Touring with a friend in the know

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I spent two days in Boston with my own tour guide, a friend who had lived thereabouts for 40 years. It was a privilege following her around. Being led by someone I know who knows everything about the streets we traveled is the best way to learn a new city. She was good at pointing out the obvious – the obvious being what tourists never see even though it’s right in front of us.

The first phase of my Boston tour was catching a city bus a block from where we were staying (a close suburb). I grew up in a little farm town in the Midwest and lived in cities in the West where public trans is a rarity, so I am ill at ease figuring out buses. Traveling with a habitual bus user who made me pay attention to what bus to catch if I lost her was a lesson in urban living, survival maybe.

The bus let us off near what I was calling the “metro.” I was corrected: in Boston, the underground is called the “T” for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. It took us to Harvard Square, famous gathering place of students since 1636, when Harvard University opened its first classroom. Like most famous places, this triangular hotspot looked entirely different from what I’d imagined. But it was full of people, as I had pictured it, and they were of all complexions and demeanors, lots of tourists and plenty of students (who were the skinny ones). We peeked into the campus itself, walked past the Coop (famous co-operative book store for students and now for the public), tried to get a beer in a bar where we were invisible to the bartender.

We went elsewhere, to a self-serve coffee bar where I poured myself half a cup of coffee, went to the counter to pay for it as my friend came up with her half cup, and the fellow at the register told us he wasn’t going to charge us at all. I figured that in Harvard Square two women of a certain age with half cups of coffee amused him. He got a good tip.

Along the Freedom Trail (all American Revolution sites), we strolled Boston Commons; went through Faneuil Hall – the cradle of liberty where revolutionaries like Samuel Adams gave public speeches lambasting Britain; and saw many churches. (Unitarians won); and they all seemed to be historic sites.

From there we walked and walked uphill, to cobblestone streets past 18th century mansions surrounding the thick towering oaks of what I thought was a public garden. The park was fenced with sturdy and beautifully-wrought iron, the gate locked; so much for public – it was a park for those who live in that particular ‘hood. We were, after all, strolling Beacon Hill, famous address of Historic Register houses, lovely everything from the well-cared-for brick facades to the painted front doors, the window boxes of flowers with absolutely no dead heads, the graceful curtains on the very long windows hiding the front rooms.

We were in the most exclusive part of Boston – or one could say of the United States. The houses are so close to the street that after a while I felt I was snooping rather than simply admiring handsome doorways and tiny perfectly arranged two-foot-square gardens.

Caretakers were busy, delivery trucks were stopping traffic on the narrow streets, a well-turned-out older woman using a cane stepped gingerly down her front steps to walk her rather old toy poodle. Both purebreds ignored us, the obvious tourists.

On lower Beacon Street, we wandered into a place my friend had always intended to explore and never had: a private library called Boston Athenaeum. It was started in 1807, and since 1849 it has been located at 10½ Beacon Street. It has more than 600,000 volumes, which means they don’t toss books no matter how few people check them out.

At some point, we headed for the North End, one of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods. It grew from an outlying area that was home to early Puritans and then American Revolutionaries. It eventually became a wealthy enclave, then home to a red-light district, then ghetto of the immigrants – Irish, Eastern European Jews, Italians, which is its population today. There are so many good-smelling restaurants in this less than one-square-mile neighborhood of narrow streets and very old buildings that we turned a corner and walked right into Pushcart Pizzeria, windows open to the street. We watched locals and tourists pass by as we were served one piece of pizza apiece, each as big as a dinner plate.

We walked through a financial district (“Wall Streets” look the same in all cities – canyons of severe buildings with imposing entranceways), crossed the Charles on the Charlestown Bridge, site of a ferry in 1630 and its first bridge in 1786, we read. And on to a once seafaring, then industrial, then abandoned and now touristy area of Boston Harbor with a big hand-lettered sign on a building in progress, reading “Have you found your Inner Harbor?”

We slurped noodles at a sidewalk restaurant and then sat on the steps of the ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Art. We watched construction workers climb down off their steel beams to eat burritos and Big Macs; the incongruity being that the burly, well-muscled daredevils were sitting under umbrellas at dainty tables along the quayside in front of the modern-art museum. A gaggle of school kids barely controlled by tired-looking volunteer mothers gobbled their sandwiches so they could run up and down the bleacher-like steps.

A double-decker tourist boat in the Harbor glided by a ferry on its way to the other side. Planes flew in and out of Logan Airport across the water, and we remained there for an hour, happy to be observers of it all – men and women on lunch break, moms enculturating their kids, eight-story cranes abandoned for the noon hour on construction sites next door . . . people people people coming and going, working and relaxing in the city that my friend had in a very short time taught me how to love.

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