Monday, August 13, 2012

Boston Part I

And so I stepped off a Delta Airlines plane from Amsterdam in Boston. 

The question on your mind is, ofcourse, why would I fly to Boston from Amsterdam? Dublin is much closer to Boston and you would expect there to be much more traffic from Dublin due to the Irish connection in Boston. I don’t have a clue either, but when I set out to book the trip, I found that it was apparently cheaper for Aer Lingus to fly me from Dublin to Amsterdam, then offload me to Delta, and then fly me from there, across Ireland and Dublin, to Boston.  The difference was about 120 euro, and even with the Amsterdam connection, I would arrive in Boston only about an hour later than with a direct flight from Dublin, so I opted for the Aer Lingus/Delta trip. In the end, I arrived in Boston 2 hours later than I would have  with the direct flight because of a security breach in Amsterdam, which had the airline staff make everyone get off the plane, back through security and then back into the plane, but it was still only late afternoon and, to my joy, very  warm in Boston.  The summer in Dublin hadn’t been all that bad up to then, but summer in the North Eastern USA is in a different league. I had packed a jacket and a pair of cargo pants, but I shouldn’t have bothered, as I didn’t wear either for the entire 3 weeks.  Having convinced the border patrol officer that I wasn’t going to start a cocaine cartel, join the nazi party in 1933 or blow up the subway, I retrieved my backpack and made for the exit. A free shuttle bus drove us a couple of blocks to the Logan subway station where, to my excitement, I found that there was a train to Wonderland. 

Unfortunately, Wonderland station was the final stop of the line, in the opposite direction of where I needed to go, but I made a note of the name and decided to visit it later.  I got on the blue train to Bowdoin (doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as Wonderland, does it?) changed trains after 4 stops and 20 minutes later emerged into the warm Boston evening, in the middle of China Town.  Staying in China Town has a couple of advantages over staying in proper downtown areas, generally. First of all, you’re never stuck for something to eat, second it is generally a bit cheaper and third it always has edgy parts where you can often find great dodgy bars. Having checked into my hostel, I decided it was time for a drink (all the free beer that was provided free of charge by the great flight attendants of Delta Airlines notwithstanding) The hostel, I found to my surprise, was dry. No alcohol was allowed inside and that, ofcourse, sort of killed the atmosphere inside in the evenings as no one stayed in and went out to get the party going.  I wandered around China Town for a while and stumbled on a bar called The Corner Pub. It looked friendly so I went in and found it to look a bit like something you would find in San Francisco: nice, friendly and open, but with a hint of dive in the air.  True to my motto of always drinking local beer wherever I travel, I ordered a Sam Adams and found that they had run out. The bartender informed me that Harpoon was even more local than Sam Adams because the brewery was only about  a mile and a half from where we were sitting while Sam Adams was at least 5 miles away. The Harpoon brewery, I found during my trip, is probably the most ideally situated brewery in the whole of New England. No matter where I ordered a Harpoon, and often when I did not order one, bartenders or locals were eager to inform me that the Harpoon brewery was only a mile and a half from the pub we were in. Even at the airport at the end of my trip, I found a large wall chart in a bar that, you guessed it, pointed out that the Harpoon brewery was less than a mile and a half from the bar I was sitting at. Either way, I was thirsty and Harpoon is good beer, so I settled for a Harpoon IPA and took my impressions from the bar. 

The bar had a couple of video games in a corner, booths lined one of the walls and an L-shaped bar lined the other. A couple of locals were sitting further down the bar and 2 guys, one of them looking to be in his mid fourties and the other one looked like he might be his son, sat at the bar to my left. They ordered a bucket of Bud Light, set up shop on the stools next to mine and went about emptying the bucket, which they did with alarming speed.  They ordered a second bucket at the same time that I ordered my second pint and it was then that I found out that they weren’t father and son. They were army buddies. The older guy had been to Afghanistan and assorted Central African hot beds, while the younger guy, who really did not look any older than 22 or 23, had been on no less than 4 tours of duty in Iraq.  After talking with them about army life for a while, the conversation turned to cars, which is where my attention started to wane. A local couple was sat further down the bar, a woman downing vodkas with pineapple juice at pace, while her man was trying to match her with bottles of lager. I was just about to order a new pint, when the bartender put an empty glass in front of me on the bar, bottoms up. This is the sign in most parts of America for “someone has bought you a drink, I will give it to you as soon as you finish this one”. I already started to like this place. I had only been here for half an hour and I had met 2 war veterans and been bought a drink by a local. The bartender poured me a new pint and indicated that lagerbottle guy had bought  a round for everyone. Good Stuff! I raised my glass to the guys health and, ofcourse, he came over to say hi. He made a living doing something  related to cars, but when I tried to offload him to my army friends, I found that they had already left.  When I tried to return the favour, the guy who had bought the round had gone and since it's bar fly etiquette that you can't leave directly after you received a free drink, I had another Harpoon and the went on my way. I was trying to get a bit of a feel for the  city, so I decided to go for a walk and see if anything interesting was happening. I walked from Chinatown to the Downtown area. As this is close to the Financial District and it was pushing 10 on Friday night, the area was pretty much deserted. Offices were dark, restaurants closed and few people were out on the street. As there didn't seem to be much happening around here, I decided to go the other way and head back in the direction of Chinatown. I wandered through the empty streets and decided that this part of the city, at this time of night at least, wasn’t very interesting. That was, until I stumbled upon a pub that, at first glance, looked closed too, but closer inspection revealed that what I thought was a shutter was just a mural on a bit of wall and the door was actually beside it.  Walking in, and heading for the bar, I was stopped by a tall guy in a shirt and tie who, by the look of it was sort of a bouncer-light type of guy. He demanded to see my ID. This amused me to no end.  I know that, at 5’8” I’m not exactly the tallest guy in the world, but believe me, I look comfortably over 21. In all my previous trips to the USA, I had never been asked for ID, and the experience of being carded for the first time in my life was quite exciting. It also cements my belief that a diet consisting mainly of beer and pizza does wonders for a youthful appearance. Having gotten the paperwork out of the way, I took a seat at the bar and had a look at the beers on offer. As it turned out, they had PBR on draft. Now for those of you who are unfamiliar with this beer, it is not exactly the most exciting or adventurous beer in the world, but it tastes alright and, this is often the main selling point, it is CHEAP. And I mean cheap. In a bar, it is often sold in cans, that will normally set you back $1.50 for a small can, or $2 for a tall boy. On draft, you will usually pay between $2,50 - $3. I ordered one and found that a pint was only $2 here. This would turn out to be the cheapest-but-one pint of PBR that I would come across on this trip. The guy behind the bar was a very tall and very skinny man with a shaved head and glasses. He turned out to be quite a comedian because over the cause of the 2 pints I had there, he kept telling jokes to, and making jokes about, the other customers.  All the regulars referred to him as ‘Savage’ so I took this to be his nick name.  Halfway through my second pint, while reading through my guide book, I decided to walk to the Back Bay area of the city to check out another bar that had caught my attention during my research. The place was called the Bukowski tavern. Those who know me, will be aware of the fact that Charles Bukowski is one of my favorite writers and I was really interested to see what the bar was like. To add an extra layer of interest, I found that the bar was situated in a parking garage, and that was also a first for me.  My guide book told me that the bar was quite a bit of a walk away, so I took a precursory toilet break and went on my way. 

Though it was well after 11 now, it was still warm in Boston. I found out during my stay in Boston that it never got anywhere below warm and most of the time it was just plain hot. Excellent, I love warm weather and it made for a very pleasant evening walk. I had estimated the distance at about a 15 minute walk, but ofcourse I was wrong. I also took a wrong turn somewhere near Boston Common (I always take wrong turns when I’m new to a city, the only city where this did not happen is New York) and while I was still about 8 blocks from my destination, I felt the call of nature. I looked up and found that I had walked up Beacon Street. This was not the plan. It was easy enough to get to my destination from there, but Beacon Street is also where Cheers! is and I did not want to see Cheers! Until I was ready to go in. And that was not now, so I made my way back towards Boylston Street and walked into the first place that looked worthy of my custom, and my toilet break. I walked into a place called The Globe, and it was one of those places that can’t quite decide wether it wants to be a bar or a restaurant. There are quite a number of places in Dublin these days that market themselves as “Cafe, bar, restaurant and club”. I’m sorry, (not really) but I find that ridiculous. I understand that they are after as much tourist money as possible, but just decide on what you want to be. If you want to be everything, you inevitably end up scoring a dull mid-table result in each category and nobody’s happy. The Globe wasn’t that bad, but I still got the feeling that the people who were having dinner weren’t exactly happy with the presence of noisy drink-only customers, while the drinkers looked annoyed at the fact that the waiting staff had more eye for the diners than for the people at the bar.  I ordered a pint of Goose Island Ale, poured from a tap that was actually shaped like a goose, had a sip and rapidly made for the toilet. Very relieved, I had a look around the place and decided that it was an uninspiring place so I won’t bore you with it any longer.  Relieved and refreshed, I set out for The Bukowski Tavern. As Bukowski mainly writes about drinking, a pub with his name on it must surely be worth a visit. Besides that, I had read that they serve more than 100 beers. 

When I got there, the place certainly did not disappoint.  It was really situated in a parking garage, although the entry was on the street, the name was displayed in golden letters on the red wall and several locals were loitering around outside, smoking  cigarettes. On the inside, the place was just as I had expected. It was narrow, dark and grungy. The music was loud, everyone was drunk and animated debates were in progress all over. To my surprise, they also served food that, I found later, was actually pretty decent and available until 2am.  With 100+ beers to choose from, and being rather tired, I decided not to bother with going over the entire beer list, and I ordered a PBR. It tasted great after my long walk, and I was glad to take the weight off my feet. It had been a long day and midnight was now approaching in Boston. That corresponded to 5am on Saturday back home, which meant that I had been awake for nearly 25 hours. Fortunately, this type of time difference doesn’t generally cause me much problems, as you just have to stay awake a couple of hours longer.  Within 5 minutes, 2 locals had started a conversation with me, playing an opening move practised by drinkers around the world, by wanting to know where I was from. After explaining the usual ‘I am from Holland but live in Ireland’ story, we got talking about Boston, sports and the huge beer list in the bar. 
As it turned out, the Bukowski Tavern has 2 nifty games in place to help the discerning drinker make a choice. I had already spotted a Wheel of Fortune-like contraption behind the bar. Upon further inspection, I found that it had about 50 different partitions, each of them showing  a beer logo. If you can’t decide what to drink, simply spin the wheel and you get what it lands on.  This is ofcourse great fun, even if you do know what you want to drink or just feel like getting really drunk by drinking a dozen different beers on the night.  

Apart from the Wheel, the Bukowski Tavern also runs The Mug Club. When you sign up for the club,  you receive a card (called Dead Author’s Card, in tribute to the great Bukowski himself) on which you will find the names of all 100+ beers available in the bar.  From the moment of signing up, you then have 6 months to drink ALL beers at least once. If you succeed in completing the your card within the 6 months, you get a beer mug with your name on it, which will then be used to serve your beer every time you come in. Sounds like a challenge, doesn’t it? I contemplated the challenge but reached the same conclusion as when I was faced with something similar in the Australian hotel in Sydney, namely that I could technically finish this challenge, but that would mean spending my entire week in this pub and not seeing anything of the city, so I quickly discarded the idea. I like the idea though, and if I lived in Boston, I would definitely take it on.  By now I was getting hungry, it was breakfast time back home after all, and enquired about the availability of food. To my surprise, they had a menu that extended beyond packs of peanuts or hotdogs and actually contained about a dozen hot dishes. On top of the availability of food at this hour, they also informed me that all main courses were half price after midnight. This, too, was new to me. Most bars in Dublin increase their prices after midnight and seeing a bar slashing the food prices by 50% in the dead of the night was a welcome surprise. I ordered something warm, though I could not tell you what it was now, and it tasted good. It was warm, greasy and you didn’t need knife and fork to eat it, which is pretty much all you want from food at this time of night.  After I finished my food, I decided to have a PBR and Jim Beam nightcap and make my way home. When I finished my drinks, my new friends insisted on buying me a new beer and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I got back to the hostel at around 2.30, simultaneously quite drunk and exhausted on one side but exhilirated on the other. I had only been in Boston for about 7 hours, but I liked it. I liked it a lot. Tomorrow, I would set out early to see what else the city had to offer.


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