Boston, revisited

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Miss Worcester diner in Worcester, MA
The first time I visited Boston, I was 9 years old. I'd read about the harbor and Paul Revere's house in school history books, so my parents were happy to satisfy the history buff in me. I went again as a teenager, had lunch at the Atlantic Fish Market with family, browsed the Harvard Book Store in Harvard Square. I loved what I saw and vowed to move there for college (Harvard, of course!), where I would walk along beautiful tree-lined streets with books tucked under my arm like a preppy co-ed.

Well, I spent three full years at school in the Boston area -- three very distinctive and intense years. Having grown up in New York City, my first year there was spent being mildly annoyed at how early the local Starbucks closed and how early the T stopped running. My second year, I grew to hate both Massachusetts and my school in the isolation I had created for myself by signing up for too many classes and too many extracurriculars. In my final year, I hobnobbed with a new crowd, one that allowed me to feel more myself than I'd ever felt and let me see an entirely different side of Boston -- one of gritty glamour, but pure joy.

I suppose, then, it's not all that surprising that in the four times I've visited Boston since I left school, I've had wildly different experiences. The first time, my school friends and I visited old haunts and carried on as if we had never really left. The second time, I visited a school friend who had grown up in Massachusetts and had her own set of haunts, ones that made me feel ill at ease. The highlight of that trip was a night spent watching a football game at a sports bar across the street from Fenway, followed by dancing with two cousins at Tequila Rain and a humorous exchange between us and two girls hanging out of an SUV along Lansdowne Street as we made our way to the T. The low point was the very next night, when my friend brought me to a student club/lounge which made me feel awkward and old, though I was not even a year out of college.

And then some years passed when I thought I couldn't return. For me, trips to Boston had been met with both an impossible nostalgia and a deep sense of dread that I would tarnish the unforgettable experience I'd topped my three years off with. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I made the trip north up the I-95 last week, alone. It was a last minute decision and I had plans to finally visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, one I had heard so much about and had wanted to visit since I knew I'd be leaving Boston for good.

Boulevard Diner in Worcester, MA
Alas, it was not meant to be. Just as soon as I boarded the bus heading towards Boston, the rain started coming down and fell only harder and faster the closer I got. When I did finally get off the bus at South Station, the rain had stopped, but the sky had a slight ominousness about it. Plans to walk to the museum were scrapped and instead, I hopped onto the Commuter Rail headed towards Worcester, MA.

I'd never been to Worcester, but I came close once. My friend Ashley is currently studying in the former mill town and offered me a place to crash for the night. It also happens to be the city in which both the Knight brothers (Jonathan and Jordan of the New Kids On The Block) were born, which makes this city absolutely relevant to my paltry readership. (Right?)

Worcester's not a glamorous town by any means, and I knew that going there. Ashley gave me a comprehensive tour, starting with the beautiful train station, the abandoned shopping center, "Turtle Boy", Dr. Gonzo's Uncommon Condiments (where I sampled a chili-infused gummi bear and wished I could still feel my tongue), drove around the downtown area and South Main to University Park and past a score of abandoned factories. Night fell and we headed to the Boulevard Diner, my first-ever Lunch Car diner. The ambience was pretty much exactly as I'd anticipated -- homey, friendly and full of townie charm. And afterwards, we crawled into the spacious Moynihan's Pub, where we watched the afternoon's Red Sox game with locals as rain pounded against rooftops.
Peanut butter, marshmallow fluff and banana-stuffed French toast
Miss Worcester, Worcester, MA

The next morning, before heading back to Boston, Ashley brought me to Miss Worcester, another Lunch Car diner with a more feminine and sweeter touch. Over a peanut butter, marshmallow fluff and banana-stuffed French toast (MUCH bigger than I'd imagined), we watched as news of Dorchester-native James "Whitey" Bulger's capture unfolded. Everyone who entered the diner had something to add in a way that might only have been understood in a city as small as Worcester: "They caught him!" It was an incredibly unique experience.

Back in Boston a couple hours later, I knew I didn't have enough time to make a trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, so I headed to my favorite area: Back Bay.

Back Bay is my favorite area for a number of reasons. Newbury Street is a condensed shopping area where I can always find pretty much everything I need. Back Bay also happens to be the area some of my loves live or lived, so whenever I am in the neighborhood, I am filled with a feeling of both warmth and sweet sadness. After stopping at Starbucks for one of the best Chai lattes I've had in YEARS (New York City, I realize now, waters them down ... and I now remember why I used to love this drink so much!), I window-shopped east on Newbury, past the new Jack Wills store and noted that both Borders and American Eagle Outfitters were missing (RIP). Past Sonsie, which has one of the best brunches I've had in Boston, I crossed the street to Newbury Comics and J.P. Licks, one of my favorite ice cream spots.

Sorbet and ice cream from J.P. Licks, Newbury Street

The further I walked, the more integrated and comfortable I felt, almost as if Boston finally belonged to me, too. No longer the city I compared New York City to, the city I dreaded heading back to at the end of a school break, the city in which old loves lived, the city in which my head grew dizzy and I senseless with the notion that I could bump into an old love (for more on this phenomenon, see "In Your Atmosphere," John Mayer). Pounding the city's pavements on my own this time afforded me the time to think about what I was doing and where I wanted to go, not where someone else wanted me to. And as I revisited old spots, I was met with a quiet acceptance I hadn't had in previous visits: one of serenity and peace of mind, as if I were finally seeing Boston for what and who it was.

Because my years there were so formative and intense, Boston, more than my hometown of New York City, will always be pregnant with memories for me ... even if they're memories that are not my own. I saw Donnie Wahlberg and Danny Wood as I walked past the old Copley Square High School. I saw my twenty-first year come into view as I approached The Pour House on Boylston, with truly the best mojito I have ever sampled in my life. I saw Christmas scenes, then summer scenes, at the Prudential Center, where I'd taken many strolls with friends in many seasons. It's funny how much of my life has been interwoven into these commercial "landmarks", and even funnier now that I am aware of NKOTB's history in Boston. Some of these places overlap, perhaps in both space and time. I contemplated this as I noshed on a Regina Pizzeria slice, my first-ever slice of true Boston pizza. I'd held onto the name "Regina Pizzeria" from a time when I worked at the Boston Globe and had done a story on how famed Boston pizzerias had come to be and continued to thrive. The slice was worth the wait.

My time in Boston was quickly running out, and I made my way out of the mall and found myself lost in a maze of shrubs and brick paths. I soon realized that I had somehow stumbled into Jordan Knight's Boston apartment building complex, which I had seen once and vaguely noted while browsing a site documenting several girls' NKOTB-based tour of Boston. Imagine that. As I figured my way out of the area, it had started to rain again, so I hopped onto the T like I had when I was still working at the Boston Globe and it was second nature to be riding the T. At Park Street (not Pahk Street anymore like the way the lady on the intercom used to say it), I transferred to the Red Line that would take me back to South Station and a reality I was none too eager to get back to. For me, Boston will always be haunted by ghosts, though they grow friendlier with each visit.

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