Spies in Boston

We walk hand in hand through the tight streets. The magic in the North End seems to rise from the granite slab sidewalks, our foot falls releasing it all as we ever so slowly grind down the grooves carved into their surface so long ago.

She is wearing a skirt, which seldom happens away up north on our island home. Shhh. She is blending in with the fabric of the city.

Passing for Urban.

We walk briskly, with purpose. Not ogling the old brick facades like so many, but stealing glimpses from the corner of the eye, remembering details to discuss later over the privacy of our dinner table.

We are not tourists with fanny packs and cameras on straps. Not obvious with outsized hats and backpacks bulging with swag. We pass like spies, changing our manner, moving like locals and step around the knots of lost sight seers ‘till we reach our goal:

“Two cannoli, please.


Traveling Together

“Hi Mom. Yes, I just got on board a few minutes ago… Oop, looks like were starting to move. Yah, I’m excited to go too but I’m missing the kids already.” I was trying to keep my voice down as I spoke into the phone, aware that the rest of the train car was nearly silent.

This is going to be a special couple of days. Not only am I taking off to go play all by my self, just like other adults do, I was getting there by rail. The “there” part is Boston, and the “all by my self” bit doesn’t mean “alone” as much as “not having to referee small children bent on annoying each other and cleaning up my living room which has been turned into a multicolored mine field of easily crunchable toys.” Action Girl is at the helm of the house for the next forty-eight hours and I’m getting a chance to reconnect with my inner adulthood and an old friend from High School, Ioseph.

I’ve spent some really wonderful time on trains over the years. I like the sway of the cars, the muffled rumble and the view of the back sides of cities and towns that the you get no other way unless you spend a lot of quality time with hobos and drifters. As I type these words right now, my coffee is at hand, my legs are crossed and I’m bumping along at fifty or so miles per hour, watching the trees go whipping by just past the lightly grimy windows. My train departed right on time and, for me, the unusual thing is that I’m doing this in my own country.

The vast majority of my rail experience comes from time spent over seas. The U.S. woefully underutilizes rail as a form of domestic travel and if you can find a train going from a place you live to a place you want to go to, it’s a noteworthy event. Europe and much of Asia is exactly the opposite. If there isn’t a train to whatever little podunk village you want to get to, it makes you stop and think, “Really?!?” Naturally, if there’s no train, there’s nearly always a bus.

I love that.

Here, in the land of the automobile, things are very different. Once, rail crisscrossed our country, taking goods and people just about everywhere they wanted to go. I’m aware that there was never the sort of rail coverage here that there is overseas, but still, it was pretty darned good. Then, for reasons totally inexplicable to me, they started to tear up the tracks. Literally. I remember this happening in my hometown when I was a kid. As a child, I can clearly recall running full tilt out of the cobbler’s shop where my mother was valiantly trying to get me crammed into a new pair of very nice and highly uncomfortable back-to-school shoes. I ran not because an escape was in order, but because the train was coming through. The tracks used to run right through downtown and bisect Main Street bringing all traffic to a halt bringing every kid within jogging distance out onto the sidewalks. It was great. Then one day, the tracks were gone and sold as scrap. I couldn’t believe it.

I didn’t get a chance to ride on an actual passenger train until years after I managed to finally get rid of those shoes. True, I did take a “scenic rail” trip with my Grandparents aboard a steam locomotive, but we didn’t really GO anywhere. It was really just a gigantic carnival ride and though I did manage to get a cinder stuck in my eye by hanging out the window like a dog in a station wagon, it was at least fun. But it was only part of the equation. I’m lumping the Disney monorail into this category as well. Though not steam powered, it was still essentially a “ride.” Come to think of it, steam would make the monorail far, far more cool and awesome. Can you imagine that one? Ohhh!

Once I started traveling abroad, I got my chance to do the train thing for real and I instantly fell in love. This was the way to travel. Leg room, sleeping compartments, the ability to ride them all night and wake up in not merely a totally different country, but a different region or even continent, and all at eye level. I loved to fly, but trains offer you a human touch that you just can’t get at thirty thousand feet.

Sometimes that human touch can be a bit powerful and hit pretty high on the Irony-O-Meter.

As I boarded my train, I looked down the empty car to pick my seat. Now, I’m not an overly tall individual, nor am short. I like to think of my self as stunningly average. I measure in at almost exactly six feet tall and though the seats on the train are far more generous in the leg room department that just about anything with wings theses days, I nevertheless eyed the four vacant front row seats, boasting easily six feet of open space in front of them, with envy. I couldn’t take one for the simple reason that I had also noticed the sign overhead mentioning that these super convenient, leg friendly seats were intended for individuals who might have legs that weren’t so friendly to their owners. They were reserved for the disabled.

No problem. I had a whole car to pick from and quickly sat in down in the next row. It was about this time that my Mom had called to see if I was already on my way. We chatted while I watched the freight yards disappear and give way to trees and fields. It was a wonderful way to spend the morning. When the conductor came though and took my ticket, I was taken a bit by surprise by something you don’t see much any more, but recovered quickly and don’t think I showed my reaction outwardly. After he left, I thought no more about it and went back to my window view.

At the next stop just a few minutes away, new passengers piled in and shuffled past my seat hauling bags like unruly children with travel plans of their own. The car was still only about twenty percent full, but this seemed to be all the excuse that was needed for the woman who plunked herself down in the reserved section and then, sitting just a bit sidewise, take up both seats. She was sixtyish, very well dressed and had no baggage to be seen outside of an expensive looking purse. The aura she projected was of a woman who did what she pleased. I don’t know where her sense of entitlement originated from, but I do know that she was ill prepared for what happened next.

Guilt, is an amazing thing. Some folks are impervious to it; some simply have a very high tolerance. People like me, crumble at the notion that someone, somewhere might be disappointed in my actions in some way. I’ve learned to live with it. This lady, looked like she had some pretty good guilt armor. She appeared unflappable. Then the ticket agent returned.

Dutifully, he examined and punched her ticket while the woman did her best to not pay him any but the most cursory attention. Then he pointed out the sign.

“You might not have noticed,” he said in a quiet but firm tone, “but these seats are reserved for disabled riders.” As he said this, he tapped the very obvious sign hovering a few inches over her head. The tapping, he did not with the hand holding his paper punch, but his other one.

The hook hand.

You don’t see many hook hands these days. Most amputees use more realistic prosthetics, but this, I feel, did a far superior job of pointing out her error. The effect it had on the able bodied woman in the disabled seating was obvious. She turned a shade of red that matched her silk scarf beautifully and after a mumbled apology and rapid gathering of personal effects she said something about how it was no problem to move to another seat which she did, eyes averted from the rest of the car passengers.

The rest of the trip down is uneventful from my perspective. The towns roll by and soon, Boston will loom ahead. I’ll be down just for an overnight and I’m staying with my friend Ioseph, so who knows what’s planned. The ride on the train though is something that I have already found a lot of joy in. It gets people all together in one place with a common goal. We’re all on the same track, literally and figuratively.

A smile shared here.
Something interesting, overheard there.

It’s all good. It gets us closer to each other, even if we’re not actually engaged in conversation. You loose that in a car. We learn how to be around other people and to respect them a bit better; something the red scarf lady got a refresher in today. Hopefully it will stick with her better than before.

I’m almost at my destination now and I expect to have a lot of fun while I’m here. I have to confess though, I’m already looking forward to riding the rails again, back home.

All aboard!

A Sailor’s Rest House

The view out my early morning window was one of beautiful timelessness. The small village square two stories below me was quiet except for the sound of a distant highway and the cooing of pigeons. The rough cobblestone streets below undulated with the effort of hundreds of winters and the romanesque Catholic church opposite our building was undisturbed except for the elderly woman who appeared from a side street some time around six AM and disappeared behind it’s massive oak doors. Perhaps she did this every morning. The old brick sidewalks were silent and empty and the fresh, low rays of the sun briefly lit up corners that would likely be in shadow for the rest of the day. It was the epitome of Europe and expressed to me perfectly why I loved it so much.

Except I wasn’t in Europe. Just three weeks before, I could not have imagined that such a place existed so close to home.

“Absolutely not. There is no way that I’m okay with that. No way at all.”

I’m a pretty laid back guy and can usually be relied on to be agreeable to any hair brained adventure. I don’t put my foot down often but this was one of those rare times. Action Girl looked back at me with a, “That’s very sweet, but you worry too much” look on her face and told me that it was probably fine and that I was blowing things way out of proportion.

What she had proposed was spending the night in Boston. This was hardly something to strike terror in my heart. She and I had been loads of times, either together or on our own. We love Boston. What worried me deeply was where she was intending to stay… Alone.

As in, “With out me”.

She had been working as a longshoreman for a local ferry company for quite a few years now and had of late, bent her will to studying for her Captain’s license. She had worked her way up to Mate and now wanted to have the helm to her self. I was all for this and did my best to assist with studying and flash card quizzes over the dinner table. She had her sea time requirement fulfilled and had been studying her guts out with riveting tomes such as “Chapman Piloting & Seamanship” and other text books so dry that you needed to dump your water glass on them before attempting to read.

Now it was time to go take the test. That took place at the U.S. Coast Guard facility in Boston and the test started early in the morning, necessitating an over night stay. She told me about the discovery of a great, cheap place she could crash at, right down the street from the exam facility! She was intending to spend the night at place especially set aside for sailors and sailors only, right down on the waterfront. All I could picture was the flop house where Ishmael first encounters Queequeg, the tattooed behemoth when they had to share a bed. Action Girl is tough and all but as a concerned party for her well being, I had problems with this. I needed to know more about this house full of sailors, down by the wharfs before I was going to even entertain the possibility of her staying there alone. I’d find the money somewhere for a room at a real hotel.

As I dug for more information about this place, I started to feel a little better about it. The sailor’s home had apparently just had a major refitting in the last year. The rooms were private and the facility actually had a religious component that it was built on. The place is called the Mariner’s House and was established in the 1800’s as an alternative abode for sailors on leave to the whore houses and taverns . There are non-denominational religious services in the chapel, breakfast served on the premises, no drinking or smoking allowed in the building and absolutely no one other than proven sailors, their spouses or children allowed inside. No exceptions. I felt a lot better knowing this and relented in my opposition. Action Girl was kind enough to let me think that I had a say in this decision in the first place.

I was still a bit uneasy when she left but a phone call from her once she arrived put the last of my fears to rest. She took the test the next day, passed and it was official, I was married to a sea captain.

When she came back home, elated with her new hard won rank, she had glowing things to say about this place. We needed to plan a trip soon. A few weeks later, she returned with her hesitant husband and proceeded to check us in. It was actually quite rigorous. She needed to have proof that she was in fact, a sailor and then we needed to provide a copy of our marriage certificate to prove that she didn’t just pick me up from the Gigolo’s Home for Excessively Handsome Men.

Ok, that wouldn’t be hard to prove.

Once inside I was impressed with the simple antiquity of the place. The building dates from the early 1800’s and the architecture shows it. Huge, double hung windows open onto a European style village square where cars are few in the early day and the Italian language burbles up from the streets below as morning news is shared among locals. The high ceilings inside make the otherwise smallish rooms feel airy and the furniture, though simple, was new and comfortable. It was wonderful in every way. We were nestled in the heart of the North End. That night we had our pick of the fantastic restaurants down the street and finished off the night with cannoli from Modern (service with an attitude) Pastry. It was the perfect way to enjoy this corner of Boston.

We have since spent many more nights at the Mariner’s House, both as a couple and with our kids. Short Stack takes to city dwelling well and helps me make dessert runs to the pastry shop (I find that the service improves markedly with a well behaved two year old in tow). We only went once this summer and are hoping to make a trip again soon. We’ll leave the hoards of leaf peepers driving north and clogging the secondary roads while we pretend to be city folk for a weekend and do our best to blend in. For us, the Mariner’s House is the only place to stay. We wouldn’t dream of going elsewhere. We’ll see if our usual room is available, go out for a much appreciated Italian dinner and after our ricotta fix is taken care of, head back to that old sailor’s rest. Queequeg won’t be joining us I hope. It’s not really his type of place.

Jellyfish and Girls

As I wrote last week, we all went down to Beantown for a weekend a little while ago for some fun. This was our son, Short Stack’s second time there. The last time, about a year ago, he spent much of the trip strapped to my Wife’s back and being amazed at the snow falling or making grown men in grey suits act like idiots for him. He has that effect. Parents always prattle on about how that their kid is special some how. Especially cute, funny, smart, enlightened, etc. Well, I’m here to validate that. That is to say, babies have a power over us that is amazing. The reason is because they are totally uninhibited and will happily (and I mean this literally. They are just plain happy) do things just to get a reaction of some sort out of passers by. What makes baby-uninhibitedness so appealing is that you know that it comes directly from who they are. If you’re human, and have actually noticed the world around you, then you will likely find this very engaging.

At the time of our last visit, when riding on the T or going down an escalator, Short Stack loved to pick out some serious looking business-type person, someone who was vehemently ignoring the world… and smile at him. Not a regular smile, mind you. This is like when you used to take a magnifying glass and fry ants in the sun. Imagine a smile being used like that. Not simply being flashed at you but actually burning its way through your protective, thick city armor until you are helpless in it’s grip. Short Stack is a master at this and within scant seconds he would have someone who was likely a senior VP of somethingorother making goo-goo faces at him. It was very fun to watch.

This time around, Short Stack is bigger. He’s nearly two now and has other things on his mind. Fish generally. Jellyfish specifically. Boston has a great aquarium and we couldn’t wait to take him there. Much of the two hours spent there was on my shoulders. When your world view is mostly made up of kneecaps and handbags, it’s important to get as high up as possible. The hands down winner for him was watching the jellyfish tank full of moon jellies. Their mesmerizing swimming really caught his fancy. That, and the tank went from the floor, up so he could see while standing on his own two feet.

At times, the crowds would thin and he’d get to walk at his own pace, safe from getting knocked over or lost in a forest of legs. During one of his solo runs “off the leash” if you will, he happily trotted down a ramp and came face to face with… a two-ish little girl. Now, this was the interesting part to watch. Here I am, standing about 10 feet behind him and there’s the other dad standing about the same distance behind his daughter. There’s about 10 feet between Short Stack and her and they both stop cold. It immediately reminded me of a western shoot out. All we needed were tumbleweeds. After a few seconds of sizing up, the little girl ran up to Short Stack… and hugged him. I mean, REALLY hugged him… and then ran off. It was a drive by hugging. Short Stack was rooted to the spot, eyes big, arms at his side. He had been hugged! The father gave me an uncomfortable look and said something to his daughter about saving hugs for mama, but I thought it was hilarious. I scooped up Short Stack and told him that this was only the very beginning of being confused by girls. “You gotta watch ’em.”

Not that it will help you any!

We hit the gift shop before we left and being who he is and considering how warped his folks are, he bypassed every cute and cuddly stuffed animal penguin, seal or otter and wend directly for the plush jellyfish. He was shortly made the proud owner of a nice plush jelly with 10 inch tentacles and an fuzzy bell. Very nice.

It lives in his bed and he is often found clutching it in the morning. The lesson here, I suppose is that jellyfish are easier to figure out than girls. Jellies will swim around, eat fish, sting the other stuff if you let them, and according to Short Stack, go “Blooop, Blooop, Blooop” as they go on their merry way. All in all, you can trust them to just be jellyfish. Girl’s on the other hand… Well… I’ll help him the best I can but you just don’t know what they’ll do or when they’ll do it. The only thing you can really bank on is that girls rarely go “Blooop, Blooop, Blooop” as they sneak up on you, so you gotta stay vigilant. Otherwise, who knows when the next hugging could hit.

English well speached here.

About a month ago, my wife, two year old son and I went for a trip to the big city of Boston. I know by “big city” standards, Boston hardly rates, but for us it’s the BIG CITY. We tend to be quiet, country-type folk but every once in a while we need our cityfix and we head for Beantown. To us, it’s just the right size. Big enough to have some really cool things to do yet small enough to get around in easily. Most rides on the T (public transport) are 5 to 10 minute affairs and we’ve gotten to the point where we know our way around fairly well.

The other big draw for us is that we can take the commuter rail right into the city and it drops us exactly one stop on the subway away from our hotel. Driving to Boston is actually faster than taking the train and since I tend be like Luke Skywalker in the Death Star trench when I’m behind the wheel, I never minded tackling the dreaded Boston drivers. I actually find it kind of fun. My wife, who for the record, drives just as crazily as I do, has decided that the train is the way to go and having tried it, I have to agree with her. The primary reason for this is our two year old son, who I refer to as Short Stack. The train gives him a chance to move around and play with his beloved toy trucks and gives us the chance to drink overpriced beer and eat overpriced chicken salad, all while bumping along at 60 mph, enjoying the view of the back sides of department stores and warehouses. Honestly, I really liked it.

We stay at the same place every time we go. It’s one of those secret gems that’s tucked away and is nearly invisible to the average fanny pack wearer and to make it extra sweet, it’s inexpensive too. The best reason to go there though is that it’s right in the middle of the North End. That means Little Italy. THAT means, pastry. As Short Stack would say, “yummy, yummy pastry.” So, while Mom relaxed in the room and got us unpacked, Short Stack and I ambled over to the pastry shop. Again, we have our favorite and avoid the sugar coated vortex that is Mike’s Pastry. We passed Mike’s and the amoeba like crowd squirting through the doors and proceeded on to our smaller, lesser known shop. As we walk along, I listen to locals talking to each other in Italian and smile, I love this place! Once we make it inside our chosen pastry shop, I noticed that they did some remodeling. I also notice the signs that were put up warning would-be thieves about the security cameras. The signs made it nearly impossible for me to order my cannoli with a straight face.

It’s amazing how by changing one word slightly it can change not only the meaning but the entire intent of a sentence. So what was the premiss? I know they meant premises, but I like this message much better. It makes a simple warning sign into a mini philosophy class. Some day, Short Stack will be old enough for me to point stuff like this out to him. He can then roll his eyes and remark about how weird I am and put on his best tortured teenage look. In the mean time though, he’s content to get roughly 65% of his ricotta cannoli in his mouth at once and the remaining 35% in his hair. I wonder if the shop owners would let me use their bathroom to clean him up… on premiss.

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