IT WAS NOT THE TYPE of thing I usually enjoy — deep conversation with a stranger at a restaurant bar — but there was something about this guy with the textbook. You could tell he was older than the average college student, not from his looks so much as the easy authority with which he lifted his bowl of steamed mussels, ceramic lip between his thumb and forefinger, and plunked it down on the bar in front of me and my friend: “I’m never gonna eat all these.”
His name was James. A combat medic in Iraq who hated Bush’s war but went there all the same, he decided to return to school. At least the government would pay, and he could “study the deeper questions.”
He wanted to talk about his philosophy classes at UMass. Hearing that both my friend and I write, he said, “Come on and tell me, guys, what should I be reading?”
Was he acting a role for us? Eager scholar with an American Dream? Hero of conscience with his head full of Kerouac and Chomsky? For a young guy on the make in Boston, those would be smart ones to play. But we must have had our own roles anyhow, and James didn’t ask for anything. Maybe it was an effect of the scotch, but James seemed to me a kind of representative for the spirit of Boston at its best.
And in these days since the bombings, during the ensuing madness of the manhunts and the media fever dreams, I’ve remembered the feeling that hit me, walking home that evening.
Yes, I knew that to concoct some Romantic reverie about those neighborhoods where I grew up would be ridiculous cornball. Any panorama of this place would have to include the black guy the police found behind the flimsy latticework of our porch. They wanted to frame him for killing the pregnant wife of a fur coat dealer, though the dealer was the actual murderer. Any true history of Boston would have to include that man hiding in the dirt, his fear and rage, just as now it would have to include “bomb robots” and “burner phones” and “lockdowns.”
So it’s strange, even creepy, to watch footage of armored SWAT team vehicles four blocks from where you once lived, and at the same time feel the deepest warmth of nostalgia.
Is nostalgia a fraudulent emotion anyhow?
I’m not so sure. Certainly it’s too easy to idealize the past, too easy to turn a remembered place into some cheerful image sponsored by the tourist board. It’s also too easy to romanticize pain. But through the collective response to the crisis in Boston — the aggregate of all the individual responses — can’t we catch a glimpse of truest possibility?
I mean possibility for the most vital exchange, occurring not just between lovers or friends but also among all people in public. Our age, with its fiber-optic channels and streams of code, branching to and from a billion separate servers, may provide all sorts of chances for “connectivity,” but the experience of being in public, of being part of a public — more and more, such actual connection seems threatened.
And if there’s one unique aspect to Boston, this would have to be its public life, the way it remains both provincial and worldly, in the best senses of both words. Maybe the city’s virtues were best described by a friend of mine who lives around the corner from the site of the explosions. Interviewed yesterday by The Boston Globe, she spoke of what it felt like as a kid to watch the Boston Marathon: “I loved that the whole world came to run in our town, and all of us turned out to cheer them on.”
That evening last month, walking back through the March slush to the home where my parents still live, near where Boston becomes its suburbs, I passed the Brook House condominiums on Boylston Street and remembered how the novelist George V. Higgins once described that building as “something that was headed for Miami but somebody fucked up the shipping invoice.” I passed the Juniper Street Housing Project where the shortstop on my Little League team didn’t want us to know he lived. Then came the tonier blocks, the turreted Queen Annes and Richardsonian Romanesques on “Pill Hill” where a master gardener hired me, the year I was too depressed for college and instead spent my days masterfully pulling weeds in the warmer and warmer spring sun.
I passed the cross that hangs from one of the multi-families on Walnut Street with its improbable, neon message: “Jesus Saves.” Downhill, on the other side of those buildings, the late stream of commuters trailed taillights to the western suburbs. Here was that view of the horizon that once seemed to me the open frontier, as if Framingham and Worcester were the Wild West.
Sure, this was my own fantasia of memory; this was the self-involving routine of one interior monologist, chattering along with his inane repetition of “I, I, I.” Except that these memories were of times when such individual stories wove together.
I remembered my high school friend Yefim and his cousin Leo. Recent immigrants from Moscow, they drove around in the clunker station wagon they fueled by siphoning gas from parked cars — with Robin Hood–like discernment, they only preyed on the luxury models. I remembered more of my best friends from those years — Chris and Aaron, Micaela and Bianca, Vlad and Dan. Simply to list their names here may be to indulge my own classic-rock, pastoral daydream: the smell of lighter fluid and magnolias by the ballpark in June, the blear of laughter in the floodlights.
We all took different paths, anyhow, and none of us lives there anymore.
But I know I’m not alone among that group of friends, or indeed among all the people remembering Boston right now — I’m not alone in feeling that we shared something specific to the place where we grew up. Call it a disabused idealism, an ironic skepticism in the service of neither irony nor skepticism.
In 1990, when Nelson Mandela spoke on the esplanade beside the Charles River, he claimed that “when one day our history is written, the pioneering and leading role of Massachusetts will stand out like a shining diamond.” Mandela was being a good guest when he said that. But it would be foolish to doubt the words of a man who spent 27 years in prison on Robben Island.
Even through the grand gestures of public rhetoric, he touched a feeling that goes beyond native pride. Call it love for a place where soldiers come to study philosophy.