CHEERS TO BOSTON
From Paul Revere to Denny Crane, the US’s cradle of liberty has always been a city of characters, observes Graeme Blundell
REAT cities are always more than their built environment, trickier and more perplexing than any set of class or economic relationships. A showcase for the American Revolution, yet known familiarly as Beantown, Boston is built around pockets of history, places of cultural significance and scenes of critical events in the city’s struggle for freedom. Walking this compact and windy city is an irresistible pleasure.
I’ve taken time to get my bearings, picking up the red Beantown Trolley bus tour several streets from my hotel, the Langham, on the harbour near the aquarium. Our loud, laconic driver says it’s called Beantown because beans, slow-baked in molasses, have been a favourite Boston dish since colonial days.
‘‘ The city was awash in molasses, mainly due to its rum-producing role in what was called the triangular trade,’’ he shouts, a
Gwalrus of a man without slumped in his seat. Sugar cane harvested by African slaves in the West Indies was shipped to Boston, made into rum and sent back to West Africa to buy more slaves to send to the West Indies. Even after slavery’s end, Boston continued to be a big rum-producing city.
The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 killed 21 people and injured 150 when a tank holding molasses for rum production exploded.
‘‘ What a way to go, man,’’ guffaws our driver when he shows us the distillery site on Commercial Street where it occurred. ‘‘ Witnesses said the wave of molasses was 15 feet high and travelled at 35mph.’’
It’s almost the end of the day’s tour and the trolley is uncomfortable and cold. The breeze is so mean it seems the harsh breath of a Puritan god is hissing through the many cracks. Boston is much windier than Chicago
moustache, and the weather changes quickly and unpredictably. ‘‘ If you don’t like New England’s weather, wait a minute,’’ said Mark Twain, no stranger to Boston.
Like Twain, our driver is agreeably garrulous, though he yawns a lot, despite a large pile of plastic coffee cups by his gearshift. A clap of thunder rocks the trolley and rain hammers down. His cultural notes are amusing and he is also a writer, like every second Bostonian, it seems. (It’s just that he hasn’t written that darned first novel yet.) First up, he says, Bostonians don’t speak English. ‘‘ They speak ‘ whateva’ they brought over from East Anglia,’’ he intones into his microphone, before emptying another coffee cup.
The Bawstin accent is basically the broad A and the dropped R that Bostonians add to words ending in A: pahster, soder, Cuber. Around me, rugged-up visitors silently mouth the words. ‘‘ For the broad A, just open your mouth and say ‘ ah’, like the doctor says,’’ he shouts, warming to his task, relishing the verbal games.
Well, it’s funny in a draughty, wet bus. The name Boston, it seems, originated from an English religious figure called St Botolph, who started a Botolph’s Town, which was shortened to Bo’s Town, then further elided to Boston. That’s how the English city of Boston got its name and the US Boston was named after England’s.
Our guy is full of stories. Boston is as short on parking space as Moscow is on toilet paper. Parking spaces are as common as a ski slope in the Sahara. And he talks incessantly about the television show Cheers , which was famously set in Boston, and eventually our trolley passes the Bull and Finch Pub in Beacon Street, where the exteriors were shot.
Though the bar frequented by Norm, Cliff, Frasier, barman Sam and the other cast of characters was a Hollywood set, the inspiration for the series was this drinking hole, eventually renamed Cheers.
True Cheers enthusiasts queue to check out the replica bar and restaurant, which looks more like the set, located in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which we also pass.
Candy-coloured amphibious World War II vehicles, fondly known as Ducks, with names such as Beantown Betty and Fenway Fannie (after the home ground where the Red Sox baseball team plays), also driven by tour guides (ConDUCKtors called Major Tom Foolery and Count Kilroy), splashily cruise around us as we traverse the city. Every time they pass, the passengers yell ‘‘ Quack! Quack!’’ out of the windows.
As we head more sedately through the toney area of Beacon Hill, our driver points out the Charles Bulfinch-designed Massachusetts State House with its distinctive gold dome. And the huge equestrian statue of Union general Joseph Hooker, whose female camp followers, lovely ladies of negotiable affections, were known as Hooker’s women, or hookers. Nearby is Isabel McIlvain’s standing statue of John F. Kennedy, a president also alleged to be partial to ladies of the night and statuesque blonde starlets.
It’s still raining when I leave the trolley near Columbus Park and the driver parrots Mae West’s remark, ‘‘ I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini!’’ as I begin to head back to the Langham’s Julien Bar.
It’s easy to imagine any of the city’s great crime novelists, such as Robert B. Parker or Dennis Lehane, meeting their Hollywood agents in this plush bar, toting contracts in soft leather attache cases. As Lehane’s Boston tough-guy Patrick Kenzie might say, you could sit in this resiliently opulent bar and think
New enterprise: William Shatner’s capricious character from Boston Legal has tourists trekking to Beantown