too many words by laura lemay

A trip to Boston

This week (december 10-18), I’m in Boston for the International World Wide Web Conference. At the moment I’m sitting in bed in my hotel room, watching the 11pm news and trying to become tired enough to actually go to sleep (Its only 9pm my time!)

I grew up in Boston; spent the first 18 years of my life here. And it’s funny how childhood instincts come back to you immediately. Take, for instance, the subway, or, as they call it out here, the T. I live in California. I don’t take the subway. I haven’t ridden the subway for years. And yet, when I stepped off the plane in Boston, I went straight for the airport shuttle, took the Blue line to Government Center, changed to the Green line (the B train, to be exact), and went straight to my hotel. I knew exactly which stairwells in the station to take to get to the right tracks for the right train. I knew where on the platform to stand so that the train would stop with the doors right in front of me. I knew where to sit on the train so that I could fit my luggage into the seat next to me and I could get up and to the door in time. Instinct. All of it. It didn’t even occur to me that I was doing it until I got off the train. Wow.

Instinct does have its disadvantages. I was wandering around downtown and someone asked me how to get to Newbury street. I told them to take the green line to Auditorium station, where Newbury street starts.

Not a problem, I thought, until I went home that day and realized as the train pulled into Auditorium station that Auditorium station doesn’t exist any more. Sometime in the last ten years it’s been renamed to Hynes Convention Center. Oooops. Hopefully some other oldtimer who has been here for the changes set them straight.

Being December, it’s cold in Boston. Very cold. Really, really really cold. I was prepared, though. Before I came out here I went shopping and got myself some lovely gloves and a matching hat and scarf. Once I’d been here for about 12 hours I decided to put aside my foofy California winter clothes and go shopping again and get a real hat, scarf and gloves.

I thought, as I stood waiting for the train this morning, that I was just being a weenie Californian, too used to California winters. I figured I should stop shivering and sniffling and whining; Bostonians deal with this all the time. Weenie Californian, can’t handle a little winter cold.

And then a man with whippets walked by. The dog. Beautiful skinny little dogs, they are. This man had five of them, and they bounced around him like enormous manic tan tarantula. The man stopped to wait for the light to change, and the whippets stood. And shivered. It’s a pathetically funny sight, watching whippets shiver.

“Poor things, they must be suffering in this cold,” Said the woman standing next to me with bags of groceries.

“They must be used to it by now,” said I.

“They’re probably not old enough to have seen a winter this cold,” the woman replied. “It’s only ten degrees; Minus 17 with the wind chill.”

I gaped. Minus 17? OK. I knew it was cold. Not that cold.

I felt much better. If it was cold for the real Bostonians, I was allowed to be cold.

There’s one Boston skill I have lost, however, after living in California for so long. I was in Harvard square this afternoon and I found that I cannot cross the street.

In California, pedestrians are sort of a government-protected species; you step off the sidewalk, and cars stop. They have to. It’s the law. It’s kind of fun, actually, crossing the street in California and seeing all the cars stop and wait patiently for you to pass. It makes you want to suddenly decide to tie your shoes in the middle of the road to see how long they will put up with you.

In Boston, of course, they have no such silly ideas. Whereas in California, if you step off the curb, cars stop for you, in Boston if you step off the curb, the Boston Driver’s job is to chase you back up onto it. So in Boston, as a pedestrian, you learn to fight your own way across the street. You learn to time things so that you can squirt in between cars at exactly the right speed. You understand that if a 1987 honda civic CRX is bearing down at you if you make it across the street in less than 2.8 seconds, there’s no way the car can hit you because the CRX down’t have enough power in the top end even if the driver downshifts and redlines it to see if he can run you down before you make it across.

It’s a learned skill you get, growing up in Boston, and you need to do it every day of your life in order to keep in practice. And I, after living in California for six years now, have lost the skill.

I stood in front of the Harvard Coop for *five* *minutes*, trying to cross to the subway station. All around me Bostonians were crossing the street, performing amazing feats of timing between passing cars with bare inches to spare. And I couldn’t’t find a spot where it didn’t scare the hell out of me. So I stood there like an idiot, waiting for a break in traffic (in Harvard Square! Hah!!), assuming people were beginning to point and whisper amongst themselves. “Hey look at her. Must be a weenie Californian.”

And then I figured it out. Why try figuring it out myself when I could leech onto a Bostonian and get them to make the judgement?

I scanned the crowd, and found myself a nice gentleman with books under one arm. A student! Perfect! I watched warily as he approached the corner. He was going to cross…he had that look in his eye…wait for it. He scanned the traffic with a practiced eye as I stood with one foot poised on the edge of the curb. A cab approached, and he took a step forward. I followed his motions, step by step, and as the cab passed us both he made his move and I lurched out alongside him.

He strolled purposefully into the middle of the road, and I followed him carefully. And then–crisis–he stopped midway in the road and let a Ford go by! He stopped! I was watching him and not the traffic and didn’t expect him to make such a sudden movement. The Ford nearly ran me down, but I caught myself in time and it swept by.

Together me and my Bostonian passed the last lane of traffic and back up onto the curb by the kiosk. Victory! I had conquered the traffic! Yay!

I turned to my Bostonian to thank him, but he was gone into the crowd. Also like most Bostonians, he wasted no time and sped off at full speed to wherever it was he was going.