Peter Shelton

A country boy in the big city

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on September 16, 2010

Boston Common, September 11. The woman striding along the path in the sun has just a little bit of a hitch in her gittyup. Or maybe it’s hip, city-girl attitude; there’s plenty of that on display this brilliant fall day on Boston’s historic greensward. Her purse swings insouciantly. She’s saucing her walk in a tight black skirt and heels, and a blousy t-shirt. But wait.

From my seat on the grassy hill I see as she gets closer that she isn’t a woman; she’s a man, head proud, eyes focused, going somewhere particular. And she doesn’t have arms. Her purse is slung around her neck on the left side and bounces against her hip on the right.

How does she do it? Get the purse on? Or off? Get something out of the purse, like money, or a subway ticket? But the questions fall away with the syncopated click of her heels. This is the city. The city has plenty of arms, big arms, big enough for all kinds of people.

All day the television in the hotel room has run documentary footage and somber reenactments of the 9/11 attacks. Every station does this, including the Weather Channel. A local Boston station airs a story about the memorial out at Logan Airport that’s dedicated to the several hundred passengers who boarded the fateful flights that day. Adam and I are flying out of Logan tomorrow. Maybe we’ll see the memorial.

That day in 2001 was unusually bright and cloudless in New York and Boston. I tell the sausage vendor at the Charles Street entrance to the Common that my daughter calls these “New England trick days.” Because on these rare days you might be tricked into thinking the muggy northeast has scrubbed-blue San Francisco weather. “Yeah,” he says, smiling, as he adds peppers and onions to my bun, “a teasah.” “Hey, hot dogs heah! Gotcha sausage heah!”

A young Asian couple make out in slow motion on a blanket. They’re sitting up facing each other. He has no facial hair but does have arrows of henna-ed hairdo for sideburns. She looks like a porcelain doll. They lean in and barely touch lips then stop, pull back, turn faces slightly as if trying a secret doorknob, then brush lips again.

Another couple is lying in the grass on their sides, face-to-face, heads supported by elbows and wrists. They are not kissing, but he is tracing the line of her hip with his thumb and fingertips as if lifting something delicate out of the water, over and over where her hipbone is exposed between pants and shirt.

Besides public love, there are other, organized sports going on: ultimate Frisbee, serious college-kid soccer, hilarious, drunk-guy wiffle ball. A co-ed softball game proceeds inning by ritualized inning complete with high socks, fist-pounding in gloves, spitting in gloves, first base coaches patting singles hitters on their derrières, and an umpire with a mask behind home plate.

There is a carousel stuffed with kids. And tour boats shaped like swans. And a marching pipe and drum corps made up of firemen from Brockton, Mass., in kilts and white spats, playing “Amazing Grace.”

An old black guy in a fedora plays Beatles songs on soulful saxophone, and somehow manages to keep the melody going while bowing an Elizabethan flourish, one hand sweeping wide off his instrument as I toss a dollar in his case.

Women in flowing, pastel headscarves walk and chatter in small groups along paths that all lead, because this is the cradle of the American revolution, to towering bronze statues of Minutemen and “men of peace,” like Edward Everett Hale, who may or may not be a relative of mine. I wonder if the imbecile minister in Florida is going through with his threat to burn Korans.

On the eastern edge of the Common, nearest the wharf where the Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum (“currently closed for renovation”), there is a guy hunched over on a bench. He has long, stringy hair that hides his face, and dirty fingernails at least an inch long. I am not thinking: There but for the grace of god go I. But I do see some connection, because he has a rumpled, college-ruled notebook on his lap, and he is writing, very slowly, in tiny cursive, edge to edge across the page, with a blue ballpoint pen. He has already filled many pages of this notebook, and I imagine him with many more in a bag beneath his heavy coat.

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