Archive for March, 2007

Whose Shoes? Red, White and Blue Shoes.

March 23rd, 2007

Women — relatives, friends, companions and even strangers — love the cliché that men don’t get clothes and shoes. That seems to have fostered the whole Queer Eye culture as well.

That’s probably more right than wrong.

Beat me over the head often enough and I do notice some things like that. This morning for example, it was my shoes again. After spin class finished around 7, a woman called across the room to me, “I love your red shoes.”

Reading that, I am not oblivious to that being an unusual comment to a man. Plus, I’m not a delicate creature nor am I a Gen-Y guy. I’m old and bald and have shoulders that would intimidate an ox.

Men in general and New England ones in particular dress dully, dress drably. Wearing black, brown and navy is as Boston as button-down shirts. The latter are another amusing artifact. Designed for immature students who couldn’t be trusted to keep their ties on the inside of their collars otherwise, these marks of the puerile are the norm around here for adults too. These are really training pants for the chest.

Shock of the Ordinary

Two decades ago, the contrast between here and less fashion-timorous areas became obvious overlooking the Common. In late winter, I returned from visiting family in Santa Fe. Back in Boston, I sat in a dentist’s chair looking three stories down onto the theater of us.

In New Mexico, many ordinary houses have one or more exterior murals — such would likely disappear quickly in our winters and wetness. Women, children and men commonly wore clothes in colors that may never have appeared on the Common, except maybe on Brother Blue. Yellow shirts and three or four rings on a man were common, and those men weren’t rappers or hustlers.

On the Common, the scattered herd was in navy, black and brown, with a very rare dark red woman’s coat standing out.

In fairness, this may be a self-reinforcing cycle. Retailers may stock what we buy and we buy what retailers stock. Black, navy brown, if you please.

Shock of the Yellow

About that time, I bought my first mountain bike and found a version of the same fashion foibles. Cycle Loft in Burlington supposedly had the great stock. There, a caste system was in place. The cheap bikes were on the floor, with more expensive ones higher, until you got to the custom frames hanging from the ceiling.

Cycle shops are rarely places to get real bargains. They think a 10% discount is a huge gift. Yet I asked the salesman what his best bikes for the bucks were. He remained cagey and threw it back with me, asking what I liked.

To me, the most attractive bike was a tough looking Schwinn Sierra in caution yellow up front and neon green in the back. That was in the days when these bikes were still American-made and serious pieces of work. He looked a bit stunned, but recovered to say that if I wanted that particular bike, he could give it to me for less than it had cost Cycle Loft. He explained that New Englanders bought dull colored bikes — blue, black and maybe dark red. He had been unable to move the bike even though it was better than others in its price range.

He added that he knew this model in those colors moved very well in California, but not in Massachusetts. I took it and ended up with a high-end bike for a low-end price because of the region’s social conservatism.

Note: Expect a separate rant and tale of my having to shop for, and then track down a fun eyeglasses frame.

Standing Out By Default

In many ways, I’m not a wild critter. Neckties are a different story. I subscribe largely to Chinese inventor and writer Lin Yutang’s axiom that neckties strangle clear thinking. Yet over the years, as journalist, manager, writer and non-profit politician, I have encircled my neck many times in social convention. Fortunately for my repressed flair, my wife often and my sons sometimes have eased the burden. I have a purple tie with dino bones, an elegant white polka dot on blue with a small Mickey Mouse at the base, and a very subtle and discreet ladder-climbing frog, to offset my reps and other conventional cravats.

In Italy, such gests would be conventional on their own. In Boston, men and women alike comment and even rave. Man upon man says he wished he had such nerve. I can demurely say, “If you have to wear a tie, it should be fun.”

It may be a very, very small statement and protest. Yet, almost all of us wear clothes every day. Unlike Newbury Street and Rodeo Drive fetishists, I take joy not in NYT-acceptable fashion. Rather, what’s pleasing and fun and perhaps pushing boundaries a bit pleases me.

European Sensibilities

Thus, I came to a shoe moment, what was it, over 30 years ago? I was a young man finding my way in Manhattan. Those were terrible economic time, with failed newspapers, a recession, and the sudden shock of the WWII crowd realizing that their fantasy of an endless post-war growth cycle a miasma.

While a trained and experienced journalist ready to start a professional career, I found myself in HR waiting lines with editors and writers jobless near the ends of their careers, cast off by their failing publications. So, I found myself an Olsten Girl, a temp, plying my typing and grammar skills in Sherman Underwear and the United Jewish Appeal a few weeks at a time.

Then there was the Museum of Modern Art, first as an assistant to John Szarkowski in photography and next Emilio Ambasz in design. Had I the wit, I would have seized my association with Emilio and made a career seeing, touching and perhaps designing beautiful and functional objects. Instead, I saw my months at MOMA as pleasant diversions until the recession eased enough for me to write again.

A shoe moment came in the last four months or so at MOMA when I played a supporting role in bringing the show Italy: The New Domestic Landscape to life. I sat in Bellini’s catcher’s mitt chair and reveled in the shockingly advanced artful utility that shamed our post-Sputnik Era America’s provincialism.

Emilio brought many famous designers to town in the period in preparation and for the parties. Three of them in particular were enamored by one pair of my shoes.

In the small town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia where my mother went to grade school and I spent my summers with her parents, they finally attracted a single factory — Kinney Shoes. This was peach, apple and corn country, not the grey sloped hills of coal and carbine in the southern third, but the farm maids and poultry of the northeast.

While visiting family and friends, I stopped by the factory and visited its shop. There was a cartoon pair of footwear, and in my size 13. It likely was a design experiment, a failed effort, a joke. There was a single pair of red and blue suede shoes with white stars, an all-American, fourth of July jest. They were meant for me, sized for me, and waiting for me.

Back on 53rd Street, no one paid much attention or at least kept their contempt to themselves. That is until the big-shot Roman designers visited and could not believe an American showed such flair. The trio was eager to rent a car and drive to Romney for their own pairs. Alas, a call proved that I likely had the only pair ever made. They could only express admiration and a new respect for American fashion potential.

Women Notice

I have made numerous small fashion statements, but no so well vetted by international experts. Yet, from time to time, my diversion from the mundanity of this region gain recognition.

Not long ago, for example, a female bartender at Redbones in Davis Square brushed aside the thirsty to tell me what a great shirt I was wearing. That was a Woolrich chamois, olive with black bears strolling about my pecs and lats.

Likewise, this morning, it was the Reebok inside workout shoes (smooth tread), bright red, Velcro lace covers and black trim. In the YMCA world of West Roxbury, they are comparative stunners, particularly to women, who notice such things.

I bought these several years ago, when I was still teaching spin myself. My classes took to calling them my Spiderman shoes.

These could become signature shoes for some time. I bought them in Stoughton at the Reebok store during a tent sale. Not as plainly, but much like the all-American suedes, I was immediately fond of these, partly because they were colorful, but also because they were size 13. I bought all three pairs they had — $100 shoes at $15 a pair.

Men, especially New Englanders, don’t make shoe statements unless it is along the lines of, “These are my wingtips. After all, I am an investment banker.”

Were I of a mind to philander, black-bear shirts and Spiderman shoes would seem to be excellent pickup lines, or rather responses. Women approach me to compliment my flairs.

A dash of yellow or of red. It doesn’t take much to stand out in Boston.

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Bodies at the Train Stop: 2

March 22nd, 2007

Boston’s Toll Gate Cemetery does not speak well of the treatment of the urban dead. While nearby Forest Hills Cemetery does, it is private and commercial. Come a hurricane with falling trees damaging markers and sites, the grounds crew is quickly out putting the care in perpetual care.

In contrast, storms and ruffians alike have ravaged the century and one-half vest-pocket burial ground on Hyde Park Avenue. Their caprice more likely than their choice kept some markers whole and others shattered.

Toll Gate Markers

Many markers also suffer simply from the class issue that affects many East Coast cemeteries. Those whose graves have the less expensive sandstone fare far more poorly than the ones with slate or granite stones. Our driving rains, the sleet and the snow show no mercy in wearing down the names and other inscriptions.

Note: For any image here, click on the thumbnail to see a larger version.

We can rarely blame the water or wind for toppling stone, though. Numerous markers here show the effects of vandals.

Broken headstone Shattered stone

A disturbing number have been beaten into pieces. We know that the one below marked the grave of someone from County Galway, who died December 20, 1858 at age 60. Yet, the dead’s name was lost in the damage.

Abused headstone

A few of the toppled stones survive in a disabled way. You can make out the Denny inscription and its iconography. Here, kind souls could at least use local rocks to prop it up until something more permanent can happen.

Denny stone Stone propped up

The next post will show some of the stones in good shape and what they tell us about those buried here.

See part one of this post, describing the area and cemetery generally.

Tags: harrumph, harrumpher, Boston, Forest Hills, Toll Gate, cemetery

Bodies at the Train Stop

March 21st, 2007

Brine graveFreight Train, Elizabeth Cotten’s folk classic of over a century ago, fits right in at the Toll Gate Cemetery. It includes:

When I die, oh bury me deep
Down at the end of old Chestnut Street
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she comes rolling by

Note: For any image here, click on the thumbnail to see a larger version.

The Ann Brine stone above has survived fairly well in this urban artifact of a burial plot. She was one of many Irish natives interred here at a time when Boston-area Catholic bodies were not welcome in many cemeteries.

Her loving brother John paid for a fine stone, one of the last for this cemetery. In the mid- to late-1800s, the eternal slumber families fancied had no Amtrak or MBTA trains shaking the coffins or sputtering diesel exhaust or blowing their horns, as the expression goes, loud enough to wake the dead.

This miniature, mystery burial ground has fascinated me as a neighbor. It is in the oddest triangular corner of Boston, nestled just below Forest Hills Station where the Roslindale and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods bump into each other. In the ill-defined borders of the made-up JP section, various maps and sources say this land is on one or the other.

Trying to discover who owns it, who should be taking care of it, who has begun taking care of it — and who they are — and any details not literally carved into gravestones has been a Boston adventure. This is the first of several posts on the cemetery and that process.

Toll Gate? Where’s Toll Gate?

Aerial of Cemetery

Until a few years ago, an Erector-set-style pedestrian bridge crossed from Hyde Park Avenue to Washington Street just below Ukraine Way. That was kind of a tracer for where Toll Gate Way used to be. As you crossed the train tracks, the cemetery was obvious from above.

Now the bridge is gone and few have occasion to notice the burying ground that sits above the road behind a stone wall and iron fence. It’s not visible from the Western side, Washington Street. If you take a window table at My Big Fat Greek Pizza on Walk Hill Street and look in the right direction, you might be aware of it.

If you think cemeteries around here, there are:

  • Forest Hills — the grand, gorgeous garden cemetery, filled with famous statuary, even more famous bodies, and a preponderance of WASPs.
  • St. Michael — across Walk Hill from Forest Hills Cemetery and extraordinarily different. It is a true necropolis, chockablock with mausolea and tombstones. Large grim patriarchs and matriarchs stand guard still in granite, with a scattering of handsome youths who were then grieved.
  • Mount Hope — down the road a short distance is the rambling expanse of the city cemetery favored by fraternal organizations. It’s art is typified by the gigantic elk for the BPOE.

Back on Hyde Park Avenue, the tiny and tatty Toll Gate is a poor cousin indeed.

If you look for it, the landmark is a abutting auto-repair shop, replete with garish signs. A neighbor’s brother used to own it, when it was drab, grey and grimy. Now, it’s loud, whitewashed and grimy. The other closest marker is Dunkin’ Doughnuts, catercorner across the street. That used to be the beloved Doughboy, open 24 hours and, honest to God, the best place to find a Boston cop very late or very early.

Slide the pin out of the chain securing the iron gate and you enter into an urban Stephen King setting. In contrast to the other three cemeteries around, Toll Gate certainly does not provide eternal care.

Headstones tipped or shattered by vandals or weather are beside intact markers. Future posts wll include images of both types.

Why Toll Gate?

The city claims this is 0.9 acres. It’s less. Then again, its files also report that the Boston Archdiocese owns this, which both Catholic cemeteries groups and Catholic officials deny.

Note: More on the ownership of this land will appear in future posts.

The whole area was called Toll Gate from 1834 when the private Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike put a collection station between Dudley Square and the Dedham Courthouse. The JP Historical Society reports that this is where the turnpike operators weighed carts and wagons to charge their drivers. By 1848, Forest Hills Cemetery opened and the area picked up its name instead.

Genealogist Martin Grealish lectured on the cemetery to his member organization The Irish Ancestral Research Association in 1996. He has researched all identifiable graves there and spoke on “Boston’s Toll Gate Catholic Cemetery: Cemetery Research Through Gravestones, Deeds and Vital Records.”

He said that most burials were in the 1850 through 1870, with the last dated 1900.

Next, shifting bodies…

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Boston Foxes

March 20th, 2007

Somebody took my foxes…and my pheasants.

Coming home up the back side, the Centre Street side of the Arnold Arboretum today, I missed them yet again. I used to see both and other wildlife dashing, cavorting and even canoodling across and beside the road. They’d pass from or to the urban wild on the other side, a Forest Hills Station/arboretum sandwich. What was visible, sudden and at home seemed out of place in a big city and was most welcome.

Often I’d bike that route. That gave me the advantage of relative silence and apparent slow movement. A red fox would notice me but not panic. Slick helmet and all, I might be another funny animal with round feet.

I had seen my feathered and furry chums for over a decade when the city and state put a very sensible, virtually unused gravel pedestrian way from the T to the trees. While this looks reasonable on a map, they were really clearing out the urban wild and destroying the animal and bird habitat. It appears that the underlying reasoning was a response to neighbors’ complaints that other urban wildlife — junkies and hookers — liked to cavort in this space as well.

Fie on the victimless crime committers!

Fact is, virtually everyone who takes the Orange Line or a bus to FH, headed for the arboretum, walks up the sidewalk to the nearest Arboretum/Route 203 gate. That’s where the roses, lilacs and frog ponds are.

My family has a tie to the urban wild that disappeared in 2001. We had walked the Emerald Necklace under the stiff-spined leadership of Boston Park Ranger Jim Gorman. We had a youth and toddler for the long trek.

Shortly after, we saw that he would lead a tour of urban wilds in southern Boston (JP area). We went with him and saw the several, including the Centre Street area.

Gorman was Dudley Do-Right in bloom. He looked as though he was born to the pointed ranger hat and he certainly must have been an Eagle Scout. I suppose that one never stops being one any more than one is an ex-Marine.

He picked up the Bud cans and handed them to our boys for their trash bags. Meanwhile, he showed up the possums, squirrel nests, racing fox, and astonishing variety of birds. The ranger loved his wilds.

Now, the Centre Street wild is an antiseptic, well-mowed, junky-free blah. Miles South, I can still see my pheasants running across Unquity Road as I bike back through Milton. My gilded and glistening buddies, the forest in town, are gone.

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Avaricious Poetry

March 20th, 2007

The unpraised — and perhaps kudos unworthy — spammers may reflect this era’s stream of consciousness poetic artisanship. A scan of the titles in my spam buckets is often amusing and even thought-provoking.

Any given weekend, the spammers off from their jobs or studies try pathetically to entice us to open their offerings. I have seen estimates that they can profit even if they get one out of one hundred of us to look at their spam and one of a thousand of those to give them money.

Perhaps, but let’s consider the literary and theatrical aspects.

On a few accounts and a mail reader with several others, my spam filters catch almost everything. I have these set to hold messages for a week. A couple of times a month, something I want — generally with a link or two embedded — ends up in one of these bit buckets.

I am paranoid about email. I never open anything that is clearly spam. Also, even for my sister and other angel-loving types, I don’t open inspirational videos, PowerPoint presentations or even JPEG images — nothing that can hide an executable.

For my slightly twisted amusement, before deleting these, I can scan down the amusing fictive senders and subjects.

Try as they might, spammers can’t seem to rise to the level of refrigerator magnetic poetry or even to Dave Berry‘s standard of that’s a good name for a rock band.

A couple of years ago, the subjects seemed to make a (dis)honest effort to trick you. The sender had a common WASPy name (Susan or Charley) and the subject was something like they were expecting you for dinner or such.

Recently though, there are a lot of single-word subjects, apparently generated from an English-language dictionary, or a random, nonsensical phrase or text captured off the Net. Consider:

  • irrefutable
  • petal
  • harpoon agitate
  • stealth packer (actually a candidate for Dave Berry)
  • truth acute angle
  • brandenburg unary
  • engineering inconsistent

Gertrude Stein might have been inspired by some of this.

Petal. Petal. sleepwalk we talk and walk Irrefutable latch. Heigh ho, Oakland. talk and walk

In the main though, rhymers would have to collect many weeks of such gems to assemble even a short poem. The blank verse folk would have an easier time, but verbs are hard to come by.

Instead, the free-association sorts can revel in the subjects just for the stimulation. Consider:

  • Be sanhedrin of salty
  • bed logo
  • by proscribe the marjorie

I consider these small gifts, offerings left by the demented, scattered freely about in the off-chance they will find a home.

It was like a moment last weekend when the family left the Chestnut Hill multiplex (I recommend Pan’s Labyrinth) and I noticed a folded sheet of stationery on the pavement with visible writing showing through. I felt the compulsion of my youth to pick it up and voyeuristically enjoy that offering. I can control myself now, most times, but did note it to a son to see his response. He was indifferent to that personal artifact and strode on.

He also can ignore the subjects of spams.

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Migrating Harrumphs

March 20th, 2007

Like so many migrating camels, several harrumphing posts from Marry in Massachusetts and the Michael Ball (Only) Club will appear here — where they belong. Grumpiness and crankiness have their place, which is here.

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Confessions of the Habitual Harrumpher

March 19th, 2007

I have gone from amusement to reality, with the suddenness of a skydiving landing. Getting called out — albeit in below-the-fold level references — by local and national columnists, and then yesterday by my oldest son may mean it’s true.

I must actually harrumph.

My family has long included cranks of the get-it-done-right variety. I recall the humiliation my sister and I experienced together when our 5-foot 2-inch mother had the gigantic manager of the Sears store in a huge New Jersey mall literally hiding behind his desk. In her righteousness, she drove him to hunker and whisper to his secretary that he was not there.

We had moved from Virginia, which at that time meant a different Sears zone and a different color credit card. The only time our mother ever bought on credit was annually for school clothes. The new store would not take its siblings’ card and they told my mother to wait until the replacement came in the mail. She had asked for it two months before and, to put it gently, was not of a mind to wait.

My sister at 16 and I at 15 were not prairie dogs. We stayed low and avoided noise and embarrassment. Our mother, on the other hand, knew what was right and what had to be done. Our blushing was our problem at that point.

It may be of no surprise that she got that new card overnight from the company HQ. It may be no surprise that I have exhibited my crankiness more than once since, regardless of whom it embarrasses.

So, in April, when Kimberley Atkins over at the Herald had one of my posts here harrumphing, I should not have been surprised either. I was.

As she put it in BLOG BUZZ:

Last week’s SJC ruling banning most out-of-state gay couples from wedding in the Bay State has made same-sex marriage a hot political topic again online. And so far, bloggers have not been kind to Tom Reilly. “As anticipated, Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Tom Reilly is AWOL,” harrumphed MassMarrier, a gay-marriage-friendly blogger.

That was a singleton and amusing. Several blogger chums in effect sought me out to say, “That’s about right.”

Now, I must assume that Melonyce McAfee of Today’s Blogs in Slate reads Atkins’. Last week, she also had me harrumphing. Or perhaps it’s just that obvious. I choose to believe she was copying.

As she put it:

Mass Marrier at Marry in Massachusetts regrets the court’s argument that gay marriage may be harmful for children and population growth. “The majority ruling in Washington State performed its sideshow trick. It took a key legal principle, stood it on its head and spun it until it was dizzy,” Marrier harrumphs. “In both the New York and Washington decisions, the judges perverted a legal touchstone, that of compelling interest. They wrote very clearly that their states had a compelling interest in legislation that promoted the continuation of humanity, in their cases by promoting heterosexual marriage, which often produced offspring. Yet as the dissents in the Washington case iterated and mirrored the New York dissents, that has squat to do with the question before them. … Forbidding SSM simply punishes gays and their children and in no way leads to the production of a single additional future citizen.”

Self-consciousness aside, do two, possibly coincidental, comments make for a judgment of harrumph? Am I thus branded with the huge, flaming H of harrumpher?

Perhaps I could have let it pass until last evening. At a large family dinner at Boston Beer Garden in Southie, my oldest son sealed the decision.

Speaking as a reader of this blog, he said, “Well, your posts do have an harrumphing tone.”

So, there you have it. I think I need a t-shirt to proclaim my acceptance of my nature. (Insert snort here.)


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