By Katherine A. Powers
In her notorious hatchet job of 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote that Boston was “wrinkled, spindly-legged, depleted of nearly all her spiritual and cutaneous oils, provincial, self-esteeming.” Its great vice, she said, was smugness. I daresay that was true enough in the circle in which she moved, being married to Robert Lowell and all, but her crowd was quite a different one from mine.
When I arrived in 1972, lonely and poor, my plan was to get a job, probably as a bartender, and once I had made a lot of money, I would become something more distinguished, perhaps a novelist, maybe a doctor. Step one was a little more difficult than I had expected, as there were few openings for women behind the bar in the Boston of that distant day. Indeed, a number of them banned women from even entering their sacred portals.
I eventually got a job behind the takeout counter at the Schrafft’s restaurant in the Prudential Center’s arid shopping concourse. I showed up at 6:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, in a black nylon skirt and white Dacron blouse to start the coffee and set out Boston’s breakfast: piles of doughnuts and a few crullers for more sophisticated palates. I had to learn what a “regular coffee” was and, when it came to lunchtime, the meaning of BLT, tonic, frappe, and even mayo. Behind my counter, I worked the morning rush with a man called Joe, who I am sure is dead now. He looked like an ancient jockey and liked to call me — who could give him at least 6 inches — “the wee Irish colleen.”
Joe was visited practically every day by a runner for “the numbers,” but his greatest pleasures were romantic. He liked to arrange the doughnuts and crullers in obscene formations not recognized by the female customers for whom they had been erected. “Grab a crullah,” Joe would invite selected typists and secretaries who came down to us from the Prudential Insurance Co.
I recently went to the Prudential Center to try to figure out where Schrafft’s used to be, and it was impossible. The building’s wind-torn plaza and forlorn concourse have been given a transfusion of life. Those gray and lonely spaces are now filled with plants and people, shopping and eating, something Bostonians used to do, but not in so many places and certainly not with such festive abandon.
When I first came here, the food, except in the North End, was as dispiriting as any you could find in Ireland or, indeed, in the resolutely unfrivolous Cambridge, across the river. Boston was, lest it be forgotten, the birthplace of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, a work in which the first sentence of the original edition’s opening chapter sounds the tocsin: “Food is anything which nourishes the body.”
Put another way, this was a city whose inhabitants thought Indian pudding was edible and for whom the only known culinary sin was putting tomatoes in clam chowder, as the godless people of New York did. Except on the subjects of chowder, steamers, and pie, I sensed a resigned feeling about eating in Boston, but then the New England of that time was permeated with such an air of frugality that the lines between traditional Yankee stinginess, actual lack of money, and simple indifference were not easy to draw. But something else was at work. I began to see the city’s attitude toward food as being part of a general air of endurance, one that sprang from one source: the Red Sox. Even though in 1972 Boston had two winning teams in the Celtics and Bruins, the tribulations of its baseball team colored its character, injecting the populace with a rueful, stoical streak, which dissolved finally, and I think forever, in October 2004.
A former books columnist for the Globe, Katherine A. Powers writes “A Reading Life” for the Barnes & Noble Review.
A CITY NOT ON A HILL
By Joan Wickersham
Every city has a nickname, used primarily by people who don’t live there. New Yorkers don’t talk about “The Big Apple,” tourists do. My sister, who lives in Chicago, has never mentioned the wind to me. Boston, where I’ve lived for more than 30 years (well, Cambridge, which for the purposes of this essay is close enough), is sometimes referred to as “The City on a Hill.” If nicknames in general have little chance of catching on, this one seems particularly clunky. It reeks of rhetoric — in fact, it was first applied to Boston in a Bible-quoting speech by Puritan John Winthrop in 1630 — and it has a kind of self-conscious eagerness about it, a panting and futile wish to be adopted. It shows up in guidebooks and political speeches, but that’s about it.Continued...