Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An Immigrant from the West

Photograph of Boston Common from the Skywalk o...

In a New York Minute, everything can change. ~ The Eagles

New York -- the city? I've never been there. Moving to Boston -- well, that was like relocating to the other side of the world. The moment my dogs and I drove across the Texas-Arkansas state line, everything was new. The Mississippi River, I'd only seen on film, and Memphis was a place where guys like Mark Cohn walked, but not me. Skirting the deep South felt like falling into history with markers on the side of the road pointing to places like Shiloh, where thousands of others fell on a spring morning.

Somewhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway my big dog -- the alpha in a pack of two -- began to vomit. Not a little, but a lot, and moments later I was racing my truck and U-Haul trailer down the highway looking for a veterinary clinic a stranger told me about in a gas station. I pulled off in Lexington, Virginia, the home of Virginia Military Institute, from whence cadets had marched away to halt an advancing Union Army in 1864. It was food poisoning and he lived to see me through my first year of medical school.

Back then, however, medical school wasn't even a blip on the radar screen. I was as green as a boy can be driving into Boston and for weeks afterward, felt like a barefoot hayseed from the country, seeing the big city for the first time. I remember walking into a store in the North End, curious and "just looking." The proprietor eyed me cautiously -- turns out, it had once been a meeting place for the local version of the Mob, maybe it still was. It was like being an extra in a scene from The Godfather, hoping my face wasn't memorable.

Up to that point, for me, multicultural meant Latino and African-American. But in my new neighborhood, Orthodox Jewish persons could be seen on the sidewalk any day but the Sabbath. Waiting for the Green Line train into downtown, you almost needed a handful of dictionaries to decipher the conversations you overheard. There was a real Chinatown, just beyond the southern border of Boston Common. I think it was south -- sometimes I needed a compass to know for sure.

Living there, even for a little over a year, was an eye-opener. I found out about Zeppy's Bagels, pizza by the slice, Patriot's Day, and ran following someone I'd never met who was bearing the 1996 Olympic Torch. In a town where disentangling English from Bostonian was trying at best, people asked me where I was from because they said I had an accent. It never occurred to me to think of myself as an immigrant from the West, but in a way, I was.

One of best things about Boston is the Fourth of July. You go down to the edge of the Charles River, find a spot in the crowd, and wait for fireworks -- the most amazing fireworks. After the show, the city opens Storrow Drive, a major east-west artery, to foot traffic. All the differences Boston embraces 364 days of the year seem to vanish in a New York minute, as joy becomes our common language. I can't help but think it should be that way all the time.

(GNU Free documentation image of Boston Common from the Prudential Center via Wikipedia)
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