Going Underground

Living in the sprawling swamp that is Houston, there’s little chance to take advantage of public transportation, mostly because we’re so big and hopping routes takes too much time. Years ago when I lived and worked inside and near the downtown loop, I occasionally took the Metro buses to work, thinking I would be doing my part to help pollution, ease the traffic, etc. Unfortunately, since it took three times as long to get to the office as by car, it proved highly impractical. It was interesting, however, to go downtown on a bus filled with fellow office workers only to transfer to an outgoing bus filled with white-uniformed maids and caretakers on their way to their “offices” in the affluent neighborhoods outside the loop.

nysub_stairs.jpgVisits to the Northeast provide an excellent chance to experience effective mass transportation, namely the subways of New York and Boston. We bopped about New York fairly freely by using the subway system, although it takes some time to get the hang of how it works and how to connect several lines to make as straight a line as possible to where you’re going. I’m sure some people make an art out of figuring out the best connections. A recent fire (originally reported to take five to six years to repair) shows to how dependent New Yorkers are on their subway and what happens when a major line goes down. We rode both the A and C lines mentioned in the article, and had we visited The Cloisters after this fire our trek out to see the Medieval goodies would have been tough, if not almost impractical, to pull off. No doubt we would have gotten lost trying to change buses and would have ended up somewhere we shouldn’t have.

boston_subway.jpgEven though we spent only a day in Boston, we used the T there a couple of times to quicken the journeys (translation: give Gary’s legs a break) and it brought back memories of years ago when I spent a week in Boston and used the T extensively, even making my way into the city from the airport on the subway (not the best place to first try the T from, but I had no choice). While Boston’s subway system is not as extensive as New Yorks, it makes up for size by being a little easier to understand and navigate. Using colors instead of letters and numbers makes some sense, but then, any system works well once you adapt and the two systems are more similar than they are unique.

A lot of people’s (translation: folks who live outside the east coast) first impression of subways is one of danger. Sure, the stories abound from years ago when it wasn’t as safe, and I suspect there are still parts of the NY and Boston subterranean trains that even locals avoid. But in both trips I found the subways to be as safe as the streets (some would argue that’s not necessarily a comforting thought), and once one gets the hang of how they work, amazingly efficient.

subway_sign.jpgThere is a whole culture defined by the subways from the vendors selling trinkets/pirated software and movies (on one connector tunnel we hurried along, my eyes spotted a DVD for Lemony Snicket, which was just released that week…hmmm…authentic?), to the for-a-donation entertainers, the subways become a city under the city. I can imagine in winter there are frequent riders who do so merely for the chance to stay warm or deal with boredom. And of course, people watching is exquisite (provided you’re carefully about avoiding eye contact). The subways move a wide range of people from the down-and-out to the well-to-do and all the druggies, free spirits, and poor souls who aren’t quite right in between. But that’s part of what makes subway rides interesting. Consider it your on-board entertainment and you’ll enjoy the ride.

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I’ve always held to a dream of living somewhere without the need for a car. That dream usually takes the form of working in a small town and walking to everything, but I could easily see myself living/working in Beacon Hill in Boston or the Upper West Side in NYC (yeah, right…how’d you do in the Lotto last night, Gar?). The subway systems make this a real possibility (excluding the obvious need for lots of money, but we’re focusing on the conceptual here, right?).

Anytime I visit a city I try to take in what’s unique about the place, eat local food, take in places the locals haunt, etc. And part of learning about any big city is to get in sync with the energy that flows from people moving about. The subways are, to both cities but probably more so to NYC, the real conduits of energy running beneath the obvious but whose existence is so vital to that city’s well being. Nothing will remove the feeling that “TOURIST” is tattooed on one’s forehead more than conquering the subway system. At any rate, it beats walking, especially this time of year.

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Newbury Street

newbury-3.jpgWhere else can you take a leisurely stroll and evolve from the elite of fashion to the funk of street people besides Newbury Street in Boston? The eight blocks that comprise this stretch of hedonistic offerings is an interesting chance to see some historical architecture while witnessing the transformation from wealthy shoppers carefully parallel parking their BMWs down to the west end and its funky, trippy shops and free spirit attitudes. Add to that some excellent people watching and the stroll becomes a voyeuristic experience all around.

condomworld.jpgAlthough it was a dismal day for photos, I managed to capture a little of the Newbury street flavor, although admittedly my photographer’s eye flitted between the architectural beauties on the east end and the fu-fu shops and other oddities of life at the other end. There is no precise demarcation that delineates one from the other, but at some point along the way you definitely realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. The signs shift from the elite shops of Burberry’s or Louis Boston to CondomWorld and my favorite, The Gargoyle Shop. There’s a little for everyone in between, to put in mildly, if one persists and walks the full eight blocks of Newbury. Primarily interested in the rich architecture? Then check out the virtual tour here that I wished I had discovered before setting out.

fairyshop.jpgAfter walking nearly the full length of Newbury St., we cratered at Trident Books and Cafe, sadly the only major bookstore left on the strip. The famous Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop closed its doors in 2004 following Waterstone’s demise sometime before that. But Newbury Street is not about reflecting on the past, but about enjoying the hedonism of the present. Whether your form of personal pleasure comes from shopping high fashions or quirky shops offering things your mother probably once warned you about, Newbury Street offers everything in a relatively short spurt of city blocks. I had anticipated going from coffee shop to coffee shop and bookstore to bookstore on my visit, but most coffee shops were closed and as mentioned, bookstores are officially on the endangered species list, although a few small specialists still exist. Still, we managed to survive the eight blocks to morph some hot cocoa and coffee into dinner at the Trident. We were simply too beat to walk anywhere else until we had some food.

When dark finally closed in on us and ended our time on Newbury, I wanted to return and visit more shops we saw and spend more time studying some of the excellent examples of Victorian-era architecture (this time with a little pre-study beforehand), notably a few of the churches. And since Newbury is just one block over from Bolyston on which the Boston Public Library resides, it’s not difficult to hit Newbury Street with a side of BPL and run out of day before curiosity. Next time, next time.

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A Quiet Place

Walking around Boston one can’t help but notice the historical evidence of age here and there in the form of an old building, church, plaque erected to remind us that “something happened here…” and other reminders of our country’s meek beginnings. I don’t think, however, you can find a more concentrated source of history than an old burial ground or cemetery.

A Place of History

granary-wide.jpgBoston has several such places that are a permanent reminder of those who lived before us. One of my favorites is the Granary Burial Ground next to the Park Street Church, a place of worship since 1809 located at the northeast corner of the Boston Commons. The Granary was established as a eternal lodging for the forefathers of our country way back in 1660 (yet is only the third-oldest burial site in Boston, the oldest being King’s Chapel Burying Ground – 1630), serving as a resting place for some of the early Bostonians. Records indicate about 5,000 residents were crowded into the small cemetery with confusion as to exactly who is buried and where, complicated by the existence of only approx. 2,345 gravestones and tombs. The confusion over who and where is compounded by the old habit of reusing graves when new residents were buried, and several rearrangements of the tombstones both for nineteenth-century aesthetics and to accommodate modern lawnmowers!

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granary-revoose.jpgIn spite of its dubious records, the Granary does boast some famous verified residents: the victims of the Boston Massacre of 1770, Ben Franklin’s parents (Ben, although born in Boston, was buried in Philadelphia), merchant Peter Faneuil, patriot James Otis who coined the phrase, “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” Paul Revere, three signers of the Declaration of Independence (John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Robert Treat Paine) among other early Boston notables. And for a measure of whimsy, the Granary is also purported to be the eternal resting place for Mother Goose…or at least one Elizabeth (Ver)goose whom some believe was the prolific storyteller. Still others were initially buried at the Granary then later moved to family plots elsewhere, adding to the overall confusion. Regardless, a trip to the Granary Burial Ground is a walk through history.

A Place of Eeriness

granary-close1.jpgCemeteries have always held a fascination for me, largely from the obvious tangible connection to man’s past, which explains why I enjoy the historical cemeteries but avoid the newer ones. There is certainly a measure of creepiness to any burial ground, but when the gravestones and above-ground crypts reach a certain age, the historical aspects override the eeriness, at least for me. My trips to nearby Galveston cemeteries never include the newer ones but instead focus on those whose monuments show a definite age. I’ve yet to visit the infamous New Orleans cemeteries where all are buried aboveground because of potential flooding, but look forward to doing some historical grave lurking when I go there next.

granary-close2.jpgIn the case of the Granary Burial Grounds in Boston though, an extra aspect of the creepies pervades the place. As you can see in these photos, the burial ground is closed in on three sides by a variety of modernish buildings housing offices, retail, and even residences. I can’t truly appreciate the challenges of working in an office a few feet away from so many graves, or sitting in an easy chair reading the Boston Globe yet being able to glance out the window and see the curving rows of tombstones for the long-dead residents of an older Boston. I would hope the historical overtones of the grounds would provide some comfort at least, but at much as I enjoy old burial sites I’d hate to live next to one.

granary-squirrel.jpgWhen I visited the Granary 13 years ago the sun was shining and the day a nice August one, yet walking in the Granary I felt a cooler air and the stillness that comes with any burial ground. Since the site is closely overshadowed on three sides by tall buildings, it’s usually shaded, adding to the other-wordly sense already strongly in place. Back then I was the only trespasser on the grounds for a brief time. This time there were a lot of tourists roaming and reading the headstones as well as a few furry residents who didn’t seem to mind scampering over what lies underneath or sitting atop a slate slab or two grabbing a bite to eat.

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A long time ago I would occasionally take a few rubbings of particularly interesting funerary art whenever I’d visit a graveyard, but I stopped out of respect for the dearly depart and because rubbings are now considered destructive. I walk the worn paths between headstones I consider myself a guest and one who wishes to tread lightly while taking only photos and memories. At some point one might argue that aged tombstones become historical artifacts and thus become more public, but regardless of the age, the markers still represent our fascination with recording our time on Earth, especially in the context of history that is Boston’s.

Whenever I visit Boston I recognize that my attraction lies in the sense of America’s deeper roots and places of significant history that forever reside in the memory of the city’s streets and alleys. Back home in Houston a place two hundred years old is considered a relic; in Boston I trod over graves three hundred years old and more. I walk into buildings nearly as old as the graves, structures in use when our young country stood up and denied King George another colonial outpost. And I walk among a people who may very well be direct descendants of those who made our country free. All these connections to history intoxicate me and are what draws me to New England and Boston in particular. Although I do not know whether my own ancestors walked the dirt roads of Boston proper or not, I feel as though they must have for I sense I’m home whenever Boston is under my feet.

Quiet, Please!

bates1.jpgSomething in the way a city takes pride in its library tells you a lot about its citizens. And when that same city spends the necessary funds to restore pristine architectural examples you have a building worthy of visiting just to witness a glimpse of life as it was a hundred years ago.

The Boston Public Library (BPL)is such a place. Yesterday we did a quick one-day trip down to Bean Town in hopes of revisiting some of my more favorite memories from my last trip to Boston 13 years ago. Much has changed in that time, and one thing that made me smile was to discover that the BPL had finished much of the restoration I’d gotten a glimpse of in my last visit. At that time Bates Hall, one of the main reading rooms, was restored but access to the venerable hall was via a myriad of construction paths from the new addition (which in itself is a fine library). This time we were able to make entrance through the restored front hall and Grand Staircase with its glorious marble and mural covered walls complete with two lions (ala New York Public Library) guarding well against those who’d show noisy disrespect in such a hallowed place. Adjacent to Bates Hall was a beautifully restored (but oddly empty) Abbey Room, whose next purpose we didn’t discover. But the restored Arthurian Legend murals surrounded by ornate marble and exquisitely carved oak gave the room a special air, even when empty. I can’t imagine the Abbey Room becoming an effective reading room, since the walls and ceilings are so detailed as to prevent any serious study of anything other than the room.

stairwell.jpgThe restoration, which began in the early 1990s and is almost complete, appears to have spared no expense returning the rooms and furnishings to their former opulent glory, and in ways the public will be able to enjoy them for many years ahead. The history of the library is as rich as the cities, and you can discover more about the BPL here.

As you can see by the photos below, my favorite room (Bates Hall) is not exactly a visually calm place to sit and read peacefully. But while the intense ornamentation and detail is worth the attention it deserves, we spent a bit of a quiet evening at one of the long oaken tables quietly journaling and reading and can report that it’s a great place to do both. I will admit, however, that neither journaling nor reading held my concentration and I frequently stopped to gaze at the ceiling or marvel at the size and scale of the room, or simply to people watch the other patrons enjoying the room. I didn’t notice any of them struggling to concentrate amidst the wonder of the room, so I concluded I was probably the only tourist among them, most being students and a handful of intellectually curious homeless types.

I spent only a brief time in the BPL this trip, but seriously want to return some day soon and spend time researching in their vast collection of close to 8 million accessible books including rare collection and unique manuscripts. Although the more interesting part of the collection is not on open shelves, the staff seems willing to retrieve just about anything they own if your need is reasonable. And with the addition of a fine cafe and restaurant, there’s really no need to leave the building until they close. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day, although when in Boston it’s always a challenge deciding what to do. And as you might suspect, we packed a lot more into our brief day trip…but that, as they say, is a story for another day.

 

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Bates Hall daytime (above); nighttime (below)
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Abbey Room
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Front statue and door
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Front hall tiled domed ceilings

Haahvaahd and Henry

harvard_square.jpgSo what’s with the connection between Harvard University and Henry David Thoreau? A Thoreau scholar might be aware that HDT graduated from Harvard, providing one link to pontificate with, but for this humble blogger they mostly represent two places we visited yesterday on a day trip down to Cambridge with a brief (but cold) stop at Walden Pond.

graffiti.jpgHarvard (Harvard Square to be more exact) is an interesting day trip. Between enjoying people watching of Harvard students who look every bit like any other students except for the caliber of overheard conversations and intellectually elevated graffiti in the Harvard Coop men’s room, and the handful of destination shops we visited, we had a fun day even thought the weather was less than cooperative. Yesterday was mildish, but still nippy with quite a bit of snow still on the ground, and sadly cloudy making for lousy digicam moments.

dewey_cheetham_howe.jpgOn any visit to Harvard Square/Cambridge there are a few musts, at least in my book: Greenhouse Cafe, paying homage to the window of the infamous law firm that fictitiously (we think!) represents Ray and Bob of Car Talk radio show fame, Bob Slate’s Stationary (the holy grail of office supply stores…sigh…whimper…double sigh, double whimper), Harvard Coop Bookstore (you wouldn’t think a coop general book section would be so big and deep, but after slowly browsing all four floors, it beats B&N/Borders by a mile), and the piece de resistance: Burdick’s Chocolate Cafe.

The Greenhouse Cafe is a funky, over-packed, attitude-filled diner near the middle of the square that offers basic good food and the chance to overhear interesting conversations. What gives it attitude is a lack of a bathroom (which in and of itself is not unusual, but makes for interesting eavesdropping when customers discover there’s no potty and the nearest one is a block away), their desire to pack as many people in a small place as possible (one or two diners can’t sit at a table seating four, and they enforce this firmly), and the ongoing snippy argument between the cashier and her husband (owners?) made nonchalantly in between ringing up sales and giving change. But a delightful meal and a nice view of the hustle outside made the experience worthwhile.

Bob Slate’s store is something one can’t explain fully: you must experience it yourself. If you like office supplies, then you’ll understand how one can spend time roaming up and down aisles filled with goodies one usually doesn’t see. I went in looking for an everyday fountain pen and left with a bag of things I didn’t know I needed until I saw them. There are two Bob Slate stores in Harvard Square and one a few miles away, and although the two in Harvard Square were near each other they were quite different, which meant we had to visit both. If you’re going to Cambridge, Bob Slates is de rigueur for any trip to Harvard Square.

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Last but not least, there’s Burdicks, where chocolate is considered a food (not a candy) and the crowd and shortage of tables the dues one pays for the best hot chocolate and coffee around. Their chocolate treats are handmade, preservative free, include only the finest cocoa, etc., which all translates into high prices but even higher pleasure for one’s taste buds. We sat greedily hogging a tiny table and journaled sipping hot chocolate and freshly brewed coffee (which made Starbuck’s taste like dishwater) while nibbling on a few squares from the White Chocolate and Pistachio bars I bought. Burdicks is worth the trip by itself.

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Before we indulged ourselves with those pleasures of Harvard Square, we briefly dropped by Walden to take a quick look at the pond in winter. The last time I visited Walden it was a lovely August day with sun shining and leaves beginning to turn. This time around there was a lot of white and way too much cold to visit for very long, but the replica cabin was open this visit. The pond itself was beginning to freeze over and look like every other typical New England pond this time of year: something between a last chance for anything living under the surface to grab a gulp of air and the onslaught of ice fishers that descend on frozen ponds in the winter. I’m not sure if but seriously doubt that ice fishers frequent Walden Pond in the winter, but it gets cold enough to do so if allowed.

cabin.jpgThe cabin was nicely nestled in the trees and the fresh fallen snow gave it a quiet, contemplative aura. Inside were the usual replica-inspired furnishings including the requisite three chairs: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” (from Walden). Outside a display stand told the story with a bronze statue nearby of Henry, looking ever so cold as he no doubt was when using the cabin in the winter. The pictures tell the story best, but the odd angle to this visit is what happens when you see sites with another blogger, particularly one armed with a camera. We spent a lot of time waiting for each other to get out of the way to take our particular visions of the cabin.

cabin-lori.jpgBut the cabin itself was nicely arranged inside, although the sound of traffic nearby as well as the voices of confused tourists in the parking lot betrayed any sense of what it might have been like back in HDT’s day in the real cabin. When I visited the site on that August day years ago, I stood on the leaf-covered platform where the original cabin stood and tried to get a sense of what it might have been like back when the cabin was being used by its famous occupant. cabin-insides.jpgEven on that quiet August day when few tourists were about it was difficult to imagine how quiet the pond area might have been in Henry’s day. Ultimately that doesn’t matter, since Thoreau’s message wasn’t about finding quiet paradise but instead was more about living fully amid whatever surroundings circumstance has placed you. On this trip that message still rang true, although the cold and snow spoke more of getting back into the warm car as fast as possible rather than enjoying the woods around Walden Pond.