There are many ways to experience a new city. You can check out the famous sights, shepherded by a Vince Vaughn-in-The Breakup-wannabe armed with comical facts about every landmark. You can call upon local pals to show you “their” city, to get a sense of why they like their chosen home. Or you can just walk around, getting acclimated to your new surroundings one block at a time.
I find ‘hoofing it’ to be the most effective way to get to know the nuances, the subtle differences between neighborhoods, the sights, smells, and sounds that pervade depending on where your feet take you.
In the few months since I’ve moved to Boston—some might say “moved back”, as I grew up in the area, I quickly learned how much of a clueless suburbanite I was. I’ve taken several such walks, from one-mile trips to my new barbershop and dry cleaner, to an evening-spanning trek beginning in Boston Common and touching Back Bay, the South End, and the North End. (I earned my cannoli, that night.)
While those first steps were unsure – literally, as it took at least a few weeks to get used to the unexplained divots in our apartment’s carpet – my strides have become increasingly confident in a way that similar car trips could not have inspired. (Outside of my difficult daily commute, I try to spend as little time driving around the city as possible, in hopes that I can keep my sanity intact and my inner Masshole at bay.)
Not surprisingly, many of the best walks have had a musical component; there’s the soundtrack in my headphones, of course (which often fittingly includes Mayer Hawthorne’s “The Walk”, and Justin Townes Earle’s “Walk Out”, though definitely not Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”), but that’s only part of it. It’s the external sounds that have I remember best, and those sounds helped create a kind of aural map that I’m sure I’ll continue to draw on as I wander. A few moments that have stuck with me over the past four months of strolling around Boston:
Shellfish, Salsa, and a Navigation Failure
What’s a newly married guy to do when left alone for a weekend in a new city? Seek out the best lobster sandwich in town, of course.
Armed with a smartphone, I set off to Cambridge to a seafood shop with a single menu item: $13 worth of fresh lobster and a little mayo packed between two slices of toasted bread. The lunch was as good as advertised, but the surprise came as I set off for my next destination.
Just steps from my table, the annual Cambridge Carnival was in full swing, and its colorful costume parade made for tough passage. Not that I minded; the Mardi Gras-inspired procession full of floats, marching bands, dancers and more cast doubt on the typical conception of Cambridge as prep-central (a stereotype bolstered by a walk through the Head of the Charles six weeks later –- I’ve never seen so many unnecessary scarves in my life).
I think about the multicultural display each time I emerge onto the same street on my way home from work, having again escaped from the traffic jam at the nearby highway exit. I also think about what happened next. After crossing quickly during a break in the parade, I followed my GPS onto the river path which would take me to visit a friend in Brookline, only to realize later that I’d chosen the wrong side of the river and missed the bridge that would take me across the busy street.
I wound up in Coolidge Corner a good 20 minutes later than expected, chastened and sweaty but having learned a couple of good lessons about my new home. As with any interesting place, you never know quite as much as you think you do.
A Honkin’ Good Walk through Davis Square
Before moving to the Boston area, we did our best to get to know its neighborhoods, or at least to get some sense of their reputations among people we knew. This surface-level research obviously led to gross generalizations – e.g., Allston is dirty, loud, and collegiate – but it at least gave us a place to start. Our impressions of Somerville were less defined, because most people we talked to rarely went there, but upon moving there, we could easily sense the strong community that existed. I first felt this when, on the day after our housewarming party, I walked to Davis Square to meet some friends for the sixth annual HONK!, a festival of “activist street bands”.
Along my two-mile walk to the event, I passed through residential blocks full of families enjoying the early fall weather, outside houses I imagined they’d owned for years. Eventually, I emerged into the square itself, not following a map so much as the sound of horns. HONK! doesn’t take place in a single venue; instead, dozens of what could loosely be termed marching bands in idiosyncratic costumes walk around, popping up on street corners throughout the neighborhood to perform short shows. Some, like Providence’s What Cheer? Brigade, offered high-energy, almost punk-like songs directly in the middle of a thrashing crowd; others, like Somerville’s own Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band, offered more straightforward (though no less funky) fare that featured a good amount of dancing toddlers.
The undercurrent running throughout it all, though, was a serious sense of place – every band played for free, but asked for donations to support the non-profit event and gave thanks to the mayor and the rest of the people who made the reclamation of public space possible. An event like this could’ve happened in many places, but the fact that it happened here, in Somerville, said something about the community, its residents – who housed many of the musicians traveling from out of town – and its businesses, who provided food for the musicians and volunteers. Some, like a local bowling alley, even provided shelter, as one concert was moved under its garage roof when the rain began. As I walked home barely protected from the rain by my cheap umbrella, I began to see how a place like this might be somewhere to call home.
A Mile to the Middle East
Of course, I can’t talk about walking in Boston without mentioning Jonathan Richman. The Natick-born musician sings regularly about the city and his travels through it (live versions of “Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love” offer a prime example), and thankfully, it was a short, mile-or-so walk from our place to Cambridge’s Central Square to see the first of his three sold-out shows.
This was the third of his shows that Angela and I had seen together, and possibly the best. Richman was his usual endearing self – Angela was convinced he’s in love, and songs from his latest album, O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth, would seem to bear that out – and his quirkiest. This time, he asked that the air conditioning be turned off, claiming the noise was affecting the sound. The resulting stuffiness made the Middle East club feel like, well, the Middle East for the remainder of the show. But the uncomfortable temperature couldn’t overshadow the steady stream of enjoyably weird songs, which can sound like he made them up on the spot but which obviously are the result of some considerable work.
At the end of the comedy act/inner monologue/concert, in lieu of a traditional encore, Richman took his own walk into the middle of the crowd to lead us all in an impromptu sing-a-long of “Volare”. The song, and the moment, lingered in our heads during the mile or so walk back to our apartment, a walk made all the more satisfying because I led the way, knowing exactly where we were going.