fourteen and a half hours in boston

On Thursday I flew into Boston with my son to drop him at a short summer music camp. We were scheduled to check in at the dorm, downtown on Massachussetts Avenue near Boylston, at 9 P.M., but the flight was delayed and it was a little after 10 when we arrived at Logan.

"Didn't they say they would register us until 11?" said my son, who's 17 and had never been to Boston. "I think we'll make it."

"Hm, I don't know," I said. We were walking at a good clip to baggage claim. My nose was dripping like nobody's business. From time to time, when I fly, I quickly pick up evils of the cabin air. A half-hour after take-off, I can feel the microbial enemy tap-dancing a sparkly minuet in my nostrils; by landing it's full-on tears and nosewater.

"I've almost never gone into Boston," I said, standing at the carousel and glancing over twenty years. "And Logan I've actually avoided deliberately for, I'd say, about 15 years now."


"Boston, because the clubs are in Cambridge, and Logan, because the last time I was here it took me a full hour to drive through the tunnel and into town. They called it The Big Dig, but it wasn't as cute as it sounds."

"Big Dig," repeated my son unbelievingly. He tends to mistrust any but the most ordinary sounding information coming from my mouth.

"The Big Dig," I said firmly. "A rhyming name for a multiyear construction project."

He was looking lazy-eyed at the shops and the terminal design. "How come every airport we land in looks so much better than O'Hare?" he said. It did look new and nice.

"I don't know, it seems to have had an overhaul since 15 years ago. Reagan didn't look so nice."

"Reagan looked really nice," he corrected. "I remember it looking nice, at least, compared to either Chicago airport. The Denver airport looked great."

"LaGuardia sucks," I said, trying to stick up for poor Chicago.

"LaGuardia is very bad," he agreed.

"LaGuardia is the worst," I pronounced, closing the line of inquiry.

The bag came pretty quickly and the car pickup went fast enough (the lady at the counter did go into the merits of James Patterson's last 3 books, as well as sing a bit of the chorus of Bertolt Brecht's "Alabama Song," as a tribute to my boy's slouch and lazy eyes) but we were not fated to be in downtown Boston by 11.

"Why, why?" my son said in agitated monotone to his mobile device, which was directing us to drive 3 miles north of our destination and then to U-turn back.

"Boston," I said, launching into yet more opinions on a city I knew nothing about, "is not the easiest place to drive in. People who have long lived here --"

"We're passing the dorm," he said, pointing to the left of the overpass just behind us, "right there. It's right there. Why don't they let us get off this highway?"

They: the consortium beloved of 17-year-olds and fanatical ideologues everywhere. Up the road we U-turned and came back to the exit. There was a lot of traffic, occasioning a lot more why-whying to the almighty Them, but, reaching the dorm at 11:20, we snuck in under the wire: ten minutes till curfew, and an understanding R.A. Suddenly I was alone in Boston. His absence was not exactly a silent void, though; I could still feel his relief at being where he was planning to be, and away from me.

I was "190 pounds of hongry," as no saying goes, and I yelped "late-night Boston restaurants" on my phone. Out of the top dozen choices I picked the fifth on the list on no particular basis except that it wasn't sushi or pizza. As I parked in the neighborhood, whose sidewalks were deserted, I had a funny feeling, but it wasn't until I walked through the door that it struck me, brutely, that I had been in the room before. Sipping a Manhattan, I called up and sorted through the details. Why had I come here, where was I gigging, who else was at the table with me? I couldn't quite nail it down. Five years ago, was it? Jenny Scheinman was there, for sure. It was a late meal after a date of hers, a date that I didn't play on. I had driven in from some point westward and met her and four or five other guys here. Someone had ordered pork medallions. It was good food. The end.

The food was good again, now, but I drank one too many Manhattans and my nose was like a falls. I went to a hotel and hit the pillow. When I got up, at 8, I texted my son. I wanted to be there at the course registration to make sure everything was paid for and he knew where to go. Poor lamb. But he made clear that he was doing just fine, and didn't want me to stop by, except only briefly, to give him some cash. So I got $200 from the ATM downstairs, got my car, a bright blue mini-SUV, from the valet, and headed toward Boylston Street.

It was drizzling and rather dark. My plug-in GPS box was getting thrown by something, the buildings or the weather or the topographical density. Every time I followed its instructions to make a turn, or prepare to make a turn, its calculation of my position changed and a new set of instructions took shape. I tried ignoring its recalculation spasms but found myself wandering in circles. So I entered the address into my phone. Three routing choices came up, and I touched the first. The set of directions had no overlap with the portable GPS's set, so I tried looking broadly at the map picture, to get an idea of where I was in Boston and where I was trying to go. My son was only 3 miles from my current position, but I couldn't look at the map in enough detail without pulling over, and at the moment there was no pulling over. I memorized the first four steps in the phone's route. As I executed them, the GPS shrilled contradictory instructions and stammered, "Recalculating!"

In the longago days of 20 Years Prior, I thought as I zoomed around the crooked rainy streets, one would have consulted a printed atlas before venturing into unknown terra, even on a 10-minute jaunt such as this. Especially on a jaunt like this, in a city as averse to the locate-by-feel method as Boston. I couldn't recall if I got lost more frequently or less, in the longago, but the old system had the advantage of not distracting you by pulling you into useless verbal arguments with a device impersonating a human guide. There was no argumentation. Now, not one but two state-of-the-art gadgets were superintending -- supplanting -- my fallible mental compass, and all for naught. My conscious mind, far from being enveloped in a mink-lined leisure consequent to the offloading of banal chores onto electronic servants, was in a tosspot. "Three goddamned miles!" it said. "Shut the hell up!" I said aloud to the GPS.

Now it was raining furiously. My son had been texting and asking where I was. I could feel myself about to slide into a preventable accident in my silly, panicked dither of texting, taking reading glasses on and off, driving, parsing contradictory directions, and not hitting things. In vain I tried stepping back from this driving person, coaxing him back from the ledge with soft fact-based talk and stoic eye-rolls; the idiocy of being late for my flight home and of failing to navigate a 3-mile drive to help my boy had me in a fast-rising fury.

He called. "Where are you? We're at a new address now." He gave me the new numbers. "But we're about to go into an audition and I don't know if I'll be able to meet you."

"I'm in some --" I said, but at the same time the GPS was saying "Turn left on Park Street" in what sounded like a convinced tone. There was a little street on my left, nearly even with my door, and I couldn't find the sign -- it was discreetly behind a shade tree -- then it popped out: Park! "I'm coming, but -- hold on a second --oh!" I had looked at the side-view, where I had a quick determination to make: could that vehicle stop in the rain in time while I cut it off? I made the move leftward, not precipitately, but mopily, like an 80-year-old. Midway into the move, I lost sight of the vehicle but there were no audible signs of distress; it seemed he was waiting for me to complete whatever harebrained move I had started. So I did, but the arc of my turn onto Park had begun a little late and I banged up onto the sidewalk.

"Sorry!" I said brightly into the phone. "A little traffic -- I'm going to let you go." All my tires were back on the street now -- Park Street! I had the mad idea that getting onto this Park Street would be the key to ironing out all differences of opinion between my two devices. That was, almost incredibly, correct. I let the voice commands guide me the remaining quarter of a mile (3 turns) to the new address.

As I double-parked and ran from the car, it was really pissing down. My kid was in the doorway waiting for his money and giving me a jaundiced look. "The bassist here who's the next one better than me?" he said. "Is twenty times better than me."

I hugged him. "Don't let it bother you," I said. Or something equally rote, and ridiculous. Don't let it bother you, that you're the worst of the group? What is more bothersome than that? Even at 51, much less 17, that is one of the most sure-to-bother situations there is. What I meant to say was: "I'm going to be late for my flight home, good fucking luck to you."

Back at the car, I observed that the front passenger-side tire was a ghost of its pre-Park-Street self. The tire had, as the poet said, "fallen into the sere and yellow leaf." Well, I figured, I'm only a few miles from Logan, I can probably limp that far, if I take it real easy. As I drove down into the tunnel at 25MPH, with the rain beating and the nose dripping and the cars lining up behind me in the no-pass lane, I felt relaxed for the first time all morning. The wheel would either make it the last two miles or not -- out of my hands -- and it was now the other drivers' turn to lose patience. Up out of the tunnel, I drifted at a dreamy pace into the right lane, with the car also pulling rightward, and blew my nose while the rim went s-k-r-r and the skies roiled. Even though all I had done was leave my son at an address and give him $200, a few setbacks allowed me the pleasure of imagining myself Mad Max at the end of a heroic mission.