The Boston Phoenix
August 5 - 12, 1999


Chance encounters with local treasures

An appreciation of Boston

by Camden Joy

After two years in Boston, I am leaving. From here I head north. I depart with regrets: there is so much I haven't seen, haven't done. As I think back, I recall spending most of my time here with my head down, going to and from work. I remember last fall hurrying past a couple as they fought in a parked black car. He was plainly tired of her. I saw him swig belligerently from a 40-ounce bottle of beer. Her face was red, tear-streaked. What went wrong? Perhaps he'd suggested they go on a talk show and confess their infidelities because, after all, they could make a ton of money. Perhaps she'd been too startled to respond. "Infidelities?" she might eventually have asked. "What infidelities?" Or perhaps she was pregnant. Perhaps, perhaps . . . nightly I mull over those two, and how unhappy she looked.

I recently went to say goodbye to my favorite street musician, but he wasn't there. Sitting in his stead, on an upended wooden crate in the fluorescent tunnel at Downtown Crossing, near the stairs that take you to Oak Grove via State Street, was an Irish accordionist in dirty slacks. He was collecting coins in a Dunkin' Donuts cup. I asked him if he'd seen the blues singer who usually occupied the spot. I struggled to describe how lovely the blues sounded echoing down the tiled corridor that linked the Red and Orange Lines. The commuters hurrying past were always surprised to encounter authenticity down here, of all places. Some were frustrated, felt ambushed. Others yanked off their Walkmans, tossed a quarter, issued a few warm words of thanks and congratulations. "The blues singer?" the accordionist asked me. "Oh, you mean the guy with the hat, Ray. No, I haven't seen him in weeks. What do you want with him anyway -- are you a bill collector?"

As I considered Ray's sudden disappearance, I was struck once again by the difficulty of goodbyes. It occurred to me that there are other, even more intangible things that I will miss about living here. Here are a few that, like Ray, brought me sustenance.

The Hancock Tower
Back Bay, Boston

Hancock Tower For a year I lived in a hotel across the street from the John Hancock Tower. I spent much of my time there gaping out my window as the Hancock -- that aerodynamic thermometer stuck in the rump of Back Bay -- created gusts of comical proportions. Hats worn on Clarendon Street grew suddenly animated, skipping off heads and dancing away as if tied with ribbon to the bumpers of newlyweds. Youths approached the Hard Rock Café walking like the elderly, feeling precariously moored. Loose papers and styrofoam cups resembled tireless birds as they rode on spiraling updrafts for eternities.

When the weather grew worse, it turned worst around the Hancock. In the wintertime, nearby trash cans overflowed with umbrellas blown inside-out and then ruthlessly snapped by the Hancock's gale-force winds. The umbrella graveyard, my neighbors called it.

Every student of modern architectural engineering knows the Hancock's legendary litany of troubles. The costly delays after several thermopaned glass wall panels blew out of the lower windows, the careless destabilization of the neighborhood's delicate water table, the flooding of nearby basements, the millions of dollars awarded Trinity Church in damages; later, a consultant's discovery that (under the right circumstances) the Hancock is liable to fall over.

Nowadays everybody's got a few derisive nicknames for it -- the plywood skyscraper, the fallen Skylab, the loaner from the Financial District. A poet recently described it as "an insult hurled/by the Gods into Copley/a chill blue javelin." There are countless photographers frustrated by the Hancock's habit of showing up uninvited in their most memorable Boston pictures. It eludes no lens. It hovers over the blooming Esplanade in spring. It leans into the background behind the Citgo sign like a leering uncle.

Knowing all this, I considered myself safely beyond the reach of the Hancock's charms until a November afternoon when the shadows of a few small clouds cut the sunlight with unusual contrast. From my room, I happened to glance at the tower across the street. Through a gray fog I could suddenly peek into the Hancock. I observed several floors of people signing important-looking documents, messengers being routinely received. Someone picked up a telephone and calmly spoke. My eyes felt as if they'd been outfitted with infrared sensors; it occurred to me to wonder if this is how it looked when the tower's windows blew out. A secretary locked her filing cabinet and bustled around a ficus to disappear down a long corridor.

The beast's luminous blue skin had temporarily receded. I could see the workers shelved between its ribs, looking quite brave as they matter-of-factly walked around, 41 stories in the air.

A second passed, if that, before the sun shoved aside the clouds. The Hancock's silvery sheen reasserted itself, once more cloaking its mysterious inhabitants as utterly as if the tower had retreated to some unfathomable distance. Was I imagining things? Suddenly I could place neither myself nor the Hancock. It had seemed for a moment to be close, intimately so, as certainly as now, mirror-wrapped and obstinate, it was gone. I could no longer take it for granted. The situation felt like encountering a spy who makes your mouth water with the teeniest morsel of information, then immediately slithers off.

I left this encounter with an epiphany. The Hancock's solitary nature, its elusiveness, has an intriguing consequence. From afar, it is a beacon that draws your attention to the position of the sun, the size of the sky, the distance of the horizon; close-up it makes you look anew at every element of the neighborhood's arrangement.

An unfortunate reputation for shoddy engineering may keep the John Hancock Tower from becoming the sort of chameleon it was designed to be. Since I took the time to look, however, the Hancock has appeared awfully brilliant.

Good Times
Assembly Square, Somerville

Good Times It takes a motor vehicle of some sort to reach the vast game arcade known as Good Times Emporium. You can't walk there. It's kept on the edge of town like a strip club. You drive under an overpass, toward the smokestacks of Somerville, over a metal-beam bridge, onto a highway, down a tunnel. You continue past Spaulding Brick and Central Steel, down bleak, industrial avenues where truckers park their rigs. You'll find Good Times located within a warehouse, reeking of mildew and nicotine. Inside, children surrender tokens in order to cradle plastic automatic weapons, and parents swig bottled beer before enormous sports screens. It is the bastion, we are told, of all that is wrong with our culture.

The clatter of air-hockey pucks rings through a sea of fuzzy electronic explosions. You can hear the Ultimate Mortal Kombat under way. Attack buttons are being pounded, a furious assault of roundhouse kicks and jabs. Joysticks are jostled this way or that to jump or crouch. The players scream without inhibition as, time and again, their on-screen characters die.

Here you can trust that the realities of nature hold no sway. Here, beneath eternal fluorescence, friends stand close beside you, shouting advice, shaking you by the shoulders. You have many lives. Your comrades on the screen yell encouragingly. In here, the clouds never gather, the rain does not fall. Inadequacies and inclement weather can no more touch you than you can retrieve spent tokens. "Holding trigger in will allow continuous firing of machine gun," read the instructions. "Obtain bonus items by shooting them." It may be an exhilaration fueled entirely by quarters, but it is exhilaration nonetheless.

Pushed to the back and the side are the antiquated games from the early '90s: Merlin's Mirror, Simple Simon, the Roll for Gold, the Addams Family Values quarter drop. Hardly anyone plays skeeball or pinball anymore. Lights dance up and down the disregarded Robo Bob, who converses gamely with the other forgotten machines through a series of silicon chirps. Directions are printed on him: "Insert coin(s). Select `BOY' or `GIRL.' Select Age Group. Strike Platform with Mallet."

Good Times has everything. Customers can visit the bumper cars, the batting cages, the dart boards, the photo booths. It has a basketball court, laser tag, a sports bar. Bud Light banners over the pool tables advertise Wednesdays as league night. A trompe l'oeil mural of a speedway makes it appear that you could be run over while simply playing Ping-Pong.

But such things are enjoyed within the deafening racket of Sega battles and Atari races. Mostly, you are there to feed bills into a machine, get change, and cruise around. "Sometime, somewhere, someone is plotting a government overthrow," declares one screen. "A small republic is in danger." The screen next to it grabs your attention with the FBI logo and an anti-drug message from William S. Sessions. There are contests such as Blitz '99, Wrestle Mania, Maximum Hangtime, Dynamite Cop. There are games you ride, with seats that sway and buck. Marvel v. CAPCOM has you battling superheroes on an urban rooftop behind a neon sign; another game has you wrestling a giant squid in the belly of a hijacked cruise ship. Often your mission is to free hostages, one of whom invariably is the daughter of the president. You must accomplish these things quickly, accurately. Anarchy threatens. Time is running out. The sky rains explosives, and unimaginable ambushes await. Most games require four coins and end after a few minutes.

You murder everything you can and earn a score. The scoring completes the illusion that, by staring into a grisly scene, punching buttons, and -- most important -- inserting quarters, you have earned acclaim. You have displayed a gritty, single-minded determination. You have cleared your reputation.

Leaving afterward, the world disappoints. It is suspiciously quiet outside. You are nagged by the enormous lack of intensity and purpose. Swerving recklessly down a turnpike full of speeding cars seems terribly dreary. Where are the well-armed alien hordes, the terrorists rappelling down before you by the thousands? What of the imminent chaos? Your eyes dart about, seeking threats. Your fingers twitch. Soon your adrenaline will settle. Eventually you will get to sleep. For now, the drive home is agony.

Taquería La Mexicana
Union Square, Somerville

Taqueria Gradually, over time, my palate went to sleep. All I understood about food anymore was that you received it through a hole in your face and you couldn't breathe until you'd gotten it swallowed. How it tasted as it went down was usually related to what commercial was showing on the television at mealtime.

How different it once was! Where I grew up, in a small, mostly Mexican-American town in California -- just one of many agricultural communities dotting the south-central coast -- food still had meaning. Quail scampered through the shade of avocado orchards. Trains pulled out daily, piled high with sugar beets. The smells of chicken ranches and livestock and the essence of citrus would reach us in class. The parents of my schoolmates were migrant laborers who harvested local lettuce and strawberries for a living. They stooped in a field within view of the playground, while their children and I memorized the Guadalupe Treaty, which validated US claims to the land.

Back then, televisions didn't play all the time and we didn't fret about locking doors. Back then, after a day of hard work, the reward was a big, heavy meal at a Mexican restaurant.

Most of the clientele wore cowboy hats and boots, white shirts with starched collars, jeans cinched with a wide, black belt. A radio was always playing in the kitchen -- two-steps, mariachis, sometimes Johnny Paycheck. The people cooking your food looked as tired as you felt.

These were simpler days, culinarily. As I remember it, Mexican food never came with sour cream. Guacamole, jack cheese, and cilantro were rare, surprising -- even, at times, downright threatening.

Restaurants like this never had a liquor license, but reliably there would be a beer store next door. The Chicanos bought Coors, the gringos drank Corona. Each desired something that the other one had; the Californians with their casual wealth; the Mexican-Americans with their almost Victorian integrity.

The restaurants had hard plastic seats and primitive-looking wall hangings. Customers, hands stained black from a day of shucking walnuts, could get their food to go. Then they'd sit with six-packs, exhausted, in the cabs of their pick-ups. Sometimes, after trimming too many pepper trees, their arms would feel almost too heavy to lift, making the simple act of eating a challenge.

I speak of these places in the past tense, but they still thrive in California towns such as Santa Paula, Arroyo Grande, Temecula; on the outskirts of San Diego and Santa Barbara. They grow increasingly scarce the further east you travel. Easily the best (and most affordable) I've ever found on this side of Texas is located in Union Square, called Taquería La Mexicana.

A place like this takes me home, makes me feel again that food matters. The burritos here have nothing diminutive about them. Big as bricks, they are deservedly called "burros." Like most dishes at Taquería La Mexicana, the burros contain either chicken, beef, pork, vegetables, or potato with chorizo. This last appears to be a house specialty, a smoky and spicy addition that on each visit reawakens my sleepy palate. The beef quesadillas are rich and satisfying, the enchiladas carry a distinctively flavorful sauce. All the ingredients are fresh, especially the tortillas. There are a great many vegetarian dishes. Customers who are familiar with authentic Mexican food often praise the fresh tamales, soft tacos, beans, and homemade salsa. I've never ordered anything here that was less than great.

Perhaps it's a bit tidier and healthier than the restaurants of my youth, with a slightly more upscale clientele, but it's genuine Mexican food all the same. Places like this keep you honest.

Darren Lewis
Outfielder, Boston Red Sox

Darren Lewis Until the Red Sox' recent slump, opinionated sports folk everywhere were astonished by the performance of this overreaching team, these tough, no-name boys with their Pedro goatees. By the time the All-Star Game arrived, there were already debates about which of Boston's two superstars would be named the American League's Most Valuable Player at the end of the season. Some could speak only of the perfectly befuddling Martinez change-up, while others exclusively celebrated Nomar, the grimace of effort and near-contempt that crosses his face as he whips an off-balance throw across the diamond. I cannot deny that whenever either of these two is hurt, the team is likely to lose. Despite that, it's a good thing that I don't get to vote for MVP. My vote, as they say, would be wasted. It would be cast for Darren Lewis.

Darren who? Yes, I know. He's never played in an All-Star Game. He has trouble batting over .260. In truth, he stands little chance of being remembered for long. But he works with concern the whole game, stays focused and alert, and never earns a headline. He is my favorite ballplayer.

For so long, I was forbidden to cheer for him. I'm speaking of the early '90s, when he took the field with my enemies, the Giants, while I sat in the stands cheering the Dodgers. They were dramatic games, and Lewis was dedicated to playing a tidy, decisive role in each outcome. He was on his way then toward setting the major-league record for consecutive games (392) and total chances (938) in the outfield without an error. With tantalizing brevity, in the middle of the 1997 pennant race, Darren even joined the Dodgers. Despite another late-season Dodger collapse, I was ecstatic. Darren Lewis, a Dodger! Typically, my team didn't realize what it had. In the off-season, the Dodgers carelessly let him wander to Boston.

Whereupon, it should be noted, I began to root for the Red Sox.

His contribution to the team is as important as it is invisible. After 52 games in center field and 32 games in right this season, the model fielder has committed only one throwing error. He is accustomed (as arguably no one should be) to Fenway's outfield angles, the juts and bizarre corners, the irregular, undignified depths. One game against Texas was typical. It was the bottom of the ninth, with Wakefield lobbing flutterballs to Will Clark and the game on the line. Clark drove a pitch into the far corner of right field, where nobody thought it would go. It was quite simply as foul as any fair ball could ever be. (Most people didn't even realize this part of the stadium existed.) Once it landed, the game would pretty much be over; but it didn't land. Instead, a sprinting Darren Lewis leapt at the last second, hit the wall in a blur at the 318 mark, and delicately spun. When he held his glove aloft, the ball was inside. Darren's head was up, his look uncommonly relaxed. The Red Sox won.

It wasn't always Darren's Giants who beat the Dodgers earlier in the decade. The Dodgers had a lot of help back then from their heralded young shortstop, Jose Offerman, who did nothing but commit costly errors. As most everybody knows, this notorious hothead is now playing second base in Boston, here to muck up Nomar's double plays and overthrow first. Offerman couldn't be more different from the cautious, conscientious Lewis. Sadly, Offerman -- the one Boston player I will not miss -- earns substantially more for playing the game.

I prefer Darren batting at the top of the order, and that is how I'll remember him. He pulls on black gloves that look enormous, as if he's come to settle a falcon, then steps warily toward the plate. He touches his helmet, takes an abbreviated practice cut, glumly moves some dirt around, looks up. He has a teammate on second, in scoring position, no outs. His mouth begins to twitch nervously.

He observes some pitches. In between he gathers himself, backing two or three yards out of the batter's box. He looks at either the ground or his bat or Wendell Kim down at third, but he never acknowledges the spectacle, the setting, the impact of how he makes his living. Chances are very good that Darren will make contact. The pitcher obviously knows this, although Darren -- standing with his legs clamped together and concentrating solemnly on the insignia of his bat -- looks momentarily as if he has forgotten.

He tilts his head, cracks his neck, shrugs his shoulders, and takes baby steps to re-enter the box. He shifts his weight, straightening first one leg, then the other, and locates his balance. The bat twitches behind his head like a feather. As the pitcher begins his delivery, Darren leans toward the catcher. His front leg straightens. His back leg absorbs more weight. In the process, he turns his back to the ball field. From the bleachers can be glimpsed the number -- 20 -- on his jersey.

A curve ball drops abruptly through the strike zone. The fat part of Darren's bat is there; another grounder, this time to short. He moves the runner over, does his job, makes a Darren Lewis-sized difference. Ironically, in the process, his batting average declines. To the statistician, what Lewis hit simply looks like an out. Darren turns at first and hops back into the dugout, stands near the end. There's a security guard next to him and some teammate at the top of the steps. Nobody speaks. He looks at the field, at the pitcher. It feels like he's getting nothing but foul balls and ground outs tonight. He humbly sets down his helmet, places his enormous batting gloves inside. His face reveals nothing. The next batter flies to right, scoring their teammate.

Getting lost

getting lost She was a lovely woman, student age, some European nationality. She hailed me from her rental car as I walked by; she wondered if I knew how to find Ball Square. This was August. In the time my explanation required, the two of us became good friends. She turned out to be Austrian. We fell in love on Labor Day. By Thanksgiving we were wed. (Her name is unimportant.)

She does not like how I drive in Boston, the way I follow my nose, the way I prefer to close my eyes and steer with my feet, the way I turn up the music whenever she offers directions, my low regard for toll booths, stop signs, and speed limits. She says I almost get us killed, I signal so carelessly. No, I correct her -- I'm trying to get us lost, like we were when we found each other. There is nothing as good for us as getting lost; because of global-positioning systems we are losing our ability to get lost, so much so that I fear in the future we wouldn't even have met. (Oddly, that prospect does not seem to trouble her.)

Could there be any better city for getting lost? I doubt it. I remind my wife of how often we've seen neighbors sitting in their cars, local maps spread atop the steering wheel, all over the front seat, a look of crisis on their faces, astonished, almost amused, confronting the maze they inhabit. Even when they take into account the Big Dig or sudden sewer repairs or emergency construction -- the standard urban delays and detours -- people around here still rarely get where they want to go on time. They rarely even know where they are. For one, there are not a lot of street signs; have you observed that? Have you noticed roads changing names without warning, becoming one-way, disallowing U-turns, falling off maps, urging you forward? Turn off your damn computer, I prompt my wife, and let the Force guide you; after all, most of Boston was lost to begin with, lost beneath the watery depths, lost until enough landfill was poured into the harbor to raise it up. The original settlers weren't even headed here; they were going to Virginia and they got lost. Navigation just isn't a Boston word.

But my wife, she flatly disagrees. Using an accent that can only be called köstlich, she terms this talk dangerous and deranged, denies that what I catch in the eyes of fellow drivers is glee. She feels that chaos cannot be embraced, certain frustrations aren't amenable to transcendence. She uses the horn when things are bumper to bumper. She'd prefer that I not use the traffic slowdowns to mix cocktails. She remains conditioned by what she heard growing up. Use your bread crumbs, the fables all said; lost children are baked into pies. She likes knowing where she's going; she likes keeping schedules. She cannot forgive Boston its lack of straight streets. In all other cities, three rights reliably take you around the block, bring you back to where you just were; take three right turns in Boston and you're somewhere unexpected. She is aggravated, cannot abide such betrayals; they make her curse and perspire; they mock her compass-like instincts.

It's a loop of surprises, I keep telling her. People pay good money at carnivals to get dizzy, just think of it that way. It's broadening. Besides, cartographers and surveyors are miserable folks who die lonely deaths after lives spent imposing order on nature.

After a bit of this, my wife is spent. Just give me a straight street, she sighs. Is that so much to ask? Just dump me out of the rotary so I can get us out of here. We're leaving town -- now!

Take the next left, I point through the windshield.

Do you know where that leads?

No, I shrug. But it's going to be fine. You'll see.

Camden Joy is the author, most recently, of The Last Rock Star Book Or: Liz Phair, a Rant (Verse Chorus Press). His second novel, Boy Island, will be released next spring by William Morrow.

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 1999 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.