19 February 2014
My ideal visit to the city is get in, deal as quickly as possible with whatever compels me to be here, and get the hell home. Though I hear of people who voluntarily live in cities, there is nothing for me that can make it worth being in-city any longer than I have to be. So I’m bemused to find myself walking with Cheryl to the Holiday Inn next to Mass General, at ease and even enjoying it. To avoid a truly loathsome commute into Boston during a storm predicted to dump the better part of a foot of snow, we had left home twelve hours early. We’ll spend the night in a hotel a five-minute walk away from my 6:00 A.M. hospital appointment. It was probably the only sane way to do it.
I’m toying with the no-overhead option, holing up for the evening in the Holiday Inn, risking a gouging for a mediocre dinner in its Westie’s dining room and bar. While we pause in the lobby, Cheryl gets a look at Westie’s, and demurs. I tell her it’s something I would have done when I used to travel on business, bringing comfort and succor to long-suffering users of our software, and it might be an amusing goof to try it again. But her shields are up. It’s all charmless motel modern: wood, glass, and chrome, doggedly and ruthlessly stripped of character. Wouldn’t stop me, but Cheryl finds it uninviting, even repulsive.
After we check in and unpack, we reconnoitre. Cheryl asks the young clerk if there are any good places to eat nearby, as if Westie’s did not even exist. Clearly against the Male Code, as anathema as asking directions, it’s OK as long as I don’t have to do it. Besides, now that I’ve satisfied my obsessiveness about the logistics of getting here on time, I can deal with walking about for a bit, and Cheryl’s record with such inquiries does impress me. Suggestions noted, we turn away from Westie’s.
Stepping back outside, we’re in sight of Garden, Grove, Fruit, and Blossom Streets, but any edenic agricultural vibes you might hope to catch are fully damped by the light coarse powder that’s sifting down to the pavement. Even if you waited for a sweet June dusk, you’d still be screwed: there’s no aura yet that can withstand the brassy thunder of Red Line trollies. We stroll a block.
Some establishments charge a Boston tax for no other reason than having an address behind the city walls. Yet some do not extort it at all, Antonio’s being one such. Our desk man has steered us well: a comfortable uncrowded dining room, brisk, personable service, an attractive house Chianti, fine Italian seafood. It’s a worthy last meal, though I largely succeed in keeping that thought at bay. Cheryl and I have some time together, well-spent, before my day of reckoning. We are relaxed and at peace when we emerge into the snow at early closing. My grandson texts me a good-night: “you will be fine if i were you i’d be more worried about the bedbugs in the hotel than the surgery good luck love you.” He cracks me up, and I let a smile show. My mind’s wheels no longer race ungoverned, idly and compulsively imagining, obsessing over, and magnifying into doom every possible hitch. Even the remote chance of a bungled wake-up call fails to perturb me.
Of course the boy is right, exaggerated peril of bedbugs aside. The wake-up call comes, the Mass General cardiac surgery team executes peerlessly, adhering to their game plan, and I now have some down time in which to recover. Much of it involves removing, day by day, several tubes left in my body just in case. There are blood tests, EKGs, X-rays, echocardiograms, frequent periodic checks of vital signs. The functions of everyday life—eating, washing, sleeping, eliminating, walking, breathing—also take time and are also subject to measurement and inspection. I entertain visitors and nap. Nevertheless I have plenty of time for quiet contemplation and the occasional post-anesthesia hallucination. My days are full.
Returning to the hotel from our interlude at Antonio’s, Cheryl and I had caught a last sad voyeuristic glimpse of Westie’s through the plate glass. Only two customers sat at the bar: a woman in an off-the-shoulder blouse, her back to us, slouched toward her companion. It reminded me of Nighthawks—how interesting it would be to see Hopper’s rendition of this yuppie desolation. We passed, my glance unengaged.
But Westie’s has set its hooks, and in my hospital room I begin to obsess just a little. If I’d succumbed to television I might have been able to numb myself out of it, but at what cost? I speculate wholeheartedly—why is it Westie’s? What is the story with this place? I settle on the stereotypical bar-naming convention as the likeliest scenario: Westie’s was named for the modest genius loci of a predecessor establishment, bearing his reputation but not his name. Westie, some nearly mythical paragon of publicans, gone to his reward, a well-beloved patron saint of local sots, of extraordinary longevity, wisdom, and virtue, had his essence usurped to sell a bar totally unconnected to him, used in the same way that industrial wineries put adorable animals on their generic fermented products.
Despite my so recently looking like death, grey and haggard, Mass General releases me. But after a bracing week off the grid I go home stronger, smarter, better-looking, ready to consult my friend Google and set about sating my perverse curiosity about all things Westie’s. My theory turns out wrong; the true story is even worse. Westie’s ostensibly honors the West End, a Boston neighborhood which gave up its ghost to the juggernaut of a 1950s urban renewal project. Urban renewal, that most Orwellian term: government overreach backed by that bluntest of instruments, eminent domain. The best intentions, of course, pave this particular road to hell, but invariably it’s a slime trail of dollars, the cost always too high, and always borne by those who don’t deserve to bear it. So here’s Westie’s, a monument to urban renewal, a sterile edifice plastered with posters of a long-demolished neighborhood, as if that could ever recreate the spirit of the place.
New Englanders—is it just us?—have an idiosyncratic relationship with that which no longer exists. It is notable, given that suppressing indigenous languages is a well-known European sport, that aboriginal place names abound here, though the places themselves and the words representing them might no longer be recognizable to natives. Even more notable is that we memorialize actual natives. Drugstores, roads, schools—key institutions of our ascendant culture—bear the names of Massasoit, Wamsutta, and Metacom. We cherish even the architects of bloody wars against our interloping forebears.
Roads are where we most often commemorate things that no longer are, that we ourselves have frequently enough destroyed, often in the very building of the road. Metacom Avenue. French Farm Road. Meadowsweet Terrace, whose namesake has been eradicated from the pasture where now a hundred new houses squat. We do all this with no apparent irony, no schadenfreude, nor even a self-despising identification with a crushed underdog. This isn’t really as refreshing as it seems. It stems, I suspect, from ignorance, rather than kinship with the past. And when we do have a sense of history, it’s to cite long-vanished buildings as landmarks—“It’s on Route 1 just across from the Tweedy estate”—putative navigational content unintelligible outside our own small place- and time-constrained tribes.
I can live with this. It’s a human thing and familiar. I know how it works. And resisting transience, staking a claim to memory and the history that binds us together is, I think, good and necessary. We should reach back while we can—the day is not far off when we will have no one who, having fought in World War II, refuses on principle to buy a Japanese car. And the day is long past when our grandmothers scrimped on electricity because the dirty Protestants ran the Edison. Maybe a postponed one-on-one with the grim reaper has set me on edge, but Westie’s strikes me as a malignant and soulless case, all gloss and surface, where not much lives on to edify or strengthen us. It will exist as best it can until its corporate masters decree in the next marketing apocalypse that it be gutted, outfitted in the hotel bar theme du jour, and named anew.