An old friend recently e-mailed to tell me Paul Paget had died.
Mr. P., as everyone called him, owned and ran Boston’s Swan Boats with his five children for 50 or so years. He would have turned 100 on August 29, our shared birthday.
Mister P. was kind enough to give me a much-needed job when I was in high school. I worked for six summers, through my sophomore year at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
I would take a bus to the old Forest Hills station and hop on the Orange Line to Essex Street. You came up in the Combat Zone and walked along sad, seedy streets, past the XXX movie theaters, with marquees heralding film names I was unfamiliar with. You followed Boylston, past the Common, past the old Playboy Club — now a Four Seasons — with one giant wall painted with the bunny logo.
I liked days when I opened. A small group of us got there early, went to the boat house, unlocked it, grabbed a long boat hook, walked back to the pond, found the thick, rusty chain at the bottom, and hauled in the six boats, water dancing off the chain. The Public Garden was quiet at those times. A person or two sleeping on a bench, a lone jogger, a dog walker. There was something about entering the garden, from any gate, and wandering through. I was always struck by how carefully it was tended. Like a Paris public park, with its beds of undisturbed tulips and dogwoods in bloom and cherry trees and overgrown weeping willows.
I don’t remember a lot of people’s names. But I remember their faces. This was Boston in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, a different place than now. Mr. P. hired young men and women of color at a time when it was far less common to do so. He took an interest in their schooling, their home lives. He asked questions. He paid us well.
This was a family business and it fell to him to tend to it for his entire adult life, after service in World War II in the Navy, after a good education at Boston College. He cared that we looked presentable, cared that we knew a bit about the Wagner opera on which the boats were based. He cared about the docks and fresh paint and the raising of the American flag each morning. Small things. Seemingly unimportant things. But surely life is lived in these small moments.
It was a great job. But it was also a job. There were plenty of unbearably hot, humid August days when the last place I wanted to be was sitting behind a giant plaster swan pedaling a 3-ton boat around a murky, not-great-smelling lagoon. But those days were far outnumbered by ones of real joy. Memories so clear and sharp, the smell of the grass being cut by the park workers, the sounds of children squealing, pointing to the ducks, the too-beautiful women walking by in sundresses ignoring the pimply-face teenager in the Captain & Tennille cap.
I am not a fan of nostalgia, of overwrought paeans. I just want to remember a friend. Not so much by what he did but how he did it. With grace and charm and kindness. This decade after decade love for this curious, singular Boston institution.
It was strange to see the words of his death. Strange to watch my own reaction. At his age it was not unexpected. Still, it was a surprise, in the way all death is a surprise.
I don’t understand death. The biology of it, yes, but not what remains for the living. Pain and memory and an empty place. Virginia Woolf said, “Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.” I wish that weren’t true.
I happened to read something not long ago. It’s attributed to the ancient Egyptians. We die twice, they said: Once when we die and once when people stop saying our name. So, then.
John Kenney is a writer in Brooklyn. Send comments to email@example.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.