I told my editor I needed the day off.
I’d had COVID and was still recovering. My brain, hardly a high-performance machine on its best days, had turned to porridge, and I was easily fatigued, which often forced me to stretch out in bed like Boris Yeltsin lying in state.
But I’d finally tested negative and felt well enough to ride the commuter rail into Boston, something I’d been looking forward to after padding around the house in sweatpants for two years. I’d be a tourist for the day, taking myself on a date downtown.
But I wanted to do it cheaply. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money to make myself feel good. Actually, I didn’t want to spend any money. COVID had stolen my sense of taste — my wife’s bolognese is now flavorless and bourbon might as well be water — but my miserly instincts are very much intact.
That’s why, pre-pandemic, I liked wandering the stalls at Haymarket, the centuries-old fruit-and-veggie bazaar where a bounty of bok choy costs next to nothing. I’m such a sucker for the bargains there that I sometimes buy a whole bag of pomegranates whether I want them or not. But Haymarket is only open Friday and Saturday, so I dawdle through traffic to the North End instead.
Steering clear of Hanover Street, which can get crowded with rubberneckers looking either for pancetta or the Paul Revere House, I roam some of the neighborhood’s less explored narrow streets and stumble on I AM Books, a small, independent bookshop well stocked with volumes of Italian literature, history, and art. As two young employees murmur in Italian, I imagine I’m in a faraway fishing village and, suddenly, I’m excited to spend money. I buy a book called “Swallow,” a biography of sorts by Italian-American writer Mary Cappello about a pioneering laryngologist infamous for his methods of extracting rocks, shells, jewelry, toys, and other ingested “foreign bodies.”
Even if I can’t taste anything, the book has put me in a mood to eat, so I head in the direction of Anthony’s Cafe on Commercial Street. As I walk past the Old North Church and the less-historically-significant Loads of Fun Laundromat, I keep an eye out for actor Daniel Day-Lewis and his wife, director Rebecca Miller, who, I’m told, live at least part time now in the North End. (A fellow tightwad perhaps, Day-Lewis has been spotted a few times browsing the discount produce at Haymarket.) Alas, there’s no sign of the Oscar winner, but I do pass the intersection where Ben Affleck’s gang of bank robbers in “The Town” escape the cops on their way back to Charlestown.
My order — two eggs, homefries, bacon, and rye toast — arrives on a paper plate with plastic utensils, but Anthony’s, it turns out, is not all that cheap. That’s OK, though. The vibe is friendly and the coffee is hot.
Next stop is Marshalls at Downtown Crossing. I’ve scavenged some of my favorite clothes at the off-price retailer — the choicest being a pair of wine-colored, suede Cole Haan shoes — but thumbing through the racks today is dreary. Who are the people who buy all these anchor print short-sleeve shirts? And why? Outside, I blend in with a walking tour and get a free history lesson from a guide wearing a Colonial-esque ensemble of stocking cap, breeches, and nightshirt.
Standing in front of the Old Corner Bookstore, which opened in 1829 but now, distressingly, houses a Chipotle, the costumed attendant directs our attention to the tower of the Old South Meeting House across the street.
“That’s where Sam Adams held a meeting in December of 1773 and they decided to have the Boston Tea Party,” he says. “The way things are going, it’ll probably be a Burger King soon.”
On this vivid, chilly afternoon, Boston Common is its best self, teeming with young moms pushing strollers, clumsy dogs chasing balls, and people dozing here and there on the lawn, occasionally serenaded by calliope music from a carousel near the Frog Pond that goes round and round between April and October. I’m desperate to lie down, but I know if I go full Boris here, I’ll never get up.
Someday, city officials will come to their senses and make Newbury Street pedestrian-only permanently, but it hasn’t happened yet, so I have to dodge Escalades as I crisscross the street. Bypassing Zegna, Bulgari, and Chanel, I stop at Alan Bilzerian, the eponymous boutique full of inventive — and, yes, expensive — clothes for men and women. Bilzerian has dressed the likes of Madonna, Carly Simon, and David Bowie, but still takes time to show a schmuck like me a couple of smart summer-weight jackets. This is just the sort of purchase I’m trying to avoid, however, so Bilzerian and I talk for a bit and then, grudgingly, I leave empty-handed.
A few blocks down the street, I’m beckoned by a colorful sign in a window: Free CBD. The store, called CBD American Shaman, is a Kansas City-based chain whose mission is “bringing wellness to the world.” Sounds good to me. The young guy at the counter puts some water in a paper cup and adds several drops of lemon-flavored nano cannabidiol (CBD).
“This’ll relax you all over,” he says with a smile. “And help you sleep.”
Uh oh. My problem is staying awake. Oh well, drink up! As I turn to go, the guy asks if I’d like a couple of complimentary THC-infused chocolates for the road. I guess so, I deadpan, extending a greedy hand.
I’m really flagging now, but the Boston Public Library is just around the corner. Have you looked at that place? Talk about public art. What a marvel. The lobby alone, with its Georgia marble floor and vaulted ceiling clad by Italian immigrant craftsmen in mosaic tile is spectacular. I drift through Bates Hall, the hushed reading room with dramatic 50-foot ceilings and century-old English oak tables, and gape at the gallery of amazing murals by John Singer Sargent, who considered the library commission his chance to create a masterwork — and spent 29 years completing it.
I need to be on the 3:55 p.m. train, but a pink food truck peddling yet another freebie on Boylston Street catches my eye. This time it’s coffee, which I’m invited to lighten with a plant-based milk alternative called NotMilk. Only after I say yes does the cheery dude in the truck tell me the product is a blend of cabbage, peas, and pineapple.
“What!?” I exclaim.
Grateful I can’t taste anything, I pop the chocolate from the CBD place in my mouth, and start fast-walking toward North Station. Twenty minutes later, I arrive grinning, reminded of the first line of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo travelog: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
I’m just off Causeway Street, near the Bruins ProShop, and the train is starting to board.
Mark Shanahan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.