Walking The Line

From Boston Magazine

For one local man, stumbling along the Freedom Trail is no stroll in the park.

Hustling down Charles Street in my usual effort to get from Point A to Point B without anyone trying to sell me a copy of Spare Change, I was met with a question that stopped me cold: “Do you know how to get to the Freedom Trail?” My inquisitors were a wholesome, corn-fed couple toting a minicam, a map, and a toddler. I offered them the following response: “No.”

I wasn’t being rude, just honest. All I knew about the Freedom Trail was that it was this red line that, uh, took you someplace. More accurately, it took tourists someplace. Where, specifically, it took them didn’t matter, as long as it was not on my route from Point A to Point B. I’m a local, for God’s sake. The only red line that matters is the air-conditioned one that gets me home to the Davis Square T stop.

Still, my interaction with that family made me realize I’d become something more than a local. I’d become an elitist local. Worse, I’d become an ignorant elitist local, the kind who resides in the birthplace of freedom but doesn’t know where the Freedom Trail is. And so it comes to pass that I mark the month of our nation’s independence with a solo expedition along the great red way. Come along with me now as I share a site-by-site account of my eye-opening, historically enriching day as a “tourist.”

Stop 1: The State House
Eagerly, I approach the commonwealth’s majestic capitol, wondering which feature would be most impressive to a true out-of-towner: the bulldozers ripping through the excavation site where the lawn used to be, the rickety scaffolding leading to the basement entrance, or the lunatic in the trench coat who greets each tour group with a friendly -though cryptic – “Cradle of Freakin’ Liberty? Let these people get outta their own crap!”?

“Mommy, what is that man saying?” a little girl in pigtails asks her panicked parent.

“Nothing, honey. He’s a silly, silly man. Let’s skip this stop.”

In the spirit of historical edification, I myself persevere. And as I enter Memorial Hall, something Massachusetts taxpayers have always suspected is confirmed: This state is run by children. Swarms of them, all slipping into comas as they’re led around by grandmotherly guides who do not realize their puffy hairdos are being used as spitball targets. It eventually occurs to me that these children are not actually legislators. At least not the ones wearing “Forest Park Middle School” jackets.

“So how do you like the Freedom Trail so far?” I whisper to one of 15 adolescent boys losing his will to live near a statue of William Francis Bartlett.

“It blows,” he replies.

Stop 2: Park Street Church
The first thing I notice about this impressive edifice is that all the entrances are chained shut. The main doors don’t even have doorknobs, further ensuring that we Freedom Trailblazers won’t be getting inside so fast. Some seem disappointed, but others are secretly relieved since they’ve always harbored a “seen one, seen ‘em all” attitude toward churches.

Not that I would know.

Stop 3: Granary Burial Ground
For locals, this cemetery has always served as the perfect landmark for giving directions to Silvertone Bar & Grill. For tourists, though, it’s the final resting place of some very famous, very dead people. As I step inside to join their ranks (the tourists, not the dead people), I pause to wonder what it is that I’m supposed to do in here. Maybe I’m supposed to gaze pensively upon the purported tomb of Mother Goose, silently reciting “Hickory Dickory Dock”? Perhaps I should place a bouquet from KaBloom on Paul Revere’s marker?

At a monument to Ben Franklin’s parents, I meet Scott and Janie, a J. Crew-ish couple engaged in hushed conversation, presumably about how proud Mr. and Mrs. Franklin must have been of their boy Ben, what with getting himself on the $100 bill and everything. It turns out they’re in town from New Hampshire, killing time after dropping off Scott’s mom at the airport.

“Do you know if we’re anywhere near Cheers?” Janie asks me.

As much as I want to see this town through the eyes of a tourist, I refuse to set foot inside Cheers. Instead, I shuffle over to the tomb of Samuel Adams, respectfully positioned near a Port-A-Potty and a spray-painted sign that reads “caution: falling debris.” Here I spend some quiet time reflecting upon the man’s life. “Sam Adams,” I reflect. “Boy, could I use a beer.”

Stop 4: King’s Chapel
I must admit, I’ve become strangely attached to the red brick trail. In a city where one wrong turn can lead an innocent pedestrian to Billerica, there is something comforting about a pathway that keeps pedestrians from getting lost. There is something discomfiting, however, about this particular stop: King’s Chapel is also closed (though doorknobs are present). I should be frustrated, but I’ve got more important things to think about, such as: “Why does the Freedom Trail go left and right at this point?” Taking an out-of-towner’s POV, I decide it’s the work of thugs trying to lure me into an alley and steal the Boston USA Passport to Savings booklet I got earlier at the visitors’ center. Cautiously, I turn right – since going left would take me to another graveyard, and how many graveyards does one person need to see in an afternoon? After passing the venerable Mail Boxes etc., Ye Olde Starbucks, and Borders Books & Publick House, I come to a place that finally seems Freedom Trailworthy…

Stop 5: Old Corner Bookstore
For as long as I’ve lived in Boston, I’ve assumed this shop was an old-world treasure trove of antiquarian tomes and first editions. How much we learn by becoming tourists! In reality, it’s the mother of all cheesy souvenir stores, featuring such must-haves as individually wrapped Theodore Roosevelt Fine Mint Chocolate Bars. As for the actual literature, the only opus flying off the shelves is Make Way for Ducklings, along with a spectacular array of tie-in merchandise, including:
– duck magnets
– duck coasters
– duck snack trays.

Can someone please tell me what’s up with this city’s duck fetish? I mean, fine, it’s a cute story, but the whole plot revolves around protagonists who are considered heroes because they cross a street.

As I exit the bookshop and narrowly avoid getting flattened by a UPS truck, the regional significance of the story suddenly makes sense.

Stop 6: Old South Meeting House
On Washington Street, I spot a flamboyant fellow traipsing around in a frilly shirt and bloomers. Upon closer inspection, I find that he is none other than Mr. Benjamin Franklin, back from the dead to re-enact what life was like before Foot Locker moved in down the block and drove up real estate prices.

“And look there, over yonder corner!” Ben bellows to the nose-picking day campers gathered for his tour. “‘Tis the lady name of Abigail Adams!”

I look over yonder corner and see ‘tis the same whackjob in the plaid cape I avoided a few minutes ago, praying she wouldn’t try to sell me a copy of Spare Change. But now that I know she is Abigail Adams, I pray for something else: Please be related to Sam Adams, because I could really use a beer.

Stops 7&8: N/A
I have no idea what’s on these stops, as I elect to skip them. My feet are tired and I’m sure they won’t serve Sam Adams there, anyway.

Stop 9: Durgin-Park
Though not an official site on the Trail, this place has two things going for it: Sam Adams in bottles and Sam Adams on tap. It is here, in the spirit of our founding fathers, that I finally enjoy a cold, refreshing Sam. It is also here that I sit next to a group of Financial District guys on some kind of scavenger hunt, who keep making me take Polaroids of them wearing inflatable moose antlers. Last, it is also here that I enjoy another refreshing Sam.

Thus fortified, I am properly prepared to face that mime-ridden theme park known as…

Stop 10: Faneuil Hall
Before I commenced my day as a tourist, you’d have been as likely to find me here as you would have waiting in line at Cheers. But in my new role as a Freedom Trailblazer, I see Faneuil Hall in a new light, a more . . . inebriated light, if you will. With patriotic pride, I march through Quincy Market like a Minuteman. Among my spoils: one free chicken teriyaki sample, one free bread and clam chowder sample, two sample-size cups of Colombian Supremo coffee, one chicken dosa, and one low-fat butterscotch-dip soft-serve ice cream cone. I also secure a cool pair of commemorative drawstring shorts from those two extremely historical figures, Abercrombie and Fitch.

Stop 11: The Treacherous Crossing to the North End
Let me put it this way: If the Mallard family tried crossing the intersection of Blackstone Street and the elevated Central Artery, they would have ended up as entrees at Maison Robert. Screeching ambulances, filthy potholes, and concrete blockades all await the terrified tourist (a.k.a. “me”) who dares to sprint across to the dank tunnel bisecting the Big Dig.

“Welcome to the Freedom Trail!” I greet a perplexed German family catching their breath by a garbage can. “Is it everything you dreamed it would be?”

Stop 12: The North End
It is with great anticipation that I reach the North End, mainly because it has the word “end” in it. By the time I arrive, around 5:30 p.m., both Paul Revere’s pad and the Old North Church are closed (seen one, seen ‘em all – or so I’ve heard), but Copp’s Hill Burial Ground is open for business. It’s surprisingly peaceful – free of kids’ groups, minicams, and men in moose antlers. Seated quietly in a corner is a thirtyish guy reading Let’s Go USA! He informs me, in a heavy Spanish accent, that we’ve missed the last shuttle to the USS Constitution.

“Bummer,” I respond.

He tells me his name is Jorge, and he’s in town from South America for a convention of oral surgeons. He set out on the Trail a few hours earlier, and now he needs help finding his way back. All of a sudden, I’m somebody’s tour guide: “Now that over there is Euno, great pasta, plus there’s a fireplace downstairs if you come back in the winter…. If you kept walking that way, you’d hit Chinatown, and you want to go early to this place called Taiwan Caf*…. See this graveyard? The bar across the street is Silvertone. Walk to your left when you go downstairs and you’ll probably get served faster.”

After my mind-numbing day as a tourist, it feels good to be a local again. So before Jorge heads off to meet his fellow oral surgeons, I take him to Limbo, the least Freedom Trailish place I can think of. There, among the cleavage-baring hipsters lounging on suede banquettes, I buy Jorge a Sam.

“This place,” Jorge says, looking around, “it does not feel like Boston.”

“Jorge,” I say, “sometimes you’ve just gotta get off the Trail.”

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