My old friend Ed flew into Boston some years ago from Nashville on his way to a songwriting session in Maine. He proposed to stop by our place in Charlestown, a borough of Boston, on his way up Route 93. Charlestown lies a scant eight city blocks from Logan Airport. I faxed Ed a careful hand-drawn map of the route to our house from the airport, and I followed up with a phone call.
“Now be careful about…” I began.
“No, I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” Ed protested.
And no matter how I cautioned him on finding his directions — at that time, making consistent right turns off the city side of the Callahan Tunnel, ending up on Washington Street, straight shot over the Charlestown Bridge — Ed insisted that he understood my map just fine.
Two hours after his flight arrived, Ed pulled up in Charlestown, fuming with frustration.
It’s a typical tale. My father-in-law used to tell stories about making endless loops around downtown, trying to find Lock Ober. What do you expect from a city whose streets are based on cowpaths, where odd buildings in alleys bear plaques that say things like, “Here Was the Great Spring” and “In a shoe store on this site in 18XX, D. L. Moody was converted to Christ…”?
Boston driving requires special skills — no, let’s make that “attitudes.” “Skills” is too generous. And a tremendous memory.
I DROVE OVER FROM BETH ISRAEL HOSPITAL in Brookline to Causeway Street (no longer murking under a recently demolished elevated T) last week to pick up my wife at her office. For the first 15 minutes of our drive home, we engaged in vague conversation about the direction I had taken, a semi-theological inquiry into the current nature of Essex Street (enlarged to two lanes each way, and rather grand looking), where to make the turn onto Essex (and right or left), and the status of New Chardon Street (now no more one-way, as it had been for decades).
In that neighborhood, the epistemological confusion owes, of course, to the late Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill’s Big Dig, either his monument to labor union immortality or the greatest y’all come loot fest ever seen on U.S. shores, take your pick, and actually both.
For the rest of the route from Beth Israel, simply (ha!) take Boylston inbound (What? You don’t know the difference between “inbound” and “outbound”? Rookie!) past the back of Fenway Park, across the Fens, and into Back Bay, where you encounter your first unscheduled and likely unsignaled lane change at Mass Ave because the constant stream of oblivious musicians from Berklee tramping across the Avenue perpetually blocks right-turners. Then down the length of Back Bay’s commercial hub, switching lanes at random to avoid busses, trucks, cabs, and vehicles parking in commercial-only spaces (Boston drivers and pedestrians will stop, go, park, walk, or stand absolutely anywhere), and then whoops, gotta decide quick which side of the Boylston split to take. Wrong way sends you around useless lassoes of Chinatown or the theater district. Right way (left) steers you between the Common and the Public Garden on Charles Street.
Then right on Beacon up the beautiful traditional brownstone hill where John Hancock once lived, more unscheduled lane switches, an apparent violation of one-way (but not really) right in front of the State House, a quick left around temporary construction down Bowdoin (BOH’d’n) Street (where the pols park any which way) to the aforementioned New Chardon.
Along the way, you can stop or park, but you cannot be sure of the legality of it. Boston posts parking restriction signs just for the fun of it, apparently. You can find stretches of downtown street with as many as nine “No Parking” signs, many of them contradicting one another.
NOTHING PREPARES YOU for Boston driving. Not maps, not reading about it. Nothing but doing it. More modern cities have long since abandoned traffic circles, “rotaries,” as they are called here. Not Boston. Other cities have street signs. Boston mostly doesn’t, with a particular frustration trying to find out what street you are on. (The aforementioned Essex Street was unmarked at my intersection.) Many locations are designated by “squares,” many unmarked on maps, with no clue where they are. The major ones we know: Kendall Square, Post Office Square, City Square, even the no-longer existing Scolley Square. But Oak Square? Chester Square? Lenox Square? Not to mention the innumerable squares commemorating forgotten heroes, like Raymond A. L. Saquet Square, or remembered ones, like Liberty Square for the rebels of the Hungarian Revolution.
You have to get used to new language on intersection signs. What are you to make of the one on Storrow Drive saying “Kenmore Square Cambridge Route 2”? (Translation: One way goes to Kenmore Square, the other way to Cambridge via Route 2.) Other American polities build relatively sensible roads. Boston’s historic political corruption creates roadways, overpasses, offramps, and intersections memorializing every long-forgotten small-beer office-holder’s special commercial interest in something or other. Hardly any ever get torn up or closed. There are a half dozen ways to get everywhere. Streets change names along the way. Land Boulevard melds into Memorial Drive. Bowdoin Street ends, New Chardon begins.
Best just to enjoy it. Imagine Boston as a model train layout with unlimited accessories, created by a generations-old club of high-spirited boys. Whoom! Zoom! Here we go, around the ramp and under the bridge and then over the same bridge and across the river and around the rotary and…
Just don’t get lost.
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