Boston Public Library - Boston, Massachusetts

The Old Haunts of Boston and Cambridge

It’s weird what memories stick with you, and what memories can be unlocked with a scent, taste, smile or just a simple building. Just before Christmas I made a mad dash through Boston. It’s my least favorite city in the entire world but I wanted to see some art. I ended up seeing so much more. 

Back Bay Fens, Boston

There’s a busy intersection along the Emerald Necklace just before the series of parks making up the Back Bay Fens. I haven’t walked down this street in about seven or eight years, but I vividly remember the last time I did. It was a sunny summer day and I was making a similar trek to the art museums. A biker on a fixed gear took the V shaped intersection at too hard of an angle and completely wiped out. His bike slid 25 feet, his phone slid further down the road. Luckily, there was no traffic, and besides some road rash and a fairly bruised ego, the biker would be alright.

Forever, the memory of that fall will reside in my brain, on permanent replay, over and over again. It’s very reminiscent of the simple joys of endlessly rewatching a skateboarder crash from the early days of youtube. You’d email it to all your friends, each forward was an excuse to rewatch it again. 

This quick trip through Boston brought back crazy memories, some great, some so-so, but all of them visceral and real. All served as constant reminders of where I’ve been, who I was, and made me consider where and who I think I am. 

The Arrival

I got off the train and had some time to kill, so I headed towards Copley Square. I passed the Plaza Hotel, where my younger self would stop in and order their cheapest beer at the bar and be served warm peanuts in little trays from waiters wearing white gloves. My great dichotomy with Boston is the city is abundantly cultured and the people are overly aggravated provincial pricks with speech impediments. Being from New York and not of Irish or Italian descent, I was always an outsider in Massachusetts. I ducked into the Public Library and made my first art stop of the day – the Sargent murals. The calm atmosphere and bizarre murals cooled my soul and after soaking them up, I was on my way to the Gardner Museum

I passed by two old haunts – strictly drinking establishments I spent way too much time and money in – the Pour House, a victim of the pandemic, and Bukowski’s, which still seemed to be functioning in its hidden away locale. 

The Lasting Appeal of Mass Art

As I got closer to the blocks containing the MFA, the Gardner, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Mass Art, I started recalling the first art class I took outside of my little public education. It was a Portfolio Building class as part of Mass Art Saturday Studios. Already a junior in high school, I started seeing the writing on the wall that I was going to be an artist of some sort. I felt getting serious about things was a good idea. It was the first time I was around other ‘art students’ and felt the push and drive to work harder than I ever had before.

One of the greatest benefits the program did was to take all the parents who dropped off their kids to the museums and explain art to them. My mom was the beneficiary. Every ride home was listening to what she learned. Monet, Van Gogh and countless others were among the in the flesh examples they showed her in those four hours. The irony is she now had more art history experience than my public education ever allowed. It was ingenious though! The school explained art to the parents of weirdo art kids! It helped to take the mystery and some of the worry of an art career away. My mom still talks about those classes all these years later. It’s something that I will always be thankful to MassArt for.

Of course, my teenaged self could have attended MassArt with an in-state tuition at $6,000 a year. I was unable to even contemplate going to school anywhere in the Northeast. I thought if college was the one time in my life I could escape the hell of Massachusetts, I was going to escape. That’s how I ended up in Kansas City.

Newbury Street

After spending a few hours retracing criminals’ steps at the Gardner, I snaked my way back up to Newbury Street. My parents took the kids into Boston quite a bit when we were growing up, and again, it’s something I’ll always be thankful for. The architecture, hustle and grittiness of the city always intrigued me and I felt at home walking the streets. I have lasting memories of driving by an abortion protest outside Boston Common. Future Trump loving Reaganites held up placards with the most graphic pictures of aborted babies. I never saw such unmitigated anger in a mob before. Again, its a memory that will always stick with me. 

Back in the day, Boston was like every other American city – unkempt cesspools of dirt, aged infrastructure and the smell of piss everywhere. Of course, my eight to twelve year old self saw this as a feature. Life always felt dangerous and vital and real in the city. Even in the 80’s Newbury Street was an exception. Those Brahmins and coke addled yuppies who lived in the brownstones took great care of their little street. Filled with fancy boutiques, overpriced restaurants, it remains pretty much unchanged. Of course, there are big Nike and Lululemon stores to quench your need for a lifestyle brand experience.

The NFT Gallery

Before my trip I spent a little time scouting around websites looking for interesting shows in Boston. Newbury Street has an NFT Gallery, because, where else would rich douchebags in Boston buy NFTs. I have become obsessed with today’s ongoing societal grift and NFTs are such a part of it I needed to see for myself. I walked into the gallery and to my surprise, every wall was covered in (garish) street art inspired physical paintings. The gallery attendant noticed that I was actually looking at the paintings, and she introduced herself. I mentioned a thing or two about a couple of the artists’ works, and then asked about NFTs. I was seated at the left side of her desk. She clumsily closed the streaming episode of Silicon Valley she was watching. She then walked me through the world of NFTs!

Represented artists were shown to me on a website. Flipping through images as fascinating as a phone’s lock screen, I played the role of prospective buyer. Every NFT needs a special display – you can’t just load one onto your TV, because then “it’d just be a jpeg”. Every specially made device has to be internet connected to a special box verifying the crypto asset. She showed me her digital wallet and personal collection on her phone, again apologizing that it wasn’t crypto connected, so these were, again, just jpegs. 

The NFT Market

I asked how the market has been, and if it’s stable. She fully reassured me the market is going through some adjustments. Artists have reacted to the near full collapse (my words) by limiting their editions. Instead of producing a series of 100 individual copies of an image, they are now reduced to series of 10-15, but at the same price. So your individual, unique NFT is only 1 of 10 instead of 1 of 100. That’s getting pretty unique folks!

I brought up our recent President’s NFT bounty. If you haven’t spent two minutes watching the Greatest Sham Infomercial in the World, it’s a necessity. Her initial reaction, sensing my non-Trumpian politics, was to show me some NFT art mocking our esteemed former leader. When I pressed about the effect of Trump on NFTs is, she used the analogy they were simple collectibles – almost tchotchkes – and the artists they represent make ‘Art’. As an artist, I’m well versed in the world of craft, kitsch, and art, so I begrudgingly agreed. I still felt my question remained largely unanswered. If Uncle Bob owns a roided out superhero Trump ‘NFT’, it has to affect the market and coolness factor and make the whole charade look a bit more buffoon like. 

Questions circled around and I was given a business card. I turned down a personal meeting with the gallery owner, snapped a couple pictures and was on my way, back into the real world once again.

Boston, from the Charles River

Onto Cambridge

Having had enough of Boston, I braved the building winds and headed north across the Charles River to my most bountiful stomping grounds – Cambridge. Home of MIT, Harvard and a counterculture of weirdos, nerds and the wildly elite. Jokingly referred to as ‘The People’s Republic of Cambridge’ it was a special place of its own character and design for people too lazy, creative, gifted or crazy to succeed anywhere else. Cambridge was one of those places where people lived in harmony outside the ‘real’ world. The entire city was like a rock jutting up and disrupting the current in a stream. 

After crossing the Smoot covered Mass Ave. Bridge, I quickly caught the MIT vibe. All the nerds dressed alike – too clean to be artists, but frumpy enough to have the booksmarts to not realize their outfits were slightly askew – a half untucked polo shirt, uncombed hair, little tells suggesting their mind was elsewhere. (all of that was written from an art school graduate). It felt good to be cutting through campus though, and the bountiful ghosts of a specific few years of my life were lined up in the upcoming blocks.

Cambridge Culture

I got to Central Square and soon passed the Middle East where I saw some of the best shows of my life. I was on stage with the Flaming Lips, saw Ian Svenonius perform a full set while with The Make Up hanging upside down from the air conditioning ducts. Carla Bozulich and I danced between bands at a Geraldine Fibbers show, and I saw countless bands and did was twenty year old do: party and experience music.

I was relieved Hi-Fi Pizza was gone, even a 23 year old knew it was the worst, even at 3am. Further down the road I walked past the Cantab, struggling to reopen after the Pandemic. I had entirely forgotten about the nights I spent at the Phoenix Landing. The People’s Republik was gone, perhaps one of the best bars I’ve ever frequented. Each and every bar brought up a bunch of different memories – what purpose each spot served, how often I’d go, who I’d go with and which path each night would be led down. I had some crazy memories rise up from nowhere that made me smile and sometimes shook my head. It’s weird to consider the haphazard rambunctiousness of those years.

It felt like the days I spent living it up in Cambridge was about five lifetimes ago – and its true enough. In short order I’d spend a year in Ireland, then relocate to Austin. So much has changed, but there’s always patterns to see through the mist. As it started to lightly rain,I glided past the Plough and Stars, hoping to catch a drink later and figure out everything I’d seen all day.

Harvard Yard
Harvard Yard

Harvard

Because I was familiar enough with the collection, my destination was the Harvard Art Museums. I figured I’d be able to finally see the sweeping changes that closed the museums for years. The pandemic kept me away longer still. Crossing through Harvard Square, I eschewed the yuppified Harvard Square. It was a center of hustle and an international feeling of importance. Centered around the newstand with papers from across the globe, there was a constant flow of folks up and down from the subway stop, pedestrians criss-crossing every which way, students, Lindy LaRouche supporters, protesters, buskers. Now there may as well be an Applebee’s as the eclectic shops and restaurants have become chains. The grit of the city washed away in that new stone and metal architecture. Sanitized and safe, it’s not what it use to be.

Harvard Art Museums

I paid my fee at the Fogg, and circled through the now connected galleries surrounding the courtyard layout of the museum. Not that much changed though, as one of the museums still carries the Sackler name on it. There was also a Persian sculpture basically admitted to being looted. The card cooly explained Harvard was ‘on the case’ backing up its right to own it.

Not much had changed through the first couple of floors. But the fourth floor the Conservation Department took center stage. Years ago I got a personal, behind the scenes tour of the Conservation Department. Cramped and full of art, I saw the inner workings behind it all – xrays of sides of paintings, sculptures, paintings and pottery in all stages of disrepair.

The one thing that stood out above everything else was a humble bookshelf. Innocuously stuck on a landing between floors in the stairwell. Behind the glass windows was a vast array of bottles, beakers, stones, powders and pigments of every color of the rainbow. Sometime in the early 20th century, Harvard sent out their art team to collect all the pigments used in art making. The result was this colorful assemblage creating the wildest eye candy I’ve ever seen! It was amazing and beautiful, with a haphazard charm with old typed labels and aged glass bottles.

The new floor of the museum spotlighted this and expanded the concept. Along one glass enclosed wall stretching the length of the museum was shelving filled with every pigment Harvard collected. It was across the courtyard and the conservators were gone for the holidays, but it was pleasant to see! I casually scooted from gallery to gallery, visiting old friends and lamenting that I didn’t see Beckmann’s Actors Tryptych on display. 

Bringing it Home at the Plough and Stars

Before heading back to Boston, I stopped off at the Plough and Stars. I enjoyed a few pints of my favorite cider and soaked up the always warm, always comforting atmosphere. With a bit of rain starting to fall, it proved to be its usual self – the perfect reprieve. Just days before Christmas, the thin not quite post work crowd all felt the exhaustion and heaviness of the holidays. It was quiet, some soft banter occasionally broke the soft silence. Looking around, I remembered all the fun dates, festive nights and more than a few nightcaps with friends. The bar requires a modicum of respect, and I never got too rambunctious while there. I thought a lot about all the undying confidence and optimism I had for the future back then. I wondered if I still have that.

The bartender was perfect – reticent, quick with a drink, familiar with the regulars. I slipped back in time and talked to a smartly dressed woman a couple years older than myself. She may have been sitting next to me while I doted on a date years ago. Infinite possibilities, a sheen of anonymity, dumb bullshit bar stories. I stayed longer than I should have, skipping an earlier train out of Boston, but enjoyed every minute I had there. I overtipped, inducing the grateful bartender to introduce himself to me, and I was on my way. The windy rain was heavy now, not yet cold, but uncomfortable. I made it back to Back Bay Station, and as I made it to my platform, a train to New York pulled up along the other side. It took every ounce of strength not to jump aboard, but family and the holiday beckoned.