I moved into the city of Boston for the first time in the summer of 2008. I was a student, living in student housing—a decrepit, but much-beloved row house looking out over the Fens. It had once been a lawyer’s house, then a Jewish fraternity, then an “independent living group” for students. In the seventies this meant a lot of drugs and at least one subterranean explosion. When I was there, it meant we had the highest percentage of LGBTQ students of any residence at my university (somewhat less notable when one considers that our peak population was twenty students,) a disproportionate number of students who spoke openly about mental health issues, and a severe rodent problem.
My college years were not stellar ones. I had been living in student housing in Cambridge, but it wasn’t a good place for me. I was painfully socially awkward and alienated from the people focusing all their efforts on their courses. It felt like no one else was questioning if there was a life outside of lab or studio. I certainly never felt confident that I belonged in my program. I entered school with the idea that I was going to be an architect, but the truth is that I didn’t really understand what architecture was.
The singular object.
I thought architecture was about making a beautiful thing, a singular object that exists in a landscape. But architecture is first and foremost about solving spatial puzzles for people living and working in proximity, and only secondarily about creating an exciting spatial experience for those people. It is not about making beautiful objects at all. If you reach Frank Lloyd Wright or Corbusier status, you might get to create some nice things to go in your newly-solved puzzle, or your newly-created landscape, but you don’t become an architect to design chairs to match the heating vents.
I sometimes like to think that if my college self hadn’t been perpetually short of sleep, frayed by anxiety, and undergoing a crisis of self-worth, I would have done all right as a student of architecture. As it was, I sat at my studio desk and stared blankly into my sketchbook for hours. My ideas were, so far as I could tell from the feedback I got from the teaching staff, pretty bad. I still liked the beautiful object. I wasn’t enamored with or good at understanding the fundamental spatial problems, let alone solving them. Where do the people go? Where do they stay? What does it feel like for them to be inside this particular enclosure?
I not only struggled to do the basic work of architecture in my studio courses, I couldn’t even understand exactly what it was I was failing to do.
I procrastinated. My coursework made me feel idiotic, so I avoided virtually every piece of work I was assigned. (I also, incorrectly, thought that I might like to major in biology, and took several courses to that effect. I learned that what I really like is zoology, not microbiology. My university only had courses in the latter.)
The most satisfying way of procrastinating was taking inordinately long walks. Most frequently I would launch myself up Boylston, along the side of the Public Garden and the Common, and then arrow back down along Beacon. Sometimes (more and more often as I got into my senior year) I’d continue up into the North End, picking up a marzipan pig or almond macaroon at Mike’s Pastry. Sometimes I would divert onto Charles Street and walk up and down in Beacon Hill. Occasionally I went south on Massachusetts Avenue, passing Symphony Hall and come back through the South End on Tremont. More frequently I would go north on Mass Ave, ending up somewhere in the mess of Harvard Square. I did not make as much use of the free student entry to the MFA as I might have, though the MFA and its disembodied babies’ heads were barely ten minutes away down the Fens.
Avenue of escape.
Since graduation, I have passed through Boston with some regularity. I still have several friends in the area, and most of my travel has been in the eastward direction. I can make a case for spending my layovers there, especially if I’m changing airlines.
The last time I was in Boston was earlier this month. I flew into Logan and slept on the floor on the B terminal for a couple hours. At three-thirty AM, the security checkpoints opened and I was rattled into awakeness by flotillas of wheeled suitcases. I bought a scorchingly hot coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts and got on the airport shuttle around five. I walked from Government Center to North Station, losing a random twenty minutes to a side street I didn’t recognize before catching the 6:39 heading north. At ten AM, after sitting in a Cape Ann coffeeshop for two hours trying and failing to write a cogent journal entry, I signed a five-month sublease, starting in November. I’m not in Boston proper—not even in one of the close suburbs.
I am on the commuter line. I can be in Boston in about an hour. There are fifteen inbound trains a day.
My apartment is a five-minute walk from the ocean and a five-minute walk from the apartment of a friend I have known for eleven years.
Here I go.