Tag Archives: Boston

Summer and Fall of 1979

🍎 When we were very young

…and now for a brief diversion from The Great France Art Tour of 2017

RailroadTracksI didn’t know when to expect Richard.

He was supposed to be riding the rails across the country, to show up in Boston sometime at the end of the summer. In the letter, he described how this journey was not to be.  Just a mile or so from Davis, California, he and his friend Jamie jumped from a moving freight. Richard wrote: “This was a mistake, I thought, as I plunged headfirst into the gravel… Jamie suffered a broken collarbone.

The tentative word was that he would arrive around the middle of August on the “Gray Rabbit”, an alternative bus company vehicle.

August 18

He showed up with his Chaldean friend Ed. Ed had thick, dark, wavy hair, a thick mustache and a middle-eastern complexion.  Ed was originally from Detroit, a Psych major looking into graduate and law schools. He and Rich appeared around the 18thand spent almost a week with Pal and I, sharing the apartment. They were both looking for work and seeing sights–I showed them around a bit, but we were all together so much and I tried to be alone with Pal on my days off.

Richard got a job in no time, hired at a food processing plant across the harbor, spouting Marxist doctrine about “experiencing the lot of the proletariat”,  he became an onion man on an assembly line.

“Well, how’d it go?” I asked him, noticing the strong odor of onions that filled the living room.

“I quit.”

“Really?!”

“Yep.”

“Well, what happened?”

“I wore a hair net. The foreman told me to space onions about six inches apart on the conveyor belt. So that’s how I spaced them, until two guys down the line started throwing onions at me; telling me to slow down. A big black guy came over and told me to space them twelve to eighteen inches apart so the guys down the line would have time to do their work. So I’d space ‘em that way until the supervisor would come over and tell me to put ‘em four inches apart, and I’d do that until he was out of sight.”

“Jeez. So what happened?”

“At the end of the day I quit.”

“What did you say?”

“’I quit.’”

“Yea, but what did they say?”

“The foreman said, ‘Too tough for ya, huh?’’’

“And?”

“And I told him, ‘No, but I’d go crazy by the end of the week if I had to do it every day.’”

Richard looked around some more for work, talking with Ed now and then about going to New Hampshire to pick apples.

August 25

 It seemed like they were always hungry. Pal doesn’t eat meat and I rarely do—we’d prepare a big meal, give them seconds, have no food left, and they’d still be hungry. Mind you, they did buy groceries and chip in; I was just astounded by their appetites. I imagined they wanted huge bloody chunks of meat and we were feeding them rice, beans, and tortillas. After about six days—I don’t know, call it my own uptightness or whatever, but their stay began to wear thin. Personally, I was simply bothered by my own ignorance of Ed. Ed didn’t say much. He’d sit and listen and stare with those dark eyes, nodding his head. When he did talk, he mostly talked about going back to Detroit, where people were friendly.

“In Detroit?” I thought.

******

I just wanted to be alone with Pal. Brad offered to put up our two visitors at his apartment. We finally got them to take him up on the offer the same day that they found a place on Marlborough Street in Back Bay. They could have the place through August for practically nothing, so they took it. In no time, Richard found a baking job at the Somerville Bel Canto and Ed began work as a bar boy at the Salty Dog down in Faneuil Hall.

We didn’t see much of them for awhile. Then we saw Richard somewhat regularly—he and Ed didn’t seem to be doing much together. Ed was lonely and didn’t think people were friendly in Boston. He was going back to Detroit. In one week his departure time shrank from “a month”, to “a few weeks”, to “a week”, to “Friday”, and he was gone to Detroit without our ever being able to bid him farewell.

Seeing Richard then was no problem at all.

September 1

Richard left to pick apples in New Hampshire. He had managed to get a passport in the time he was with us. He spoke of leaving for France after a short, profitable term as an apple picker.

We spent one long evening at the Café Pamplona, Brad, Richard, Pal, and I. We had fun; we were all pretty wound up. We didn’t speak softly as we often do at Pamplona; we laughed openly at the pieces of pretentious Harvard Square conversation that came our way. We all wished Richard luck. We made him aware of the possibilities: stiff neck and shoulders, apple chowder, apple pancakes, turnovers, pies, and apple sauce in the mess, and who knows what in the co-ed bunk house. And the next day Richard was gone.

We didn’t hear from him for about a week. The letter he wrote made it sound pretty dismal. Long days, hard work, not many apples. Then a week after that we got another letter.

September 12

Yesterday and especially today, it became everything I could have hoped it to be. It was exquisite today. Two reasons. First, in a scene out of a Russian novel, I and two others make our way down our respective rows of trees shouting, singing, laughing back and forth, calling to one another from the tops of our 15 foot ladders, hands flying among the branches, picking apples as fast as we could—all the time Great Topics hovering over everything. Religion, Literature, Philosophy, History – these and more tossed back and forth. “What does it mean to seek after God?” “Is Marxism a conservative doctrine?” “How does Nietzsche figure as a character in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus?” – some of the questions.

Bedo, a Whitmanesque figure, with a great beard and a great belly and a trunk of popular songs from the gay nineties and Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, stoutly defended his adherence to an obscure religious movement founded by an American mystic.

Jean, an ex-school teacher, marathon runner, sang fifties rock standards and spoke knowledgeably of his current passion, neuro-biology.

I played the part of the brash young man who thinks he knows it all, pestering each with question after question about their beliefs.

“You have a Socratic mind,” Jean told me, and I was very flattered.

Secondly, today was an all-out bust-ass competition. Bedo is an old hand, been picking for years. Jean and I killed ourselves trying to keep up. We did until 3:30 or so, and then Bedo pulled away. “SEVEN bins!” He called out. Jean and I were at about six and two-thirds. Hour or so later, “EIGHT bins!” Jean and I at less than seven and a half. We struggled in over an hour behind him; eight bins a personal triumph for both of us.

The next month or so should be very nice, very fun.

Take Care,

Rich
Brookdale Fruit Farm
Hollis, New Hampshire

******

September 16

“Chris?”

“Rich?”

“Chris! It’s Rich.”

“Hey Rich. So what’s up?”

“It seems the Peace Corps wants me after all. My parents got ahold of me at the fruit farm. I have to catch a plane.”

“Really!? So where are you now?”

“I’m downtown. I was wondering if I could impose…”

“Hell Rich! C’mon over! We’ll be glad to have you.”

So Richard showed up a couple days after his second letter arrived. Ready for yet another adventure. The Feds would fly him down to Pennsylvania for seven days for a final intensive screening, before deciding if he and the six other candidates are prepared to spend two years in Botswana, teaching natives how to run and repair diesel powered well-pumps.

That’s where he is now. He gets back to Boston Sunday. If they liked him, he’ll be around for about a month more before he leaves.

September 23

First day of Fall, Rich gets back, ice cream with Brad at Steve’s in Somerville. I had honey vanilla with Reese’s mix-ins. Brad had coffee with mix-ins, but I forget what kind.

October 8, Columbus Day

Leaf_Yellow
Pal is changing. I’m here in the living room. We just walked Ally, and realized we’ll need more than the clothes we have on when we leave. Today we are borrowing Brad’s MG Midget and heading out of Boston on a leafing adventure.

It was too cold to put the top down on Brad’s car, but we took Ally anyway. We drove to Concord, Mass. And then headed west and north, for New Hampshire. We chose our route with only two criteria in mind: That the road be in a wooded area, and that it be somewhat untraveled. When we came to intersections, we always took the road where the most traffic did not go.

Of course, it was beautiful. There weren’t many places where the leaves had “peaked” already, but everywhere we went the foliage was turning bright orange, yellow, rust, some leaves golden, and that deep, deep red against the still present greens.

“Ally, please lie down,” was the constant comment as we toured the countryside, our large, fluffy, white Samoyed, excited by the cool air, dancing on the rumble seat of the tiny MG Midget. “I can’t see behind us! Ally!”

We stopped in Wilton, a speck of a town just on the Massachusetts side of the border. There we bought cider, some delicious Vermont cheddar, and a dog biscuit for Ally. We walked her in the cold wind, then continued. We only went as far as Hollis, New Hampshire. That of course, is the big apple town where Richard found employ. We didn’t see the Brookdale Fruit Farm, but as we sat in a diner called The Corner Cupboard, munching our western’s and sipping corn chowder and coffee, we saw an old guy hitching up the road. For the absence of a beard, he could have been Richard’s “Bedo”. Plaid shirt, heavy coat bulging with a big belly, jeans, and rubber shin-high picking boots, just like those Rich came home with.

October 23?

Richard was leaving Saturday afternoon. Friday night Brad had Rich and Mary over for dinner. Pal and I just couldn’t make it. I was tired and Pal was trying to get the house cleaned up for the arrival of her friend Tom Smith.

Mary brought her Lebanese boyfriend, who has some shady past connections with Christian terrorists. He told them some interesting stories, I guess, they seemed most impressed by his belief that Henry Kissinger would be murdered “on general principles”.

Pal and I argued and fought and yelled violently at home before Tom came. There were reasons I suppose…but mainly because we were both exhausted. We left to meet Tom’s train at the Back Bay Station. It was late, so we went to the Half Shell, a small waterfront bar on Boylston Street, for a beer.

In the morning Tom and Richard accompanied Pal and I to Cardell’s. Cardell’s is a cafeteria-style restaurant. Tables are shared with Buddy’s Sirloin Pit (est. 1964), which luckily doesn’t open that early. Bran muffins, OJ, and coffee can be had for the best prices. The place is really a dive, but the sawdust on the floor and good prices, and certainly the unhurried atmosphere make it worthwhile.

“Well, this is it.” I kept telling Richard. Trying to get us both to realize that he was about to leave for two years.

***

Ally and I are in the backyard at Bigelow while I write. She is tromping around in the leaves, exploring, tied to a chain which is connected by a pulley to an overhead cable that spans half the length of  the yard. A good arrangement, I’m not sure that it was originally intended for a Samoyed, but more likely – to dry clothes. Vito’s marigolds are still blooming by the side of the house, yellow orange and orange tinged with red. The way things are going they’ll soon be covered by leaves.

Today is the day that the leaves fall from the trees. They’ve been sitting there looking beautiful in the cold crisp, bright and alive in their death throes for over a month. The warm Indian Summer came and seemed to put them out of place. They’re falling now like lasting snowflakes in the warmth, like teardrops on the wind, they flutter downward, covering the earth with rough golden rust.

Yesterday I got a letter from Rich. I guess it was the last thing he wrote from Las Vegas, saying he was on his way and he’d write when he got to Africa.

LeafRedThe afternoon has grown quiet as the sun stepped behind the buildings. Fluffy white clouds are passing rapidly overhead, moving against a grey, blue. Ally is lying on my leg now, beneath the picnic table. She stirs, and the deep dusty smell of leaves fills my head.

— Christo

Shelter in the Night

Boston, Massachusetts
Tuesday, March 24, 1981

Every morning the blackbirds fly to the east in long arching streams. A continuous band comes over the condo project across the street and disperses in a scattered line that breaks up the failing pink of the dawn as they head, approximately, for the ocean.

All winter, as I crossed the street, the wind cutting cold through my trouser legs, my cheeks red, scraped by the raw, I suspected that the blackbirds had set some dubious course for their migration and it was taking them to the coast before they turned south. Through the entirety of that season they persisted, crowding their sky-lane silently as their path intersected the man paths below. Did they ever actually leave? Were these the same birds? Every day?

One late afternoon I thought I’d discovered at least part of their secret.

I was waiting near the Brigham hospital for a bus. An agitated whirring drew my attention to the bare trees in the neighborhood nearby. Blackbirds filled the boughs, hopping about, leaning and looking, as if waiting for some imperceptible signal. One or two birds in the highest branches of each tree tested the air, springing free, five, ten, fifteen feet vertically; their greatest leaps mimicked by as many as five or six converts from the lower realm. These preliminary sortees gained in frequency and magnitude, clusters of birds circling the trees and then lighting again. And then springing spontaneously from the midst of hesitance and confusion, one bird shot with urgency and conviction into the darkening sky. Others followed at virtually the same moment, and then more, in ranks, one after the other, filling the air again with that dark scattered stream. The winding, blackbird cloud, swirled its way to the south, yet the buzzing, whirring remained. Many birds were left in the trees. Some, unsure, had peeled off from the original departing flock; others, anxious but not yet ready, never left the limbs.

Gradually the performance was repeated several times by those remaining, each a near duplication of the last—except for the deepening background of evening that was making the performers indistinguishable from their perches. Finally they all took wing, vacating the last trees in an instant, rushing to some goal beyond the approaching gloom, seeking companionship on the journey, or shelter in the night. 

Gone. Activity and noise receded like a wave, leaving a brief and sudden silence, until the #69 bus surged through the darkness, illuminating flecks of rain in the soft sphere of yellow light it pushed before it.

 

But Really…Isn’t the Truth Good Enough?

Isn’t the truth good enough?

For some people, maybe not. I knew a young man once who worked in a French bakery. He, Italian girlfriend one-point-oh, and I, hung out some. And he told us how he played guitar in a band on “the Vineyard”—where he came from—but he didn’t have his guitar anymore. He also mentioned one time that he studied Kung Fu. I didn’t think anything of either of these declarations, because they seemed perfectly normal.

And then one night he was supposed to come join us for dinner at our apartment, and he was very late. Eventually he showed up, and said he had a problem with some driver who tried to run him (a pedestrian) off the road. He said he jumped on the hood of the guy’s car, and kicked in his windshield. Wow. I was impressed. It was Boston after all, and I had my own run-ins with the idiot drivers, so it really didn’t seem over-the-top. Not quite. Almost. The part about kicking in the windshield…he was wearing sneakers, and they didn’t seem the worse for the wear. Just how could a soft foot in a sneaker break a windshield? But I didn’t think too much about it at the time.

I had my guitar out, and I offered it to him. He hesitated and then picked it up carefully, and spent ten or 15 minutes touching it delicately, carefully, as if it were made of fine glass, without ever fingering a chord. How weird. “Just play it if you want.” I suggested.

“No, no, I have respect for an instrument. I just want to examine it.”

Okay, so he went on like that, it was painful to watch, and we eventually broke off and had dinner. He left, and I mentioned to Pal, my girlfriend, how odd he had seemed that night.

She looked at me matter-of-factly, and with a resigned sigh said, “He can’t play guitar.”

“What?” I asked.

“He can’t play guitar, and he doesn’t know Kung Fu.”

“What? Why would he tell us all that?”

“He’s chronically late. He made an excuse about kicking the guy’s windshield. It’s all bullshit, to distract us from the fact that he was over an hour late.”

“Really?” I couldn’t believe it! I just couldn’t understand why anyone needed to create such an elaborate story around something so minor as being late.

“Yea,” She continued, “He dug himself into a hole when he told you about ‘his band’, and when you handed him your guitar he had to improvise, but not on the guitar, because he can’t play.” She finished with a smile, revealing her slightly crooked front tooth. Adorable.

Jeez. Anyway, I was skeptical about everything the guy said from then on. I lost track of the guy, but he was the first of several “pathological liars” I have known. It always surprises me how gullible I feel when I realize afterwards how obvious it is that they are lying. How easy it is to believe them, and how bizarre it seems that they create this stuff, inevitably, to enhance their own image, or escape their own human frailties.

I was working retail, selling computers. There was a guy in the service department, and I used to hang out there and chat, waiting for things to get assembled, installed, or fixed. (In those days, a personal computer had to be “built” with certain options – type of video card, amount of RAM, type of drive – were all optional. I know kids, it’s hard for you to even imagine what I’m talking about – we’ll discuss that in some future post.)

This guy, I’ll call him “Bob”, was a little older than me, but not much older, a big guy, maybe six-four, over 225 pounds. No matter what shirt he wore, his belly always bulged over this pant waist. He was generally very friendly and upbeat. And out of the blue one day he started telling me about his time as an Army Ranger. I didn’t even know he had been in the Army.

“Yea, it was pretty good. I know how to use a knife, and I was a sniper.”

“Really?” I asked, in awe, “That must have been quite an adventure!”

“Yea,” He said, “The worst thing was when I got this infection.”

“Really?”

“Yep, snipers can’t move for days. I was camouflaged, on my belly; I had to pee in my pants. For days. My dick got all infected. When I finally got back to the base, the doctor had to slice me open to let out all the puss.” He was very matter-of-fact about this.

“You mean?”

“Right,” He said with a sniff, “From the base almost to the tip! Like a hot dog. That’s why I can’t have kids.” His words were even more descriptive than this, but I will spare you.

“Shit!” I said.

“I was serving America. Shit happens. I have a scar to prove it.”

I didn’t ask to see the scar. Six or eight months went by. Bob married his girlfriend. She got pregnant. I wondered how that happened. I mentioned it to Bob’s boss, who I also hung out with. “How did Carol get pregnant?”

“The usual way I would think,” Roger replied.

“I mean, with Bob’s injury and everything. Did they have a sperm donor?”

“What injury? What are you talking about?” Roger asked.

“From the Rangers, when he was a sniper. Don’t you know about that?” I figured he must, they worked pretty closely there in the service department.

“He told you that story too? It’s bogus, I called him on it. He was never in the Army, and certainly not the Rangers! He was having some fun with you.”

Yea, ‘having some fun’. A gross story with pretty elaborate detail in the effort too. And never cleared up the mess. I’m glad I didn’t ask his wife about it! And from that day forward, I didn’t trust anything that Bob said.

Maybe I’m just gullible. Or trusting. Or Carraway-esque? There were a few more big liars in my life, and I’ll tell you about them when I get a minute.

—Christo