Friday, 10:30 a.m.
I arrive at Richard’s apartment in Forest Hills. He and his buddy Chad, in town from Alabama, are ready to go. We decide we all need coffee and doughnuts, but will wait until we find a service plaza. I have only had one or two cups so have barely gotten rid of my caffeine headache.
We load up the Ford Explorer and hit the highway. In just a few short hours we will be in Boston!
Friday, 12:30 p.m.
Stuck in traffic in New Rochelle. Still no coffee in my system. I mention to Richard and Chad that New Rochelle is where the Petries lived in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” to general indifference but some feigned fascination. Richard adds that the guy from Catch Me If You Can (the Leonardo DiCaprio character) started out in New Rochelle. Ah, New Rochelle.
Finally, after we hit the first of 58,000 tolls, we are moving again. We stop at a Dunkin Donuts after crossing into Connecticut. Sweet Jesus, I need caffeine.
There are five people behind the Dunkin Donuts counter all working on one order at a time, each asking his or her own question. “Small, medium or large?” “How would you like your coffee?” “Can I take your order?” “What did you order again?” We are desperate but patient.
Friday, 1:30 p.m.
We pass Hartford, and I notice that for a city that nobody really knows about, except capitol buffs and hockey fans, it has an impressive skyline. According to my atlas its population is about 120,000, a little bigger than Green Bay. Yet somehow it looks like Milwaukee. I wonder what goes on in Hartford.
Friday, 3:00 p.m.
Finally we arrive in city limits. Let the funny accents begin. We all assume phony Irish names: Richard is Sully, Chad is Marc, and I am Peter. We cannot stop finding new words to slaughter with our newly acquired Boston accents. I know, we are the first people ever to do such a thing.
Driving through Boston, I forgot what a huge city it is. I haven’t been here in 11 years, and the last time was while I was in college in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, so any place looked impressive to me then. I don’t want to say that Boston can’t hold a candle to New York, but, well, I’ll say it: It can’t hold a candle to New York. But it’s big, and a similar mix of old turn-of-the-century buildings (and colonial houses) and modern glass towers.
Unfortunately, we aren’t staying in Boston proper. Richard has a friend who works for Marriott and who hooked us up with a good deal at a Courtyard….in Revere. On the map it looks like just a stone’s throw from the city, like staying in Queens or Burbank.
Friday, 4:00 p.m.
We find Revere after crossing the Tobin Bridge, which was built shortly after Independence. Driving down the freeway, the brick buildings give way to houses, which give way to more remote businesses, like liquor warehouses and building supply stores and abandoned cinemas. Pretty soon we see the Courtyard: It is across the freeway from some sort of quarry. The wind is really picking up and blowing dust all over the place. It feels like The Last Picture Show , only no Cybill Shepherd skinny-dipping at the pool.
Checking in, we are trying not to laugh as the receptionist asks if she should “chahj it to the cahd,” and what-not. OK, so we are juvenile. It’s just a fun accent to hear and we needed to sharpen our own, anyway. (If you think we are mean-spirited, keep in mind that Richard and Chad hail from the deep South, and I am from the heart of the Midwest – two regions famous for having their accents lampooned. I didn’t complain when Fargo came out, so spare me.)
Richard calls his friend Katie, who lives in Boston, to arrange a place to meet up for beer and food.
Friday, 4:30 p.m.
Heading back into the city. Richard is our chauffeur for the weekend – in an amazing stroke of luck, he got an ear infection and has to be on steroids, so he can’t drink alcohol.
We are stuck in traffic again on a modern bridge with all kinds of white cables sticking up like toothpicks. I say that I bet it’s a Calatrava. Richard and Chad do not contest this, but it turns out I am wrong – it was built by a guy named Menn. This is the kind of random stuff I think about. (I fact-checked it when I got back to New York.)
The other thing we notice, besides a huge sand and gravel factory in the middle of the interchange, is the TD Banknorth Boston Garden, sitting atop the railroad tracks. “Is that the Boston Garden?” Chad asks. I tell him I think it’s the FleetCenter; the Garden, I think, was torn down in the 90s. “It says ‘the Garden’ on the side,” Chad responds. “Uh, well maybe that is the Garden, but if it is, the Celtics don’t play there anymore.” I’m thinking, why don’t I know the answer to this?
Friday, 5:00 p.m.
We pahk the cah (good one, I know) in a lot near a crabhouse called Barking Crab, which with its red and yellow striped roof looks like it belongs at Barnum & Bailey’s circa 1900. Walking across a short bridge I can smell the sea, which is actually a good thing. You gotta love living on the coast.
We meet up with Richard’s friend Kate, just getting off work. She takes us to a great sports bar in the North End. The bar is just what the doctor ordered: Huge TVs with nothing but sports, ginormous $1.50 Buds Light, and French fries seemingly by the truckload. Normally I don’t enjoy run of the mill American beer, especially from the tap, but you can’t beat that price. Not to mention Kate told me I’d better “catch up” since I started out with a bottled beer while she and Chad downed their uber-biers. My kind of girl.
I realize I had better withdraw some cash from the ATM. At the ATM, I pause and think: Remember that you’re unemployed, Underhill. Then I take out $60 plus the fee and shrug my shoulders. You only live once.
Friday, 6:00 p.m.
After a few beers I have done the unthinkable: I deem baseball a “non-sport” in the city of Boston. Kate, who is from Long Island but worked for the Red Sox for a while, doesn’t hesitate to challenge me on this. It leads to one of those arguments I can’t win, mainly because I am a man. In deference to her and the Sox fans, I back down. I’m in their town, after all. You don’t talk trash about baseball in New England. Hell, you don’t do it in New York! I should know better.
Richard continues to drink water.
Friday, 7:00 p.m.
We have eaten so many French fries that I am sure somewhere an Idaho farmer is able to buy a vacation home in Maui. (There were huge piles of fries with each of our sandwiches, plus we ordered the chili fries as an “appetizer.”) Katie has to go meet some friends of hers, so the three of us are on our own, although she has advised us on some good places to get drinks nearby.
Friday, 8:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m.
Our arduous task of finding a decent bar begins. I’m not saying there are no good bars in Boston, but we happened to be one of the more touristy districts in the city. Not to mention the fact that Boston is home to about eight million colleges and universities. Lots of lines outside filled with kids with fake IDs. We were definitely looking for something a little more low-key, although with a good sized crowd.
Unfortunately, the locals weren’t much help. “Have you tried Faneuil Hall?” “Faneuil Hall has some decent bars.” “Well, there’s Faneuil Hall.” Honestly, we went to Faneuil Hall, and a Bostonian recommending Faneuil Hall is like me recommending ESPNZone or the Olive Garden in Times Square. It is a delightful outdoor shopping district with plenty of establishments, but it is a tourist trap, plain and simple.
Nevertheless, we hop from bar to bar – not in Faneuil Hall, but in the North End. In one tavern, I actually find Leinenkugel’s Wheat Beer on tap. This was the beer I lived on in college! I’m so delighted I order a tall glass and begin hitting on a beautiful girl at the bar. She says she is an assistant DA. “Wow, like on ‘Law & Order,’” I reply. Actually, this Leinie’s Wheat Beer is pretty gross. Why is there an orange slice in it and not a lemon?
Eventually her work buddies show up and I am the odd one out. As I walk back to Richard and Chad, I see that Captain Morgan himself is in the bar! Talk about a photo op. OK, just moments ago I was complaining about tourist traps, and now the three of us look like the hillbillies who just walked into town and have never seen a corporate mascot before. We don’t care, we want a picture.
This is the power of advertising in America. I HATE Captain Morgan’s with a passion. When I was a freshman in college, I played on an intramural football team. We started out 0-2 and decided that maybe if we all got wasted before the third game, we would play better. You know, anything to break out of a slump. So we were all drinking in the dorm before the game, and my buddy Donny “Detox” Thompson and I were slamming Captain and Coke’s like it was going out of style. Suddenly, we realized that we were the only ones left; our team had gone to the football field behind the Shopko! I knew they hadn’t deliberately ditched us, because although I was a decent athlete, Detox was the most exciting player on the team in addition to being a phenomenal drinker and cigarette smoker. There was no way they would play without him – it would have been like the 1991 Falcons cutting Deion Sanders after an 0-2 start.
So Detox and I hauled ass to the football field, less than a mile away, and, as I stated before, situated behind a strip mall. I tried playing a few downs, but I was so trashed I could not keep up. Also, I remembered that I had a Spanish exam at 8 a.m. the next morning, so I figured I had better get back to the dorm for some shut-eye.
I wound up walking in the wrong direction, got lost in the Eau Claire suburbs (really, it’s all suburbs), then finally found my way home and threw up. Repeatedly. The next morning I woke up and threw up again, then called Professor Armendariz and let him know I was too sick to make the test. It was the truth! I took the test the following week and got an A, anyway. But I swore I would never drink Captain Morgan’s again. The very smell of it makes me want to hurl.
We almost won the football game. We did go on to win our next three, all played sober, and came up short in the playoffs. Our consolation prize was a UW-Eau Claire Recreation t-shirt, which I still wear to the gym to this day. It’s the oldest shirt in my rotation, although it has been retired from official civilian use.
If you are looking for a sign that this college story took place in 1994, we named our team “No Fear.”
Saturday, 2:30 a.m.
Time to hit the bricks. Your heroes head back to the pahking laht to get the cah and drive back to Reveyuh. On the drive back it is unanimously decided that we get some bad fast food. Not much is open in the Revere area. We had our hearts set on KFC, but it was closed. Thank God Taco Bell was still open. Richard and I are a little reticent to run for the border, since just a couple weeks prior a Taco Bell on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan had been shut down due to an infestation of rats. The whole sickening spectacle of rats running rampant after hours was caught on camera by alert passers-by, and then parceled out to the news channels. “Don’t go to Taco Bell in New York City,” Richard rationalizes. “It’s not safe there.” But hey, we’re miles from there…we’re good to go.
Saturday, 10:30 a.m.
Whilst Richard and Chad clean up, I head down to the hotel lobby to see if there is breakfast yet to be had. They are done serving, says the cook, but go ahead and take a bagel if you want and some coffee too. Diez puntos!
While I am sitting in the dining room drinking coffee, I can’t help but overhear the ramblings of the 19-year-old waitress who is cleaning up tables. She is talking to her co-worker, in the thickest New England accent I have ever heard. “Did you hear that Boston is now the murder capital of the country?” she asks. “That’s right. All thanks to some idiots over in Dorchester. Think about it, New York, Chicago, LA, but the murder capital of the country is our little town here on the west coast. East coast. I forget, are we on the east or west coast?”
Little town on the East Coast. Huh. She continues:
“I remember the first time I saw a guy get killed. I was thirteen, on my way home from school. There was a drug deal gone bad, and I saw some guy get his head blown off right in front of me. I was HAH-rrified. I just started running. I ran and hid in an alley behind some building and didn’t come out. I didn’t come out until my mom found me, like four hours later.”
Damn it. How am I gonna explain this to the guys? Why aren’t they here to hear this?
Saturday, 12:00 noon
We are looking for a parking lot near the Common. Richard pulls the Explorer into one, rolls down the window, and asks, “Wheh should I pahk the cah, can I pahk just anywheh?” The attendant looks at him and says plainly, “Yeah, park anywhere.”
We walk through Boston Common, then over to Cheers. You have to go to Cheers, even just to look around and get a photo in front, which is all we do. After that we hop in a cab to Union Oyster House, back in the North End.
At Union Oyster, we all order lobster rolls. Now this is how unemployment was meant to be. Lobster rolls and beer in Boston.
On a free postcard at Union Oyster, it says that the future king of France, Louis Philippe, lived on the second floor and “earned his living by teaching French to many of Boston’s fashionable young ladies.” I’ll bet. Also, the first toothpick in the U.S. was used here. And apparently JFK loved this place and ate here all the time or something.
This reminds me of one of the funniest “President X slept/spoke/ate here” stories I have ever heard. My friend Brian Ley told me that when he was nine, his dad took him and his brother on a camping odyssey across northern Wisconsin. One of the towns they drove through was Spooner, not far from Superior in the northwest corner of the state. There they stopped at a bar/restaurant for lunch called Big Dick’s Buckhorn Inn, which had a number of pictures of JFK from a stop he made during the 1960 campaign. When Brian went into the men’s room, he noticed a plaque above the urinal that read, “John F. Kennedy used this urinal while campaigning…” or words to that effect. Brian said, “Having no sense of perspective (I was nine), I thought I had pretty much touched greatness.” Apparently, they have since added a plaque commemorating its (the urinal’s) use by former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson.
Saturday, 1:00 p.m.
Now we are ready to take the subway, or “T,” over to Harvard. The T is easy to navigate, although a little small. At Harvard, we circle around looking for Harvard Yard, which we apparently found without knowing it. Harvard is a handsome campus in an august neighborhood, although there was something underwhelming about it. Certainly in any campus district you will find your Starbucks, your Barnes and Noble, and your Gap. But something about the area felt a little too much like a mall, as if they forgot to put their own stamp on it. I have seen a lot of college campuses, big and small, and grew up near one of the best in Madison, Wisconsin, so I consider myself at least an astute judge of what a good campus should be. Harvard felt kind of like a movie studio’s version of a college campus. All I have to say is I’m glad I turned them down for Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
However, there was a charming park nearby, Cambridge Common, good for resting the dogs after a lot of walking. (Dogs meaning feet.) A plaque commemorates George Washington’s taking command of the Union Army under a nearby tree, presumably not the same tree.
Richard and Chad both decide they need a bathroom, stat. I point to the Sheraton across the Common. “You can’t go wrong with a hotel chain bathroom,” I advise, “And I have used the Sheraton New York facilities many times.” Indeed, the Sheraton Cambridge Commander has exquisite commodes. If you are ever in a large city and need to go, remember to look for hotel chains like Sheraton, Hilton, etc. You can’t miss.
Drinking coffee outside the T stop, a homeless and clearly drunk man makes eye contact with Richard and says, “I can spot an Irishman from a mile away!” He shakes Richard’s hand and starts chatting us up. He points to a homeless woman nearby and explains that she used to be on the faculty at Harvard and is a genius. I don’t even think he bothered asking for change.
Saturday, 4:00 p.m.
We take the T over to Fenway Park. The Sox aren’t in town, but we want to check out the outside of the stadium, anyway. I’m sure this has been said before, by people who know way more about baseball than I do, but seeing Fenway is like traveling back in time. The stadium was built in 1911 and only holds about 38,000 people. From the outside, it doesn’t look like it is big enough to hold a major league field inside. But it must be the only stadium like it remaining, and I imagine this is what Ebbets Field must have looked like in Brooklyn. I definitely want to come back and catch a game here.
Saturday, 7:00 p.m.
We are back at – where else? – the North End. I suggest that we head over to the Brookstone store in Faneuil Hall and give the electric massage chairs a test drive. You can have a fifteen-minute demo for free! Richard and I each get the first two open chairs, with Chad left waiting. “Are you going to be on that thing all day?” he impatiently asks. Finally, a third chair opens for Chad, and his sarcastic tone melts away in a sea of electric bliss.
Around the corner we find a bar called Sissy K’s, where we grab a table, order some beers and nachos, and watch the Final Four matchup between UCLA and Florida. I bet Chad a stiff drink that UCLA will win. Up until this day all my Final Four teams in my bracket were still alive. I only needed UCLA to beat Georgetown in the final.
Unfortunately, Florida would not be denied. More unfortunate was the fact that in the middle of the game, in what is purportedly a sports bar (tons of people drinking pitchers of Bud, eating wings and nachos, and watching the game), people are setting up speakers and a microphone in our section, which is slightly raised and doubles as a stage. They must be setting up for karaoke later on, I figure.
Not so. A 35-year-old man with a guitar takes the mic and begins singing the best of the 90s. This is irritating enough, but doubly so when we are trying to enjoy a basketball game. As he rips through each song, I notice he not only covers the tune but also imitates the singer. Thus one minute he is Johnny Rzeznick of Goo Goo Dolls, the next, singing a low baritone as Hootie, then a nasal country twang for Garth Brooks. He even imitates Eddie Vedder for the Pearl Jam cover of that stupid Ricky Nelson song about the girlfriend dying and going to heaven. (“Last Kiss.”) Is there a worse mismatch for a cover song? (Well, maybe Sheryl Crow slaughtering “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”)
Eventually, we block out the music. Actually, Chad chats up a girl at the next table and even dances with her for a song. “I like this bar,” Chad says about 600 times, which is code for “Let’s stay here and continue drinking.” But after four hours Richard is getting a little tired of it, especially since the game is over and he cannot drink alcohol.
Richard suggests hitting a restaurant for a late dinner (it is now 11 p.m.). Chad is against this idea; he likes his chances with the females. I side with Richard – Sissy K’s was wearing thin on both of us. Chad accuses us of cockblockery, however Richard rightly points out that he had four hours to make a move and he still hadn’t even gotten the girl’s name. “I draw the line at four hours,” Richard says.
Anyway, we head to the Little Italy area, not far from us, and find one single restaurant still open. I guess when you live in New York, you take for granted that you can get a great meal any hour of the night (Café Orlin in the East Village comes to mind). But by 10:30 almost every Italian restaurant was shut down except this one.
Sunday, 12:30 a.m.
After some wine and pasta, we head to a bar called the Living Room, near Columbus Park. There is a short line outside, but we are tourists so we wait ten minutes. It is worth the wait – the atmosphere is charged but relaxed and the women are beautiful. The Living Room is an unpresumptuous break from the sports bars and Irish pubs we had hitherto encountered.
A few drinks and random conversations with random girls later, it is near bar time and time to pack it in for the night.
Sunday, 11 a.m.
Time for Peter, Marc, and Sully, a.k.a. me, Chad, and ‘Chard, to check out and head back to New York City. We say goodbye to the Courtyard in Revere and hit the Dunkin Donuts on the way out of town.
The ride back is always so boring. It’s the same stuff you see on the way there, but you are tired and ready to go home. Kind of like how I am tired of typing now and ready to quit. Finally, around 4 p.m., we are in Queens again and head to LaGuardia to drop off Chad for his flight to Alabama.
Boston, Mass. Always a pleasure. I hope to return sometime before 2018.