The Red Line subway shook as it slowed and came to a stop. “Now arriving at Park Street. Doors will open on both sides,” said the automated voice. I stepped off the T, the subway system in Boston, Massachusetts, and walked up the steps straight onto Tremont Street. It was noon on October 20, and the sunshine was warm and blindingly bright. On my right, the Boston Common, a 50-acre public park in the middle of the city, was already filling up with people enjoying the Sunday afternoon. The cars on Tremont Street crept slowly through the traffic. Vendors sold roasted nuts and soft pretzels along the sidewalk.
I was a freshman at Middlebury College in rural Vermont, and this weekend was my fall break, so I was out to explore Boston by foot, from the Back Bay to the North End, and even across the Charles River. My adventure had begun Saturday morning when my father dropped me off at the bus station in Northampton, Massachusetts, my hometown, at 7 a.m. The bus brought me from Northampton to the dingy Springfield bus station where people lay sleeping on the seats next to garbage bags full of clothes and the air reeked of cigarette smoke. There, I switched buses and headed to South Station in Boston. I rode the Red Line of the T to Davis Square, right outside of Boston in Somerville, where I met my friend I had known since second grade, Ana, at Tufts University. We spent the day together, took the T to Cambridge for a 10 p.m. improv theater show, spent time with her new college friends, and talked together for hours. The next morning, I left on the T and continued my adventure alone for the next few hours on foot, then ultimately met my parents, who had come to Boston that day for an art exhibit, to bring me home. From the Boston Tea Party over 200 years ago, to the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon six months ago, Boston has been filled with layers of important moments and changes. I was setting out to see the city where these changes had taken place and to have an adventure of my own.
I walked down Tremont until I hit an intersection where I took out my map to see how to get away from downtown Boston and out toward the part of the city with colleges such as Northeastern University and Wentworth Institute of Technology. Boston and the surrounding area is home to over 250,000 college students, and as a college freshman, I wanted to visit this part of the city where other students like myself were living and studying.i Huntington Avenue would get me there, so I closed the map and set out to find Huntington, down Boylston, Charles, Columbus, Stuart, and Saint James streets. The city was massive, and overwhelming, but thrilling, especially coming from Middlebury, a town of 6000 people.
Walking down Huntington, a cobblestone plaza opened to my right. A massive brown concrete building with square columns lined the far side, so I stepped off the sidewalk and onto the plaza to look around. A rectangular pool of water at knee level stretched at least 100 yards. The water looked almost motionless, but it trickled slowly over each wall of the stone pool. The back of a cathedral, with arches, a rose window, a spire, and two domes, stood on the opposite side of the pool next to the concrete building. I walked parallel to the reflecting pool, past other walkers, people sitting on benches, and a little boy wearing a Yankees jacket. This church was the head of the Church of Christian Science all over the world, founded here in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, who grew up on a farm in New Hampshire and relied on the healing powers of Christ in her life.ii I turned back to admire the gorgeous church and reflecting pool and continued down Huntington.
A family walked by in red Northeastern University sweatshirts. The T tracks came above ground here, so I crossed over them and onto the Northeastern campus. Two posts, each with a scarecrow and hay bales at its base, held up a sign announcing “Parent and Family Weekend – Welcome.” Just last weekend my parents had come to visit me at Middlebury for our family weekend. My typical college student jeans, fleece jacket, and backpack camouflaged me, so no one would know that I was an outsider at this university. I went to Middlebury College, with gray granite and white marble buildings, many from the 19th century, so wandering around this college campus was entirely strange. A concrete engineering building lay next to an equally ugly student center. The sidewalks wove between the buildings on campus. The closeness made me miss the open space of Middlebury, surrounded by farms and mountains.
I started thinking of the students I know at Northeastern and how I could run in to any of them. The overstuffed campus opened up into a quad with people gathered around grills. The smell of hamburgers cooking spread through the area. Someone familiar was walking down the quad toward me. We made eye contact and stopped walking. “Georgia?” I said.
“What are you doing here?” I said. “Don’t you go to Oberlin?”
“Yeah, wait, you go to Middlebury.”
She, too, was a student home for break and was visiting a friend at Northeastern. We chatted, then headed in opposite directions. She was a sophomore at Oberlin, but we had gone to high school together. I never knew her well, but nonetheless I recognized her.
I emerged from the campus opposite a yellow lettered sign that said “Wentworth,” an engineering school in Boston. A little ways down the road was Mass Art, an art school where my friend’s sister, Melissa, went. The Museum of Fine Arts lies next to the street and a metal sign on a brick building reads “The School of the Museum of Fine Arts.” Every street in this part of Boston seemed to have a different college. I followed the path along the Back Bay Fens, a park in the Back Bay area of Boston that was once a swamp full of pollution from the nearby mills and factories.iii
The Fenway, a road that follows the perimeter of the Back Bay Fens, led to Boylston, the next street I wanted to reach. Businesses and shops lined the street, and cars sat in traffic. Men and women dressed in business suits and wearing name tags walked swiftly in front of the Hynes Convention Center, a huge glass and concrete tower. A plaza with benches separated the two halves of the building. I sat on one of the benches and pulled out my map to get my bearings. In planning my trip to Boston, I thought of the bombing that had taken place there just six months before. At some point, I would have to visit that site on this walk, and I knew it was located where Boylston meets Copley Square, a major intersection in the city.
Going straight down Boylston to Copley Square seemed too simple, so I left my spot on the bench and crossed the street to take Fairfield and Commonwealth Avenue. On other side of Boylston, a banner in the window of a Fidelity Investments office said, “We support the spirit of community that makes BOSTON STRONG.” The familiar phrase “Boston strong” reminded me of why I had wanted to come this way. On April 15, Dzokhar and Tamarlan Tsarnaev detonated two homemade bombs here on the route of the Boston Marathon, which killed 3 and injured more than 140 people.iv I wanted to approach Copley Square from Boylston to find the site.
A green with grass and trees divided the lanes of cars, and trees were beginning to change color. Four story brick houses stood next to each other, touching. Each had a slightly different wrought iron balcony, bay window, and double wooden door. At the next cross street, I turned right to return to Boylston.
The back of the Boston Public Library, the hideous part that looked like a concrete parking garage, stood across from me on Boylston. I walked down the side of the street opposite the concrete library, toward Copley Square passing through a construction site. Chain-link fences lined either side of a segment of the sidewalk, leaving it just wide enough for two people to pass. The fence to my left was partly covered with a dark green tarp, so the building behind the fence was hard to see. I stopped just as I had passed through this site. Something was odd about it, but everyone walked through so casually, their gazes barely leaving the path straight ahead. It looked like something had crashed into the building and left a hole. This was Boylston and Copley Square was just a few storefronts down the street. This must have been the site of the marathon bombing.
A couple stopped next to me, talking softly, and looking at the site. The man pointed up above the green tarp. The bottom panes of glass on the bay windows were missing but the other glass was intact. The white ceiling tiles framed by the empty window panes were intact, but the rooms were vacant. Just behind the green tarp, the concrete sidewalk near the building had been turned to rubble. The sidewalk I had walked on was newly poured concrete. The walls of the first floor were missing. There was no floor. The metal supports of the building looked like they were covered with pumice stones from a volcanic eruption. Next to the chain-link fence, a running store called Marathon Sports had a printed sign in their window entitled “THANK YOU BOSTON” with a three paragraph long letter about April 15 and the response. It ended with the phrase “BOSTON STRONG.”
Reading this letter, my eyes filled with tears. I squeezed them shut, still mind blown that this happened. All of my muscles tensed and a shudder ran through my body. I thought of Melissa at Mass Art who had gone to the marathon earlier that day. When the bombing happened, she called home to tell her parents she was okay. She told her parents of the event even before news of the bombing had left Boston. Joe and Stephanie, our family friends who often run marathons, could have been there, but this year they decided not to run the Boston marathon. My friend Ana had been heading into Boston that day to look at colleges the day after; what if she had gone a day earlier? I turned away from the sign and walked back between the fences, more slowly this time. The curb along the road was new. Signs hang from both fenced in areas that read “DANGER Construction Site Unauthorized Persons Keep Out!”
I walked back through once more, stopping again in front of Marathon Sports. The soles were coming off my sneakers, they were ripping around the ankle, and the shoelaces were frayed. I had been meaning to buy a new pair of running shoes, so I considered buying them there, but realized that I would not be able to walk in and buy them calmly. More practically, there was no place in my backpack to carry shoes. I had paid my respects, and it was time to head toward Copley Square.
Organ music coming out of the open doors of the Old South Church stopped me before I reached the Square. The music made it seem like everything was alright, like I didn’t just walk past the site of a most recent Boston massacre. Calmed by the music, I crossed the street and sat on the steps of the old part of the Boston Public Library looking out over the square.
Various shops, the brown stone arches of Trinity Church, the reflective glass Hancock Tower, a fancy hotel, and the Boston Public Library formed a ring around Copley Square. People milled about both walking with purpose, and aimlessly wandering. Some stepped back to take a picture of something, like the library, the oldest large public library in the country.v From the steps, I took out my map, plotted my route to the start of the Freedom Trail, and set out: Clarendon Street, Comm Ave, Boston Public Garden.
Music was playing somewhere farther down Clarendon Street. The jazzy sound of the drum set and electric guitar made me walk in time with the music. A crowd on the corner of Clarendon and Newbury bounced and swayed, and I hurried across the street to join. The electric guitar soloed, and the drums and electric bass played along. The man up front wore cuffed jeans, purple fuzzy socks, a baseball cap, and a purple bandana around his neck. He held his clarinet and danced to the music. The guitar player stopped and the man with the purple bandana came in on clarinet with a variation on the Maroon 5 song, “Moves Like Jagger.” All the spectators were bobbing their heads or tapping their feet.
They finished and the crowd cheered and applauded. Some people moved on, new spectators joined, and some of us stayed for another song. The guitar began the next familiar sounding song. The bass and drums joined, and the clarinet came in with the melody of “Party in the USA,” by Miley Cyrus, the best rendition I had ever heard. The clarinet played the full, deep low register tones, up to the high, wailing notes three octaves above, without squawking or losing a strong tone. I took a dollar from my pocket, dropped it in the box, took a business card, and walked away, humming “Party in the USA” down the street, onto Comm Ave. The business card read, “Rashad Richardson.” He was the bassist, band leader, and producer of the group, with a degree from Berklee College of Music.
My clarinet sat at home in my closet untouched since the Memorial Day Parade. The beautiful sounds coming from the street musician’s clarinet made me miss playing. I had spent hours both working on piece to near perfection, and trying to play songs I like by ear. Over the past nine years, I had played in the band at my school, and on my own.
Across Arlington Street, I entered the Boston Public Garden, the first public botanical garden in America. It contained exotic plant species, a lagoon, and the swan boats that take visitors out on the lagoon.vi This time of year, there were no swan boats on the lagoon, but as I stood on the bridge looking at the water the sustained chords of a bagpipe, with an accordion over it, seemed to come from the other side of the bridge. Curious, I crossed the bridge where a white-haired man sat hunched over an instrument. He wore a blue beret and an argyle sweater to match. The instrument on his lap looked like a viola, but he was turning a crank with his right hand and plucking strings with his left. When he finished his mysterious, haunting song, I clapped with the other onlookers and said, “What instrument is that?”
“A 17th century-style French hurdy-gurdy,” he said.
I repeated it back just to be sure. “A 17th century French—”
“No. 17th century-style hurdy-gurdy. It was hand made for me 32 years ago in France.” The hurdy-gurdy was a stringed instrument that made noise when he turned the hand crank.
I thanked and complimented him on the music and kept going over the bridge. As I reached Charles Street and the Common, I heard pots and pans crashing, but with a tune that reminded me of “Octopus’s Garden.” It was Ramblin’ Dan, wearing a tie-dyed shirt and red pants. He was covered head to heel with tubes, pots, pans, ropes, cymbals, hula hoops, and a harmonica. With each step, he made noises and sang. Two little boys stood near him one with a tambourine, the other with maracas. When that song was done, he asked them what song to play. “Something spooooky!” one boy said.
“Yeah, it’s almost Halloween,” said the other.
“The Monster Mash,” whispered their mom from the side.
“Alright, we’ll try that,” said Ramblin’ Dan. His sign said “Only those who attempt the absurd achieve the impossible.” With that motto, he’d have to try any song they suggested. He played a bit of its beginning, then moved into a jazzy version of “Stand By Me.” Some people gathered started mouthing the words. I took a dollar from my pocket, left it in the bucket with other dollars and chocolate bars. Leaving the crowd, I went over to the Boston Common singing out loud, “No I won’t, be afraid, Oh I won’t, be afraid, Just as long, as you stand, stand by me.”
The Common is on a hill with the State House on top, visible above the trees. Glare from the gold dome blinded me for a moment as my eyes adjusted. A woman from Springfield, Illinois, in Boston for the first time, stood with group talking loudly, waiting for the trolley to pick them up and shuttle them to the next destination in this perfect walking city. The bus pulled up and “Tim the Tour Guide” sat up front with the driver, talking into a crackly microphone. On the other side of the steps, a guide told his followers, “It was all about preserving the union.” They all nodded, and furrowed their brows, like this was something new about the Civil War.
The phone in my pocket buzzed. It was my mother. She and my father were over by Faneuil Hall. “I’m by the State House,” I told her. “I’ll be taking the Freedom Trail that way in the next hour or so. See you there in a bit.” I hung up, and began to follow the red line on the ground, which tried to lead me down Park Street. I could barely move because of the tour group plodding along in front of me, so I turned and escaped down Beacon Street, knowing I could easily get to Faneuil Hall without a red line as my guide.
The Freedom Trail takes a circuitous route from the front of the State House through the narrow streets of Boston, to the North End, and across the Charles River. It passes historic buildings that were crucial in the formation of the United States: the Old North Church where Paul Revere hung two lanterns, the cemetery where three signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried, the Old State House which was the site of the Boston Massacre and home to the fire that sparked the American Revolution.vii
For the next several miles, I loosely followed the trail to my first destination, Faneuil Hall. Passing Kings Chapel, I decided to give the suggested $1 donation and entered. A woman was singing opera, accompanied by a man on the organ. Every surface of the pews was covered with plush red cushions or cloth. The seats were inviting after hours of walking, so I sat down, closed my eyes, and listened. The music then stopped mid-phrase and the accompanist softly instructed the singer on what not to do. Since the music had stopped, I went outside and continued to Faneuil Hall.
Just before Faneuil Hall is the Old State House, built in 1713. It’s the oldest standing public building in Boston. Rebellious colonists argued against English rule here in 1761, sparking the idea of independence. In 1770, five men were killed in the square by the English army in the Boston Massacre, which was used to incite the colonists and stir up anger against the English. On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed from the balcony. The unicorn and lion, English royal symbols, were ripped from the façade and burned.viii
An overwhelming number of tourists stood outside the brick building. I wove through the people who were standing still, walking in every direction, and waiting in line for roasted nuts. The smell of the nuts was making me hungry and I realized I hadn’t eaten since ten. The clock on the Old State House cupola read five after three. On either side of the cupola stood two life-sized statues, a unicorn on the right and a lion on the left.
A motion across the street caught my eye when I stopped at the cross walk leading to Faneuil Hall. My parents were waving to me. It was good to see people I knew after traveling solo through a city of strangers. I crossed the street and hugged my mom first, then my dad. We exchanged questions “How have you been?” “Where are you headed?” my mom said, “Have you eaten? Do you want something, like real food? Or ice cream?”
“Yeah, I want something,” I said. We walked to Faneuil Hall, a historic brick building with a gold cricket weather vane, which has been as a market and meeting place since 1742.ix The main floor now holds vendors selling everything from New England clam chowder to sushi. In the packed corridor lined with stalls, I recognized someone wearing a Middlebury t-shirt with three people behind her. One of them was Stuart, who lives two floor above me.
“Stuart?” I said. He was startled, but stopped and we talked. I asked about their visit to Boston, and I introduced my parents to the people I knew from my new life at college.
Ice cream sounded better than real food, so I ordered a small peanut butter Oreo ice cream in a sugar cone with chocolate sprinkles. As my parents and I talked, we wandered through Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, and to the North End. They told me about the bizarre but interesting outdoor art exhibit they had gone to in East Boston, and the Australian place where they had eaten lunch. “Which way do you want to go? Do you want us to leave, and we can meet later, or do you want us to stay with you?” my mom asked. We were in the city together as a family, yet she didn’t assume we are all on the same agenda, which I realized was true. She was talking like we are just meeting up for a while as any two parties might on a walk.
“I want you to stay with me,” I said after thinking for a moment. “I want company, but you have to keep up.” As we walked, my mom’s calmness surprised me. She had asked me about my Saturday, but she didn’t seem to need every detail of my last 32 hours: the bus, the T, Tufts, my walk. I was not concerned, but it seemed like something my mom should want to hear about. She would want to hear about my adventure and if I had done anything unsafe that would upset her. Even if she wasn’t asking to hear, I wanted to tell. I had not traveled by bus or subway much, never mind alone. I had just walked around a city I didn’t live in for three hours. The last day and a half had been new to me, and meeting my parents like this, as an adult in the city, was new to me as well.
We walked through the North End, the Italian section, and across the Charles to the Charlestown section of Boston. Still on the Freedom Trail, we visited “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution. From the last stop on the trail, the Battle of Bunker Hill monument, we overlooked the harbor and the Boston skyline. The battle was technically a loss for the newly forming United States, but it showed the English that the colonies were on a steady path to independence and could put up a strong fight.
By 5:30, we had arrived back in the North End. Walking down Hanover Street, we tried to remember the restaurants where we had eaten in on previous visits and who we were with. “Let’s go to this one,” I said. I pointed up at the red and green neon sign. The letters C, N, and T are lit in the word “cantina” running vertically in red. Below it were the words “Italiana Restaurant” in green, the oldest restaurant in the North End. Surrounded by murals of Venice, we sat around the table eating warm, delicious pasta dishes and I gladly told my parents all about my weekend adventure and my walk.
Countless times in my life, I had sat in an Italian restaurant in the North End of Boston at the end of a day trip to the city. Once it was after seeing a special exhibit on Pompeii in the Museum of Fine Arts with my parents and friend, Maureen. Another time was with my parents, several aunts and uncles, and my cousins when my family was visiting from Hawai’i and we had spent the day at the Museum of Science. Several times as a child I had spent the weekend in Boston sightseeing with one parent or the other, while the other parent went to a conference. This was the first time I had come to Boston on my own, visited my friend, and spent the afternoon in the city alone doing something that only I needed to do.
Since the time in 1997 when I had eaten at in the North End at Pagliuca’s with my family and grandfather, I had taken steps toward growing up: going out to play without parents, riding my bike outside the neighborhood, walking into town with friends in 6th grade, going abroad with a high school trip, learning to drive, going to college. In the month and a half since I had left for college, I had taken some of the biggest steps yet. I had never gone on an adventure of my own and for purely my own reasons. At the end of the day, I reunited with my parents after coming from different paths as I had never done before.
i“Boston in Profile and Other Fun Facts.” StudyBoston.com. N.p., 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.
ii“Christian Science.” Christian Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
iii“Back Bay Fens.” City of Boston.gov. N.p., 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.
ivTracy, James F. “Boston Marathon Bombing Timeline.” Global Research. N.p., 18 Aug. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
v“A Brief History and Description.” Boston Public Library. N.p., 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.
vi“Public Garden.” City of Boston.gov. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.
vii“Official Sites on the Trail.” The Freedom Trail Foundation. N.p., 2013. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.
viii“The Old State House.” The Bostonian Society. N.p., 2013. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.
ix“City of Boston.gov.” Faneuil Hall. N.p., 2013. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.