There is something about climbing onto a tour bus that feels faintly ridiculous. You’re submitting yourself to a canned version of whatever city you are visiting, and you are riding around in the can.
But superficial as they are, bus tours are often the only chance a visitor has to get an overview of a place, and the only opportunity a city has to tell its own story.
As I walk around Boston, I see these buses all the time, their windows filled with faces of tourists, and I wonder what my hometown looks like to visitors. What are they seeing? What story is being told to them?
One day, I decide to find out.
I get on the bus — an old trolley, or the facsimile of one — in Cambridge, near MIT. “OK, folks, we’re heading to Beantown,” the driver announces as we pull away from the curb and start across the Longfellow Bridge. “This is how Paul Revere crossed over to Boston in 1775 — on his Segway. See, there he is. Hi, Paul!” he calls out to one of the scooter-riders on the bridge, clanging the trolley bell to underscore the hilarity of this. “And over there is the Esplanade, where every Fourth of July we celebrate America’s birthday,” and he is clanging the bell again and waving a little American flag and blaring a few bars of the “1812 Overture” over the speakers.
We drive onto Charles Street — “Antiques Row,” the driver calls it, though I’ve never heard a Bostonian use that term. “Now over there is Savenor’s, Julia Child’s butcher, where she got her kangaroo and other strange meats. Next door is the Charles Street Animal Clinic. A little too close for comfort, don’t you think?” Clang, clang, clang, yuk yuk yuk.
As we drive along the Common, the driver tells us that Oliver Wendell Holmes made up the phrase “the Hub of the Universe,” and puts in a plug for the Tea Party Museum, “where you can sample some of Abigail’s tea. If you’re looking for a patriotic experience, that’s a nice one.” A stop at the Common, “Get out here for the Freedom Trail, the Black Heritage Trail, the Women’s Heritage Trail . . . that’s right. Ciao. Auf wiedersehen. A bientôt. Arrivederci. Hasta la vista.”
We pass the Omni Parker House, “where Ho Chi Minh was a pastry chef, and Malcolm X was a busboy.” He recommends a nearby deli for lunch, “the world’s greatest sandwich.” As the tour goes along, several more restaurants are touted as famous; their ads surround the map supplied by the trolley company.
On we go, clanging and yukking our way through the North End and Charlestown and Back Bay. We get the theme song from “Cheers”; and “One if by land, two if by sea”; and Paul Revere’s family life (“He had eight children with his first wife and eight with his second — and to think they call George Washington the father of this country!”); and “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”; and the great molasses flood (“It was a very sticky situation!”); and “Make Way for Ducklings”; and the “Cheers” theme again; and the windows falling out of the John Hancock building (an audio recording of smashing glass); and the Public Library (“See those names carved up there? Plato, Aristotle — those are guys who didn’t return their library books. Bring ’em back, fellas”); and the West End (“See that corrugated building? Stairways that lead nowhere . . . and it is the mental health services building. Coincidence? I don’t think so”).
Oh, Boston. Sightseeing may be inherently superficial, but is this collection of inanities really the best we can do? Oliver Wendell Holmes as a sort of copywriter? Boorish jokes about mental illness? Architecture as a series of inept failures? Our city’s history as a jumble of half-digested table scraps (Abigail who?) and the musical theme from a defunct TV show?
We cross the river back to Cambridge, and pass Frank Gehry’s MIT Stata Center. (“It leaks,” we are told.) The next stop is where I hopped on, and I’m ready to hop off. I’ve learned one new fact today — Ho Chi Minh and Parker House rolls are somehow related. Other than that, I’ve been driven all over Boston and I haven’t seen a thing.