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Boston 101

No lectures, no pop quizzes, no papers, no cutting, no cramming, no failing except failing to enjoy as much as you can

Boston From Top Left: The Boston Common; trapeze school at Jordan's Furniture in Reading; the Rose Kennedy Greenway fountain; and the Coolidge Corner Theatre. (Photos by Maisie Crow for the Boston Globe)
Globe Correspondents / September 6, 2009

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Find Common ground
I’m a people-watcher, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite spots is Boston Common, a nearly 50-acre park just south of Beacon Hill. On any afternoon here, you’ll see men in suits taking a lunch break; groups of schoolchildren swarming the playground; even tour guides dressed in Colonial garb, trying to entice you to follow them down the Freedom Trail. It’s the perfect spot to escape the bustle of the city and appreciate a diverse mix of people and activities. You’re as likely to see a couple having wedding portraits taken as you are performing musicians or an intense game of Wiffle ball.

The Common is home to myriad features, from the Frog Pond, which doubles as a skating rink in winter, to historic monuments and statues (it is, after all, the oldest park in America). It’s also right next door to the Public Garden, where just $2.75 will buy you a 15-minute Swan Boat cruise around the lagoon. Perhaps most importantly, Boston Common’s sprawling lawns are perfect for a picnic or to stretch out with a good book - or, if you’re anything like me, to just enjoy the sunshine and observe what’s around you.

145 Tremont St.; MBTA: Red or Green lines to Park Street. GABRIELLE MUNOZ

C’mon, let yourself go
After a summer of long hours, I needed a release. I found it 20 feet off the ground in a furniture store that doubles as a circus. Step right up, ladies and gents: It’s the trapeze school at Jordan’s Furniture in Reading.

Trapeze School New York started in that state, but now has sites in Washington, Los Angeles, and right off Interstate 95’s exit 39. Like something from a confused dream, the school is located in a furniture store that is decked out in neon and kitsch.

After psyching myself up for the high-flying adventure, I decided to ease into it and pay 10 bucks for an open flying session, instead of $46 for a full-fledged class.

After I was buckled into my safety harness and holding the trapeze bar for dear life, I suddenly realized I had a previously undiscovered fear of heights. So before I lost my nerve, I took the leap. Wooosh. I fell, then flew.

Forget the $10 price tag, the adrenaline of swinging through the air, seemingly weightless and without a care, was priceless. I swung a couple of times before falling into the giant net below. Now, I think I’m ready to commit to a class or two.

The $10 swing sessions and two-hour classes are available most days.

TARA BALLENGER

Getting in harmony
From the sidewalk you can hear the smoky piano notes and saxophone riffs floating out of Old South Church. Inside, members of the congregation tap their feet to strains of Billie Holiday and Duke Jordan. Willie Sordillo, sax in hand, bends and sways.

Every Thursday at 6 p.m., Old South offers Jazz Worship featuring the soulful melodies of the Willie Sordillo Trio. Sordillo has been playing here since 2005. A minister delivers lilting sermons to the beat of the blues.

This was my pressure valve this summer: sitting beneath the bright stained glass windows and vaulted ceiling, listening to quiet hymns and the slow pulse of jazz. I’m neither religious nor a churchgoer, but I felt comfortable sitting out the Communion offering and letting the music and the soft glow from candelabras lull me into a kind of trance.

The program distributed at the chapel door says it well: “As we come from the usual pace of life in and around Boston into this worship space, we invite you to leave behind the distractions of everyday life.’’ The service tends to draw over 70 people. Many - as I did - wander in from the bustle of Copley Square, and stay.

“We hope there’s something in the mood, the music, the spirit of the thing, that makes people feel welcome and draws them in,’’ Sordillo, 58, told me. “There’s a certain meditative aspect, getting away from the noise of the world.’’

Thursdays 6-7 p.m.; 645 Boylston St. ; www.oldsouth.org . LAURA BENNETT

A spot to sink into
An angler is the last thing you would expect to see on the Alford Street Bridge. But here, on Route 99, dozens cast their lines into the murky Mystic River across from the power plant in Everett.

“It’s urban fishing,’’ said Peter Santini, owner of Fishing Finatics on Everett’s Main Street. “Cars and trucks go by, but there are striped bass and bluefish.’’ From May to October, fishermen set up shop on the concrete sidewalks that line the structure while tractor-trailers and cars wheel by. They park their cars - hazard lights on - behind large orange cones that line the sides of the street.

“It’s a good spot because of the funnel,’’ Santini said of the bottleneck that connects the river to Boston Harbor. “The big fish push the little fish.’’

The spot has been a favorite for at least 30 years. Still, it is susceptible to dangers you won’t find in other fishing locales. Once a fisherman’s line was caught by a truck in a back cast, dragging the 12-foot rod down the highway. “You have stuff like that,’’ Santini said.

But, all in all, it’s “simple fishing,’’ he said. Most use chunk bait, mackerel, or herring, and 2-ounce weights to drop their lures into the water. “Some guys go there for a couple hours after work,’’ Santini said. “Some stay until the sun comes up.’’

SEAN SPOSITO

This shopper’s world
I came here from the West Coast, where being a little weird is normal and a lot weird is even better. At first glance, Boston seemed to be populated by straitlaced business types with places to go and corporate ladders to climb.

I was starting to wonder where the alternative types hung out - and shopped. Downtown Crossing and Newbury Street have their perks, but I was on the hunt for some quirks.

I found a little piece of indie heaven at the Garment District in Cambridge. It bills itself as an “alternative department store,’’ and it lives up to its claim. It’s a superstore of new and pre-loved clothing from the shift dresses of the 1920s to the now-trendy ’80s fashion disasters to reasonably-priced new clothes from independent designers.

It also has costume attire, jewelry, and a rainbow assortment of tights and leggings.

But I couldn’t be bothered by such frivolity; I dedicated my time to scaling the textile mountain better known as the dollar-a-pound section.

Covering most of the first floor of the store, the area (which is misnamed, since items are actually $1.25 a pound) is a testament to frugality, absurdity, and inefficiency. Dedicated shoppers crouch or sit on the floor and sort through mounds of clothes of various sizes, styles, and origins. No racks, no hangers, no bins. It’s an excavation.

After half an hour of digging, I had three great finds that weighed in at exactly one pound, including a black summer dress from the Gap. If my math is right, it cost me around 45 cents. Not too shabby.

Daily 11 a.m. (9 a.m. on Saturday) to 7 or 8 p.m.; 200 Broadway, Cambridge; www.garmentdistrict.com. TARA BALLENGER

Movie-star-of-a-theater
Looking for a screening of the latest foreign film, indie flick, or documentary? Look no farther than Coolidge Corner Theatre.

The independent movie house nestled in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner neighborhood is a haven for those looking to escape the glitz of mainstream theaters and be transported back in time. It’s old-fashioned, complete with red velvet curtains, wooden banisters, crown molding, and patterned carpet in the hallways (though a few modern touches, such as the digital marquees outside each theater, remind you it’s the 21st century).

The theater is unpretentious but offers a certain regal early-20th-century charm that can’t be found at some of its bigger, more modern counterparts. One of its screening rooms has 45 seats, another just 17.

And while you may not be able to find the latest summer blockbuster on its listings, the theater’s eclectic schedule regularly features live shows, sing-a-longs, and older films. You just can’t beat “The Big Lebowski’’ on the big screen.

290 Harvard St., Brookline; 617-734-2500; MBTA: Green C Line to Coolidge Corner. GABRIELLE MUNOZ

No match for such a mix
We were planning to catch the 11 a.m. ferry to Spectacle Island. At least, that was the plan. As my friend Ashley and I watched our boat sail toward the Harbor Islands we weighed whether we should wait an hour for the next ferry, or if we should just find something else to do. We chose the latter.

We grabbed ice cream at nearby Emack and Bolio’s, then headed over to the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. I had read plenty about the park, built as part of the Big Dig, but I had never done more than drive past it.

Our first stop was a bench by the interactive water jet fountain, which opened last year and was modeled after the landmark fountains in Las Vegas.

We watched group after group of children walk toward the fountain, and heard every adult issue the same warning: “You can go in, but don’t get soaked.’’ Not a single kid listened. (I wouldn’t have either.)

After a good hour of people-watching, we worked our way farther down the Greenway, past the carousel installed at the start of the summer and more fountains, these between Faneuil Hall and the North End. And as we walked, I realized that the Greenway had accomplished what it set out to do, and what any good park should do: It brought the people of the city together.

MATT COLLETTE

The basic MBTA tour
When you’re new to a city, it’s easy to settle into familiar haunts, then never venture far. But I found that one of the best ways to see Boston is simply to hop on the bus. Specifically, the No. 1 bus, which will take you all the way down Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard University in Cambridge to Roxbury, one of the city’s poorest - but also most diverse - neighborhoods.

It’s not all of Boston, but the ride is less than an hour, and it’s a start. Besides Harvard, you’ll see other colleges, like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Berklee College of Music, and Northeastern University. You’ll see Symphony Center and the cobblestones of Back Bay. You’ll go over the Mass. Avenue Bridge, where the Charles River suddenly widens to reveal the skyline. You’ll pass a smattering of eateries that hint at Boston’s diversity: Irish pubs, contemporary hot spots, pizza parlors and burger joints, Korean and Indian, Chinese and Thai.

And in Roxbury, you’ll see bustling Caribbean grocery stores and vibrant murals you would never find in Boston’s more affluent areas. Don’t be a tourist. Get out and explore. Geographically, Boston is small, but the city is bigger than you think.

VIVIAN NEREIM

Where the pot has melted
I almost do not want to tell you about it. Piers Park, a small green space in East Boston with a stunning view of the Hub’s downtown from across the inner harbor, has been my little secret. Just a short trek from the Maverick stop on the MBTA’s Blue Line, it spreads across 6 1/2 acres and has a long promenade stretching to the waterfront. Ships and boats glide along the cityscape. Large families lay out picnics on the grassy knolls. It is somewhere quiet, away from the traffic, where I could sit and chill for hours.

On breezy days, I would venture farther into East Boston. A neighborhood created by joining five islands through more than 150 years of landfill operations, it was annexed by the city in the 1830s. Originally a shipbuilding hub, Eastie has always been home to immigrants, from waves of Canadians in the 1840s, Irish in the 1850s, and Eastern European Jews in the 1890s to Italian and Latino immigrants at the turn of the last century.

Now the island is a mix of old and new with a wealth of ethnic restaurants interspersed with large, colorful triple-deckers. I only wish I could take this piece of Boston home.

95 Marginal St., East Boston. JAZMINE ULLOA

The art of the machine
The artificial intelligence and robotics are what took me to the MIT Museum, but examples of creative genius are around every corner.

While the small museum features displays of innovative technologies, visitors also learn about the students, teachers, and researchers who created those technologies: machines of varying kinds, complex robotics, even a contraption that cooks a full Thanksgiving dinner in five seconds using the heat from igniting a rocket.

A second-floor exhibit includes a history of robotics and a display featuring robots that are used in surgeries, that are basically walking vending machines, and those that can learn through human interaction. The robotics section brought out the kid in me who could never have too many LEGO blocks.

Unlike some other museums of its kind, this one highlights art that is created using science and technology, including the largest collection of holograms in the world. As another art form, the complexity of simple mechanical structures is brought to life when the motors are started, the parts working together to make an artistic and sometimes humorous movement.

265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-253-5927; adults $7.50, students/seniors $3. SHELBY MURPHY

In the Middle of everything
There is one place in Boston where you can watch women with yoga mats scurry past the sweet sounds of boomboxes playing ’90s hip-hop. That place is Central Square, and no establishment embodies the variety of the neighborhood more than the Middle East, a restaurant and concert venue (and nightclub) where you can sip wine with tapas or head-bang to the latest indie-punk rage with equal cheer.

The Middle East is really several establishments. Zu Zu, which has moderately upscale dining and hosts great DJs for weekend dancing, abuts a corner cafe, which has cheaper fare and hosts belly dancing performances twice a week. Both are flanked by Upstairs and Downstairs, concert venues that bring an eclectic stream of local and national bands to the area.

If your friends still straddle the abyss between 20th and 21st birthdays, the Middle East offers a wonderland of 18-plus entertainment, and they even throw an occasional all-ages show. Plus, there’s free Wi-Fi. What more could a college student want?

472 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-864-3278. VIVIAN NEREIM

At last, under a spell
By the time a friend and I arrived at Salem’s Washington Square, the image of this historic village that I had conjured up as a child had been destroyed. I love old things, but here, modernity - cars everywhere, restaurants flaunting international cuisines, tourists buying plastic witch souvenirs - intruded everywhere.

A tour of the Salem Witch Museum, where mannequins lining the walls of a dark room light up to “tell’’ a dramatic tale of the witch hysteria, left us disappointed. But The House of the Seven Gables, the famous site of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel by the same name, put us in a better mood. Overlooking the harbor, the house offered history in small, consumable doses. The highlight was going up the narrow secret staircase in the oldest part of the house. A piece of its 17th-century front door is preserved in a glass case, so I had to be content with running my fingers over its shinier modern counterpart.

Salem Common, a green tree-lined expanse in the heart of the village, was my favorite spot. Here I enjoyed the nearby statue of Salem’s founder and the historic homes around it at my own pace. Without the monotone of a tour guide, I could imagine myself among the men, women, and children of a past world, living under a fear that led them to sentence 19 innocent people to death.

Eventually, we spent several minutes sitting on a wooden bench in silence. Then Jazmine, tired and hungry, got up to buy a hot dog from a vendor. Finally we both had what we wanted.

Salem Regional Visitors Center; 2 New Liberty St., Salem; 978-740-1650. NANDINI JAYAKRISHNA

If You Go

FOR STUDENTS NEW TO THE AREA, THE GLOBE’S SUMMER INTERNS OFFER A PRIMER OF FAVORITE THINGS IN THE CITY AND BEYOND.