Nonphenomenal Lineage

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Mirthless Glare of the Bostonian

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Denizens of Boston do not have reputation for being friendly. In fact, some might say they’re downright rude. Walking down the street, people shove past you without saying “excuse me”. People will step over homeless people begging for money without even seeming to notice them. Cops stand on the street corners smoking cigars, while screaming at you “Whaddya want!?” if you ask for simple directions.

But I want to say that I think that this perceived insolence is just a misunderstanding… The other day I was reading one of those silly little emails that begins:

“You know your from __________ if you….”

This particular one was for Massachusetts, focusing on Boston. It had a bunch of funny things about wacky driving, why Bostonians call the liquor store a “packie” and little jokes about the Big Dig. But the most interesting one went something like this:

“You know you are from Boston if, when people smile at you, you think they either want something or are from out of town.”

And I had to smile in spite of myself, because it’s so very true.

Since I gave up my car when I moved here, I take the public transporation system everywhere. Formerly called the MBTA, it’s efficiency (or perceived lack there of) is on the top of the list of the Bostonian’s complaints. In fact, however, it’s a wonderful, trusty system.

Known as the “T”, the subways, busses and commuter rail trains run constantly (except from 1 to 5 am) and will take you anywhere in the city or even Massachusetts that you might need to go. It is completely easy and pretty fast to get around this city without a car. Not to mention, I couldn’t be happier not having to worry about gas prices or Boston’s awful issue with parking.

I ride the T everyday—twice a day, at least. It picks me up in front of my house and drops me off just a one minute walk from my job. The subways are often crowded, with all types of people, from drug-addled whinos to tourists to Italian suits who work in the ritzy Financial District. During baseball season, the trains get so crowded on game nights that there are never any seats left on the train. They’re usually so crowded, that you are shoved up against at least three or four strangers, cramped like sardines with barely enough room to expand your ribcage to breathe.

It’s just part of life here, and those of us who live here have gotten used to it. We’re used to sitting next to strangers on the busses and standing with our faces mere inches of other people’s faces or hands or crotches. Because the subway cars and busses can get so packed, you just have to learn to sacrifice all personal space. The subway rides usually don’t last more than 20 minutes, depends on where you’re going, so people just tolerate it for the little amount of time it takes to get to their destination.

If you’re new to Boston or just visiting, the close contact with that many strangers may be a little off-putting. But after you’re here for a while you’ll begin to understand how we Bostonians deal with it—we ignore each other. We cut ourselves off from other people and we don’t really interact with other people. It’s our way of maintaining some sort of privacy and at the same time respecting other peoples’ as well. This is a tacit unwritten law that those who live here follow.

But what to do while you’re sandwiched between the ancient woman who smells like cat poop and the crazy weirdo with scabby knees who has a serious case of Tourette Syndrome?

You watch people.Boston has the best people-watching. It’s become my favorite past-time. Some people read on the T or stare out the window, but I like to put on my headphones, pretend like I’m totally absorbed in my music, and stare at everyone.

This town is super-diverse and it’s almost guaranteed that as soon as you step on the train, you’ll glimpse someone that deserves more than a casual glance, for whatever reason.

With all this shared space and people watching, the citizens here have become accustomed to looking at people without smiling. When I first moved here, I thought it was rude that people would stare me down for up to 3 or 4 seconds without blinking or smiling. Soon, however, I found myself doing it as well.

Growing up in the mid-west, when I found someone looking at me, I was taught to smile to show that I was friendly. Especially growing up in Oklahoma, which has mild-midwestern manners mixed with southern-style hospitality. I was used to people smiling and waving and returning the gesture in kind.

But, after living here for 2.5 years, I’ve realized that the smile is a front. It’s a wall. If people smile at you as soon as you look at them, really they’re preventing you from seeing what they’re thinking. With Bostonians, you don’t get that. They don’t put up that instant pretense that blocks their thoughts from you. They just stare at you; direct and intent, to the point of it almost being intimate.

And I have found that I prefer this type of contact with people. It seems like so much more of an authentic response upon encountering another person: You look at them, and they don’t put up a guard. They let you look into them, if only for a second, and you get to see what’s really there instead a contrived politeness. It isn’t rude, it’s just honest.


Currently listening to: Popular Favorites (disc 1) by the Talking Heads


Written by pocheco

March 31, 2006 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. “You know you are from Boston if, when people smile at you, you think they either want something or are from out of town.”

    I smiled at that since it reminds me so much of where I’m from (Toronto) though it’s more like you’re seconds away from getting robbed when you smile at someone.


    March 31, 2006 at 5:04 pm

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