One of the few regular parts of Boston topography are the alphabetized streets of the Back Bay. The Back Bay is on made land, made by trucking in fill to turn the marshy and festering banks of the River Charles into buildable land. I wrote a paper on this project for history class in high school. From Boston Common toward Kenmore, the streets run Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford. Each of these streets intersects with Boylston Street. We will go the wrong way down a one-way street, appropriately enough for Boston.
In 2002, I remember riding my bike, two days married, through the freezing cold to stand in delighted astonishment with my compatriots, as our Patriots paraded past with their first-ever Lombardi trophy. In the summer of 1988, I worked as a bike messenger out of an office in the alley behind this block, Public Alley #436, not to be confused with the more famous Public Alley #909.
There is no better kind of work, to use the term loosely, than to sit on a fine spring or summer day at the Au Bon Pain with a book and a gigantic iced coffee. I may or may not have spent much of at least one academic conference playing hooky like this. The grand building on this corner was the original home of MIT. Now it is a luxury clothing retailer, but they have petanque for Bastille Day.
You get a juxtaposition of architectural styles, with Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church reflected in I.M Pei’s Hanckock Tower. Ally McBeal worked across the street. Also you can see the old Hancock building with the light on top that flashes red for snow or Red Sox rainouts, blue for clear weather, and red for rain. And blue and red when the Red Sox win the World Series.
Copley Square. Trinity Church. The aforementioned Hancock. The BPL. For a long time after they built I. M. Pei’s Hancock Tower, there were problems with panes of glass popping out and falling to the street below. But they figured it out, eventually. The part of the BPL facing Copley is the old part. In an alcove off of the entry is a small statue of Henry Vane, Jr. I try to make a point of checking in with the Governor when I can. Early in my bike messenger days, I met a hip local comic named Jay Leno in Copley Square. That was some time ago.
You have the new wing of the BPL, designed by Philip Johnson. In one of his Spenser novels, Robert B. Parker has a wonderful line about how your errand at the library, whatever it was seemed, much more exalted if you came in through the old part. The old part was designed by McKim, Mead and White. You may have heard of Stanford white in a different context. The BPL is the first building I can remember seeing with the names of various worthies inscribed on its exterior. You can look for your favorites here. Across the street is One Exeter Plaza, which looks as much like Darth Vader as a building can.
At the most recent MLA convention in Boston, I had plans to meet up with Richard Miller for coffee. Not surprisingly, all of the coffee shops and all of the bars were hopelessly crowded. We ended up at Max Brenner, two grown men sipping hot chocolate.
The Pour House is the sort of place you never plan to go to, but wind up at disconcertingly frequently. I recall an evening there with Amy Monaghan and David Kunian many years ago, when we amused ourselves by chatting with people associated with some sort of beauty pageant that was happening across the street. It was a late night. It was also the site of a recent gathering of early Americanists hosted by the American Antiquarian Society.
There is no finer place in Boston to ride a bicycle than the stretch of Boylston that runs from Mass Ave to Hereford. It is wide, and slightly downhill, and if you are fortunate, the lights work so you have an uninterrupted ride all the way to Copley. Try it sometime.
I wrote the above on Wednesday. I wanted to say something about intersections between this crime scene and my personal recollections of this space. I woke up this morning to find that the story had gotten even more personal, as the suspects turned my hometown of Cambridge MA into a mashup of a Family Circus cartoon map and a Michael Bay movie. The intersections with my experience have multiplied in overwhelming and banal ways far beyond my ability to process. My friends and family are safe, but others are not. I hope the above can be a reminder of what we love, and a respite from hate.
Jonathan Beecher Field: Ipswich, Jersey, Kilmarnock.