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Lynn Hummel: Boston — a city with a soul

Our son Buckwheat lives with his family in a comfortable Twin Cities suburb he calls a “city without a soul.” What’s he talking about anyway? At the 20th anniversary of his graduation from high school, each graduate was asked to write a paragraph about his or her past 20 years. Buckwheat wrote, “I spent the first 10 years trying to get as far away from Detroit Lakes as possible as I could, and the second 10 years trying to get back.” He still considers himself a Minnesota wood tick, but circumstances are such that he’ll never return.

The question for this week is, what does it take for a city to have a soul?

Boston comes to mind because of recent events there. We lived in Boston for nearly a year some time ago, and we could feel the soul the day we arrived. Our blue-collar landlady, who lived in the apartment just below us, asked if the kids would like some “tonic.” Later she asked if they liked “frappes.” Tonic is pop or soda in Boston and frappes are milkshakes.

One day I stopped at a little shop and ordered a cup of coffee. “Regulah?” the waitress asked. I thought regulah must be black, but it was about two teaspoons of sugar and a half inch of cream. It was like syrup. At the ballpark on a very chilly night, we had to have some coffee. They make all their coffee in one huge boiler, about 50 gallons at a time — it was all pre-mixed regulah, but it was too cold not to have any. We bought school clothes for our kids at the little store where the Boston Strangler of the 1960s was captured. We found the expression “Pok yoh cah in Hawvud yod” is not a joke in Boston, that’s how they say it.

Out in traffic, we thought Boston drivers were wild, aggressive and mean. One lady looked at me through her rolled up window and my rolled up window after I’d accidentally cut her off and screamed “you s__ of a b____.” I couldn’t hear her, and I don’t read lips, but her words were clear to me — and I probably deserved them. But, in person, Bostonians were friendly and kind. I sneezed in public one day and this huge, burley guy who looked like an ironworker, looked at me, smiled and said, “bless you.”

We saw baseball games at the historic Fenway Park with its famous “Green Monster” left field wall. There is no other baseball park like it in America. We saw the Boston Celtics play in the Boston “Goddin,” whose lobby was a train station. The basketball floor was Boston’s distinctive parquet floor. The Boston Bruins hockey team also played in the Garden. The Garden was built in 1928 and designed to have the spectator seats as close to the action as possible, so the fans could actually smell the sweat of the athletes. Sadly, the Garden has now been torn down and replaced.

Our kids loved to tour the U.S.S. Constitution, (“Old Ironsides”), at dock in the Boston Harbor. Built in 1797 and famous for victory in the War of 1812, the old frigate is now a museum. Below deck you stoop to walk because sailors in the War of 1812 must have been 5’6” or shorter. The most popular children’s exhibit was a glass case showing surgical instruments of the time. The favorite of our kids was a long nose plier identified as a bullet remover. “Just look at that bullet remover” they gasped.

We also saw the Boston Marathon, beginning, middle and end.

Boston, having hosted the Boston Tea Party in 1773, is rich in Revolutionary War history. Downtown is a pedestrian walking tour called the Freedom Trail that includes the Boston Common, Old South Meeting House, Faneuil Hall, Old North Church, Paul Revere Home and the Bunker Hill Monument. Elsewhere, we were thrilled to see the original painting of “The Spirit of ‘76,” two drummers and a piccolo player marching bravely forward in battle ahead of the colonial flag. 

But the soul of Boston is much more, including Harvard, MIT and countless colleges. It’s the Boston Pops Orchestra, it’s a rich ethnic diversity, the home of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, art, science and culture. And we know now that the soul of Boston has been demonstrated at the Boston Marathon by the police and firefighters of Boston and surrounding areas, first responders, National Guard, medical personnel, runners, fans, families, visitors and regular citizens — strong, brave and eager to help — and resistant.

Boston is clearly a city with a soul. What about our own little cities — big and small? Soul has to mean more than the bread and butter, meat and potatoes business of making a living, feeding a family and a place to sleep; more than nice homes and green lawns; more than law abiding citizens and tall churches. I can’t define soul, but I know some tiny towns that have it — they know how to participate and celebrate for one thing. They have concerts and events, and buildings that are not duplicates of everything else up and down the road. They have an attitude and pride that over time becomes part of the local culture, and it’s good. That’s how they become cities with a soul.