Accidental Activist

Cheers! From Boston

Boston leaves you wanting more. Surely there is no greater testament than that.

By Ben Bull
Published November 27, 2007

Following in the steps of infamous, intrepid RTH Explorer Ryan 'Columbus' McGreal, I decided last week to venture east - and south a bit, and west just a touch - into the uncharted, (well to me at least) waters of Boston, Massachusetts.

In reality, I had no choice in the matter as I had to go there for an IT training course, but still – it beats Scranton PA, right?

I brought along my wife and kids, in part because I knew it would probably be a while before we got the chance to go again, and in other part because I knew I could probably write off a lot of my expenses (I'm still working on that part, hey - do you think an $80 bar tab is excessive...?).

So off we went. We drove, of course, because now that the Bull family are model environmentalists the idea of flying is totally abhorrent (that's right – the flights were too expensive).

As we headed toward the US border, I held my breath. I have tried to learn from my past cross-country nightmares - to arrive at the right time and always have the correct paperwork, etc. - and I was supremely confident that this time we would coast our way across.

More fool me. As I cruised onto the strange little slopey thing they make you park on, I was informed by the Customs Guard that my PR card was 'useless' and didn't exempt me from the 30 minute line up at the little hut behind the customs booths.

As a Landed Immigrant of Canada, this is a little ritual I have come to despise and it pretty much symbolizes, to me at least, the sad irony of America as the 'Land of the Free'.

It seems that every time I am shepherded into this hut, along with all the other 'shady landed immigrant types', someone in my party gets berated. Last time it was my friend Bruce, for daring to use his cell phone while we waited, and this time it was my wife, for having the audacity to return to the van for the little white slip of paper I had inadvertently left on the dash.

"Where the hell are you going?" barked the customs guy in what seems to have become the post-9/11 version of 'Welcome to America'.

It's a question I ask myself every time I cross.

After a fraught 30 minutes during which I imagined all sorts of Maher Arar type horror stories, I was waved through and we were finally on our way. Again.

At this stage in the journey it occurred to me that we had completed a mere 90 minutes of the trip. In four hours.

Mapquest had determined that the trip from Toronto to the border was a 90 minute drive. US customs determined that the quarter mile stretch of road between our country and theirs was two hours on top of that.

As a result, our whole schedule was ruined. At this rate we were looking at a check-in time of somewhere around ten o'clock - an unwelcome prospect for someone with a van full of fourteen-, nine-, seven- and five-year-old kids, and a wife who 'hates driving'.

The next nine hours were pleasant but exhausting. Being English and thus from a country where it takes only three hours to drive from east to west and eight from north to south, I have never driven a great distance before.

The experience of driving 11 and a half hours (including the 'rest' at the border and two brief pit stops) was a chore, especially when the lights went out and the roads were filled with enormous American rigs sporting huge, illuminated, 'Jesus Loves You' ornaments strapped across their grills. (Is it just me or doesn't it seem a little ironic that this is probably the first thing that would hit you in the head when the mountain of metal comes ploughing over the top of your car as you try to change a tire by the side of the road at 2.30 AM?)

I loved the scenery of New York and Massachusetts. As you near the border between the two states the countryside becomes lush and green and reminds me a lot of England. Having lived in Canada for 12 years now it never ceases to amaze me what a yearning I still have for the environment I was born into. The mere sight of a green field and a flock of sheep is enough to make me cry.

My wife, daughter and I argued about which mountain range we were looking at as we crossed into Massachusetts.

"It's the Adirondacks," Susie insisted.

"No it's not," said my daughter, "It's the Appalachians."

"You're both wrong, it's the Anoraks," I said, and in the end we agreed to 'look it up on the Internet' when we got home.

(I wonder if all the arguments and wars in the world can be solved in this way? Perhaps Saddam and Bush could have been appeased when they were going tit for tat looking for WMDs, if Saddam had simply said, 'If you don't believe me just look it up on the Internet'...?)

Our actual destination was Wakefield, Massachusetts, a little town ten miles north of Boston where my training was being held. We'd checked the commuter train schedule a few days before and determined that it should be easy enough for my wife and kids to hop into town, whole I toiled away in the classroom, asleep at my desk.

We arrived at nine - not bad considering our inauspicious start - and checked in. When we got to the room we realized we had a little problem. The pull-out couch we'd been assured was part of the suite, was nowhere to be found.

"Sorry, we don't have any left," said the front desk girl, cheerily.

I looked around the room at my four exhausted kiddies, weary wife and way-too-small double bed and took a deep breath. One thing I have learned from being a serial complainer is that when you need to put forward a complaint, you need to be patient, persistent and polite.

"What the f**k is going on?" I shrieked. A few minutes later, we were given a free room across the hall and everything was fine.

As I walked around the hotel I was unsurprised to find that my kids were the only ones around. I have traveled to many destinations during the course of my career and I always, as much as I can, try to bring the wife and kids along.

My philosophy on life is that work is a waste of time, and any way I can enrich my 9 to 5 by bringing the most important people in my life along, I will.

The next day my family and I parted company – I to my conference room and eight hours of PowerPoint slides, my wife and kids to Boston.

When I returned in the late afternoon, Susie and the crew had returned, and they were ecstatic.

"Boston is great!" beamed Jack, my seven-year-old, as he bounced on the bed inches from his sleeping sister's head, "Can we stay all week?"

My wife was just as impressed, extolling the virtues of the wonderful trip in the quaintness of the trains and the walkability and architecture of the town. "I can't wait to go back!"

The next day they returned, joined by me in the late afternoon after I bolted from my desk and hopped the hotel shuttle to the station.

As I cruised through the streets of Wakefield on my way to the station a couple of thoughts came to mind:

  1. Wakefield, MA is a lovely little town, with some beautiful churches, a historic town hall and a waterfront to boot – but I never got the chance to see it. It seems to me that all towns in search of tourists should really make an effort to put their hotels downtown, otherwise their visitors are never going to venture beyond the confines of their hotel rooms – and what's the good in that?

  2. The people of Massachusetts are frighteningly friendly. Whether it was looking for an ATM, reading the train schedule upside down or cutting across the road on those flaky white lines, everyone I met was painfully kind.

True to my wife's assessment, the Boston commuter train was indeed quaint. It was a glorious shade of pink and grey and obviously part of the rolling stock of the 1970s or early '80s. But hey, I reasoned, as I boarded by the only door they'd bothered to open – why does everything have to be sleek and modern?

As I sat on the carpetlike fabric of the seats and listened to the train creak into life I thought about the Toronto streetcar debate that never seems to go away.

"The streetcars are slow and ugly," say some.

"No they're not, they're cool," say others, like me, "and who needs to be on time anyway?"

Boston Commuter Line: even the tickets are quaint
Boston Commuter Line: even the tickets are quaint

Another thing I loved about the Boston train was how it always seemed to run across two roads every time it pulled into a station. Motorists unlucky enough not to make the crossing in time were forced to sit there for five to ten minutes while the train squealed to a stop, loaded and unloaded (through a single door), and creaked off again.

The funny thing was, as I peered in at them through their windshields - none of them seemed to mind.

As we creaked and clunked into town I marveled at how pleasant and intact the various little towns along the way seemed to be: Melrose, Malden, Somerville – all had bustling main streets, beautiful historic buildings and (horror of horrors) people walking around. Sure, there were cars clogging up every artery but still, it all seemed refreshingly un-American to me.

Boston Subway: $2 gets you anywhere (I think. That's all I paid anyway...)
Boston Subway: $2 gets you anywhere (I think. That's all I paid anyway...)

After pulling in at North Station on the edge of the downtown I was advised to take the subway to the New England Aquarium where my wife and kids were waiting. One ten minute 1970s subway ride later and I made it to street level.

New England Aquarium: alas, no whales today
New England Aquarium: alas, no whales today

It was dark by the time I arrived but I was still able to muster up a number of first impressions:

  1. The waterfront was empty – no shops, one restaurant - just the Aquarium. What's with that?

  2. Once again - the people are friendly! (we did the map trick (on purpose of course) and noticed it took about 5 nanoseconds for someone to come along and help us out)

  3. The traffic is pretty light and yields to pedestrians (this might have been luck. In my experience drivers are pretty much the same everywhere)

  4. There is nowhere to pee.

Thinking about the sparsity of things to do on that stretch of waterfront, it reminded me of other tourist destinations I know – Copps Coliseum for one – where little thought appears to have been given to providing complementary forms of entertainment for the benefit of the leisure crowd passing through.

Here, as on York and Bay in Hamilton, tourists flooded out of the Aquarium gates only to find there was nothing else to do but go home.

By the time we reached Quincy Market, where Susie had insisted she take me, my impressions were becoming more favourable still.

I love pedestrian zones and, for the life of me I have never quite understood why cities like Toronto and Hamilton don't do more to promote them. This one was, unsurprisingly, a lot like most pedestrian plazas I have visited: teeming.

Another thing I noticed as I cruised around, allowing my kids to run wild without any fear of them being knocked across the asphalt, was how well Boston appears to have re-used it's historic architecture.

Unlike Hamilton, which brags about the renovations to Liuna station even though most Hamiltonians can't get in without an appointment, Boston has integrated many of its historic buildings into the fabric of the town.

Samuel Adams' old stomping ground, Faneuil Hall, now houses a number of specialty stores, and The Old State House, the oldest surviving public building in Boston, is a museum and subway stop.

Another pleasant find as we ventured beyond the Quincy Market pedestrian zone, was just how bustling the other downtown streets seemed to be.

As we cruised along the Cheers route - from the fake bar to the real one - we noticed the usual work crowd filling in the bars or heading for the subway, a downtown college teeming with eager young minds, and snippets of downtown residential here and there.

This town really is 24/7.

The Cheers Trail: great walk – but where are the bathrooms?
The Cheers Trail: great walk – but where are the bathrooms?

Heading through Boston Common, Susie pointed out some of the less desirable aspects she'd come across in her two days around town.

"There's a lot of spit," she said, as we made our way around the outdoor ice rink.

Strange observation, I thought, but she was right. There was also a distinct lack of bathrooms and, as we were doing a walking tour from one bar to another, I had a couple of Boston's best churning away inside, looking for somewhere to go.

Again, this might sound like a strange observation but believe me, when something as simple as finding a bathroom takes up half your evening, it doesn't leave a good impression.

Heading along Beacon Street, I was amazed at the architecture.

Cheers! From Boston: nice pub (but nobody knew our names)
Cheers! From Boston: nice pub (but nobody knew our names)

The strip looks a lot like the poshest parts of London and, as we made our way across Charles Street just across from the Common we could see street life popping up everywhere. It's no wonder Susie and the kids insisted on staying for the week.

As we strolled back the way we came I thought about the Duck Tour, the Boston Public Library, the Freedom Trail walk, and all the other places that Susie and Ryan, in his email list of things to do he'd sent me before we left, had told me to visit.

I knew that at some point we would have to return. But that's the thing about Boston – it's a city to explore.

As we headed back home and argued about the Adirondacks again, the consensus in the car was that Boston was a great place to visit. We were sad that our visit was too short, but excited about coming back again some time soon.

I suppose in many ways Boston is like a great comic or a good episode of Cheers: it leaves you wanting more. Surely there is no greater testament than that.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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