A city can be seen from millions of different angles, and for each perspective there exists a separate city. This is a semi-philosophical, tending towards vacuous, if not outright moronic, and certainly not original, idea--which is actually true.
Picture Boston in your mind. Maybe you've looked at a map and have a fuzzy sense of a thumb-shaped downtown, filled with whorls of streets and alleys, all surrounded by a sprawling blend of semi-cities and crawling, industrialized rivers. If there are some places on that map you've actually been to, they'll be clear--the gold dome of the State House, restaurant lights at Faneuil Hall, tile mosaics in the T, that huge cantilevered sculpture thing in front of the aquarium. Whatever. The secondhand knowledge you have about Boston, as a center for culture, weird Irish politicians or cramped New England architecture, will be far less vivid to you than the things you've actually seen.
So from what angles do people see Boston? Maybe as a three-day tourist, or a student out for the evening. Even the people with jobs, the ones who actually live here, have only a specific view of the city, created by the daily schedule of working and going home. Jonathan Raban has written a book called Soft City (which I haven't actually read), which talks about the different cities people create for themselves; "your" city, the one you react to and live in, is made up of bits and pieces of actual contact.
People who are still looking for jobs live in a city that is a series of widely scattered, but vivid, encounters. I decided to see Boston as a new arrival, in search of work. Starting, of course, at Logan Airport.
Sitting by the Gate Three escalator and the Au Bon Pain stand that sells mini-Cokes for $2.50, I spread out the classifieds of the Phoenix and the Globe and circled jobs that, first, I could apply for, and second, gave their address; after all, I needed a job today. Realizing how little you are actually qualified to do is the first eye-opener. If you needed work--now--if Mommy and Daddy died abruptly (and--why not--violently), without a will, and Harvard disintegrated into a moldy pile of fellowship applications and GRE pamphlets, who would hire you and for how much? That wasn't the point of this search, but fail-safes are worth remembering.
Now that I had some jobs picked out--four restaurants, a temp agency, two hyperactive sounding boutiques at Faneuil Hall and a jewelers--I needed a map. I went to three terminal gift shops, and none had a city map; only postcard foldouts of the Freedom Trail and a glossy New England map extravaganza which was far beyond my means and interests. Eventually, a woman at the car rental desk gave me a Mapa de Boston, written entirely in Portugese, but with most downtown streets clearly marked and cartooned throughout, with yellow financial buildings and red churches. The time had come.
Outside the terminal the wind was blowing cold, and on the horizon the skyscrapers rose up against a dark sky; it looked like the clouds were going to bowl and smash into the buildings, piling them into the harbor. I followed people with suitcases to the bus shelter and waited for the T shuttle. Across the tracks at the Blue Line stop, the woman on a temp poster had been spray painted to look like a snaggle-toothed devil; someone had even taken the trouble to climb over the third rail, draw in a penis by her mouth and scrawl, "Suck it baby." I hoped I wouldn't have totemp.
Studying the subway map for promising T stops,I tried to make decisions as a newcomer, but it'shard to erase previous knowledge; GovernmentCenter's stretch of bricks and thick financialbuildings seemed too forbidding. I decided on ParkStreet, where I could imagine "help wanted" signspropped among the jumble of windows facing thetrees of the Common.
At the Park Street station, I realized that Iactually felt nervous and a little scared. Therewas a kiosk with an aerial photo-map of Boston;looking down from the air into the buildings andstreets made my stomach rise and tilt, like I wasin an elevator that had just lurched 50 stories. Ididn't want to go upstairs and face job hunting; Iwandered around looking for a musician, feelingvaguely sorry for myself. It was amazing how justimagining that I had no job depressed me; twocheerful Deadheads playing "Jailhouse Rock"finally got me upstairs.
The first place I stopped was Brigham's IceCream on Tremont St.; the machine-paintedPositions Available sign, the construction holesand barricades at the door and the harassed andgreasy face of the manager drove me away beforeI'd even finished the application.
Up the block and around the corner, there was asmaller sign at a buffet. Walking down the darkstairway, I was greeted by a hearty 30-year-oldwith spiky hair and a peach sweatshirt. He wouldhave to check with his brother first; it would be8 to 4, cashier work. He was so friendly, and thebrotherly business atmosphere was so appealing,that I felt bad that I wouldn't be calling him onMonday--though walking daily into a basement couldget depressing.
THE Sweetwater Cafe, on Boylston Place,was a little too damn cheerful. Walking in thedoor, I almost smacked into a wooden parrot.Hanging from the ceiling above was a largemenagerie of coy animals; an inflatable iguana, ashark, a toad or two. By the door was a plaquewith the Sweetwater's legend, a ribald and twistedtale that boiled down to "We made it up."
I asked the bartender for an application; shedisentangled herself from some admiring yuppiecustomers and wandered off to the back. Squeezedin by a couple who were debating whether or notthe brick wall was real, I read the brass plaqueson the bar. For five bucks, which goes to theGlobe Santa Fund, you can put your own three-inchbar plaque next to others with messages like "RickAstley is the Anti-Christ," "Ghosts, I hear yourlaugh in my head" and "Lulu is a bitch."
Next door to the Sweetwater, the ZanzibarRestaurant and Tropical Dance Floor was lookingfor people as well, but they were closed, which,to be truthful, was not a disappointment. Down thestreet, a music store window had a sign for dataentry people. I went up three flights of stairsand through two chain-link security doors to betold, "Damn, I asked them to take that sign outlast week." The data entry folk looked nice; theyhad a great view over the Common and a very mellowboss with a mustache and jug ears, who explainedto me that they're the people who rent musicalinstruments to high school bands. I left wonderingwhether, or how often, they sang Music Mansongs to each other. Out on the street, searchingfor another sign, I found myself singing a TomWaits song. "...Cause opportunity don't knock--shehas no tongue and she cannot talk..."
Looking for some more friendliness, if notnecessarily a job opening, I stopped by a usedbook store; despite the cold, there were rows uponrows set up for outdoor browsing--people breathingsteam on paperback bargains. Inside, in thewarmth, I was told they didn't need anyone. "Theturnover's slow in this business. If it's reallywhat you want to work in, just keep trying andeventually you'll hit the right spot of the righttime. Sorry I can't help you out..." He obviouslyloved what he was doing; as I left, he and hiscustomer turned back to an animated discussionabout the value of first editions.
NEXT on my list of newspaper ads werethe Faneuil Hall jobs, but I couldn't face itsthick layers of pretty lights, pretty people,pretty products and general air of hyperactivecharm. There was a pearl-stringers job listed onWashington Street, which was almost asscintillating as Faneuil; the Jewellers' Building,though, looked promising.
Under the fluourescent "FLO" of the Florsheim'sShoes sign was the jewellers' beautifully carvedmarble entrance; a tiny door led into a lobby withtwo brass elevators. I wanted Farr Bros., on the8th; the elevator doors opened into a slightlyancient little world completely removed from theglitz eight stories below. There were six or sevenglass and wood doors in the hallway. Next to theelevator, which had bare blue and red bulbs forits up/down signals, was a glass mail chute with abrass-embossed eagle on the slot.
Farr wasn't in, and next door a man was veryinvolved with a ring and a five foot talloxyacetalyne blow torch, So I went down the hallto Taber Fowley, Wholesalers and Jobbers.Cardboard boxes were hanging haphazardly off rowsof wooden shelves; a huge iron safe, with goldgilt, was piled up with ragged-edged ledgers.Behind the counter was a tiny old man with a bluev-neck sweater and tufts of silver hair in hisears; he was looking through a pince-nez at abracelet.
"Farr? Old man Farr just left,I think." Heturned to his assistant, a 17-year old with astriped sports shirt and spiky moussed hair. Theyseemed to be great friends. "You seen whether theyclosed up over there?"
He had. Apparently Farr was an irregularbusiness man; "People come and go pretty fast overthere," they warned me. The 17-year-old asked ifI'd strung pearls before: "Oh, you probably won'tget the job if you're not experienced." Theyexplained to me what went into pearl stringing,which the old man said the kid was good at--armsfolded across his stripes, the kid nodded inconfident agreement. I could hear them stilldiscussing Farr while I waited for the elevatordown.
The job search was over. Obviously, I didn'thave a job, but I had looked at things in Boston Iotherwise wouldn't have; my city had shifted abit. I would like to do it again, in earnest.Stretching the glimpses of a day's search intoseveral months, living for a time in a string ofseparate jobs, is a good education; it's a vividreminder that there are many worlds jostlingaround each other at the periphery of our limitedvision.