well, the brass bands play and feet start to pound; I’m going underground

So Tuesday of last week, it’s pissing rain and blowing fifty as I stagger into the Copley subway station. I recall the Transit cops in neon jackets I’d seen scanning bags at one of the entrances to the Davis Square station that morning, in light of the Moscow subway bombing the day before. Sure enough, a tiny Asian lady in bright yellow sees my rain slicker and messenger bag and lights up. “Excuse me,” she says. “Could I ask you to step over to those officers in the corner?” I cock my head to get her to repeat it; I heard her the first time, but I want to formulate a response. She repeats it.

“Are you asking me if I consent to a search?”, I ask.

“That’s right.”

“I’m sorry; no.” One hand up in apology. “Does this mean I have to leave the station?”

I didn’t quite catch her response; I was already heading back upstairs. The rain had slowed, turning the evening humid but breezy: the temporary eye of the storm. I walked the half dozen blocks to Hynes and caught the bus to Harvard there. Nobody was scanning bus passengers.

We have security expert Bruce Schneier to thank for making the term “security theater” – or, the appearance of security in lieu of actual safety – popular. Checking people’s bags for explosives is a great way to keep people from blowing up trains; it’s a terrible way to stop terrorism. It’ll simply divert terrorists to unsecured outlets. Schneier suggests that improving U.S. intelligence on terrorist activities and beefing up emergency response would be more effective. In the event of a terrorist attack, intelligence will be more likely to trace the attack to its masterminds, and a stronger first response will minimize casualties and infrastructural damage. But that’s not proactive enough. Doing Something is better than Doing Nothing in the political realm, no matter what Something you choose to do.

This is pretty obvious if you think about it a moment. The only reason scanning random travelers bags should still mystify you is if you think preventing terrorism is the priority. It’s not. Stopping a repeat attack is the priority, because if 37 people died in Boston the same week from the same method as 37 people died in Moscow, half of the MBTA would be out of a job. Hell, if 7 people died. After an incident of newsworthy proportions in a democratic bureaucracy, the first question is always who could have stopped this. Consider all the focus put on the Phoenix memo following the World Trade Center razing; oh, if only someone had taken this seriously. Well, sure. If INS had forbidden all Egyptians to enter the country, the September 11th attacks couldn’t have happened either. Should every memo that crosses the FBI Director’s desk be taken as gospel? This is why “hindsight” isn’t considered a virtue: the ability to scrutinize the past and determine exactly what went wrong doesn’t make one a better leader. You prevent repeat attacks by anticipating the opponent’s strategy, not by obsessing over their tactics. But that requires foresight, unbiased thinking and sacrifices. Putting National Guardsmen at the airports with M16s takes a phone call.

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where, only there; when, only then

Two blocks from the school where I study (and teach) jiu-jitsu is a bar called 21 Nickels. It’s built in the low, narrow style of urban bars: bar running from entrance to bathroom, row of bar stools, aisle and a row of tables. This makes sense in the heart of a city, where square footage is at a premium; less so in the Watertown suburbs. But architecture is a language; the space evokes a type of bar, just like the high ceilings and faux ranch construction of an Outback Steakhouse evoke a type of restaurant. Realizing that occupancy counts more toward rent than ambiance, however, the owners added a side car. Literally: a dining car, rolled up on the long-rusted tracks that used to bisect Watertown, welded onto the side of the bar and connected via two sloping walkways. The dining car’s windows, which look out onto the wild grasses between a clapboard tuxedo rental outlet and the local Armenian lodge, are framed with imitation velvet curtains.

The jiu-jitsu class goes there at least once a month, typically after the belt test and promotional on the fourth Thursday. The owner recognizes us and goes out of his way to accommodate our size and post-workout stink: grouping tables in the back, firing up a preliminary order of nachos before we even have to ask, pouring out pitchers’ full of ice water. Last time we were there he kept the kitchen open late. We migrated from our usual exile in the dining car (don’t mind us) to take over the front bar, which was empty save for a middle-aged Mediterranean romancing a bottle blonde with a tan like a Camry’s driver seat. Every time we’re there we order vast quantities of food and streams of beer, then try to split the check six or seven different ways. And they always oblige. Not that Watertown’s a bad neighborhood, but most bar owners would consider being known as “the bar where the jiu-jitsu school drinks” a sound business investment.

I can’t hang like I used to – I could never really hang – so I’m usually one of the first to go. 21 Nickels is covered in sports memorabilia, old press clippings and iconic photographs, like every local bar in every suburb in America. As I exit, I note one that strikes a subsonic chord in my gut every time. Google Image Search isn’t helping, so I’ll have to describe it; this’ll be a good exercise for me.

A white man – not just white, but white – in a turn-of-the-last-century suit and tie, chin at his chest, eyes closed, mouth curving into a smirk’s imitation of a smile. He hovers over the State House like a giant ghost rising out of the earth; it’s visible through his torso. Hundreds of hands reach up from the bottom of the illustration, clutching the air through which this titan passes. A vague limning along the top of the black-and-white drawing, perhaps meant to convey a halo over the hovering figure, suggests nothing so much as a slow dawning horror, especially as the rest of the picture is chiaroscuro black. The entire drawing invokes nothing so much as a Lovecraftian terror – Nyarlathotep, perhaps – and the listless hordes drawn toward him. “THE MAYOR OF THE POOR,” the caption reads. “ELECT CURLEY.”

told you I’ll be here forever

The conjunction of Trinity Church, the Hancock Tower, the new Hancock building and several other massive structures around Copley Square creates a massive wind tunnel between Clarendon and St James Ave. On clear days, it’s bad; on stormy days it’s terrible. Walking from my office toward Fire & Ice for a quick dinner last week, I leaned into a gale. I pointed my umbrella in a dozen different directions, like a malfunctioning radar dish, to avoid the wind.

One strong gust lifted me onto my toes and then relinquished me with a snap. Looking up, I saw that the shaft of my umbrella had broken in two. What I’d thought was a metal rod with a wooden veneer was, in fact, genuine wood, unable to cope with the vortex of downtown Boston. I was holding a curved umbrella handle that ended in splinters, marching down St James with my first initial held proudly over my head. The ribs and fabric of the umbrella cartwheeled past me.

Sprinting back the way I came, I speared the remains of my umbrella with the splintery end, lest it bounce into an intersection and cause an accident. I tried to fold the top half closed, but the shaft had broken off too high. An umbrella works by affixing its ribs to a single ring around the handle; you open or close the umbrella by sliding this ring up or down. But the handle had broken off below where the ring would stay if the umbrella were closed. So I had no choice but to carry the open umbrella and the broken remains of its handle in my hands until I could find a trash can that would take them. Since the wind had not let up, the umbrella portion (which I was grasping by its freezing metal spindles) would fill its sails and jerk around, like a leashed Dalmatian. All this while I’m waving a jagged wooden rod over my head, for balance, and getting drenched.

I had a beer with dinner.

and reflects no light in day or night

I work in Copley Square, one of the most photogenic neighborhoods of Boston. Once a week, if not more often, I cross the plaza to my office, by threading my way through crowds of Asian tourists. They live up to (down to?) the stereotype by pointing subcompact digital cameras in every direction and snapping pictures: some with family in front, some without. They’re not lacking for vistas: the square is bordered by the Boston Public Library to the west, Trinity Church to the east, the Hancock Tower to the south and Patrick Henry’s childhood CVS to the north. Amateur photographers pose their family members, who stand with hands folded in front of their waists or with arms outstretched. Look! Boston!

The reason Asian tourists descend on Copley Square in flocks of thirty or more has nothing to do with the square’s history and everything to do with buses. The tour buses that serve the Boston area make this neighborhood a regular stop. Copley Square didn’t play a role in Boston’s revolutionary history – in fact, it was a swamp back then – but it’s certainly photogenic. Tour bus companies recognized the square was photogenic and began including it on their tours. And now strangers to the city get out and take photos because the tour bus stops here.

copley_square

The history of Boston is neither so old, nor so mysterious, that we have to argue over which came first: did the tour buses decide Copley Square was a point of interest, or was it Copley’s status as a point of interest that got tour buses to stop here? The answer is clearly the latter. Yet seeing tourists pass through Copley Square always gives me an opportunity to revisit it with a stranger’s eyes. And I’m reminded of how much institutions – like tour bus companies – shape our view of the world, while the world also shapes the way these institutions grow.

And I hope that, in every busload, there’s at least one sullen teenager or cranky grandma who gets off the coach, draws their collar up against the St. James winds, and asks, “What’s so special about this place, anyway?”

I give a little to you, I give a little to him, I give a little to her

I had two encounters with comical anger on Saturday:

Item the First: chauffeuring Liz B. around on Saturday, I thought I’d lucked into a parking lot on the far end of Newbury St near the public gardens. I saw a car pulling out of a spot and swerved across an open lane to take it. I was just wondering how to correct my initial approach when an SUV barreled toward me in reverse, rocking to a halt a few feet away.

My eyes had glossed over the SUV without pause when I first saw it: a double-parked vehicle with its hazards blinking on Newbury St on a Saturday doesn’t merit the evening news. But apparently he’d been waiting for this guy to pull out. Yet here I was, already in the spot.

It had been so long since I’d contested a parking spot with someone that I wasn’t sure of the procedure. Am I in the right here?, I wondered. Should I back out? Is he going to give up?

SUV precipitated the decision for me, not by rolling down his window to scream obscenities but by opening his door. However, he was in such a hurry to get out and confront me that he forgot to remove his seat belt. He wrestled with the strap while standing next to the open driver side door, lips creased in a snarl. I already had one hand on the stick shift (D to R) and the other up in an “easy there, killer” open palm.

Seeing me reverse, the driver gave a curt nod and a “move along” gesture with his hand. I didn’t linger to watch the aftermath.

I don’t know how that would have gone down if he hadn’t become tangled up in his seatbelt on his way out the door. Check that: I know I wouldn’t have started a fistfight on Newbury St over a parking spot. But that moment of pure slapstick defused the tension for me. I recognized the man for what he was – someone very vested in a Lockean notion of property rights re: parking spots; he had mixed his labor (waiting with the hazards on) with the soil (nine feet by four next to a meter) and expected it to yield fruit. My life is richer for avoiding crazies, not confronting them.

(And I shouldn’t call the man “crazy” based on twenty chaotic seconds of interacting with him. He doubtless had a different anecdote to share that evening: “So I’m circling Newbury St for, like, twenty minutes looking for a spot. Then I see a guy pulling out, so I park right in front. But then this prick in an Audi swerves across to try and snatch it from me! I’m sittin’ there, in plain daylight, and he tries to poach that shit. So I get out to give him a piece of my mind, and he backs right the fuck down.”)

I ended up parking two blocks away, just over the Pike. Added maybe five minutes to my walk.

Item the Second: I took Liz to see ImprovBoston’s mainstage show that evening. Afterward we lingered in the bar, chatting with the performers and house staff. I introduced Liz to Narragansett, Boston’s answer to PBR (which I hadn’t thought needed answering, but hey).

A woman in platform heels and a colorful, ill-fitting outfit walked out of the back hallway, probably coming from the Cabaret studio. She stepped outside to light up a smoke. Another woman followed her in short order and conducted a brief, quiet argument with her. This second woman then came back inside, to where Natalie B. was working the bar.

“Do you guys serve alcohol here?”, she asked.

Natalie nodded.

“Lemme get two raspberry Stolis and lime.”

“We don’t actually have hard -” Natalie began explaining.

“Okay, two Coronas.”

“We don’t -”

“Two Heinekens, then.”

Natalie, an adorable ball of energy, smiled and gestured at the fridge behind her. “We’ve only got a few beers stocked here. Harpoon, mostly.”

The woman got a few Harpoons and some bottled water and vanished. Twenty minutes later, the 9:00 show let out. She and a similarly dressed crew emerged, tottering and shrieking, to wait in the lobby for their ride.

“And they don’t even have fuckin’ Heineken,” the original woman was explaining. “They’ve got some bullshit beer. What was it? Fuckin’ O’Doul’s?” She asked this of Ted, possibly the nicest human being on the face of the planet, who was reading a book behind the cash register.

“It’s Harpoon,” he explained.

“Harpoon? Whaddaya, whaddaya.” If I hadn’t suspected they were out-of-towners before, the Brooklyn accent and the ignorance of Harpoon proved it. The Brooklyn ladies waited in their swarm until their stretch Hummer pulled up on Prospect St.

I don’t have a lengthy explanation for the above; sorry.

don’t wanna go down in the tube station at midnight

Elizabeth B., a friend of mine from high school, visited Boston to look at grad schools this past weekend. I showed her the best the city had to offer:


  • 90s Night at Common Ground
  • Tour of the college campuses she was applying to
  • The Cellar near Harvard Square
  • The mainstage show at ImprovBoston
She picked a good weekend to get out of Baltimore, as a sudden snowstorm blanketed the city. So she enjoyed Boston’s balmy 30-degree temperatures and wide, windswept streets.

I like showing Boston off to tourists, especially those from Baltimore. It reminds me of how awesome a city I live in. When my younger brother came to visit two years ago to see a Celtics game, he literally stared with a slack jaw at the Boston skyline. “I’m not used to seeing buildings this big,” he confessed.

My first night at Boston College – over a decade in the past, now – I walked to the Green Line terminus just outside the main campus. The pink glow of light pollution told me which way the city was: due east of my current position. I was young, healthy and unchaperoned for the first time in my life. I started walking, with some ill-formed notion that I might walk to downtown Boston and just soak up the fluorescence. I didn’t make the walk that night – young and poetical, I had no conception of what seven miles actually looked like – but I’ve since traveled every part of that route.

Last Thursday I bought lunch at a corner deli in the South End. I can see it from the window of my office, twenty stories above the Back Bay, but it’s still a fifteen minute walk to get there. The route cuts past the gleaming metal and marble offices of Copley, past the First Bank of Boston (established 1784), over the Massachusetts Turnpike, and into dense red brick rowhomes. I’ve lived in this city for a decade and the South End could be in a whole different state, for all that I know of it.

pour salt water on the wounds

Things I learned this past weekend:

New England is Cold In The Winter

I tried going to Razzy’s for Karaoke on Friday night, since some Yelp folks had put out a call. We’d tried going the week before, but had found a half hour line just to get inside – not to sing, just to enter the bar – at 10:30. That’s unreasonably early for a bar that doesn’t charge a cover.

So this week, we tried getting there at 9:15, noting that the back room – with all the karaoke – doesn’t even open until 9:00. Again, a knot of people outside, waiting to get in. So we turned around and headed north to drink at Porter Square.

I wouldn’t call the walk from Porter Square to Razzy’s long by any stretch – it’s a quick ten minutes. But the biting wind that had been at our back on the walk down slapped us in the face on the way up. Tears streamed down our faces; the wind checked our stride. We choked out small talk in bitter gasps.

Windchill was at -12 F after midnight on Friday. Over forty degrees below the point of freezing. When I looked in the bathroom mirror back home, a face raw with windburn stared back at me. I wonder how long I might have lasted before frostburn set in.

boston-windchill

I Need To Work On Sincerity

Sunday, after sampling some micro-brews and homemade pizza with jiu-jitsu friends at Keith T’s house, I stopped in at Greg’s in Cambridge for an evening of Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game.

Presuming some familiarity with the TV show: BSG:TBG sets you aboard the Galactica and Colonial One, besieged by Cylons and running low on everything. Your mission is to keep the human fleet alive until you can jump to Kobol. Every turn, new crises pop up that’ll force you to make the better of two awful choices (lose 2 food, or lose 1 population and 1 morale; etc) or deploy more Cylons in space around your ship.

The complication: every player has a chance of being a Cylon. You get a card at the start of play, and another halfway through the game, that determines whether you are a Cylon or not. If you are, your goal is to secretly undermine the group’s efforts to survive crises while keeping your cover. You can reveal yourself as a Cylon at an opportune moment, causing havoc on the ship and unlocking a whole host of new Cylon powers.

In last night’s game, President Tom Zarek (yours truly) released some Cylon mugshots early in the voyage, insinuating that Captain Lee “Apollo” Adama (Greg) was a Cylon. Sadly, while everyone suspected Apollo, Zarek couldn’t muster the support of the rest of the crew, leading to Admiral Saul Tigh (Amy) to declare martial law and seize the presidency. Zarek, realizing the tide was against him, called for a new election and put Sharon “Boomer” Valeri (Joanne) in the President’s chair. Apollo then ordered Zarek’s arrest.

In a desperation move, Zarek gave his evidence to “Chief” Tyrell (Fraley) in the hopes that he could arrest Apollo. But Apollo stalled his trip to the brig long enough to reveal himself as a Cylon, ordering Tigh’s arrest and then vanishing. Boomer outed herself as a Cylon thereafter. Losing the Galactica’s two best pilots proved fatal, as this led to a desperate scramble to defend civilian ships from Cylon Basestar attack. With Kobol merely one jump away, the fleet was wiped out.

I’d have been more upset about not being believed when I accused Greg of being a Cylon (I’d looked at his card! the President can do that!), but I was having too much fun playing up Tom Zarek’s smarm. Still, important lessons for future confrontations: make sincere eye contact and let your accusation stand for itself. And don’t let the Cylon put you in the brig.

battlestar galactica board game