Still, though I never heard the phrase while I was growing up in New York and then Connecticut, that’s what Boston seemed like to me. I first encountered the city in a novel, Johnny Tremain, which I read in fifth grade. Boston! It was a place of sunlit wharves and screaming fishwives, silversmiths and revolution, coffeehouses and roasted squabs, and arrogance and heartbreak, and a night spent crying alone among the gravestones. Its place names — Hancock’s Wharf, Beacon Hill, Copp’s Hill, the Neck — were deeply familiar to me (I read the book at least a dozen times) and imbued with a kind of bright glamour. Boston was sharp, smart, alive, beckoning. It shimmered in the distance on its hill. I lived there, though I’d never been there.
In our early 20s, my husband and I moved from Connecticut to Cambridge. He was starting architecture school, and I got a job as an advertising copywriter. We fell in love with the bookstores in Harvard Square (in the early ’80s there were more than a dozen), found records at the Coop and Briggs & Briggs, bought cards and Advent calendars from the gentle hovering ladies at Olsson’s gift shop. We did volunteer work for Physicians for Social Responsibility, went for walks in Mount Auburn Cemetery, saw the Christmas Revels in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.
That was all Cambridge, but I was getting to know Boston, too. The first ad agency where I worked was in Back Bay and the second was downtown. Walking around on my lunch hour, I found places that made me nostalgic for an older Boston I had never known, vestiges of what I thought of, affectionately, as Stodgy Boston: the little marble tables at Bailey’s ice cream shops; Makanna’s, a store on Boylston Street where you could still find lace handkerchiefs and seersucker blanket covers; and, a few doors down, with a gilded swan suspended over its doorway, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, a venerable social welfare institution that ran a genteel shop where I bought needlepoint wool and a set of six old Portuguese side chairs.
Then we had children, and again the city opened itself to us in new ways. We got to know the playgrounds and the schools, the aquarium and the Children’s Museum, the plesiosaur skeleton and stuffed mammals at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, the ship-model rooms at the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Mathematica exhibit at the Museum of Science. We got lost going to birthday parties in parts of the city where we’d never been, which always seemed to involve driving on either McGrath Highway or Monsignor O’Brien Highway, two roads we confused so often that we began trying to psych ourselves out by choosing the one that felt intuitively wrong, only to find that that one, too, was incorrect.
Another place where we always got lost was Jamaica Plain, which is adjacent to Boston — part of it, in fact — but which seemed to be in a different place every time we tried to find it. Then our kids grew up and our older son got an apartment there and we started going there a lot, and Jamaica Plain, too, became part of the Boston we knew.
A city on a hill is a city viewed from a distance: a symbol. But once you live there, it’s the city where you get stuck in traffic on Storrow Drive, where you go to the dry cleaner on Brattle Street because the one on Mass. Ave. kept smashing the buttons on your shirts, where you’ve been a patient in a couple of the hospitals and a visitor to patients in pretty much all of them, and where you walk by the building with the Moorish windows on the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth streets and wonder about Anne who used to live there, and Barbara and Ed who used to live there, and you realize you’ve been here long enough to remember the women’s clothing store that used to be on the ground floor of that building and the video store that replaced it and the French interior design store that went in after that, which is gone now, too.
Once you are in it and of it, Boston stops being a city on a hill, a place you might aspire to and generalize about. It’s not a tough town or a resilient town or a stodgy town or a glittering town or a small town or a big town. You can’t see it anymore. It’s quotidian.
It’s maddening and beloved and you wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It’s yours.
Joan Wickersham’s most recent book, The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story, was named one of 2012’s best fiction picks by National Public Radio and other outlets. She is also an Op-Ed columnist for the Globe.
Essays adapted from Our Boston: Writers Celebrate the City They Love, edited by Andrew Blauner. Copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Continued...