By Gary Almeter
Part one of a five-part series
Prologue: Butterscotch Street Lamps
My grandpa told me not to move to Boston because he hated the city. When asked why he told me how once, several decades prior, he was delivering a truckload of loaded maple syrup cans to somewhere near Boston Common and a driver cut him off and his cargo clanged onto the street. Nevertheless, I moved there on Oct. 10, 1993. I was a 22-year-old, single, jobless, college graduate who had never been to Boston, indeed, had never lived in any sort of major metropolitan area; never been to a city long enough to gauge its cadence, hear its unique cacophony, taste its cuisine, see its renditions of things, meet its personalities.
Through tears, my fiancée and I left Brookline, Mass., for New York City on Aug. 22, 1998. I was older, more confident, had a Master’s Degree and was so profoundly grateful to the city for taking care of me. This column identifies and ruminates on the triumphs, the moments of grace, the episodes of idiocy, the myriad guardian angels, the flashes of brilliance, and the one instance of taxicab cunnilingus with which the intervening four years, ten months, and twelve days were peppered.
I still frequently reflect on those years. Still get surges of jealousy when I think of the twenty-somethings pull up to their apartments in Allston each Sept. 1. The years were transformative in every sense of that word. This column is a bildungsroman for those twenty-somethings. I can still see what The Lemonheads call the “butterscotch street lamps” of the Mass Pike—at first so jarringly orange and eventually so comforting.
I get it; this narrative is rather ordinary. Lots of people have lived in Boston. Some still do. I’m not Hemingway writing about a group of expatriates traversing from post-war Paris to Pamplona. Nor am I Teddy Roosevelt leading a squadron of soldiers over San Juan Hill. My years in Boston were filled with ordinary people and ordinary moments, ordinary days, and ordinary tasks. And I haven’t been the only J. Crewed Caucasian man to buy the new R.E.M. CD at Tower Records on Newbury Street, to pass out on the Green Line, to be inspired by the Boston Marathon runners. Others have been braver, more ingenious, and more renegade-ish. I get too that there were other, more compelling things happening in places like Rwanda and Croatia during this period, rife with more compelling drama and worthy of greater attention.
But I also hope that the ordinary can be entertaining and galvanizing. And serve as a reminder that there is a story and a possibility behind every Ryder moving truck, every marathon bib, and every car wending its way under the butterscotch street lamps.
Part One: The Three-fer
“Gary said he would buy the Reese’s Pieces himself.”
Point of fact, I never technically said aloud that I was going to by the Reese’s Pieces. I just did it. And it was less a cognitive decision and more a foregone conclusion when the B branch of Boston’s Green Line subway that I rode surfaced at Commonwealth Avenue and I saw the gleaming orange and blue sign of the Store 24, Boston’s ubiquitous rendition of the ubiquitous mini-mart. On my way to the adjacent Nickelodeon Theater, I stopped at that Store 24, and, simply because they were there, simply because I thought I deserved it, simply because I could, bought a big motherfuckin’ one-pound bag of Reese’s Pieces.*
* Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, another story chronicling a day in the life which evokes a qualified existential outlook and which endeavors to illuminate the human experience of free will, begins, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Then I went next door and bought a ticket for a four-something showing of Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Michelle Pfeiffer. When it was over I surreptitiously made my way into a seven-something showing of Jane Campion’s “The Piano” starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, and Anna Paquin. When “The Piano” was over, I nonchalantly made my way to James Ivory and Ismail Merchant’s “The Remains of the Day” starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.* It took all three movies for me to eat the one-pound bag of Reese’s Pieces. But I did it.
* There were five screens and one usher at the Nickelodeon so such stealthy maneuverings were practically encouraged.
I started walking home when the third movie ended. I told myself that morning I was going to do whatever I wanted that day. And I had. And since I was, technically, still doing whatever I wanted, I was tempted to try and extract a little more mirth from the day. But I was tired. And my retinas were a little scorched. And there were no more movie showings slated for that evening anyway. The theater was (I use the past tense here because Boston University bought it and demolished it in 2003 to erect engineering facilities) just a few blocks away from my Allston neighborhood apartment. It had started to snow. While walking home I thought to myself, “I did it.”
I now think it ironic (though both my parents, a few college professors, a sizable number of equity partners at the law firm at which I now work, and every spouse, sibling and friend I’ve ever had would suggest, not surprising at all) that one of my proudest moments is also one of my most slothful.
This happened on Nov. 26, 1993, the day after the first Thanksgiving I had ever not spent with my family.* I woke up all alone in my still-new, still-cruddy apartment and said, “I can literally do whatever the fuck I want today.” So I decided to explore my city and then go to a movie. After weeks of frugality and what I deemed a personal triumph the day before, I was ready to splurge.
* I refer to this day, this phenomenon, as “the three-fer” as in “three-fer the price of one.” I had done a good number of two-fers in my day, and in the subsequent decades there would be plenty more. But the three-fer was a new and exhilarating phenomenon. So rare, in fact, that there has been just one more. It was Jan. 26, 1999. My fiancée and I were in New York City. I was teaching high school and had a weekday off while my students took standardized tests. My friend, who had failed the bar exam in July and whose firm was giving him some additional months to re-take the bar in February, took a day off from studying. We went to “Affliction,” “Life is Beautiful,” and “Shakespeare in Love” in one day at the Angelika.
I had been out of college for just over a year and, after living in my small hometown in upstate New York for that year, had been living in Boston just over a month. I had a new job where I had to work on Thanksgiving. I was a customer service rep for Ameritech Mobile Communications, a job a friend of mine had done for extra cash while he was at Boston College. I was tasked with alerting people making calls from their still-enormous car phones in Illinois, calls made from outside the scope of an Ameritech cell tower, that they were roaming. I was elated to have a job as my only fear about moving to Boston concerned my ability to pay the notoriously high rent in the three-bedroom apartment my friend had found for us—me, her, and the friend she made at a Phish concert. So while I had to work, I also got to breathe a little easier while I identified and eventually pursued the thing I really wanted to do. In that respect, it was a wonderful job.
But it was also a horrendous job. This customer service outfit inexplicably had prime office space on the twenty-second floor of the building at 265 Franklin Street in the bowels of Boston’s financial district. I worked the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift—a shift that suffered the rare double-defect of fostering two different kinds of alienation.
Each afternoon, I walked through streets crowded with Ivy League-pedigreed financial people. Everyone marched with rigor in freshly polished cordovan shell leather shoes built to withstand such rigor. Everyone looked astute, refined, adept, and at their best. Everyone not only wore Brooks Brothers; everyone exuded Brooks Brothers. Everyone, it was clear, was ambition incarnate. Everyone, I was certain, was on their way to achievement. Everyone was in a place where I was not. Everyone reinforced the inveterate nature of the universe.
Then, at 11:00 p.m. when my shift was done, I scurried through the same, though by then barren and spookily empty, cavernous financial district streets back to the Government Center T-Stop to catch the last Green Line train home. It would take me home, under a desolate Boston Common, under a quiet Newbury Street, and under Kenmore Square. It surfaced near Fenway Park and then rambled up and along Commonwealth Avenue to my Harvard Avenue stop, which by then was filled with drunk Boston College reminding me that my college days were over.
As hard as it was to be (or feel) poor while others are flourishing, to walk with my head up to my customer service job through the envy-inducing world of finance, to eat alone and commute home on a near-empty train, to digest the negative effects that came with the social comparisons for which I had a propensity, and to be away from my family at Thanksgiving, the resultant pride that came from existing in my new arena was incalculable.
I realize now that I should have been extremely lonely during these inaugural weeks in a big city by myself, however, apart from people who were going places—more refined people than the Buffalonians to which I was accustomed who effortlessly looked and talked like Kennedys—I really wasn’t. I never even thought I was, and would have never identified myself as such. I realize now that I was learning to distinguish loneliness from solitude. And that the rush of self-awareness, the deluge of self-confidence, and the newfound eagerness for self-actualization far outweighed and diluted any threat of loneliness.
It turns out, that self-reliance is far more buoyant, and far less elusive, than we think it is.
Thanksgiving Day. After working my usual shift, I scurried through the extra-empty and extra-quiet streets of downtown Boston to the T. On the way home that night, I realized that any anxiety I had felt about being alone on that day had dissipated.
At the corner of Commonwealth and Harvard Avenues, there was (and still is) another Store 24 (I told you they were ubiquitous). I marched in and bought a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. I took it home and ate it, proudly, joyfully; surely no less joyful than Miles Standish and Massasoit had been at the first Thanksgiving that was celebrated mere miles south of where I triumphantly sat.
The next morning I eschewed my usual personal hygiene regimen, left my Allston apartment, and walked my usual route to the Harvard Avenue Green Line “B” branch stop. I stopped at the Shawmut Bank’s ATM on Harvard Ave and took out $30. I took the train back downtown and spent the day meandering. I wandered through the North End and got a cannoli at Mike’s Pastry. I went to the Union Oyster House and ate a bowl of JFK’s favorite clam chowder. I got a mid-afternoon coffee at Dunkin Donuts, rambled up and over Beacon Hill, browsed the shops of Back Bay, and generally reveled in my individual existence and freedom.
There are a finite number of days within which a person can exercise absolute, untethered free will. In a lifetime, we probably have no more than a month’s worth of such days.* Days when a person’s free will remains positively unbound; the sort of days David Hume contemplated when he defined liberty as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.”
It sounds simple; we are always free to do whatever we want provided there is no physical impediment to us so doing. But such an assertion is not always compatible with daily responsibilities, social mores, and the basic tenets of human interaction.
* The Social Security Administration’s life expectancy calculator suggests that if the status quo persists, I can expect to live until I am 86.8 years old
All three of the films I saw that day portrayed a society which was, or threatened to be, positively vicious to those who attempted to circumvent or defy its social norms; a society that deemphasized individual action and freedom and decision. Each showed the debilitating effects of such viciousness and perhaps more appropriately, how one’s character might erode when he or she succumbs to the threat of such viciousness. They all somehow evinced the importance of freedom.
Those movies have stuck with me, both substantively and procedurally. Substantively, the movies offered a nice lesson on how not to live and how corrosive suppressing your true self can be. Procedurally, I was just so proud of myself for doing whatever the fuck I wanted to do.
It’s hard for men to say, “I need to take care of myself.” It connotes vulnerability. It suggests that we are not actually, “fuckin’ killin’ it.” In an inveterate universe, paying attention to one’s essence feels like it’s discouraged. But it’s necessary for men and women to do so. You just have to figure out how to be at your best. Everyone once in a while it’s necessary to say, “fuck it,” and eat Ben & Jerry’s at Thanksgiving or a one-pound bag of Reese’s Pieces during a three-fer.
Days that hold a freedom in which one can do anything, when even a modicum of accountability becomes a metaphysical impossibility, are few.* There inevitably would be days I would be expected to wear Brooks Brothers; where I could be ambition incarnate. And days when eating a large amount of sweets would be considered reckless and sophomoric. Nov. 26, 1993 taught me that those days were still ahead of me.
* This summer, my wife took our three kids to the beach for a few days. I had some days to do whatever I wanted. But I still had to walk the dog, caulk the tub, mow the lawn, tweak a PowerPoint presentation I was working on to present to a small business consortium the following week. I still went to Chipotle and binge-watched “Orange is the New Black,” but my free will was tethered to what Thomas Aquinas referred to as the necessity that negates the will. And laundry. My free will was tethered to laundry.