spell. What I do know is that they moved with the stiffness of people who probably spend a lot of time feeling self-conscious, and the man's voice strained for those high notes in a manner suggesting that he didn't have much experience singing showtunes on street corners.

New York is the place that when you go there, you never have to worry what anyone will think.

By contrast, self-consciousness is the Bostonian's fundamental psychic condition, inherited from our Puritan forefathers' stripped-down scriptural standards of worship and piety by way of the astringent, genealogy-obsessed WASP aristocracy that was their secular legacy. Though Boston's social hierarchies are now more fluid than they have ever been, it is still true that a Bostonian is unusually aware of his own identity and social position, and of his neighbor's. Bostonians who lack a WASP pedigree, and even those who eschew WASP values, often still adopt WASP manners: exclusive, distant, and testing. Ask anyone you know who's lived in Boston for less than a year — if, that is, you know anyone who's lived in Boston for less than a year.

John Updike, though not a New Englander by birth, may be the most prolific chronicler of Boston's WASPish ways. Near the beginning of his 1989 memoir, Self-Consciousness, Updike notes that old Bostonians don't care whether they go to heaven or hell as long as their fellow club members are there. “An illusion of eternal comfort reposes in clubbiness,” he explains, “the assurance that no earthly adventure, from puberty to death, is unprecedented or incapable of being shared and that one's life is thoroughly witnessed and therefore not wasted.”

The eternal comfort of clubbiness has an infernal side, too. It breeds an aversion to risk and experimentation that can drain a community's vitality and prevent a person from enjoying life fully. The straitjacketed extremes of Bostonian self-consciousness are explored to comic and moving effect in John Marquand's 1937 novel The Late George Apley. It's the story of a Brahmin whose life spans the 1860s to the 1930s, the period when New York supplanted Boston as the site of America's most important cultural and economic activities. Toward the end of his life, in a letter to his son, Apley writes:

“I have always been faced from childhood by the obligation of convention, and all of these conventions have been made by others, formed from the fabric of the past. In some way these have stepped in between me and life. I had to realize that they were designed to do just that. They were designed to promote stability and inheritance. Perhaps they have gone a little bit too far.”

Though most of us would rather not believe that such regrets await us in old age, practically every Bostonian I've known, no matter how young or nonwhite, could feel some measure of empathy with George Apley. It's not hard to imagine why people in a town where fitting in counts for everything might be envious of people in a town where making your own way is the most prized path. Sometimes, it's enough to make you want to pack up and move.

Bill Weld has a new haircut. The boyish barber chop he sported as governor of Massachusetts has been replaced by a stylish, slicked-back do. (“I got it like this for Traffic and decided to keep it,” he explains, referring to the Steven Soderbergh film in which he played a cameo role.) In other ways, too, Weld's life has changed dramatically. Last year he left the Boston-based law firm McDermott, Will & Emery, whose Manhattan office he formerly headed, and became a principal in a New York private equity firm called Leeds Weld & Company, whose Madison Avenue office stands squarely between Calvin Klein and Barneys. He also separated from his wife, Susan Roosevelt Weld, and has been dating somebody else.

Everyone who knew Bill Weld in Boston says he's seemed happier and more comfortable since he moved south. (Full disclosure: I'm one of them. I worked for him when he was governor.) I mention this at the start of our interview. “That's true,” he replies, and it's not just his personal life. “There's a steeper learning curve for me professionally down here. The rhythms of public life had become somewhat familiar to me by 1997. That's as delicately as I can put it.”

From childhood on, Weld says, his life has been “neatly sliced down the middle” between Boston and New York. Letting rip a long string of proper names and sports scores to specify team preferences, he suggests that his current loyalties are also neatly sliced. Everything he has to say about the New York-Boston dynamic is equally all-bases-covering.

Weld's ability to join two apparently contradictory qualities and present himself as their resolution has always been the key to his appeal. One reason Boston loved Weld was that his Brahmin image is impeccable (with the boathouse, the chair at Harvard Law School, and all the funny cousins) — except for one crucial thing: He was conspicuously self-conscious about his identity, and even appeared a little uncomfortable with it. Of his time in Boston, Weld says: “I know one WASP who went to bed every night hoping to wake up Irish or Italian or Jewish. The last thing I wanted to be was a blue-blooded, limp-wristed Yankee from Olympus.” He had everything this town values, but he told us he'd still be dandy if it all were gone tomorrow. For Weld's adversaries, this was an absurdly seductive self-presentation; what he seemed to wear so lightly was the blood inside his veins.

Though tribalism still seems politically necessary in Boston, it reinforces self-conscious definitions of identity that lead to social exclusion. Weld seemed to have transcended that trap. He showed us he was comfortable with the discomfort caused by his comfort. Which made everybody feel more comfortable.

Social life seems so much more straightforward in New York. Its population is more diverse than ours, and its citizens enjoy a level of assimilation that allows for easier one-to-one connections. Old Jews chat up young gentiles at Zabar's. Coat-check people are plucky. Multiethnic dinner parties abound. Though New York is unquestionably a more personable and lively society, it is not necessarily more intimate. New York's appreciation of individuality is not so circumscribed by tribal self-consciousness as ours, but it does have limits.

Bill Weld recently traded his gigantic office at Leeds Weld for a small one, ceding the space to the firm's newest principal, former Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Newcomb. Sitting in his new office, Weld says charm, talent, celebrity, status, and patrimony are all nice to have in Manhattan, but they're not the most important things. “I don't think people think about identity much here. The coinage is different in New York,” he says, turning literal: “It's closer to coins.”

“Acela,” if you mispronounce it, rhymes with “Kumbaya.” This is relevant because it conveys both the sense and logic of some famous Bostonians' opinions about the train's potential to transform the relationship between our cities.

Michael Dukakis, Amtrak's board vice chairman, for example, says, “We've got Bostonians who jump back and forth on Amtrak all the time. We've tried to encourage that with special deals. And, for someone in the New York area, coming up to Boston for the weekend is a real kick.”

Alan Dershowitz, who often rides the Acela — he's a Metropolitan Opera subscriber — says, “if we can get it down to 2 hours, 45 minutes, New York will start to seem like a suburb of Boston.”

The Acela train's conductors tell a slightly different story. New Yorkers on their way to Boston, says one conductor, don't act like they're having a very good time. “You can tell by the way they hand you their tickets. The New Yorkers just flip up their fingers, like 'You don't matter to me.'”

The other thing about New Yorkers, he says, is that they're scam artists. Train conductors say New York passengers will throw magazines on the floor and pretend to have slipped on them, or slam their own fingers in a bathroom door, then say it just slid back when they weren't looking.

Every good scammer has got to have a dupe, and this is where Bostonians come in. The train conductors say Bostonians leaving Penn Station are particularly ripe for the old My-mother's-sick-in-Providence-can-anybody-spare-a-buck-so-I-can-go-to-see-her? spiel. “That's what the out-of-work actors do,” one conductor explains.

Susceptibility to scams may seem an unlikely characteristic of America's Athenians. We're supposed to be smarter than that. And yet, as any episode of Ally McBeal demonstrates, self-consciousness about how smart you are is often a way of compensating for a sense that the world around you doesn't recognize your worth. This, in turn, makes Ally and the rest of us susceptible to making small, self-sabotaging gestures whose effects confirm our mildly unhappy picture of the universe. So maybe Bostonians are easy dupes because we are well practiced at frustration. (Perhaps this also helps explain why, as one train conductor says, “Boston people get drunk on the train more than New York people.”)

Who's frustrated in Boston? The ones who've got it worst must be the Red Sox fans. It's been going on 84 years now since their team has won a World Series, and for dignity's sake, that's probably enough about that.

First runners-up would be the club kids and the hipsters who, because they're too cool to go out to nightclubs and bars before 11 p.m. (in part because no one in — well, you know — goes out before 11 p.m.), have only three hours before everything closes at 2 a.m. — except it's really only two hours unless you're sober enough to drive a car (because the subway shuts down at 1), although now they do have those “Night Owl” buses that don't stop until 2:30. But whose skin looks good in bus lighting at 2:30?

Also deserving mention are ambitious media folks, many of whom view Boston as a launching pad, hoping to follow in the illustrious footsteps of Phoenix alumni such as the New York Times's Janet Maslin and the New Yorker's David Denby — to go to New York where, they imagine, it's easier to make professional contacts, or there are more interesting stories to cover, or the route to punditry is shorter because there are more TV shows. Boston College political science professor Alan Wolfe, a frequent contributor to the New Republic and the New York Times Magazine, thinks this particular strain of New York idealizing is bunk. “Look at Doris Goodwin, Alan Dershowitz. They couldn't possibly be on television more, no matter where they lived.”

Frustration is a fixture of everyday life for all Bostonians, however, not just those in the aforementioned demographics. For a reminder of this fact, take a quick trip underground. On the T you are forbidden to speak, under any circumstances, or else the entire subway car will glare at you like a nightmare posse of librarians. Moreover, passengers stand up a full minute before their stop, excuse me-ing their ways to the door, asking you to please move because “I'm getting off here in a minute,” as though if their bodies are not pressed against the glass when the doors swing open, they might be only five minutes early to their meeting instead of ten. This is the behavior of people used to being held back, anxious about missing their chance.

New Yorkers face frustration on a daily basis, too. But New York has something that makes its hassles less irksome than ours: a vision of itself as a place of limitless possibility. The Yankees have won the World Series 26 times. If you want to hear the hottest DJ at the hottest club, you shouldn't even leave your apartment until 4 a.m. They've got a full-sized Ferris wheel in the Times Square Toys “R” Us.

In a culture that prizes instant gratification and individual liberty above all things, potential happiness is measured by the freedom to choose among the largest number of pleasurable outcomes in any given situation. In that kind of culture, New York beats Boston. End of story. Why be frustrated when you can be happy and free? Come on. Any time of day you can get pad Thai by the pound.

I raise this pad Thai issue with Mayor Tom Menino, who, though not well known for his eloquence, can surprise you sometimes.

“In Boston you can get any thing you want,” he says, “but you can't get it any time you want.”

I also ask Mayor Menino why he thinks the “Yankees suck!” cheer went over so big at the Patriots' rally.

He's furious. “I don't think there's no place in our society to use that type of language. I'm not a prude, but when you got young people, old people, together in a public place, you don't use that type of language.”

I rephrase the question. The mayor grants that Red Sox fans feel something less than Christian charity for Yankees fans, but he thinks that's fine. “There's nothing wrong with having a rivalry. And they're 300 miles away. You can get on the highway and go down there.”

Menino also says the Boston-New York rivalry exists mainly among sports fans and “media types” who “thrive on controversies,” though no examples come to mind. And he dismisses the idea that Boston's nightlife may not measure up to Manhattan's, explaining: “We are the center of the action. We are the action. That premise that we are not the center of the action is from somebody who doesn't know anything about Boston.”

Bostonians, the mayor says, “have a special city in a class by itself. We are a different city altogether. We have the uniqueness of a big city but a geographically small city. We have the history of America right here in Boston. You can walk to all those sites. This thing is made too much out of, New York and Boston. New York might have more skyscrapers than we do.”

Tom Menino is a good mayor, but he is not the least bit glamorous or cool. Michael Bloomberg's no fashionista, but there's no doubt he could hold his own at any party. And the contrast between our mayors is as good a summary as any of the ground of Boston's rivalry with New York. Tom Menino symbolizes a set of values less fashionable than Michael Bloomberg does, just as Boston symbolizes a set of values less fashionable than New York does.

Boston is what's good for you. Boston is hard work and not always fun and the payoff will come later. Boston is eating your spinach, it's saving for retirement, it's the geek who does more homework than he needs to. Boston is WGBH.

New York is the most popular girl. Those of us who can't have her or be her but secretly wish we could, console ourselves by imagining that she is somehow inferior: She can't feel things as deeply, she isn't as smart. When we start rationalizing these feelings, even if we're telling the truth, we start to sound ridiculous. Yes, she's pretty, but a lot of that is her nice clothes. And she has nice clothes because she's got money — or, more to the point, because she spends it. And who would she be, anyway, if all of us she thinks she's so much better than weren't watching her every move?

That's the kind of thing we're saying when we say the Yankees suck. The Boston-New York rivalry is not an inferiority complex. It's an angry kind of confusion about why the whole world — us included — can't help coveting New York's ideals of instant gratification, individual liberty, and unlimited opportunity — and why Boston's core values — loyalty, rootedness, tradition — aren't enough, on balance, to keep us more content.

Which brings us back to that self-conscious, frustrated old Brahmin, George Apley. When his son leaves the family home in Boston for New York for all the usual reasons — it's faster there, more fun, and more exciting — Apley fires off an angry letter.

“There is a great deal of talk in these days about happiness. An English woman named Mrs. Bertrand Russell . . . has written a strange book entitled The Right to Be Happy which has disturbed even your mother's admirable sense of balance. It seems to me today in all this unhappy country there is a loud, lonely cry for happiness. Perhaps it would be better if people realized that happiness comes only by indirection, that it can never exist by any conscious effort of the will. I think this is a mistake that you . . . and all the rest of you are making. When the hour comes for you to balance your accounts I wonder if you will have had any better time than I. I doubt it.”

The Late George Apley is one of those rare books that make you feel so at home in the world that you want to call everybody you know to tell them to read it — because it says some things that you believe but never quite knew how to say. There was a time when the rest of the world felt the same way about Marquand's novel: It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938. I would like to tell you to go out and buy this book right now, but Late George Apley is no longer in print.