This week (december 10-18), I’m in Boston for the International World Wide
Web Conference. At the moment I’m sitting in bed in my hotel room, watching
the 11pm news and trying to become tired enough to actually go to sleep (Its
only 9pm my time!)
I grew up in Boston; spent the first 18 years of my life here. And it’s funny
how childhood instincts come back to you immediately. Take, for instance,
the subway, or, as they call it out here, the T. I live in California. I don’t
take the subway. I haven’t ridden the subway for years. And yet, when I stepped
off the plane in Boston, I went straight for the airport shuttle, took the
Blue line to Government Center, changed to the Green line (the B train, to
be exact), and went straight to my hotel. I knew exactly which stairwells
in the station to take to get to the right tracks for the right train. I knew
where on the platform to stand so that the train would stop with the doors
right in front of me. I knew where to sit on the train so that I could fit
my luggage into the seat next to me and I could get up and to the door in
time. Instinct. All of it. It didn’t even occur to me that I was doing it
until I got off the train. Wow.
Instinct does have its disadvantages. I was wandering around downtown and
someone asked me how to get to Newbury street. I told them to take the green
line to Auditorium station, where Newbury street starts.
Not a problem, I thought, until I went home that day and realized as the
train pulled into Auditorium station that Auditorium station doesn’t exist
any more. Sometime in the last ten years it’s been renamed to Hynes Convention
Center. Oooops. Hopefully some other oldtimer who has been here for the changes
set them straight.
Being December, it’s cold in Boston. Very cold. Really, really really cold.
I was prepared, though. Before I came out here I went shopping and got myself
some lovely gloves and a matching hat and scarf. Once I’d been here for about
12 hours I decided to put aside my foofy California winter clothes and go
shopping again and get a real hat, scarf and gloves.
I thought, as I stood waiting for the train this morning, that I was just
being a weenie Californian, too used to California winters. I figured I should
stop shivering and sniffling and whining; Bostonians deal with this all the
time. Weenie Californian, can’t handle a little winter cold.
And then a man with whippets walked by. The dog. Beautiful skinny little
dogs, they are. This man had five of them, and they bounced around him like
enormous manic tan tarantula. The man stopped to wait for the light to change,
and the whippets stood. And shivered. It’s a pathetically funny sight, watching
“Poor things, they must be suffering in this cold,” Said the woman standing
next to me with bags of groceries.
“They must be used to it by now,” said I.
“They’re probably not old enough to have seen a winter this cold,” the woman
replied. “It’s only ten degrees; Minus 17 with the wind chill.”
I gaped. Minus 17? OK. I knew it was cold. Not that cold.
I felt much better. If it was cold for the real Bostonians, I was allowed
to be cold.
There’s one Boston skill I have lost, however, after living in California
for so long. I was in Harvard square this afternoon and I found that I cannot
cross the street.
In California, pedestrians are sort of a government-protected species; you
step off the sidewalk, and cars stop. They have to. It’s the law. It’s kind
of fun, actually, crossing the street in California and seeing all the cars
stop and wait patiently for you to pass. It makes you want to suddenly decide
to tie your shoes in the middle of the road to see how long they will put
up with you.
In Boston, of course, they have no such silly ideas. Whereas in California,
if you step off the curb, cars stop for you, in Boston if you step off the
curb, the Boston Driver’s job is to chase you back up onto it. So in Boston,
as a pedestrian, you learn to fight your own way across the street. You learn
to time things so that you can squirt in between cars at exactly the right
speed. You understand that if a 1987 honda civic CRX is bearing down at you
if you make it across the street in less than 2.8 seconds, there’s no way
the car can hit you because the CRX down’t have enough power in the top end
even if the driver downshifts and redlines it to see if he can run you down
before you make it across.
It’s a learned skill you get, growing up in Boston, and you need to do it
every day of your life in order to keep in practice. And I, after living in
California for six years now, have lost the skill.
I stood in front of the Harvard Coop for *five* *minutes*, trying to cross
to the subway station. All around me Bostonians were crossing the street,
performing amazing feats of timing between passing cars with bare inches to
spare. And I couldn’t’t find a spot where it didn’t scare the hell out of
me. So I stood there like an idiot, waiting for a break in traffic (in Harvard
Square! Hah!!), assuming people were beginning to point and whisper amongst
themselves. “Hey look at her. Must be a weenie Californian.”
And then I figured it out. Why try figuring it out myself when I could leech
onto a Bostonian and get them to make the judgement?
I scanned the crowd, and found myself a nice gentleman with books under one
arm. A student! Perfect! I watched warily as he approached the corner. He
was going to cross…he had that look in his eye…wait for it. He scanned
the traffic with a practiced eye as I stood with one foot poised on the edge
of the curb. A cab approached, and he took a step forward. I followed his
motions, step by step, and as the cab passed us both he made his move and
I lurched out alongside him.
He strolled purposefully into the middle of the road, and I followed him
carefully. And then–crisis–he stopped midway in the road and let a Ford
go by! He stopped! I was watching him and not the traffic and didn’t expect
him to make such a sudden movement. The Ford nearly ran me down, but I caught
myself in time and it swept by.
Together me and my Bostonian passed the last lane of traffic and back up
onto the curb by the kiosk. Victory! I had conquered the traffic! Yay!
I turned to my Bostonian to thank him, but he was gone into the crowd. Also
like most bostonians, he wasted no time and sped off at full speed to wherever
it was he was going.