Boston and race — November 2, 2013

Boston and race

(__Attention conservation notice__: 1400 words about the city I love and its baseball team.)

Speaking of the Red Sox, as we were … I’ve just returned from the jovial Red Sox victory parade, which was a blast (thanks to the two lovely people with whom I was attending it). Along the way, we got to talking about *why* the Sox just couldn’t win a World Series for 86 years. My friend Olivia relayed an idea from a 2003 documentary, namely that one big reason the Sox failed to make it is that they were the last team in Major League Baseball to admit black players.

This may explain why even today, among the 30,000-plus fans in the stands, it is often hard to find even one black person. As much as I love Fenway, and love attending games there, it reminds me of many things that disgust me about Boston: the 1970s’ busing crisis (which, on the positive side, yielded one of the two or three greatest books I’ve ever read); the fact that the city is largely run by, and despite every MIT and Harvard technocrat’s best intentions, will *always* be run by, the sort of people who attend Sox games; and the city’s parochial feel: it’s broken in a lot of very obvious ways, but it’s broken in ways that those who live here have grown comfortable with. I’ve long said that Boston is like a very well-worn baseball glove: sure, it’s careworn to the point of being threadbare, but it’s yours, and you know it practically as well as you know your own skin.

Except for a 15-month interval in Washington, D.C., I’ve lived in Boston from April of 2001 until now. I’m never going to be viewed as a native here; if I go into a bar in Charlestown, or along McGrath Highway in Somerville, I’m going to be eyed suspiciously or worse. Maybe it’s like this in every other city. Every city has its problems, and every city has racism to its core (New York: stop and frisk much?; I needn’t mention L.A.). I can think that other cities will be better than this one, and maybe they will be. But in all likelihood, they’ll just be bad in different ways. I don’t want to contend that the grass is greener elsewhere, but neither do I want to write off every other city because the grass there is likely to be brown. Best just to be honest about the flaws of the place you live. And I do think there’s virtue in finding a real *home*. Unlike anywhere else I’ve ever lived, Boston is very much my home. Fenway is “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark”, wrote John Updike, and on its better days I think of Boston as a lyric little bandbox of a city. Much of the rest of the time, I agree with George Packer (who wrote a book about my specific neighborhood) that “The city has a thousand charms, but it has always been easier to like than to love.”

To the extent that they think about it at all (it’s fine; I don’t think about Denver much), those who live outside Boston likely think about it for only a couple of reasons. (I’ve long said that Boston needs a mythology.) It’s got the universities, and it’s got the Revolutionary War stuff. But a lot has happened since 1776. And a lot of ugly things have happened. I think everyone who lives here owes it to himself to read [book: Common Ground]; apart from being one of the very best books I’ve ever read, it’s a heartbreaking introduction to some parts of Boston’s history that many people would rather forget.

There’s still more to learn, of course. For my part, I think I’m going to spend the offseason reading [book: Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston]. One day after we honored Celtics great Bill Russell with a statue, I’d like to understand what led the man to write that

> To me, Boston itself was a flea market of racism . . . If Paul Revere were riding today, it would be for racism: ‘The niggers are coming! The niggers are coming!’ He’d yell as he galloped through town to warn neighborhoods of busing and black homeowners.

I often feel this sort of conflict about Boston: on the one side, filled with brilliant people and lovely places; on the other, closed-minded, provincial, and racist.

And yet. And yet. I haven’t written about the Boston Marathon bombing, but I’ve meant to. It’s hard to overstate the effect it had on me. Those outside of Boston might not be aware of just how special Patriots Day is. One year I woke up well before the crack of dawn to watch a re-enactment of the battle of Concord, which led into a pancake breakfast in Concord, which led into watching the Marathon from Coolidge Corner, which would have led into watching the traditional afternoon Sox game if I had gotten my stuff together early enough. It’s a joyous day. I almost always watch the Marathon from Coolidge Corner, a couple miles from the finish line, along with thousands of my friends. We’re cheering on strangers who’ve almost finished an incredibly difficult task, we’re welcoming the spring after a seemingly endless winter, we’re celebrating the start of a new Red Sox season, and we’re rejoicing in being Bostonians.

And then the bombing happened. I was in Vancouver at the time, with cell service on my phone turned off so that I wouldn’t burn through expensive foreign minutes. I was waiting for my girlfriend outside a bathroom at the Vancouver Aquarium, so I turned on WiFi and promptly received dozens of iMessages from friends who were both concerned about my city, and afraid that I — per usual — was waiting along the Marathon route. That was an extremely awful way to learn that someone had just shattered my lyric little bandbox. And outside the library, no less! My library. The various faces of that library read “MDCCCLII FOUNDED THROUGH THE MUNIFICENCE AND PUBLIC SPIRIT OF CITIZENS”, “THE PUBLIC LIBRARY OF THE CITY OF BOSTON BUILT BY THE PEOPLE AND DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING A.D. MDCCCLXXXVIII”, and “THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY”. Every time I see these, I choke up a little bit, even more since the bombing. It’s a “Commonwealth”, not some mere state. This land has been really special, the city upon a hill, for four hundred years. And someone had just torn bodies to shreds in front of what, to me, is its most beautiful landmark.

I took it very, very personally — much more personally than I expected. They did this to what David Ortiz immortally labeled “our fucking city”. This *is* our fucking city. Our busted-ass, conflicted, often intensely frustrating city.

I think of all of this after the Red Sox won the Series, not because of “Boston Strong” (which I’ve honestly found kitschy), but because the Red Sox are indissolubly part of Boston. It’s important that Fenway Park is tucked into a corner of Brookline; I can walk over there in about 40 minutes, and walk back after stopping off for a couple of cocktails at one of several amazing bars. Having moved here in 2001, I didn’t start following the Sox until their disastrous ALCS game 7 in 2003; after learning about the game and the players, I realized that I could start a conversation with virtually anyone who wore a Red Sox cap on the T. They’re in this city’s bones.

So congratulations, Red Sox, and thanks for a great season. Now we face the winter alone, as the late Commissioner of Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti (father of the actor Paul Giamatti) put it:

> It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.

Let’s go Red Sox! — October 31, 2013