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101 things every Bostonian should know

From books to baked beans, from free concerts to traffic rules, from sports deals to history highlights, our guide to the region’s essential trivia, tips, and tricks.

By Elizabeth Gehrman
October 3, 2010

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How to file a bill Massachusetts has the right of free petition, which allows a citizen to file legislation. The only catch is that your petition must be sponsored by a member of the House or Senate before it can be advanced to be considered by the General Court, so talk to your state senator or representative. Bills must be filed by the third Friday in January during the first annual session of the two-year General Court – basically, any year ending in an odd number.

How to be a marathon runner Even if you’re not very fast, you can still run the Boston Marathon. The Boston Athletic Association has a program through which waivers are granted to charity teams independent of the qualifying time standards. Visit http://www.baa.org/bostonmarathon/charity.asp for more information.

Where to get the best local foods Boston cream pie: The Oak Room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, Boston (617-267-5300, http://www.theoakroom.com)

Lobster roll: Kelly’s Roast Beef, multiple locations (781-233-5700, http://www.kellysroastbeef.com)

Lobster bisque: Turner’s Seafood in Melrose and Gloucester (781-662-0700 and 978-281-7172, http://www.turners-seafood.com)

New England clam chowder: Legal Sea Foods, multiple locations (617-530-9000, http://www.legalseafoods.com)

Boston baked beans: Durgin-Park at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Boston (617-227-2038, http://www.arkrestaurants.com/durgin_park.html)

Indian pudding: Locke-Ober in Downtown Crossing, Boston (617-542-1340, http://www.lockeober.com)

How to know if you’re in the right If you’re having a dispute with your neighbor or landlord – or anyone else, for that matter – you can find out what the law says about the matter at the online Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries (http://www.lawlib.state.ma.us).

How to define key local terms Boston Brahmin: The city’s elite. The term, likening the “untitled aristocracy” to Hinduism’s highest, priestly caste, first appeared in Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s 1861 novel Elsie Venner. Nor’easter: A storm, usually in the winter months, which often brings cold, gale-force winds coming from the northeast, coastal flooding, and rough seas.

Pesky’s Pole: The right-field foul pole at Fenway Park, named after infielder Johnny Pesky, who played for the Red Sox in 1942 and from 1946 to 1952, when it was noted that many of his homers landed near this pole.

Quahog: A hardshelled clam, pronounced KO-hog.

Smoot: A unit of measure. As a 1958 MIT fraternity initiation, 5-foot-7 Oliver Smoot, class of ’62, was laid end-to-end across the Harvard Bridge to determine its length. The bridge is 364.4 Smoots and one ear long.

How to avoid a long wait at the RMV Don’t come on the first or last of the month, on a Monday or a Friday, or around lunchtime. “At the very beginning of the day,” says Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles communications director Ann Dufresne, “if you queue up at a branch prior to its opening, you’ll be in a line. But if you come an hour after opening, we’ll have worked through the line and your wait will be shorter.” Don’t forget that you can do almost all transactions online at http://www.massdot.state.ma.us/rmv/ – including checking wait times, which are updated every 60 seconds.

Where to save money while breaking a sweat Free public ice skating is offered at Boston-area Department of Conservation and Recreation rinks all winter long. See http://www.mass.gov/dcr/recreate/skating.htm for details.

Take advantage of free yoga classes on Boston’s Esplanade on Wednesday evenings in summer. Check http://www.esplanadeassociation.org for information.

Which movies you must see The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): Robert Mitchum stars as a low-rung crook on Boston’s underworld ladder, torn between snitching and serving time.

Gone Baby Gone (2007): Ben Affleck directed his brother, Casey, as a detective investigating a little girl’s kidnapping in this adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel.

Good Will Hunting (1997): Matt Damon and Ben Affleck made their names writing and acting in this tale (pictured right) of an MIT janitor and math whiz. Robin Williams also stars.

Mystery Street (1950): Ricardo Montalban is a detective and Bruce Bennett a Harvard doctor helping with the forensics in the case of a murdered prostitute.

Next Stop Wonderland (1998): Hope Davis and Alan Gelfant play star-crossed would-be lovers traveling the Blue Line in this sweet romantic comedy.

Where to get low-cost or free health care The Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston offers dental care by students, supervised by faculty dentists, costing approximately 25 percent to 50 percent less than a private practice. Call 617-636-6828 or go to http://www.dental.tufts.edu.

Project Trust at the Boston Medical Center in Boston offers free screening for HIV, hepatitis C, and sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, with no appointment necessary. Call 617-414-4495 or go to http://www.bmc.org/hiv-aids/services/testingandcounseling.htm.

Brookline Community Acupuncture in Brighton offers free treatment for first-time patients every Thursday. Call 617-879-9992 or go to http://www.brookline-community-acupuncture.lattiss.com.

How to appeal your property taxes Do you believe your home’s assessed value is higher than its fair market value? If so, you can appeal your property tax bill with your city or town’s board of assessors. If you are billed quarterly for these taxes, you generally must appeal by February 1. If you are billed twice a year, the appeal is typically due 30 days after the actual tax bill was mailed. Keep in mind that your bill is based on home values from about a year ago. Contact your local assessor’s office to begin the process, and search “real estate tax appeals” at http://www.mass.gov for a handy guidebook.

What happened during major events The Boston Massacre (1770): Two years after nearly 4,000 British troops had been sent to Boston (population 15,000) to help maintain order amid civil unrest following the enactment of a series of new laws called the Townshend Acts, there was a riot on what is now State Street. Five civilians were killed, and the unrest led to the start of the American Revolution.

The Great Fire (1872): On the evening of November 9, a fire broke out near what is now South Station that consumed 65 acres of the city’s downtown, resulting in $75 million in damages and the demolition of 776 buildings. Many churches and businesses took the opportunity to move to the Back Bay.

The Curse of the Bambino (1918-2004): When Red Sox owner Harry Frazee traded Babe Ruth to New York in 1920, it supposedly set off an 86-year streak during which the Sox could not win the World Series. The curse was broken in 2004 with a sweep against the Cardinals.

The Molasses Flood (1919): When a five-story tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses broke in the North End around lunchtime on January 15, the neighborhood was hit with a 15-foot-high wave of the stuff moving at 35 miles per hour. Twenty-one people were killed and 150 were injured.

The Gardner Heist (1990): The largest art theft in history occurred when two men entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the early hours of March 18 and stole 13 masterpieces – including five Degas, three Rembrandts, and a Vermeer – valued between $300 million and $500 million. None of the paintings have been recovered.

How to get a low-number license plate License plate applications are taken June through August for a lottery held soon thereafter. Download the form at http://www.mass.gov/rmv.

Where to do business after hours

The US Post Office at Boston’s Fort Point is open 6 a.m. to 11:58 p.m. seven days a week (617-654-5302, usps.com). And there are more than a dozen automated postal centers in Greater Boston that are open 24-seven; here you can buy stamps, weigh packages, renew post office boxes, and more. Find them at http://www.usps.whitepages.com/post_office.

FedEx offices at the following locations are always open: 2 Center Plaza, Government Center; 187 Dartmouth Street, Back Bay; 1 Mifflin Place, Cambridge; and 1244 Boylston Street, Chestnut Hill (800-463-3339, http://www.fedex.com).

How to save on admissions The Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge is free to Massachusetts residents on Sundays year-round from 9 a.m. to noon, and on Wednesdays from 3 to 5 p.m. September through May (617-495-3045, http://www.hmnh.harvard.edu). Be prepared to show proof of state residence.

From 10 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of every month, everyone pays the kid’s price at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo ($8, 617-541-5466) and Stoneham’s Stone Zoo ($7, 781-438-5100, http://www.zoonewengland.org).

Wednesdays after 4 p.m., admission to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston is by voluntary contribution; usually, adult admission is $20 (617-267-9300, http://www.mfa.org).

Anyone with the first name Isabella is always admitted free to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, as are folks who visit on their birthday (617-566-1401, http://www.gardnermuseum.org).

The Institute of Contemporary Art in the Seaport District is free after 5 p.m. every Thursday (617-478-3100, http://www.icaboston.org).

Which books you must read

All Souls: A Family Story From Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald (2000): This memoir shows the bigger picture of South Boston’s working class and crime worlds through the family saga of MacDonald and his many siblings.

The Bostonians, by Henry James (1886): This comic masterpiece tells the fictional story of Verena Tarrant, a young beauty torn between feminism and romance.

Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas (1986): This tale of three families dealing with school integration in the 1970s won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane (2008): Set during World War I, this nail-biter tells of a black ballplayer who kills a man and flees to Boston, where he crosses paths with an Irish beat cop. Babe Ruth and the Boston molasses flood of 1919 make cameo appearances.

Home Town, by Tracy Kidder (2000): The cracks in Northampton’s small-town facade are revealed in profiles of a police sergeant, a Smith College student, a drug informant, and others.

The Living Is Easy, by Dorothy West (1948): Upper-class black society in Boston in the early 1900s is profiled in this well-written cult classic.

Looking for Rachel Wallace, by Robert B. Parker (1987): Spenser, Parker’s popular private detective, has been hired as the bodyguard to a feisty feminist.

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850): A classic of repressive Puritanism, this tale focuses on the adulterous Hester Prynne.

Summer of ‘49, by David Halberstam (1989): A meticulous re-creation of the pennant race between the Yankees and the Red Sox, the rivalry between Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, and an unforgettable era before steroids and scandals.

3000 Degrees, by Sean Flynn (2002): This book is a gripping account of the Worcester blaze that killed six firefighters in 1999.

Where to score a bargain for your home Boston Design Center in South Boston has one or two tag sales a year that are open to the public; the next one is scheduled for the spring (617-449-5514, http://www.bostondesign.com).

Buddy’s Budget Tile in Norwood offers 30 percent to 50 percent off retail on mostly discontinued ceramic and porcelain tiles from all over the world (781-440-0604, http://www.buddysbudgettile.com).

The Carpet Workroom in Needham sells remnants and bound area rugs at about a quarter to a third of what you might pay retail (781-844-4912, http://www.site.thecarpetworkroom.net).

Harvard University gives away surplus furniture, supplies, and equipment every Thursday (except holidays) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 175 North Harvard Street in Allston.

How to be a VIP You can join the Harvard Club of Boston even if you didn’t go to Harvard. Alumni from nearly a dozen New England colleges and universities are welcome at the venerable institution’s downtown Boston branch and to certain events at the Back Bay branch (617-450-8460, http://www.harvardclub.com).

For $115 a year ($230 if you’re older than 40), you can join the Boston Athenaeum, a private library. Computer terminals and a members’ lounge make working on your book or screenplay in the quiet company of other writers a little more comfortable (617-227-0270, http://www.bostonathenaeum.org).

Where to grab a bite 24 hours a day Bova’s Bakery in the North End offers Italian pastries, sandwiches, pizzas, calzones, and more for those with the late-night munchies (617-523-5601, http://www.northendboston.com/bovabakery).

South Street Diner near Boston’s South Station serves classics – burgers, Reubens, omelets, shakes – round-the-clock (617-350-0028, http://www.southstreetdiner.com).

Victoria’s Diner in Boston is open all night on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (617-442-5965, http://www.victoriasdiner.com).

Craving pancakes at 2 a.m.? Two IHOPs are open all the time, in Revere (781-289-6012) and Brighton (617-787-0533, http://www.ihop.com).

North Shore residents can find an all-hours Denny’s in Danvers (978-774-1897, http://www.dennys.com).

How to be a savvy sports fan The Celtics have $10 seats available; purchase them at the TD Garden box office or by calling 800-462-2849.

Avoid game-day traffic to Gillette Stadium by taking the special Patriots train from South Station for $15 round trip. Learn more at http://www.mbta.com/riding_the_t/patriots.

Standing-room tickets for the Red Sox are just $20; you can nab a good spot for viewing, and there are usually enough available for everyone who shows up on game day.

You might get a Bruins autograph after a practice. They’re held at the Ristuccia Memorial Arena in Wilmington and are free and open to the public; check ristucciaarena.com for practice times.

There are many teams to root for other than the big four. The Boston Blazers play lacrosse (http://www.blazerslacrosse.com), the Boston Lobsters tennis (http://www.bostonlobsters.net), the Boston Breakers women’s soccer (http://www.bostonbreakers.com), and the Boston Militia women’s football (http://www.bostonmilitia.com) – and you won’t have huge crowds and high prices to contend with.

When to bring bikes and dogs on the T Bikes are allowed on the T, but you need a PhD to figure out when and where. Park Street and Government Center stations do not allow them, nor do the Green and Mattapan trolley lines; at Downtown Crossing, you can have them only if you are transferring between the Red and Orange lines. You can’t take them on the subway on New Year’s Eve or the Fourth of July, or during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the Boston Marathon (though they are allowed on the Commuter Rail that day), before or after Red Sox games, from 8:30 to 11 p.m. during TD Garden events, or, according to the T’s website (http://www.mbta.com/riding_the_t/bikes), during “special events at or near individual stations.” Otherwise you’re fine, as long as it’s a weekday before 7 a.m., between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., or after 7 p.m. On the upside, they don’t cost extra, and your bike can ride a bus any time as long as there’s space on the external rack.

Non-service dogs on leashes are allowed on the T at the driver’s discretion during non-peak hours (9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and again after 7 p.m.). Dogs are only allowed on a bus in a carrier.

When to speed it up Some Massachusetts roads have minimum speeds in addition to maximum. On the Massachusetts Turnpike, you must drive at least 40 miles per hour. In the Callahan, Sumner, and Ted Williams tunnels, you must travel at least 20 miles per hour. On other state highways, you must stay to the right and “maintain a speed sufficient so as not to obstruct traffic,” says Massachusetts State Police spokesman David Procopio.

How to get a deal on culture Invest now in the works of up-and-coming artists at the sale of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston held every November (617-267-6100, http://www.smfa.edu/artsale). This year it runs from November 17 to 21.

College students can purchase a BSO College Card for $25 and attend Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts at no additional cost. Go to http://www.bso.org/collegecard.

Volunteer guides give free hourlong tours of the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building in Copley Square, a National Historic Landmark, and its artworks six days a week November through May and five days a week the rest of the year (617-536-5400, http://www.bpl.org/central/tours.htm).

The BosTix ticket booths in Copley Square and at Faneuil Hall offer half-price day-of-show seats for theater, music, and dance performances. They open at 10 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday (617-262-8632 ext. 229, http://www.bostix.org).

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra gives about a dozen free performances each summer (tickets may be required); check http://www.landmarksorchestra.org for next season’s dates.

Which tales are really tall The American Revolution’s Battle of Bunker Hill was not fought at Bunker Hill, but at nearby Breed’s Hill.

Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.’s fortune wasn’t built on bootlegging. Most of the liquor he imported from England arrived after Prohibition was repealed; the rest was considered medicinal.

Paul Revere never said, “The British are coming”; he said, “The regulars are coming out.” And he wasn’t the only rider that night – William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott also gave the alert. All three were arrested, too late, by a British patrol.

The Boston Tea Party was not sparked by higher taxes. The catalyst was actually a tax break that made imported tea cheaper for the colonists; what riled them was that they had no say in the government that ruled them.

Not only women were tried during the Salem witch trials; six men were put to death, too. Convicted witches were not burned at the stake but hanged.

Where to get a deal on women’s clothing Whereas items in outlet malls are often specifically manufactured for those locations, Talbot’s outlet stores in Hingham (781-740-1840) and Woburn (781-933-4705, http://www.talbots.com) have merchandise from the company’s full-price stores on clearance.

Eileen Fisher has a company store in Burlington that is stocked with discounted merchandise once sold at full price; sign up at the store for notification of sample sales (781-685-9962, http://www.eileenfisher.com).

Building 19 stores in Weymouth (781-337-1935) and Natick (508-653-1900) sell high-end clothing samples; in Burlington (781-272-1919, http://www.building19.com), samples are older and on clearance.

Designers Circus in Allston offers boutique designer goods at 40 percent to 90 percent below retail prices. It’s only open during its seven sales a year; check the website for dates, or sign up to be notified. The next sale is Wednesday through Saturday (617-254-3505, http://www.designerscircus.com).

Zia Clothing Outlet in Belmont has samples and overstock at up to 75 percent off (617-484-5525, http://www.ziaclothing.com).

Vows Bridal Outlet in Watertown has samples and overstock at deep discounts (866-843-4696; http://www.bridepower.com).

When to yield the right of way Roadway respect for funeral processions and emergency vehicles is mandated by law. If you’re entering a rotary, you must not cut off a car that’s already in the rotary, and if you reach an intersection with stop signs at the same time as another car, whoever’s on the right has first dibs. Safe merging on highways, says State Police spokesman David Procopio, “is more an art than a science. It depends on common sense and courtesy.”

Where to get a food bargain Belly up to the bar at Rialto in Harvard Square for oysters for $1 each from 5:30 p.m. every Monday (617-661-5050, http://www.rialto-restaurant.com).

A breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and Swedish potatoes is just 99 cents from 9:30 to 11 a.m. daily at IKEA in Stoughton (781-344-4532, http://www.ikea.com).

J.P. Licks in Dedham’s Legacy Place has a two-for-one ice cream happy hour from 10 p.m. to midnight daily (781-329-9100, http://www.jplicks.com).

Bin Ends in Braintree sells closeout and last-of-vintage wines at discounts of 20 percent to 50 percent (781-817-1212, http://www.binendswine.com).

Who these people are William Blackstone: The first white settler to live in what is now Boston, beginning in 1625. In 1630, he invited the Puritans of Charlestown to join him across the river, where they could easily find fresh water. In 1635, when the population of Puritans made the Shawmut Peninsula unappealing to Blackstone, he moved on to Rhode Island.

John Singleton Copley: A prodigy with pastels and oils, born in Boston in 1738. His portraits of important figures of the day won him acclaim; Copley Square is named after him.

Phillis Wheatley: A Senegalese slave brought to Boston who, at age 14, in 1767 became the first African-American in North America to publish poetry.

Fannie Farmer: Born in 1857, Farmer attended Medford High School and the Boston Cooking School. She was struck by the inexact instructions in recipes calling for a “dash” of salt or a “pinch” of pepper and introduced, in her 1896 cookbook, the idea of level spoon and cup measurements.

James Michael Curley: A Boston mayor, Massachusetts governor, and US representative born in Roxbury who is known for having been elected alderman in 1903 even though he was in the Charles Street Jail on a fraud charge at the time. (He had taken the post office exam for a friend.)

Melnea Cass: A Roxbury resident born in 1896 who devoted six decades of her life to the fight for civil rights.

Arthur Fiedler: Conductor of the Boston Pops for nearly 50 years, beginning in 1930, he helped popularize classical music with lighthearted performances.

Carl Yastrzemski: A Red Sox left fielder and first baseman from 1961 to 1983, he remains the team’s all-time leader in career RBIs, runs, hits, singles, doubles, total bases, and games played.

The Boston Strangler: A killer who terrorized the city from 1962 to 1964, choking 13 women with their own clothing. Malden resident Albert DeSalvo confessed to the killings while serving prison time for rape.

James “Whitey” Bulger: A former South Boston mob head and FBI informant now on the organization’s 10 Most Wanted list for murders committed in the 1970s and ’80s. His brother William Bulger was president of the Massachusetts Senate from 1978 to 1990 and was president of the University of Massachusetts from 1996 to 2003.

How to take advantage of Fast Lane Not signed up for the state’s electronic toll-collection program? You can order a Fast Lane transponder online to be delivered by mail. Go to http://www.massdot.state.ma.us/highway/fastlane/.

If you take the U-turn on the Massachusetts Turnpike back to Boston at the Allston/Brighton toll and you don’t have a Fast Lane transponder, expect a $50 ticket. n

Elizabeth Gehrman, a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine, is a freelance writer in East Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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