John Harvard's Journal
It's hard to escape San Francisco, where I grew up, without a car. A couple of commuter trains snake into the suburbs, but once you break past the edge of the urban sprawl you can pretty much count on stepping off the train beside a 7-Eleven about three miles away from the nearest restaurant, which is itself three miles from anything else. California is a big state, and knows it.
And unfortunately I don't drive. I tried, once, before coming to college, but I ended up losing interest before making it out of the parking lot. It was a failing proposition: drivers have to pay attention to all sorts of things that do not intrigue me, like whether or not the car has gasoline in it. When I stare out the windshield, I don't like to look at the road. Public transportation spoiled me early on; in high school, when I took the bus home every day, I got into the habit of eavesdropping on other passengers' conversations and gazing out the window. I used to keep track of the way street signs lay afternoon shadows across the sidewalk. Often, it was the only time I could find to think seriously.
I came to Cambridge with the naïve notion that Harvard would give me lots of time to think. I also wanted to watch the months pass in New England -- fiery leaves, fiery suns setting into the forest instead of the sea, snow, snow, snow, sleet. The place enchanted me. In windy fall I watched acorns fall like hail in the Yard; in January I took long walks through the snow until my ears stung; in a carrel on the fifth floor of Widener that first spring I stared at trees blooming below in the Houghton-Lamont courtyard. When summer closed in with a humid stew of thunderstorms and I found myself with an opportunity to spend the warm months on campus, I took it. I hoped to be able to do over the summer what I hadn't managed over the course of the year: I wanted to explore Greater Boston.
I had first realized that such a thing could be done during Harvard's freshman orientation, when I was required to sign up for a daytrip excursion off campus under the aegis of the College's Through the Gates program. The outing I'd picked, an antiquarian-book tour of Boston, was led by someone who ran a small rare-book shop in the Square, right above the offices of the Car Talk radio show. As he led my tour group out of the musty interior of a rare-book shop near Boston Common, he handed us all discount coupons for a local Chinese restaurant. At the end of the tour, I thought: I should do more of this.
I did return to the bookshop by the Common during a weekend over the summer and ended up dragging a paper bag full of hardback books through Back Bay and into Cambridge. (To take the T would have been too simple and no fun.) Over the next couple of weekends I explored the rest of Boston on foot, too, walking from the Common to the North End to the waterfront, stopping for sandwiches or cold drinks at unpredictable intervals along the way. Then, about halfway through the summer, I discovered the commuter rail.
The commuter rail runs out of both ends of Boston -- from North Station and South Station -- and reaches into all of eastern Massachusetts like two outstretched hands mirroring each other, each finger a railroad line. The train cars are purple and they have large windows often fogged with abrasions. Conductors pacing the aisles announce every stop with a lilting shout. They have blue uniforms, and some even have change dispensers on their belts, right beside the ticket punch. Coming from California, where it's almost impossible to find a train to ride, let alone a uniformed conductor, the commuter rail seemed the closest to Norman Rockwell I could ever hope to get.
I wasn't a commuter, but that summer I acted as though I were. I always rode back and forth on the same line, which wound up the coast to the craggy seaside towns of Rockport and Newburyport. I never took a southbound train; I found myself strangely drawn to this north-of-Boston route, heading away from Cape Cod and into the witchy forests and underpopulated beaches of the Cheeveresque suburbs, where people thought much and said little and drove fast toward the New Hampshire horizon in snow-rusted cars. That is how I imagined it, wry and magical.
The commuter rail is ticketed such that you often have more than one choice about where, exactly, you are supposed to get off when you get on, and I took advantage of this feature. I would show up at North Station not knowing when the next train left, and would often board it debating between two possible destinations. I'd get off at a station, which usually consisted of an overhang attended by a Dunkin' Donuts and several sallow old men in hunting hats. People would scatter, then, and I'd follow whatever seemed to be the largest group in the hope of reaching the town's center. Town centers usually have tourist offices, and tourist offices, I reasoned, usually have maps. And so forth. Soon I was riding the commuter rail nearly every weekend and had the operation down to a science of inexactitude. At first I favored towns near the end of the line, which were stark and rocky, but then, on a whim, I started exploring closer to Cambridge. The desk in my summer room began accumulating a pile of crumpled tourist brochures.
The appeal of my daytrips, of course, was that they were completely improvised. By taking care not to plan a detail, I could ensure they would be adventures; but by sticking to a route that several hundred commuters traveled each day, I could be certain they wouldn't offer too much adventure. Soon the summer ended, though, and I gave up on my excursions after one failed try that fall: an afternoon spent sipping coffee and reading Freud in a café in Concord, where it was raining. When I found that I'd be staying in Boston the next summer, however, I got myself a commuter rail timetable.
There's a thrill in walking into a town you know nothing about with a good book and spending a couple of hours looking for the perfect place to read it, like an animal choosing its roost for the night. I have a penchant for bodies of water. In Ipswich, a beach town on an inlet about an hour north of Boston, I sat on a bench beside a river whose name I cannot remember and listened to the water, red and silty from industrial iron, washing over a dam. It was the hottest, most humid part of summer and in the leafy shade it smelled like mulch, as if the seventeenth-century cottages spread all over town were starting to decay into the surrounding hills. In Rockport I read on a ledge facing the ocean until it was too dark to see words and waves alike. In Manchester-by-the-Sea -- which I visited because you can't really pass up a town called Manchester-by-the-Sea -- I spent about three hours searching for anywhere to read: I could find exactly three benches in town, and they were all occupied. After about an hour spent crouching on the grass (which was wet, wet!), I stormed off, only to be told later that I'd missed a local bookstore specializing in first editions. That seemed enough to redeem this otherwise pretty unaccommodating, chairless place (maybe), and might even prove a reason to return. Getting to know towns is a lot like getting to know people.
One of the delights of not planning is that things often don't work out quite right. During my afternoon in Ipswich I decided to visit Crane Beach, which I'd seen championed as one of the most beautiful beaches in New England. It was beyond downtown Ipswich at the end of a long road and, by the scale on my map, seemed to be an hour's walk away. I passed the last of a few homes set into the woods and followed the road across a broad marsh lying between town and the coast. The asphalt wound in tight bends, and SUVs toting fishing poles and inner tubes were taking the curves pretty aggressively. It was at this point that I realized the road no longer had anything that could even remotely be considered a sidewalk. In fact, there wasn't especially space for anything except the massive cars. Wondering how quick my reflexes would be in front of a Jeep whipping around the next curve -- and wondering how many ticks were in high brush that lined the road -- I elected to turn around.
Getting lost, of course, is the great danger of an unplanned excursion. Getting lost is doubly embarrassing if other people are there to see it -- and that's the only time it happens to me. I've been trying for some time to articulate to friends what it is about the commuter rail that I find so enticing. Those who grew up in Boston always seem pretty nonchalant. But last intersession I was able to convince a small group of Eastern European friends -- who, for one reason or another, really wanted to go to the beach in winter -- to follow me to Salem. (They had been planning to visit Providence until they looked at a map and realized that Rhode Island really wasn't an island at all.)
We left with the ostensible goal of seeing the art museum there, but the museum was closed. Chagrined, I proposed a walk instead. I tried to lead them along the same route I had explored over the summer, along the water and up to the beach they so wanted to see, which in Salem is studded with a dramatic finger of land extending far into the bay. But after a while things stopped looking familiar, and after that they started looking like the things we had seen five minutes earlier. "I'm sure it's this way," I told them, making a deft gesture that could be interpreted to indicate any of three directions. "I think I recognize that white colonial house over there." A truly bracing wind was rising as I finally agreed to ask a woman passing on the sidewalk for directions. "We're trying to get to the waterfront," I explained.
"The waterfront. How do we get to the water?"
The woman shook her head slowly. "I've lived here all my life, and I don't know the answer to that question," she said, and shuffled on. I looked around in desperation. The long chimneys of the Salem power plant loomed over the maze of dead-end streets surrounding us. One of my friends turned to me. He said, "I think we're not in Cambridge any more."
We weren't in Cambridge any more, which is what made the expedition so rewarding. In the years since I went on the rare-book orientation tour, Harvard has diffused into my life like dye into a glass of water. I've learned to use the University simultaneously as a home, a school, a stage, an umbrella, and a punching bag. Anything so pervasive is a healthy thing to escape every once in while -- for an afternoon, at least. And part of the fun of escape is going somewhere you don't know so well, maybe even somewhere you've never been before.
I don't know any other students who delight in the commuter rail quite as I do, but many make a point of getting away when they can. Some go hiking in New Hampshire; others take a weekend during the year to ski in Vermont. With others I've gone driving (as a passenger) in the warm months. You can stop at a café in some small New England town for sandwiches and eat them at a table beside a mother and her two small children, one of whom is studying your food intently with his binoculars. You have little chance of running into your teaching fellow, and perhaps there is something to be said for that.
For me, the train is this escape. Staring out the dirty window as the summer foliage flies by, thinking about how different it is from the winter when you can see every detail of the sunset through the bare branches, thinking about all sorts of other things I would never have time to think about at school: this makes me happy. Riding home after an afternoon spent exploring a town I might not have heard of the previous day, I strain to see the first of the planets appear in the evening sky. For a few minutes, the New England night is still light enough to compete with the fluorescent lamps in the train car.
Then it is dark.