Saturday, November 04, 2000


Two Short Rainy Days In Boston

LOOKING AHEAD by Wally Dobelis

Boston is not as swift as New York - on the two mile stretch between the hotels in Prudential Center and the Government Center downtown there were no shiny chrome coffee and bagel wagons, and, when it rained, no umbrella peddlers materialized on street corners. In fact the legitimate umbrella man outside Filene's on the busy Downtown Crossing, Washington and Summer Streets (bricked-over, to exclude automobile traffic, like Nassau Street), sort of a 34th Street with down-scale 14th Street overtones - offered a casual: "If you have any questions, feel free to call me over," while continuing his conversation with another dealer; none of our "check 'em out" 14th Street talk. (His China-made good for one use folding umbrella was $5, the tall ones were $7 and $12, and I did much better buying a Totes at the markdown Marshall's on Boylston Street.) Also, unlike our area, the streets were deafeningly quiet, even during the rush hours, no one shouting or talking in full voice at a neighbor. And I did find coffee, once I reached the Financial Center, in one of the ubiquitous Au Bon Pains (Bostonians come in armed with huge plastic cups with covers for takeout, to the office, none of our chintzy paper cups for them).
My Logan Airport bus driver took a lot of time to help me get the proper Blue and Green T-line connections to the Prudential Center Sheraton, and my Green T-line fellow travelers very kindly explained that the train was so slow becuse the line had been under 15 feet of water during the mid-October 1996 hurricane, and the roadway was still drying up. The subway fare was $.85, and bus fare is $.60. The Green Line train is like an underground three-car trolley, running on ground level, and you have to step up to enter the car. At Park Place Station, a major junction, exiting people walk in front of the train, while the driver patiently waits out the pedestrian traffic.
The Delta shuttle, in view of my onrushing decrepitude, found me a round trip fare of $164, while the ordinary fare is $176 one way. My Sheraton Boston hotel, after I made them aware of my club member status (acquired two days earlier while making the reservation), upgraded my $185 room to a magnificent suite, without any fuss. I would have preferred to be in the business district, nearer the two day 401(k) seminar, the reason for my trip, but all the pediatricians of the world seemed to have simultaneously descended on Beantown, and rooms were scarce.
However, this gave me the chance to walk down the entire lenth of the neat Newbury street in Back Bay, a sort of clean Brooklyn Heights/Greenwich Village with incredibly wide sidewalks and four story Victorian brownstones with bay windows and front yards filled with miniature, still red-leafed Japanese maples and blooming chrisanthemums. A lot of these grassy yards have been converted into outdoor cafes - there must be a hundred of them, as many as the art galleries. Fashionable boutiques are being gradually supplemented by the Armanis and Banana Republics, in a subdued way, but the fashion chains are coming, particularly towards the Public Garden end (Nike Town, ugh!).
The huge elms in the gardens were losing their leaves, and a highschool teacher-looking man in casual clothes and a neat haircut was raking them out to the sidewalk, to be swept by a machine broom. To my question, he knew of no welfare recipients working in the Gardens and the adjoining Boston Common, where the ancient red brick walks have center bulges and washed-out slopes to the sides, and the bricks under the benches have heawed up and lie helter-skelter. Some help is needed, and Gov. Weld and Sen. Kerry, in the current round of their fight for Kerry's Senate seat, are accusing each other of inadequate support of workfare.
Passing the green expanses, I entered Chinatown, where public parking signs are in both English and Korean (!). There I saw the first street people, one of whom hit me up for quarters. No breakfast nooks were open, and I continued into the financial/ Government Center area, looking for Federal Street, Boston's Wall Street. Instead, I found the Federal Reserve bulding, a big mass precariously perched on two leglike blocks, near the excavations called the Big Dig, tunneling under the Harbor. It evoked scary thoughts about the economy. But the Bank of Boston, my destination, with its bulged out sides, stood reassuringly firm, even though from its 35th floor windows the sidewalks seemed to be populated by ants with umbrellas.
The West exposure of the 360-degree view was of the Italian North End, Logan Airport and the Sugar Bowl, a piece of the inner harbor surrounded by a semicircle strip of land leading to Castle Island, a popular summer walk known only to natives. Someplace in that direction, on piers, are Boston's best lowbrow seafood places of lost memory, Anthony's Pier 4 and the No Name (Durgin Park, near Faneuil Hall, also belongs in that class), and the Old Spaghetti Factory. To the West you see Charles River and nearby MIT, where two years ago the budding engineers incredibly conjured a blue-and-white police car atop its round central Dome, as a Halloween surprise. Looking East, the view is dominated by the John Hancock building (they have learned to control the popping out of its windows, a major problem for years), which completely blocks out the huge Prudential Center. I walked back to my hotel along these Back Bay sight lines, on Boylston Street, a major shopping avenue of low buildings, past Biba's. This eccentric Mideastern/ French/ Amish restaurant, with Afganistani/Navajo motifs in its ceiling, has been consistently named the best in Boston, ever since it opened in 1989 (Zagat finds that only Olive's in Charlestown, the Italian bistro which does not accept reservations, is above Biba's in popularity). On Boylston are also the difficult- to-pass-without- entering Shreve, Crump and Low, the Tiffany's of Boston (the real thing is in a tiny space on Newbury, but upon proper identification, they will renew your Porcellian and A.D. club insignia) and Durham Pine, with its collections of carved chessmen from Hull, England.
Reaching Copley Square (named after the painter), the remarkable eye-catching Trinity Church (1877), designed by H.H.Richardson in XI C Romanesque (he once lived at 117 East 17th Street), has to its left cuddly old Copley Plaza Hotel, to the right the 1677 Old South Church, and faces the Boston Research Library. Known for its galleries of murals by Puvis de Chavanne (white-clad maidens), Edwin Austin Abbey (heroic, gold-encrusted higures) and and John Singer Sargent (Biblical, in execrable condition), it is undergoing a badly, badly needed $50 million renovation. The reading rooms that are open are quiet and nearly deserted (there are nude plaster maidens coyly peering around the corners in the Art Room, tut tut, Boston), compared to the hustle and bustle of Room 315 in the NY Research Library. The Public Library, in a mirror image next door building, though totally different in design (Philip Johnston, 1972), is a much more busy operation.
I cannot close without mentioning two unique shopping centers. The Copley Square Shopping Center, a collection of smart shops, is connected to the Westin Copley Hotel by an overhead walkway, a glass tube. This is repeated on a larger scale further East, in the Prudential Center, which houses 70 shops and restaurants. It has eight glass tubes and walkways, including one to my Sheraton Boston hotel, useful in avoiding crossing streets and trying to stay dry.
Wally regrets that during this two-day stay he had no time to reacquaint himself with the Faneuil Hall (Quincy) Market, the Fine Arts and Isabella Stewart Gardner museums, nor walk the hilly Freedom Trail from Boston Common to Charlestown. Neither did he get to the Black Rose, a bar near Faneuil Hall, the home of Irish music, where yougsters, when carded, often have passports instead of drivers' licenses to show, and one can pick up thick green copies of The Irish Emigrant, weekly Boston edition, announcin' Seissuns, pub music events (as many as 25 on a Saturday) and Gaelic football and soccer, live and on satellite.

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