BOSTON — Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833, and became a city just four years later, in 1837. Boston was incorporated as a town in 1630, but didn’t get around to officially becoming a city for almost 200 years, in 1822.
My hunch is Boston would have done it a lot earlier, but got lost.
Being very old gives many advantages to a city — in history, in charm — but ease in getting around is not one of them. The streets of Boston curve and amble, following ancient Indian trails and colonial cow paths. Navigating them — or trying to — particularly when you are used to the orderly grid of Chicago streets, is the difference between traveling by goat cart vs. steam locomotive. And they’re often narrow canyons — imagine La Salle Street as a two-lane road that twists.
The navigating Boston horror story I loved to tell — prior to being trumped by this visit — was the struggle to get to the Bostonian Hotel. My wife and I got so close that we could see it; we just couldn’t figure out how to drive ourselves there, and after looping around it, getting tantalizingly near, only to be shunted away again, we finally gave up, parked our car and walked there, to receive the complex alchemy that would guide our vehicle to the front door.
That kind of trouble would be avoided this time, I thought, because my wife had thoughtfully printed out the Google Map directions straight to the Four Seasons, 200 Boylston St. on the Public Gardens. God bless technology.
As we neared the hotel — on paper — careening through traffic circles and flipping into U-turns, I couldn’t help but notice that we did not seem to be in the sort of neighborhood where one would find a Five Diamond hotel.
“Well, Cabrini-Green was a few blocks from the Ritz-Carlton,” I said, to assure myself, as we drove through streets that reminded me of Englewood, though not as upscale. Before stopping at a gas station for directions I wondered if this was the sort of decision that would be mocked at the coroner’s inquest (”What was he doing in that neighborhood anyway? He must have been looking for drugs. And with his kids in the back seat.”)
The gas station attendant not only didn’t know which way Boylston or the Public Garden were, he didn’t know where he himself was. When I asked what neighborhood we were in — it would turn out to be Roxbury — he just shrugged.
We passed a police station, and I parked between two cruisers and hurried inside. The officer’s suggestions were a meaningless hash, but I drove in the direction he pointed and eventually found the Public Garden and fell into the tender embrace of the staff of the Four Seasons, which whisked our car away and soothed our nerves.
“Should we send the ice cream cart up?” an assistant manager asked, eyeing the boys. Yes, I said, that would be nice.
The friendly bellman explained that Google Maps has been dropping would-be guests into Roxbury. “There are several 200 Boylstons,” he explained. “We’re trying to work it out with them.”
Getting around Boston proved easier after that, and we took the clearly marked T subway system up to Cambridge to meet my cousin and his family for dinner.
Afterward, we strolled past the small Flemish castle of the Harvard Lampoon, the college’s famed humor magazine.
“It’s supposed to look like the Sphinx,” I said, steering the boys toward the building, which I was surprised to find lit up and in full use, its front door open, at 9 p.m. on the Fourth of July.
“Maybe they’ll give us a tour,” I said, recounting how, 20 years earlier, Lampoon staffers gave me run of the place while I researched a book. “It has a circular library.”
The boys from Harvard, celebrating America’s birth, had set up a swimming pool — about 5 feet deep, maybe 10 feet long — on the small plaza in front of their castle, and were cavorting in it with their dates, pausing only to shoot off fireworks and pour beer over their heads. This did not deter me.
“I’ve got two future Harvard men here!” I announced, in full Clark Griswold mode, addressing myself to the young man who seemed the least drunk, a lad sitting on the steps, watching the pool action. “I thought you might show them the castle.”
“That would be against our rules,” he apologized, as a young lady in a cocktail dress slipped out of the front door and away down the street. “But I can give you a couple copies of the Lampoon.” He disappeared inside the castle. Meanwhile, some kind of altercation took place in the pool, with much shouting and cursing and splashes and Roman candle blasts and sprays of beer. We beat a hasty retreat.
Back at the hotel, I asked my 14-year-old if he still wanted to go to Harvard.
“No,” he said. “I’m leaning toward Yale.”
To be fair, we returned to Cambridge in the daylight, and the Harvard Natural History Museum redeemed the institution. And by the time we had our last meal in Boston, a festive spread of seafood and lobster at the Union Oyster House, the nation’s oldest restaurant, we all agreed we would be reluctant to leave — that is, assuming we can find our way out.
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