Joan Wickersham’s essay on Boston

Excerpt from “A City Not on a Hill,”

An essay to be published in the anthology

I first encountered the city in a novel: “Johnny Tremain,” which I read in fifth grade. Boston! It was a place of sunlit wharves and screaming fishwives, silversmiths and revolution, coffeehouses and roasted squabs and arrogance and heartbreak and a night spent crying alone among old gravestones. Its place names — Hancock’s Wharf, Beacon Hill, Copp’s Hill, the Neck — were deeply familiar to me (I read the book at least a dozen times) and imbued with a kind of bright glamour. Boston was sharp, smart, alive, beckoning. It shimmered in the distance on its hill. I lived there, though I’d never been there.

My next glimpse of Boston came a few years later, when my younger sister started watching a TV show called “Zoom.” I would sit with her pretending to read or do my homework (the show was too young for me), but covertly fascinated by the juvenile utopia of “Zoom,” where kids wrote and delivered the jokes and conducted science experiments and art projects and talked about their lives and there wasn’t an adult in sight. I envied them their autonomy and their striped shirts and their camaraderie, their twitchy nerdy smart-ass curiosity, which in the world of my school was definitely a social liability, but in their world was cool. I never thought much about where other TV shows were made, but “Zoom” shoved Boston in your face, punctuating and ending each episode with invitations to mail in your jokes and ideas; the kids in the cast chanted the address — “Box 3 - 5 - 0, Boston, Mass.” — and then they sang, “0 - 2 - 1 - 3 - 4.” That ZIP code, which couldn’t have been farther away from Colonial America, did the same thing to me that Johnny Tremain’s Beacon Hill did. It glittered with smartness and made me wistful; I wanted to go there.