Lost in the Movies: Boston, You're My Home

Boston, You're My Home

Boston skyline, August 31, 2009, taken from my cell phone

I feel compelled to write something. It isn't relevant to anything and offers no new information or perspective on today's events, so I'll try - and probably fail - to keep it short. But I didn't want to remain silent, because Boston is a city that has meant and continues to mean so much to me, so I wanted to mark the tragic bombing of the Boston Marathon somehow. I lived far longer in New York, currently reside near and work in L.A., and even when I "lived in" Boston for just over two years, my actual address was in Malden, a separate town on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. And yet no other city feels like "home" to me the way Boston does. So I'll share my memories, pointless as they may be. They're personal, and that's something. I hope any fellow New Englanders will share their own; at moments like these they are all we've got.

Growing up an hour and a half away in New Hampshire, Boston was always the city looming on the horizon: the site of school field trips (I literally visited the Freedom Trail every single year of high school for various classes, including, oddly enough, Calculus senior year) as well as frequent family excursions (walking through the Common on gray sneaking-spring Easters, visiting the Museum of Science for their Star Trek exhibits or to take in the overpowering Omni shows devoted to the mysteries of the universe). I remember late-night drives staring in awe out the car window at the skyscrapers - towering yet clustered closely in one spot unlike the epic skyline of Manhattan - reflecting their lights in the Charles River below. I can still smell those rare game days at Fenway Park (while I was never very invested in baseball, it's in every New Englander's blood to root for the Sox and treasure that landmark ballpark) or unforgettable trips to the Wang Center for "The Phantom of the Opera" live or all three Star Wars movies back-to-back.

Later, when I realized I couldn't afford to live in New York anymore - and that in some ways I was relieved rather than regretful - I visited Boston and felt a strange sensation upon contemplating my relocation there: that somehow this move was fundamentally right, in a way settling in New York had not been. From 2009 to 2011, I lived at the end of the Orange Line and I worked mostly around, rather than in, the city: in Cambridge (selling law books to frantic Harvard students for several weeks and spending the rest of the year sweeping a mostly empty store), Malden (knocking on doors on balmy May days, from quiet neighborhood nooks to ramshackle housing projects to creaky old houses for the census bureau), Watertown (hitting the sidewalk to collect business listings in smoke shops decorated with suits of armor and  castles devoted to doggie day care), finally Braintree and Quincy (the former my headquarters, the latter my turf for four months of intense door-to-door salesmanship; to this day I could probably point out every little business where I met with success - as well as those where I was nearly thrown down the stairs).

As if making a spiral around my destination, I rarely saw the central city during my first year of living there, and it was only in the last year - particularly the final fateful months - that I drew closer and closer. Taking a job at the quirky bookstore my friend managed, still the only independent bookstore in the city itself, where I'd sneak the Smiths onto the store iPod on late nights: blasting "The Headmaster's Ritual" in retail's waning hours as a kind of defiant minimum-wage anthem. Or occasionally treading onto Back Bay turf for the sales job - bursting in on the Scientology headquarters where, no joke, every employee staffing the office was about 12 years old. And those rare but memorable adventures in bar-hopping, always a challenge in a still Puritan-hearted city that closed the bars early and (weirdly) closed public transportation even earlier.

I recall staying out after my friends went home, and then realizing it was past 2 and I'd have to walk from Faneuil Hall all the way back to Malden, which took several hours but was shortened by a friendly cop who offered a ride back home...surviving the ruckus at Whitey's on St. Patrick's Day in Dorcester, under the protection of townies...wandering Jamaica Plain knocking on doors with a co-worker (who slept in the next morning and was fired; never saw him again), pretending to be looking for a party and invited in by genial and generous hosts...waking up on the T that same night as a beet-faced Irish cop screamed in my face that the train was out of commission and I'd better move my ass, and then sharing a cab ride home with (as I only discovered afterward, from the driver) a geriatric pimp who threatened me via text message when I asked if he'd split the fare. I also remember, many times, forty-five minutes or an hour squeezed in at Bukowski's between the bookstore closing and last-call; attempting to go out on New Year's the night the new decade began, only to wander Malden for twenty minutes with my buddy, both of us increasingly bemused to discover not a single location was open at midnight. You have to have a peculiar sense of fun to enjoy such perverse pleasures but I suppose I do and perhaps that's one reason I connected with the city that challenged you daily (and nightly) and yielded such memorable stories.

If not for the winter of '11, I would not able to tell my future children any of those classic "I walked ten miles in a blizzard" stories; nor would I have so eagerly sought refuge in Southern California (at a certain point in New Englanders' lives, hardiness simply becomes hard). I particularly remember one terrible two-hour commute, at the end of a brutal Groundhog Day, my soaked socks crumpled in my pocket, my bare feet curled up inside my damp dress shoes, thinking as the train shuddered along - Boston has the worst public transportation system in the world, incidentally - that "there must be an easier way."

And indeed, there is an easier way - there are many, in fact. But few so rewarding. As I planned to leave Boston, I felt a deeply warm sense of melancholy I haven't experienced upon other departures: a bittersweet sense of hard-earned nostalgia. I've tried to explain this to people who don't like Boston, who find it too cold, or too small, or too repressed. The city's difficulty is legendary, what with the hard-bitten denizens made famous in crime flicks from The Friends of Eddie Coyle to The Town, the years of romantically fatalistic sportsmanship which even the past decade of unprecedented/unrivaled athletic triumph can't quite bury, the early curfews and racial/ethnic tensions and endless Big Digs. Many outsiders don't "get" Boston but those of us who grew up in it or in its shadow can't forget it.

No city is as historically-rooted as Boston: that's true in the obvious sense (the grand brownstones lining Brookline; the classical statues littering street corners and public squares; the overgrown cemeteries where revolutionary heroes repose, their tombstones almost touching the passerby), but also in a harder-to-pin-down spiritual sense. There is something quintessentially American and particularly New England about the way Boston embodies both hard-nosed pragmatism and aspirational dreams (whether we're talking about its undisputed primacy as a city of learning or the maybe-next-season yearnings of pre-2004 Red Sox Nation). No wonder the famine Irish, up to their knees in muck yet with their eyes on the stars, flocked to Boston. You walk its blocks surrounded by the ghosts of American history, and sometimes you feel like a ghost yourself, gliding through those eerily empty streets. And when you leave, it continues to haunt you: I dream of Boston more often than other cities, and when I recently wrote a short film, I knew instinctively that the characters' lives would revolve around the Hub, no matter how far they wandered.

Tonight my thoughts are with my many friends and family still in the area, with the people I knew and didn't know. Watching the news and the cell phone videos on Facebook, listening as the spot was identified as being near the familiar Public Library, I felt a shock of recognition and an immediate urge to call my friend who is still managing that bookstore. At the time I'm writing this, I don't know who is responsible, or why. It matters, but yet it doesn't. Boston endures, as it always endured, as it will endure, so mysteriously alive, its flame dim and flickering but utterly impossible to extinguish. God, I love that town.

Along with the many Boston feature films that come to mind (it's probably the only city whose appearance alone will encourage me to see a particular movie) - the aforementioned honorable thieves of Friends and Town, the poignant loneliness of The Verdict or Social Network, IRA-themed potboilers like The Devil's Own and the now-sadly relevant Blown Away, or the mysterious magic of Fenway in Field of Dreams (with a TV detour for the clam chowder camaraderie of "Cheers," whose theme song comforted me my freshman year in New York) - there are two particular shorts that I wish to share.

The first is a world away - seemingly a dreamscape initially, although historical and geographical references place it vaguely in a French-speaking territory (I'm not sure if it's Quebec, a Middle Eastern colony, or some corner of France itself - and I don't quite want to know, exactly). This title doesn't relate directly to Boston as a city, instead capturing the beauty of the human spirit quietly overcoming our penchant for brutality and destruction. I discovered it last night, while recognizing its haunting images from many years ago, when they were featured in the introduction to James Earl Jones' PBS children's show "Long Ago and Far Away." This nostalgic factor, plus its uplifting message, makes The Man Who Planted Trees ideal viewing for those needing a boost tonight:

Meanwhile, there's another video I didn't think I could share. The Leonard Nimoy-narrated, John Williams-scored New England Time Capsule used to open every screening at the Omni Theater, a uniquely curved IMAX screen at the Museum of Science. Soaring over Boston Harbor, alarming us with a close-up of a giant lobster or the crazy traffic of Boston's mad car-clogged streets, quietly contemplating autumn foliage or listening to the crack of a bat at an evening Fenway game, this extremely evocative, visually and sonically overwhelming tribute somehow encapsulates the spirit of the region and its central city in a fashion both appropriately down-to-earth and inspirationally larger-than-life. Seldom screened at the Omni anymore, the classic travelogue was nonetheless revived for a 25th anniversary celebration last year.

Until this moment, I didn't realize the video was online. Brings back so many memories:

Stay strong, Boston.


Carson Lund said...

Thanks for this. I'm still living here, and it makes me a appreciate it a bit more.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Carson. I was just looking at an old piece the other day where you mentioned in the comments that you were from Boston. We always appreciate the places we've been a bit more after we've left - or when they appear threatened somehow. Glad you liked reading this.

Anonymous said...

Wow Joel, so beautifully put

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, I'm glad you appreciated it.

Tom said...

Great writing Joel. Your dad and I shared alot of memories there also.

Heidi said...

I still love NYC :)
But wonderfully written.
Have you had the chance to visit Carlsbad beach yet? one of my favorite places in So Cal

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Tom. Part of the Boston lure which I neglected to mention is the family connections going back there, on both sides. No other city feels as much a part my ancestry.

Joel Bocko said...

Heidi, yeah while I'm love/hate NYC at times it's definitely a big part of my history/experience and a place I still like to visit. ;) Believe it or not, I go to the beach & surf way less in California than Boston. Go figure haha. Hopefully this summer I make it out there more often though. So far I've only been to Santa Monica & Venice.

Search This Blog