They built this city on a hill of beans
A long-departed Brit’s 100 percent reliable memories of his time in Boston.
It was 1983 when I first moved to Boston, a 20-year-old Londoner with nothing to my name but a Sony Walkman and an adorable accent. I remained in the city for 22 years, which is a wicked long time. I don’t use the word “wicked” much these days. In fact, I’m not sure I ever did. That may have been Matt Damon.
Since returning to England, my recollections of Boston have become less reliable, pieced together as they are from shreds of experience and morsels of popular culture, which bobble to the surface like lumps of pork fat in a pot of Boston baked beans. It’s possible, in fact, that I may have imagined the pork fat. And what about Spit? Was that really my favorite nightclub or just a reaction to the beans?
Today, even some of my fondest memories are open to doubt, such as the afternoons I spent at the Wursthaus in Harvard Square, sharing pierogi platters with Nancy Kerrigan and Yo-Yo Ma, Jane Swift and Johnny Damon playing chess in the corner. Afterward we’d sit outside the Metropolitan Storage facility and recite the poems of Sylvia Plath: “Hush hush, keep it down now, voices carry.” People going by on the No. 1 bus would shout abuse out the window. I remember once Shelley Long got hit in the head by a cruller.
Then there was the day Steven Tyler treated us all to lunch at Mistral. I had penguin pot pie, Evan Dando had the tricolor chowder, and Ernie Boch had the New Bedford trout. Doris Kearns Goodwin was denied entry due to her Harvard sweatpants, which was strange because it was July and everyone else was wearing overly cut-off denims. I remember this clearly because Julia Child made fun of Whitey Bulger’s thighs and the pair got into a spat.
Not that there was anything strange about this. This was a time when everyone in Boston spoke very loudly all the time, when even the most basic conversation involved a friendly insult. Whether buying bulkie rolls at Market Basket or tokens on the T, it was rare that you’d get away without a clerk saying something about your sister. But of course this was part of the charm. I remember Donnie Wahlberg telling me, just after I’d been slapped by Noam Chomsky, that “The savage in man is never quite eradicated.”
At the time, I lived in a 12th-floor walk-up in the North End, and I’d go to sleep to the sounds of chairs being removed from parking spaces. Scrape, scrape. But these were happy days for me. Boston was a city of ideas, a citadel of culture whose history predated ancient Greece, a place where hippies and ear surgeons would descend on the L Street Tavern to debate the correct spelling of Faneuil Hall, where MIT professors worked tirelessly to fathom how a person could be going north on Route 128 but also going south.
It was an exceptionally lovely city. I spent hours wandering the winding roads, gazing at the marvels around me: the diamond-encrusted dome of the State House, the clouds shrouding the craggy peak of Beacon Hill, the Trevi Fountain. Early in the morning, I’d pick up my easel and head to Boylston Street, where I’d join the long line of artists who have endeavored to capture the majesty of the Pru.
On my last night in town, Manny Ramirez, Kitty Dukakis, and I piled into Denis Leary’s Subaru and headed to Lynn for a lobster roll, which we ate on the promenade, watching the sun set over the Atlantic. Then we realized that the sun sets in the west, so we turned around and watched it set over a retirement home. Slosh, went the waves against the shore. Slosh.
The Kicker is Globe Magazine’s new humor column. It will appear occasionally.