I’m at the point, writing this, where I can look back and compare various American cities. Because they are all different. It’s easy, I think, when you grow up knowing one city, and calling it “the” city, to believe that you know what cities are like. But really, you only know what that one city is like. Every city has its own life, and while some share enough characteristics for there to be a sameness about them, I still think if you stayed there long enough you’d come to delight in the differences. And even though I barely had enough time in Boston to get more than a glimpse of the differences there, I know it was not a city in the same way Melbourne is.
People speak about Boston with a kind of reverence. It’s certainly an old city, and it revels in this more than other cities I’ve been to. With the Boston Common as the heart of the city, and the government buildings surrounding it, it feels stately.
When in Boston, there is one thing everyone asks you: “Have you done the Freedom Trail?” The red line that scores the cobbled street from the Common to Bunker Hill is dotted by tourists. Some are being herded along by costumed guides. Others, like me, are peering from their guidebooks or maps to the plaques on the walls. It says something about a city when the major attraction is not the tallest building, or the house of someone famous, or a sign, but a walk dedicated to the city’s history.
By the time I made it up the 294 steps of the Bunker Monument, where only the most dedicated of the tourist hoarde remained, I’d learnt an awful lot about Boston. And the nice thing was that for once it wasn’t so hard to imagine myself back there. If I ignored the tourists, and shut out the horns of the duck boats, it was rather easy to see Paul Revere and his ilk striding the same streets I was.
Of course, Boston isn’t all about its revolutionary past. It’s also home to Harvard University. Or “Hahvahd” as it’s pronounced by real Bostonians. Stately and smart. I did a guided walking tour of the campus, and was looking forward to showing off my own intelligence at the statue of three lies. But apparently everyone else on the tour has seen “The Social Network” as well.
Like so many things I’ve seen in America, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a real place, and not part of an elaborate movie set. Having visited Warner Bros. Studios, I know exactly how elaborate movie sets can be. But all the buildings had both a back and a front, and those were real soon-to-be-college students wandering the lawns.
There was one experience I had in Boston that I hope I never have to endure again, and also that relates a little to this idea of city “sameness.” In most of the cities I’ve visited so far, if you walk for long enough you’ll come across a group of black guys doing a street performance. If you’ve seen it once, and think it’s original, it’s not. They even use the same jokes in New York as they do in Santa Monica. Basically, five or six of these guys demonstrate how skilled they are at break-dancing and doing flips, and then they drag a child from the growing crowd and teach him some move that everyone thinks is adorable. And then they grab another four or five unfortunate people from the crowd.
My father, if standing in a situation like this, will nine times out of ten get picked. Perhaps it’s genetic. In Boston, it was my turn.
If you think one guy taking a fifty-metre sprint toward you and then leaping over you and four other people while you crouch down and hug your knees for dear life is terrifying, you’re perfectly right. But what is more terrifying is the waiting. The three or four times he does the run-up and doesn’t jump. The riling up of the audience. And the trust. Not of the guy jumping, but of the people you’re standing with. Because if any one of them panics, your future does not look bright.
Luckily, I made it out alive. But now I do what my father always does, and hurriedly retreat to the back of any forming crowd.