How Boston Taught Me To Eat

Photo: soelin/Flickr

It’s my last day at Public Radio Kitchen as I prepare to move from Boston to New York City. I’m graduating college, I have a job, and I’m looking at financial independence for the first time in my life. All of that is exciting, right? I should be thrilled!

But I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. You know, maybe I’ve learned all I can from school. But sometimes I wonder what else Boston has to teach me.

Growing up as I did around New York, I developed a certain snobbishness toward other cities. When I decided to study at Boston University, I was worried that I’d find Boston boring. It wasn’t big. It didn’t have record-breaking skyscrapers. It had old churches and colonial history and lots of colleges. It was “charming.” It had the Red Sox, duck tours, The Departed, “tonic.” It was outdated old money clashing with horrible poverty. It was New England. Most of all, I sensed a total lack of importance. New York is the center of everything – a genuine hub. Boston, to me, seemed like an afterthought, a distant second among the three great northeastern cities (sorry, Philly).

I was such an idiot.

I can’t pinpoint my change as instantaneous, but I think it started like this: before going to college in the city, my parents told me to make sure I never walked alone at night, because, they thought, it was dangerous. Certainly, in New York, I only walked around with friends or family. In Boston, I kept my word for a while.

But one night something compelled me to go out alone. Perhaps it was having roommates for the first time – perhaps I felt that I could only find privacy outside of my dorm. But personally, I blame Obama. After the 2008 election – my first – there was a sudden, national, emotional drop-off that was disorienting to me. It was a quick muffling of idealism and hope and terror and conviction, a resettling into routine that put me on edge and prompted my slow, predictable disenchantment with politics. The election felt like a story and, when it ended, life again became a series of events with no obvious meaning or connection. I suppose that’s why I watched a lot of movies instead that winter. One time, I decided to go to the cinema alone. But I got lost.

I was in the Theater District – not remotely dangerous, but still confusing to someone new to the city. I wandered around. I think this was shortly after they lit the Christmas lights in the Common, because I remember walking around in the park, a young girl alone, everything white and blinking. There was a manic preacher passing out pamphlets, a couple making out on a bench, a boy with a stereo. I felt only slightly scared, but in the best way – anonymous, individual, someone small in something much bigger. Walking alone in the city at night evokes a kind of awe, an almost religious sense of insignificance stemming from fear of a random knife, an aggressive bum, a drunken harasser. I don’t mean to say that I enjoyed the sense of danger – I just noticed how it made everything else seem heightened. The lights sparkling. The duck pond still. The way the mist of my breath mingled with fog. The way smokers’ breaths blew hot as subway grates.

And then I noticed someone I recognized. A woman in a wheelchair.

Two summers ago I had visited Boston with my parents to look at colleges. We walked along the edge of the Common at night when I saw this woman, from her wheelchair, violently assaulting a sickly girl who appeared to be on drugs. I was positive that this was the same woman as the attacker that night. The assault had been a bizarre and unforgettable image, one that undoubtedly influenced the warning my parents gave me. Now, the woman stared into the distance, her expression blank.

Was I afraid? I don’t think so – I was more surprised than anything. But the T was close by, and my exit was quick and immediate. And so I learned about things that come out at night. The things you don’t expect.

I suppose I could have learned this from New York City — but, well, it would have been different. Not simply because New York is even more gentrified and clean than Boston – they’re both privileged cities in a lot of ways, slowly squeezing out the poor, the dirt, the danger. I guess the real difference is that in New York, so many people seem to be following a script – whether that’s Sex in the City or Girls or any number of Woody Allen movies. It’s too iconic for its own good. People really, really buy into the hype. I did.

There’s no script for Boston. People don’t come here because they want to pretend to be Will Hunting. I’m so grateful for that, because if there’s one thing I’ve grown to hate, it’s the idea of fitting my life into a manufactured narrative. It’s too pat of a comfort. I can see the appeal, especially for the young creative types that New York attracts. If you’re poor and an artist you can think back to Patti Smith and Andy Warhol and imagine you’re a part of that lineage; you can look to Bushwick art galleries and fancy yourself part of a movement.

But this kind of thinking doesn’t feed you. Instead, if you get caught up in the narrative of a city, it will come to devour you. You will eat at the places you’re supposed to in New York, places that evoke the kind of character you see yourself as – maybe a hipster, maybe a real working class guy, maybe a big-shot in finance. It’s eating as playacting. And then there are the New York foodies – perhaps the worst of them all, if this New York Magazine piece on them is accurate. They seem to try a brand new restaurant for every meal – a one-night-stand approach to eating. Do they ever fall in love?

The thing is, before I came to Boston, I don’t think I ever really tasted food. If I ate ice cream, it was because it made me happy. If I ate an apple, it was because it was healthy. It was a routine that I didn’t put much thought into.

But Boston was the first place that ever disoriented me. That first winter in the city was a necessary period of alienation, I think, when I began to realize that so much of what I knew was wrong, that life was unfair, and that things rarely happen for any good reason. I knew I had no idea what I was doing, that I wasn’t the writer of my own life. But with the future uncertain, the present seemed more vivid. The Citgo sign shone brighter. The moon grew bigger. I noticed my hunger more. And I learned how to eat.

3 thoughts on “How Boston Taught Me To Eat

  1. BostonPeng

    if you think the eating’s good here you should spend some time in my hometown, New Orleans. Yes, you will catch yourself needing to eat better, but such wonderful food to learn with, especially their seafood. New England has nothing on good New Orleans seafood. Or other food for that matter, but I may be a bit biased.