It was off to Boston this week. The elder son, whom we dropped off at the Berklee College of Music about this time last year, is re-nesting (for a bit). His story is instructive; he has a perfect grade point average and concluded the program was not nearly as demanding as it should be. His complaint is fairly common; the curriculum seems to have been adjusted downward so as not to spook slackers. Harvard is apparently not the only Boston school where grade inflation undermines respect among those who know it best.
One wonders if the same thing is happening in the trade schools, which of course would be far more serious. It is one thing for a Harvard history grad not to know in which century Ted Kennedy drowned his date, or for a Berklee jazzbo to run an errant scale.
It is quite another for an auto mechanic to be poorly trained in his discipline. That is especially on one's mind while breaking the sound barrier on the New Jersey Turnpike with tractor-trailers at either side. A poorly-tightened nut or two could result in fiery disintegration. Similar thoughts come to mind when visiting the surgeon, especially in light of stories of patients who enter the hospital for a nose job and leave minus a leg. One assumes that the threat of lawsuits keeps things a bit tighter in the vital institutions, and for this we can, in part at least, thank the trial lawyers.
Meanwhile, Boston is a great town, especially for Southern rustics like myself. When we travel to New York we sometimes wish we had a guide to navigate the canyons of Manhattan. With the sun often blocked we easily lose our sense of direction and the vertical nature of the city is at war with our innate love of sprawl.
Boston is no problem. It has an open feel to it. There are no canyons to speak of, and several gentle hills from which to take in impressive city vistas. Beacon Hill offers one such view. If you want to go to the top of the Prudential Building you can scan past the land, out to where the ocean creatures and watermen live.
Boston is also a friendly place, at least in the areas we strolled through (due to time limitations we skipped the sections where shootings are most common). This may be the result of a massive student population. Many students, who are still living on the dole, have yet to have their personalities permanently seared by mortgages, unruly children, and tyrannical bosses. There were some grumbles about the impending war with Iraq, which one would expect from the population from which soldiers are drawn (there seems to be a fear that Congress will re-institute the draft). Otherwise, the student life appears to retain its carefree status, perhaps even more so in these times of lessened academic expectations.
It was strange for those of us who drank legally while in school to encounter the fierce bias against under-21 drinkers. The boy (20 years old) and I went into a bar named after noted barfly Charles Bukowski, yet the barman would not serve him so much as a glass of water. Indeed, he wasn't allowed to stay in the building. The young are as ever quite adaptive, and where the fake ID fails home brewing takes up the slack. We enjoyed a nice Brown Ale and Wheat Beer cooked up on the boy's stove, and dreamed of more reasonable days.
Boston seems to be a fairly religious town, with lots of people passing in and out of the beautiful churches while others expressed their faith in other forums. A growing number of city bartenders were striking back at the Boston Beer Company (makers of Sam Adams) for sponsoring the contest that sent two Virginians into St. Patrick's in New York for a highly publicized bonk session. Their complaint: Sam Adams was kicking their church while it was down, as one protester put it.
Meanwhile, a thunderously loud gospel concert shook the city's municipal center -- full-strength black Baptist gospel, as in "Show yourself Satan and we will kick your sorry ass!" In Cambridge, a young woman sang songs in front of the Unitarian Church, where Satan would likely be told he didn't exist before being hugged within an inch of his life. As we strolled through the North End we passed by a half-opened door on which hung a "Members Only" sign. Inside sat a collection of old chatting beneath a picture of the Pope. One assumes the buggery crises came up sometime that evening, and my unsolicited advice to those gents would have been to start tossing out the bums, starting with Cardinal Law, who ran a longtime protection racket for child-molesters. You've got to figure that somebody has something on that guy.
But it was too nice an evening for heavy topics. We were looking for dinner, and this happened to be the Feast of St. Anthony. North End streets were thick with garlic fog and also beautiful women, carousing Romeos, and moist-eyed old men drinking wine at sidewalk tables. It is hard to believe that not too long ago the Italians were invading Ethiopia. What the hell got into them? Afterward we picked up a few delights at Mike's Pastries, including an éclair the size of a mortar round. It was something of a surprise to wake up the next morning.
Boston wouldn't be the worst place to be buried, as it happens. Some of its graveyards are quite impressive, both in their client lists and because they are so dark, even in the middle of the day. Their shadows are full of slouch-shouldered gravestones black with age; walking past one, we peered through the iron fence to behold the marker for old Sam Adams himself. One wonders what he might think of his namesake brewery's problems with his home town's bartenders. Probably not much. Sam was not the biggest fan of Popery. Lord knows what he would have made of the Muslims. Sausage, perhaps.
We even saw an angel. The sighting was in Harvard Square, where a fellow dressed in a white robe, and in white face, mounted a white pedestal and assumed the unmoving appearance of a marble statue. Unmoving, that is, until passersby dropped coins into his tip vase, at which time he would acknowledge them by a subtle shift of position. The performance was quite effective in producing a sense of the supernatural, and so the mere coin-tossers were spirited aside by yours truly, who held up a bill and said "Here's a twenty. Let's see you flap those wings." Which he did, apparently with the help of fishing line.
Of course it wasn't really a twenty but merely a one. And why not? How many chances does one get to stiff an angel? That alone was worth the trip. The rest was gravy.
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