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Boston’s Buttoned-Up Culture — And How I Came To Love It

A crowd at the Boston Calling music festival is pictured in May 2016. (Joe DiFazio for WBUR)
A crowd at the Boston Calling music festival is pictured in May 2016. (Joe DiFazio for WBUR)
This article is more than 4 years old.

I was sitting at a banquet table in the Park Plaza hotel on the first morning of a weekend conference last spring, my head down in a sheaf of papers as I prepped for a presentation I was dreading. Gradually I became aware of the three women across from me, all strangers, bonding over their shared perception that New Englanders are unfriendly.

“I figured, a conference in Boston, nobody will talk to me the whole weekend!” one woman exclaimed. “Thank God I found some other people from out of town.”

“Tell me about it,” the woman to her right said, leaning in. “I grew up in California. I was in shock the first time I came here on business. People look right through you.”

I looked up from my notes. I was dying to say, “You want friends? You should have made them in kindergarten — like the rest of us.” But I wasn’t sure they’d get the joke. It can be hard to explain Boston to outsiders.

I was dying to say, "You want friends? You should have made them in kindergarten -- like the rest of us."

As the city fills up in the next few weeks with students coming to college and recent grads arriving for their first jobs, I’m reminded of my own initiation into Boston’s buttoned-up culture — and how I came to love it.

I was a few years out of college, trying to hold together a miserable relationship that had no future. It finally fell apart at an afternoon Patriots party thrown by mutual friends in a neighborhood utterly unfamiliar to me. I was only just able to mumble some excuse and duck out the door before the tears started to fall. By the time I made it to the first floor, I was crying so hard I couldn’t see. I tripped on a broken brick in the sidewalk — quintessential Boston, those broken bricks — and landed on the curb on my hands and knees. Literally dumped.

Unable to pull myself together enough to get on the T, I started walking, stopping at every traffic light to wipe my eyes with the heels of my hands and pull my ripped tights away from the gash that was oozing blood from knee to shin.

After what would have been 20 city blocks, if Boston had blocks, I finally felt steady enough to attempt the Red Line. Knees trembling, I descended into the dank underworld that is Downtown Crossing and carefully found a place on the narrow platform as the train trundled into the station, preceded by the familiar column of hot, dirty air. I crossed into the train, intensely self-conscious of my red face and ruined outfit, and thought savagely, “If even one person says anything to me, I’m going to throw myself onto the third rail.”

And God bless my fellow Bay Staters, not a single rider said so much as “Do you need a tissue?”

My writing-conference table-mates would have been aghast, but really things weren’t what they seemed. Even through my self-absorbed misery, part of me was dimly aware of being watched: The man next to me in a mechanic’s one-piece coverall caught my eye, then went back to regarding his huge hands folded lightly on his knees. A pony-tailed mom with a toddler in a stroller down the end of the car eyed me as she rummaged in her diaper bag. A woman in blue scrubs with a lanyard around her neck and a circle of braids looked hard at my injured knee before pursing her lips, nodding once and turning to stare at an advertisement for a junior college. Clearly in her mind this was no medical emergency.

For all that, no one spoke. And I was not just okay with that, I was grateful. I felt sure if I’d needed actual help — a Band-Aid or change for my bus connection or even just that tissue — they’d have given it. But until I actively asked for something, my city mates were giving me exactly what I wished for: Privacy in a public space.

...you can have all the friendliness you crave from our city, you just have to ask for it.

And this is what I want to tell the Boston-bashing conference women: We’re not unfriendly, we’re reserved. We create for ourselves and each other a little bubble of space that we need to survive in a town built on Colonial-era landfills and cow paths and ankle-breaking bricks. When something breaks through that wall — and certainly things have in recent years — we are right there for each other. Otherwise, you can have all the friendliness you crave from our city, you just have to ask for it.

As the train left Park Street and began the steep climb towards daylight that feels redemptive to Bostonians no matter how many times they make that journey, my braided medical over-watcher gave my knee one last look over as she readied herself to exit at MGH.

As the train burst out into the light, the Charles blindingly reflecting back the early autumn sunset, I saw myself just for a moment as my fellow T riders must have seen me — a distraught young woman, disheveled and weeping in public, and yet, probably going to survive not just this breakup but a lot of other crap that comes with being an adult.

Enough time has passed that I’m now the mom on the T with a purse full of tissues and spare change, ready to sympathize with the occasional 20-something having a rough ride. Like my Boston brethren, I’m there when needed with a friendly glance, if not (yet) a friendly word.

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Tracy Mayor Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tracy Mayor writes about parenting, technology and midlife from her home north of Boston.

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