Innocent Bystander: Adoptive Son

If I had to castigate modern parents for one besetting sin (though, I hasten to add, I’m glad that’s not my job), it would be faulty root supply. At a time when a strict and tight-knit code of personal, political, and religious ethics is no longer automatically provided to—indeed, foisted on—children by their parents, it is left largely to a sense of place to furnish the young with roots. Yet, while American communities, the suburbs in particular, are becoming more homogeneous than ever before, the average American family moves more frequently than ever before; in those suburbs, I’ve read, one out of three families moves in any given year.

Thus the poor, bewildered children must see their lengthening childhood as a series of shots of turning moving-van wheels superimposed on a montage of nearly identical Golf Club Drives and Autumn Lanes, in the manner of old movies. There is no rock and hard place for the imagination to be caught between, no snag of difference or distinction on which to impale the growing mind. Kids must surely be growing up in a vast, anonymous American back yard, with a fuming barbecue on one side and a gently sloshing, chlorinesmelling swimming pool on the other.

I avoided all this—and I may be a member of the last generation to have done so—by the simple expedient of being sent to college in a city that, unlike my birthplace, possessed a soul and conscience and modus operandi that were totally its own. I came from Detroit, a town progressively engulfed in the consequences of its own affluent aggrandizement even when I lived there: to create a ring of superior suburbs, the core city was being melted down into a factory-dotted slum. My parents, who were constitutionally opposed to the idea of property, fearing its potential stranglehold on their freedom, never owned a house while we lived there. Instead, they rented run-down but commodious buildings which could house both my father’s business and our living quarters. This neatly avoided the problem of living in the suburbs and at the same time put me in more than nodding touch with the heart of a city which, though in many ways typical of its midwestern counterparts, still had the vestiges of individuality about it, unlike its surrounding Grosse Pointes and Bloomfield Hills.

Still, I lacked more than the merest trace of a sense of belonging until, in 1944, I made the trip east to Boston. Actually, I made it twice; reversing the order in which history is supposed to repeat itself, the first visit was farce, the second, drama. Sometime in August of that year, I completed a bicycle trip across Canada with an unexpected train ride. Somewhere far up Route 201 in northern Maine—I think between two hamlets called Caratunk and The Forks—I was so careless as to let my canteen fall into the back wheel of my bike, bending enough spokes so that it was rendered instantly unridable. No spare wheels— especially in that last year of the war, especially in that depopulated land—being available, I was forced to ride a series of mail cars, rattling old woody station wagons driven by female postpersons, down to the railhead, Waterville. There I took a Boston & Maine local for Boston. When I arrived, and after I had transferred my bike and traps from North Station to South and learned that I had some six hours to wait for a Detroit train, I found myself on the town—on, in fact, the joyous Tenderloin of the old Boston, where the fleet was perpetually in and blue battalions of sailors laid siege to the complaisant bars, burlesques, and hotels of Washington Street and Scollay Square.

Though I was a civilian, and a sheltered private-school boy at that, I entered into the spirit of the occasion. Dressed to kill, or at least to maim, in a mock-Shetland jacket of wartime purple tweed (with monster checks) and a pair of green duck pants, I drifted into the Half-Dollar Bar, where I met a sailor, and where we, in turn, picked up two willing Waves. With my age—sixteen—apparently sufficiently camouflaged by my height—six-four—I was accepted by the group, and, after a couple more beers (my first), we headed for, of all things, a movie. Sitting in the balcony of a rococo picture palace of the twenties on Washington Street, I conducted my first awkward efforts at necking while watching a great extravaganza of the period, Wilson, with Alexander Knox. When the picture was over, I disentangled myself, literally as well as figuratively, said goodbye, and rode the subway one stop to South Station, where the man in the change booth made a halfhearted (and indignantly rejected) homosexual proposition to me. Soon I was on the westbound train, the quite pleased beneficiary of A Broadening Experience. I knew really nothing about Boston; I did know that I could function there in my own style, whatever that was.

The second visit came in November (colleges opened late in those years because of an accelerated degree program with three terms a year). My train dropped me at Back Bay Station this time; the palsied 1941 Plymouth cab took me to Cambridge through a city the very opposite of the one I had visited in August. It was a somber day, with thin, slate-colored clouds sometimes letting through flat blades of sun; though the grass was still green on the malls and lawns and riverbanks, it was unmistakably the start of winter. The cab flapped through the buttoned-up Back Bay, a precinct of order and legislated peace; up the regulate river on which no boat moved; into the thicket of spires I recognized for Cambridge. I was away; I was, for the first time, home.

The rules of the game in college, in Cambridge, and, by extension, in Boston, supplied the backbone I had been wanting, the body of law I needed to flout or adhere to, the soil for my roots. I was astonished on the one hand by the freedom of my new existence (I could get drunk, cut classes, or see girls if I wanted to), and by my responsibilities on the other (I was expected to win and keep the goodwill of my roommates, to meet the minimum standards of my teachers, and to comport myself so as to avoid utter disgrace). But I was more surprised—and much more moved—by the two great human, or rather ethnic, forces that shaped and fixed the whole city of Boston and its environs. On the one side was the codex of the Yankees, still very much in evidence: a survival of Puritan sobriety and duty, an enforcement of British understatement, a commitment to the plain, the drab, the serviceable, out of which, if watched and watered, the flower of achievement would eventually spring. On the other was the world view of the more recent immigrants, led by the Irish: the idea of the city not as a sacred trust to be conveyed undiminished to the next generation, but as an apple, or oyster, to be gathered and consumed for one’s own betterment and pleasure. Unlike the flint-eyed Brahmins, these people were soft-eyed and softhearted; having had nothing, it was easy come, easy go for them; indulging themselves, they found it easy, as the Puritans did not, to indulge and pardon others.

L. E. Sissman is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

And yet, though there was every likelihood that these two factions should meet with a clash over the eventual ownership of Boston, somehow they did not: though the spirited fight for the control of the city, politically speaking, had ended with the immigrants in secure possession a generation before my arrival, both sides had continued to hold their views undaunted by failure or success. Thus they preserved two cities for my delectation and instruction: the Brahmin Boston of granite trust companies and strait brick town houses, to which, as an outsider, I could not be invited; and the Irish Boston of ramshackle public buildings, public bars, and private houses, in all of which I was at least hypothetically welcome. And in their unwillingness—inability, really—to accept change, to deal with the onset of the present, these factions also managed effectively to exclude the wave of progress and newness and homogeneity which by then was sweeping all before it across the American continent. Boston remained Boston, with its tang of saltwater flats and coffee roasting; though feebler now, it is still itself today.

Two people came to symbolize these two sides of Boston, these two cities, for me. One was an early roommate of mine, a tall, courtly, withdrawn youth who was so steeped in the Brahmin tradition that he sometimes seemed barely able to function in the real world. His real loves, his paradigms of Yankee achievement, resided in the far mountains of New England, where there were birds to watch, not as an amateur but as an ornithologist, and mountains to scale, not as a weekend camper but as an engineer of cirques and cols and chimneys. Minot and I did not converse to speak of, pun intended; but he fascinated me (as much as, I am sure, my fecklessness fascinated him) for his otherwhereness, for the elusive whereabouts of his whole, feeling heart. It was—it had to be— in the highlands, where the hermit thrush sings to its kind, Minot included.

My other exemplar was Mrs. Shannon, my maid, or biddie, as maids were unkindly called by the young college gentlemen of those days. Mrs. Shannon was as patient and thoughtful as she was determined to best the disorder of my rooms; on cold, dank mornings when the factory sirens would wake me from God knows what drunken sleep, she would soothe me with an invariably cheerful word; though I was given to understand, with frequent sighs, that her husband, Francis, was an invalid, an alcoholic, a lazy layabout, or worse, this really saintly woman continued to cherish her good fortune in being able to support him with the sweat of her pale brow. To me she was helpful, sensible, motherly, always forgiving: a kind of foster mother in my strange home, and one who never demanded the things my real mother did.

Though I traveled far, if not always fast, in the years that followed, I never saw any reason to reconsider my vision of Boston as bound up in those two people. In college, I moved through rooms as full of the dry detritus of Anglo-Saxon learning—and as shabbily comfortable—as an Oxford tutor’s study; thrown out of college to rusticate, I fell gratefully into the bosom of that Irish Boston where I was helped up, placed on the city payroll, and sent to do a minute job of work (and earn a minuscule day’s pay) among the elective and appointive officials, their names sounding like the refrain to an Irish reel, who made the city move on its stately, if corrupted. way. So the movements alternated: I returned to college, to that super-preppie world of masters, deans, and scholars; after a short, unhappy stint in New York, I came back to Boston, where I joined the first senatorial campaign of John F. Kennedy and rejoined the Joycean stream of life prefigured by pious Mrs. Shannon.

Since then. I’ve hung around here, always adoptive, never adopted, always an outsider, never a member of either community. But always, also, rewarded by these two worlds that won’t quite have me, perhaps the ideal position for a writer to be in. And, oh, yes, of course I’ve felt accepted in some ways: the local papers have noticed my writings and doings. I’ve met and gotten to know a number of echt Bostonians of both persuasions, and there have even been times when I’ve felt—and felt proud to feel—that this was my own, my native (in every sense but literally born-in) city.

It takes thousands of meetings, partings, exchanges, and walks across the same uneven bricks to foment a sense of belonging of this kind. Though I can never belong like a Minot or a Shannon, I can kid myself quite easily into thinking this place home. And in its willful stubbornness to be itself, to resist forever the temptation, the desire, the command of the society to be like someplace else, this is a good city—unlike most other cities—in which to strike down roots, even quasi-imaginary ones, into the resistant, rocky soil. Or so I think, some thirty years after becoming a mockBostonian.