As some of you may know, Massachusetts has been one of the nation’s worst hotspots for the coronavirus. It has taken a lot of sacrifice and commitment to reduce our infection rates and fatalities. It now appears that we are finally wrestling down this damnable virus.
Here in Boston, we’re going into the next phases of what I hope will be a safe re-opening of everyday economic and civic life. That became obvious to me on Saturday, when I embarked upon one of my rare treks into my downtown office at Suffolk University Law School.
As soon as I left my home, I was delighted to see that across the street, my beloved little neighborhood grocery/convenience store, City Feed & Supply, had partially re-opened for outdoor business. City Feed has a much larger store elsewhere in my neighborhood — “Big Feed” — that has been providing welcomed deliveries during this time, but this original “Little Feed” is my sentimental favorite. Alas, the Little Feed occupies such a tiny space that, given current social distancing guidelines, it may be some time before it fully re-opens for customers, but I nonetheless rejoiced at seeing this sign of neighborhood life making a reappearance.
After getting off the subway in downtown Boston, I then made my way to my favorite bookshop in the area, the venerable Brattle Book Shop, one of the oldest used bookstores in the country. Bookstores are both sanctuaries and places of discovery for me. Among the everyday activities that I’ve missed the most, dropping into bookstores ranks high among them. I actually felt a bit emotional, as I surveyed the Brattle’s outdoor stalls — source of many delightful bargain finds over the years — and then went inside to explore more. Four books and a modest $25 expenditure later, I left with new treasures.
Finally, I made it to my office at Suffolk! Despite wildly uneven levels of personal productivity in recent weeks, I managed to work through my checklist and print out a lot of materials for writing projects this summer. I made a useful afternoon of it and felt that the trip was fully worth the effort.
Then it was time to hop back on the subway for home. The evening’s main activity was a three-hour, online karaoke session with the Boston Karaoke Meetup Group. Despite some wacky challenges of integrating two online platforms and teaching one another how to make mic and setting adjustments on our various devices, it is turning out to be a surprisingly enjoyable alternative to face-to-face gatherings!
Singing is my favorite hobby, and I’ve missed it terribly. For years I’ve taken a weekly voice workshop through a local adult education center, and more recently I’ve become a regular at a downtown Boston karaoke club. Months before the coronavirus hit, I had also discovered this wonderful karaoke meetup group. Sadly, the pandemic has forced all of these activities to stop, and it may be a while before they return. That’s why I’m especially grateful that we can harness online technology to bring folks together to sing, however distanced for now.
I keep reminding myself that, at least here in Boston, it has been only three months or so since we’ve gone into this shutdown mode. Over the course of history, and currently on our small planet, countless millions of people have experienced much longer, more brutal jolts to their everyday lives due to circumstances largely beyond their control.
Nevertheless, I must admit that this time has been a head spinner for me, and I know we’re not through it yet. It has also been a firm reminder of the things that I must simply accept. So, I’ll take days like Saturday, which provided a wonderful taste of life before the term “social distancing” ever entered our vocabularies. I hope there are many more to come.
I know I’m hardly alone in spending more time watching television during this public health crisis. As I wrote a couple of a weeks ago, I’ve sharply reduced my watching of TV news, and that decision has held. Instead, I’ve been spending time with assorted series, especially highly-regarded police procedurals and historical dramas. Last night, however, I checked out the first episode of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part ESPN documentary series about the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, centering around the final championship season (1997-98) of its iconic, superstar guard, Michael Jordan.
The series is being televised in weekly installments, rather than being released in its entirety. That said, I already understand why “The Last Dance” is drawing accolades from sports writers and fans desperate to feed the beast while professional and college leagues are shut down due to the pandemic. (As further evidence, the just-completed National Football League annual draft of collegiate standouts earned its highest-ever ratings.) It’s a basketball junkie’s delight. If you’re a sports fan, and especially if you followed the great 1990s Bulls teams, then you’re in for a treat.
For me, “The Last Dance” is prompting a major nostalgia trip. The Jordan-era Bulls teams overlapped with important events and transitions in my life. Jordan first joined the Bulls for the 1984-85 season, which happened to cover my final year of law school at New York University. Even in New York, the sometimes snobby sports intelligentsia knew that this guy in Chicago was something special. Jordan immediately became one of the league’s best players. I began closely following his career and the fortunes of the Bulls from afar.
Alas, Jordan had joined a team in a deep state of mediocrity. The Bulls of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a pretty sad bunch. It would take several years of key player acquisitions and coaching changes — most notably star swingman Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson — before the team became a serious playoff contender. In fact, not until 1991 would the Bulls win their first NBA championship, the first of six during the halcyon 90s.
By then, I had been practicing law for six years in New York City, first as a Legal Aid lawyer, then as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State. But in 1991, my career was about to shift. I had accepted an appointment as an entry-level instructor in NYU’s Lawyering Program, an innovative legal skills curriculum for first-year law students, starting that fall. I was tremendously excited to be returning to my legal alma mater,as a faculty member, no less! I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of an academic career.
I would decamp from New York to Boston in 1994 to accept a tenure-track position at Suffolk University Law School, where I’ve remained since. My devotion to the Bulls followed me, and watching the team’s successes provided welcomed breaks from the demanding workload of a new assistant professor.
The academic calendar would provide greater flexibility in my own schedule, with added opportunities for travel. My fond memories of that team include visits to home in Indiana. My mom, of all folks, had become an ardent Bulls as well. We would watch games together in the TV room, cheering on what would become one of the sport’s legendary dynasties.
As a lifelong Chicago sports fan who puts those great Bulls teams on a pedestal, I look forward to watching the rest of “The Last Dance.” I’m sure it will continue to inspire nostalgic episodes as well. It’s all good, as we comb the memories of our lives during this challenging time.
It has taken a global pandemic to get me to a point where I feel limited by not owning a car.
Here in Boston, we’re experiencing a predicted surge in COVID-19 cases. Sheltering-in-place and social distancing remain the recommended best practices for those of us not working in essential businesses, and I’m taking these directives seriously. Thank goodness that my local grocery store and a number of area eateries continue to offer reliable delivery. But a car would make it easier to take occasional trips for other goods.
It has been over a month since I’ve taken the subway, which during 26 years in Boston and 12 years in New York City has been my primary way of getting around besides walking. I haven’t ordered a taxi or Uber since then, either.
As for having a car, well, I haven’t had a car of my own since 1982, when I left my home state of Indiana to attend law school at New York University, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. During college, I owned a 1968 Buick LeSabre, a hand-me-down from my parents. A quick visit to New York during the summer before starting law school easily persuaded me that keeping a car there was neither practical nor affordable. I decided that the gas guzzling Buick would remain in Indiana.
The seeds of my new lifestyle had been deeply planted a year before, during a formative semester abroad in England through Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater, which included a post-term sojourn to the European continent. Walking, buses, subways, trains, and the occasional boat trip became my modes of transportation, fueled by a sense of adventure. In addition, I didn’t have to worry about stuff like parking, upkeep, and insurance.
So, upon moving to New York, I became a happy city dweller and a creature of public transportation. I’ve never lamented a lack of wheels to take a quick trip to the country. In fact, since relocating to Boston, I’ve never traveled to Cape Cod or Nantucket, and I don’t have a burning curiosity to visit either.
In other words, for well over three decades, I’ve felt quite free bopping around cities without a car.
Until now, that is.
This afternoon, I left the immediate area of my home for the first time in a couple of weeks, to walk over to the drugstore for various provisions. Donning safety mask and gloves, I walked up the street, maintaining distance from the handful of others on the sidewalk. With a car, I could’ve completed a more ambitious shopping trip, and maybe hunted around a few other places for those elusive rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.
Honestly, though, I wasn’t unhappy about that. I did, however, feel genuine sadness at the eerie quiet in my neighborhood and the occasional sight of other masked pedestrians on what normally would’ve been a livelier Friday afternoon.
Okay, I’m not about to buy or lease a car because of this. I just hope that between various delivery options and occasional short walks to shop for necessities, I can continue to obtain the goods and supplies I need during this shutdown and any similar stretches, as we wrestle down this damnable virus.
Pandemic Chronicles #2: Turning off the TV news coverage has made me better informed and less anxious
Television news coverage and commentary are designed to get an emotional rise out of us. They can inform but also inflame. That’s how they get and keep viewers and thus build their ratings. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, I found myself watching a lot of TV news programming. And with it rose my anxiety levels, without necessarily feeling better informed.
During the past week or so, however, I’ve cut my TV news viewing to a bare minimum. I’ve limited most of my television time to binge-viewing great television series. (For example, I’m delighted to recommend “Foyle’s War” — a crime drama set in WWII-era England — for its depiction of history, appealing characters, and rich story lines.)
I subscribe to a lot of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals, both online and in print. I also listen to radio news coverage. I’m a news junkie, and I like to be an informed citizen. Furthermore, my work as a law professor and legal scholar requires me to be well-informed.
Because of the coronavirus, however, my focus has become more intensely local. While I’m interested in the national and global aspects of the pandemic, I’m now closely drawn to what’s happening in Greater Boston specifically and Massachusetts generally. I find that three regional news sources, in particular, have become lifelines for helping me stay informed about, and feel connected to, my local scene during this challenging time: The Boston Globe (daily newspaper), WBUR-FM (public radio news station), and Universal Hub (online news site).
Of course, virtually any news coverage related to this public health crisis is going to push some emotional buttons, but I’ve found myself less anxious and better informed by turning away from TV news and toward sites like the Globe, WBUR, and Universal Hub. They have also given me an even deeper appreciation for the high-quality journalism that still exists in this city, despite the challenges facing the news business. We need these resources now more than ever.
Back in November 2018, I wrote here about my “dream vacation” (link here):
My current dream vacation doesn’t involve traveling to popular or exotic tourist sites. In fact, it may sound downright geeky and dull to a lot of folks: A few weeks with a box of selected books, DVDs, and magazines. Television with cable. Favorite music. Some tabletop sports games to play. Several good eateries within walking distance. Maybe a few tourist attractions or get-togethers with friends, but no demanding sightseeing or social calendar. I’d have my computer with an Internet connection to keep up on the news and do some writing, but work-related activities would be kept to a minimum, including e-mails.
. . . Maybe I can make this aspiration a reality. At the very least, I could plan it as an extended staycation. I wouldn’t need a list of sites to see, performances to attend, or beaches to visit. Just a comfortable space to read, binge watch, order pizza delivery, and think big and little thoughts.
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. To the extent that 2020 delivers a “vacation” of any sort, it will likely resemble what I described in that blog post, only without the occasional restaurant and sightseeing visits that I imagined a couple of years ago.
Of course, this is looking at things from a positive angle. Truth is, this global pandemic has suddenly and deeply reached into our daily lives at the most granular levels. We are still in the early stages of understanding and responding to this coronavirus, which is hard to grasp given that the past few weeks have felt like, well, forever. This time is scary and heavy and unlike anything most of us have ever experienced.
Here in my Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, I’m hunkered down in my modest little condo, grateful to be able to do my academic job from home and to have the ability to order deliveries from my local grocery store and restaurants. I’m taking this public health threat very seriously. Massachusetts has entered a dangerous stage of this pandemic, so I’m mostly staying inside and wiping down package deliveries with disinfectant spray.
In terms of work, like countless other professors, I’m now teaching my classes via distance learning. The mass migration from face-to-face teaching to classes by videoconference has been a major adjustment for instructors and students alike. Still, I’m glad that we have the technology to continue the semester, and we’re making the best of the situation.
Which brings me back to my so-called vacation. It’s not going to happen, at least not in the carefree way I envisioned it. But in looking ahead to the summer, I hope I’ll be able to carve out a few days to dive into my personal library, for the pure pleasure of reading. In my home, I’m surrounded by good books, and perhaps a silver lining of this terrible situation will be an opportunity to spend more quality time with them.
I’ll be using this blog as a personal chronicle about this experience. During this time, I hope that I’ll be relatively healthy, physically and mentally, but I also know that difficult times are ahead. Like during the early stages of a war where your side is losing, the news seems relentlessly bad right now. Although I’m confident that effective therapeutic treatments and vaccines will be developed, the time between now and then will be very challenging. I hope that we can find ways to cope with the uncertainties, support one another, and find meaning in activities that bring us satisfaction and healthy distractions.
Friends, it makes my head spin to think that I’ve been living in Boston for a quarter of a century.
In the summer of 1994, I packed my bags and left New York City for a tenure-track teaching appointment at Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston. Leaving New York was not easy for me. I had moved there from my native northwest Indiana in 1982 to attend law school at New York University, located in the heart of Greenwich Village, a truly wonderful urban neighborhood and one of my favorite places on earth. I fell in love with New York instantly, and that strong affection remained throughout my time there.
Boston, on the other hand, would prove to be an acquired taste. In fact, I struggled mightily with it for years. I found truth in its reputation as being a cold place for newcomers, and my early years here were downright lonely. In addition, I badly missed the 24/7 energy of New York. Boston, I would quickly learn, turns in a lot earlier by comparison. At times, it seemed more like an oversized, sleepy college town than a major metropolis.
And yet, I am still here. Although I have not yet claimed the status of Bostonian in the full-throated way I quickly called myself a New Yorker, I now understand that here is where I have grown into the best and truest version of myself so far. It hasn’t always been easy, and it has taken a heckuva lot longer than I would’ve preferred, but I feel pretty grounded, and I’m happy about that.
Among other things, in Boston I have developed my true vocation. At the time I left New York, I had yet to discover the core focus of how I could make my most meaningful contributions to the world. Little of what I now teach, research, write about, and advocate for was on my radar screen back then. Today, however, I have a strong sense of what I should be doing with my life. (You can get a better sense of my work by visiting my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, link here.)
But there’s more to it than that. In Boston, I have matured as a person and honed my personal culture. Important seeds of who I am today were definitely planted during my time in New York and other locales, but here they grew into something more definitive.
I’m still processing how and when Boston eventually felt like home to me. I do know that Boston is a more cosmopolitan place than the city that, uh, sorta greeted me in 1994, largely because of newcomers who have decided to stay and helped to make it a more inclusive and vital community.
I’ve also become more appreciative of Boston’s older, traditional side. Among other things, Greater Boston retains a strong intellectual component. This remains a place where books, ideas, learning, and history still count for a lot. I’m especially fond of its bookstores and libraries. Although I need to take greater advantage of them, I also enjoy Boston’s historical sites and museums.
In addition, as I’ve written before, there’s a lot of music here, including opportunities for even complete amateurs such as yours truly to make some of it. They include the voice class that I’ve been taking for many years and the karaoke studio that I frequent on an almost weekly basis.
I also enjoy the way I am able to live on a day-to-day basis. My neighborhood of Jamaica Plain is a neat place to live, with a diverse, eclectic populace. Boston is a great walking city. Its public transportation systems are showing their age, but they usually get me where I need to go. I have never owned a car here. (In fact, I haven’t owned a car since I moved to New York in 1982!)
Through it all, I’ve made a core group of friends here through the work we do and the music we make. (Interestingly, most of them are from other places, too.) I have also enjoyed playing tourist guide for friends and family who want to explore the city’s attractions.
As for New York, it will always hold a special place in my heart. I typically travel to Manhattan several times a year, and I always look forward to those visits. I have family and friends there, and on occasion I participate in conferences and workshops in the city as well. I long assumed that I’d move back to the Big Apple at the drop of a hat if the right circumstances arose. But in recent years I’ve reached a point where visits to New York are followed by a welcomed train ride back to Boston and its slower pace.
So is Boston to be my home for the duration? I’m inclined to think so, but who knows!? For now, at least, I am happy to call this place my hometown.
Although I’ve been living in Boston since 1994, this city is not my first love when it comes to pro sports devotion. I grew up in northwest Indiana, a short drive away from Chicago. The Chicago Bears (football), Cubs (baseball), and Bulls (basketball) have been and always will remain my favorite teams.
Nevertheless, the past two decades have been a remarkable period for Boston’s professional sports teams. The once-cursed Red Sox have won four World Series baseball titles, most recently last fall. The Celtics (basketball) and Bruins (hockey) have each won their league titles during this stretch. And the most successful franchise of all has been the New England Patriots of the National Football League, who on Sunday won their sixth Super Bowl championship during the current century.
The Pats faced a lot of challenges this season, and even fervent fans wondered if they could mount a serious threat in the playoffs. But they pulled it together at just the right time and prevailed over three playoff opponents, including Sunday night’s prey, the Los Angeles Rams.
Watching the local post-game television coverage of the Pats win was an interesting experience. It was festive, like dropping in on a bunch of parties celebrating the win — whether it was the players and coaches talking about the game and how it felt to win, or the sports analysts breaking down the individual and team performances, or the fans sharing their total exuberance over this latest, very hard-won championship.
Today, the city will host a championship parade for the Pats, and so the celebration will continue. The “rolling rally,” as it is called, will pass by the building in which I work and teach(see photo above). The expected crowd size is such that university administrators canceled classes that overlap with the parade and its aftermath, figuring (correctly, I believe) that it may be nearly impossible for students, faculty, and staff to get to classes and meetings amid thousands of fans lined up on the sidewalks that connect our downtown campus buildings.
Impact on the city
All of this sporting success has had a salutary effect on the city’s self-image. Boston has long been a town with a chip on its shoulder and an inferiority complex. Mounting numbers of bad seasons mixed with some heartbreaking near misses for its beloved pro sports teams contributed to that dynamic — especially when they involved losses to teams from hated New York City. During the 21st century, however, the numbers alone establish Boston as the nation’s most winning sports town.
We can and should debate whether so much civic pride should be invested in professional sports franchises. In the case of Boston, sports should not alone define the culture of a city that also can be rightly proud of its importance in American history and its many contributions to the arts, education, high technology, medicine, and the sciences. And frankly, some of that diehard fandom here can get loud and obnoxious — especially when stoked by too many beers.
That said, given a choice between bad teams and losing seasons vs. winning teams and championships, I’ll take the latter, thank you. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the wins will continue, but for now it’s great fun to be a sports fan here.
Like many folks, I generally don’t like being at hospitals. It has nothing to do with the dedicated health care professionals who work in them, but rather because I associate hospital stays with serious disease or injury. Nevertheless, last week I joined a guided tour through historic parts of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and it was very interesting.
The tour was sponsored by Old South Meeting House, the non-profit organization based in the historic Boston building of the same name. Old South (the building) dates back to colonial days. A public meeting hall, it was the site where rebellious patriots planned the Boston Tea Party (1773) in protest of taxes levied by the British crown. Old South (the organization) maintains the historic site and hosts programs and talks devoted to Boston history.
I learned that MGH was founded in 1811 and is the third oldest general hospital in the U.S. The “general” hospital distinction is important, because it means that (1) its services are open to all; and (2) it treats a full range of health conditions.
The highlight of the tour is a visit to the “Ether Dome,” the name given to the operating theatre that hosted the first public demonstration of anesthesia in 1846. The space is still used for meetings today, and it has been maintained to look as it did during the 19th century.
This 2000 painting depicts the historic event, which you can read about at the Wikipedia page about MGH:
And here’s my snapshot of the location shown in the painting:
Yup, we were right there. It gives you chills.
For reasons stated above, I probably won’t be signing up for many more walking tours of hospitals, if at all. But MGH is a historic site in Boston history and a significant institution in the history and ongoing delivery of health care in America.
The tour was also a reminder to me of how much fascinating history is present in Boston. Even as a history buff, it’s easy to take for granted how much evidence of early American history is all around me. I’ve decided to spend more time exploring that history, and toward that end I recently renewed my membership with Old South Meeting House. It’s neat to play tourist in my own hometown, and I want to do more of that.
This weekend marks the closing of Durgin-Park, a Boston restaurant featuring classic Yankee-style cooking that has been around for over 190 years. In explaining their decision to close, owners cited the rising cost of doing business and competition from newer, trendier restaurants.
Durgin-Park is located in Faneuil Hall, a popular tourist location with shops, restaurants, and pubs. During Boston’s early history, this was a commercial seaport, market, and meeting place, and Durgin-Park served up many meals to those who toiled hard to make a living. Between Faneuil Hall’s period of commerce and its 1970s reincarnation as a tourist site, Durgin-Park continued on as a favorite local eatery.
The closing of Durgin-Park has been big news here in Boston, with much of the coverage sharing nostalgic reminiscing over meals, family gatherings, and visits to the city. Here’s the lede from a piece by Shannon Dooling of WBUR public radio:
Durgin-Park, the Faneuil Hall restaurant that dates back to the early 19th century, is slated to close its doors Saturday. Known for its traditional New England fare, and at times surly wait staff, patrons have been coming out in droves to show support, share memories and enjoy a final meal at the Boston institution.
Durgin-Park is part of my Boston history as well. In the spring of 1994, when I traveled from New York to Boston to search for an apartment in anticipation of my move later that summer, my long-time friends Don and Sharon Driscoll drove out from their home (then in Connecticut) to add a bit of sightseeing to the trip. Sharon was familiar with Durgin-Park from a childhood visit to Boston, and so we made it my first bonafide New England restaurant meal as a soon-to-be Bostonian.
Since then, I’ve taken many guests there, including friends and families visiting Boston on a vacation, as well as groups from academic conferences. The food was always hearty, plentiful, and delicious.
Some of the news reports about Durgin-Park’s closing allude to the possibility of a buyer stepping in to save the restaurant. I have no idea if this is simply wishful thinking. I do know that great cities make room for the new without jettisoning the best of the old. Durgin-Park certainly qualifies as the latter. If it is to serve its last meal this weekend, then it will be missed for years to come.
Tara Isabella Burton, in a feature for The Economist’s 1843 magazine last year, serves up a human interest story on an iconic Manhattan institution, the 24-hour diner:
Londoners have their pubs. Parisians have their cafés. New Yorkers have diners – altars to cheap coffee and mayo-spackled pastrami, where you can order a mug at dawn and stay until dusk, where you can hurl invective at the waiters and where they’ll hurl them right back. New Yorkers may be brusque, but at the diner counter, they’ll tell you every one of their secrets before the second cup of coffee.
. . . The diner, after all, is at once the result of New York’s loneliness and its solution. It’s a place where social rules among strangers – no eye contact, no smiling, especially no conversation – are suspended. The greatest diners, like Chelsea Square, are the 24-hour ones that cater to morning workers and midnight drunks, and to the people who find themselves in those sunrise spaces in between.
Yeah, it’s something of a clichéd piece, characterizing the NYC diner as a refuge for loners and eccentrics in a sort of romanticized, 1940s kind of way. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it, because it pushes my nostalgia buttons: The 24-hour diner ranks high among the institutions I miss most about living in New York City, where I lived from 1982 to 1994.
During that time, two such places were regular stops for me, the Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street and 6th Avenue, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway and Astor Place. It’s no accident that both are in the heart of Greenwich Village, near the buildings of New York University, where I went to law school. The Washington Square Diner was a short walk from Hayden Hall, then the primary dorm for first-year law students. The Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger was close to the Mercer Street residence hall, where most second and third year law students lived.
When I visit New York, a meal at the Cozy is a required pilgrimage. I usually order the same thing: A cup of their incredible split pea soup with croutons and a delicious turkey burger. Some of the same guys who worked behind the counter in the 1980s are still there. I also make occasional visits to the Washington Square Diner, where their challah bread french toast remains one of my favorites.
For most of my life I have been a night owl type. Coming from northwest Indiana, the 24-hour city diner was a revelation to me. Good, basic comfort food at decent prices, available around the clock. Awesome!
I’ve been in Boston for some 24 years. While NYC is the city that never sleeps, Boston tends to go to bed early. Although there are many things I like about Boston, how wonderful it would be to see a bunch of 24-hour diners pop up. After all, sometimes a burger or plate of eggs at 2 a.m. just hits the spot.