Fenway and the Finish Line: An Evening in Modern Boston

Boston, MA: June, 2021

It looked fairly walkable to Fenway Park despite the distance, as Boston’s streetscape developed centuries before cars deemed our legs obsolete. Besides, I was in the city during a rare moment in time, just weeks after all capacity restrictions ended in the state of Massachusetts, but not late enough that the Red Sox games would be exorbitantly priced or that the tourists had returned to 2019 levels. In fact, walking up to the stadium and purchasing a ticket is generally unheard of at what is arguably the most storied ballpark in the United States, but from what I read, all these other factors plus predicted rain has led to plenty of seats still available. I wasn’t in town for a baseball game, but I could think of no better way to explore Boston than to walk from downtown to Fenway through the neighborhoods any urbanophile or history fan should know by heart: North End, Beacon Hill, Back Bay, etc. Also, a proper walkabout on the first night in a new city should always have a concrete destination in mind, and one of the first Red Sox games in over a year with a full house seemed as good as any.

I began my trek through modern Boston in the newest neighborhood of them all. The Seaport District (officially the South Boston Waterfront after some overly pedantic hand-wringing over the name of the place, but nobody calls it that) is a section so young that it didn’t show up on the first Google Maps. Built almost entirely within the last decade, this area is a second business district of intelligently designed skyscrapers, chromatic art, and pristinely planned green space. What it lacks in history, it makes up for with walkability and La Colombe Coffee.

I checked into the Yotel, an international chain which itself touts its modernity with microrooms that they call cabins, and an all-computerized check in process. Also, the concierge is a robot. Upon entering, however, beyond the overtly futuristic décor and the exceptionally cheap room prices, it was basically the same as any hotel built in a year starting with a two. The woman at the front desk introduced me to YO2D2, who looked like a purple trash can and could bring stuff up to my room if I texted it on the app. I suggested ‘Yobot’ as a better name but neither she nor YO2D2 agreed.

My ‘cabin’ as they call it, was smaller than a normal room, but not by much. It was certainly worth paying roughly a third of the price per night as other downtown Boston hotels of similar quality. As long as it was clean and conveniently located, which it was, I didn’t care if I had to press a button on the bed to turn it into a couch in order to walk through to the other side.

I basically set my bags back down and began the long walk, wanting to make sure I had time to slowly make my way across the city and get to Fenway before first pitch. The rest of downtown Boston, across a small bridge from the Seaport, is much like the central business district of any large American city with two exceptions. First, the roads were completely un-gridded, running diagonally and curving at random points, some nearly forming a circle, following old paths or the former shoreline. Secondly, in between the banks and Starbucks are buildings a quarter-millennium and an occasional weathered small-plot cemetery. I hustled through downtown amongst Bostonians who had just been freed from work, likely still getting reaccustomed to office life. I knew I would see much more of this area the next day when I would be following the Freedom Trail and so I didn’t linger.

The rain glistened on the uneven bricks of Beacon Hill as I passed the Massachusetts State House and entered the historic neighborhood. Just a half a block into the maroon labyrinth it went from a spit to a torrent, and soon Bostonians and tourists alike were pacing beneath makeshift umbrellas and fluttering raincoats. I joined them and went back the way I came, toward the one place I saw on my walk that had self-seating, an Irish bar on the border of the financial district and Beacon Hill. It was not crowded and I sat at the bar between two other solo diners with enough space to leave an empty stool between us all.

I was handed a Guinness and a menu while watching the Fenway grounds crew fiddle with the tarp on tv. The radar indicated a clearing within the hour but the longer it took for the game to start the less likely I would be to go there myself. The bartender, a forty-something woman with an Irish accent, dropped off a bowl of clam chowder, warming me up on a June evening that felt like it could have been St. Patrick’s Day. I lingered over the soup for longer than typically acceptable and, weather slightly improved, I once again stepped westward into Beacon Hill. 

Million dollar row houses tightly nestled the undulating street, their columns and black shutters displaying the ideal level of uniformity. A bay window protruded every once in a while to break up what otherwise was a continuous red brick wall, outing this section of Boston as nineteenth century rather than colonial. Similarly tall trees dripped rain remnants from their spade-shaped leaves while front door gaslights flickered welcomingly in the hazy evening light.

I came across Acorn Street, one of the most photographed in Boston, and walked down its cobblestones to perform my touristic diligence, imagining myself on a European back alley. An old man sat on a stoop about halfway down, laughing to himself about all of the visitors taking photos of what was essentially his driveway. He stopped a college-aged couple and was giving advice I assume on the best photographic angles while doing that thing with his two fingers and two thumbs in a rectangle. I didn’t stay long as once again the sky opened up and I hustled to find another open establishment.

Several people had asked if I was going to get a drink at the Cheers bar while in Boston, and if it weren’t for the fickle New England early summer the answer would probably have been no. What I knew of the show was that it used to be on Nick at Nite, that there was a character named Norm, and of course that earworm of an opening theme, but when I saw the bar sign through another downpour, I quickly descended the stairs into yet another place where nobody knew my name.

I sat at the very corner of the bar, the only seat left in the crowded place, and ordered some sort of local lager. The inside was a typical Cold-War era sports bar, with wooden lattices, stained glass basement windows, and a bunch of decorations everywhere. I immediately began talking with a group of Sox fans about all sorts of things and spent the better part of an hour there. One middle-aged man was in town for work and could have been a Cheers character: accent, Starter jacket, above average beer swilling skills. All were excited to be in a crowded bar for the first time in over a year, with how great it feels to sit shoulder to shoulder with a stranger being a hot topic of conversation. One couple about my age provided several helpful Boston-related suggestions between surprised expressions that I was indeed walking to Fenway. The guy, who looked like a younger Alex Rodriguez in the wrong hat kept saying “There’s a subway stop right there, man” and then deliberated with his girlfriend about whether or not it was possible to walk there.

“If you can’t get a ticket, go to the Bleacher Bar” she said. “It’s free to get in, and it’s kinda in the stadium, kinda not. You’ll see.”

As the tarp continued to shimmy across the field on the television above the bar, being kinda in the stadium, kinda not started to sound a lot more appealing. After just the one beer, I bid farewell to my new friends and checked out the tiny gift shop in the back. At the shop, the Cheers theme song played repeatedly over a speaker, and the clerk, who looked understandably tortured, grunted as I entered. I thought about buying a jacket after coming to Boston so ill-prepared for summer, but opted against it and got out of there before the song came back around to the beginning. The rain had again ceased, permanently this time it seemed, but I was glad it had drove me to stop where it did.

Like the Seaport, the famous Boston Back Bay was underwater for most of the city’s existence, being built up almost entirely after the Civil War. I could see the change in the architecture, which went from the federal style of Beacon Hill to late Victorian, and the topography which, suddenly and atypically for Massachusetts, appeared as though someone had taken an ironing board to the map. A half-dozen east to west roads traverse the nearly mile-long neighborhood. I stairstepped trough three of them: Commonwealth Avenue, which is beautifully divided by a wide, forested median; Newbury Street, a shaded two-lane road flanked by townhomes and Queen Annes that have had their first floors converted to trendy dining rooms overflowing into sidewalk cafes; And Boylston Street, the busy main road of chain stores, high-end shopping, and Boston Marathon fame.

The blue stripe with the yellow text that signifies the end of the world’s most famous marathon stretches across Boylston year-round, the iconic unicorn logo painted on the street’s westward side representing the culmination of a running career for thousands each year. In 2021 the race will be held in October instead of the typical mid-April date, the first running of the event in nearly two and a half years. The backlog of qualified entrants caused a few anxious email refreshing evenings among those who made the cut with little time to spare as the threshold for making it into the race dropped by a few minutes and some who previously made the cut were left to try again. I did not have this problem, as breaking the three hour threshold still eludes me. Even so, to be at the most celebrated finish line in the world, even while dressed in jeans and looking through the dusky gloom of June, is inspiring to any runner.

One man driving by obviously thought the same, as he stopped short of the line and exited his vehicle and began aiming his phone and doing that thing where you use your thumb and forefinger to zoom in. The drivers behind him, who failed to see the ceremony in the matter, laid on their horns or sped around him, a high percentage of them shouting obscenities as they did so. The man who stopped looked a bit frightened as he closed his drivers’ side door but in reality he could successfully end his trip now. He saw the marathon line and was verbally accosted by several Bostonians – about as quintessential a local experience one could ask for.

The Back Bay stretched on for a bit but soon I crossed over a small oxbow pond and into the Fenway neighborhood. The ballpark was named for the fact that it was built in this neighborhood, not the other way around as I had previously thought. The outer walls of the stadium, teal-green like weathered copper, loomed over an otherwise anonymous alley. The two red socks, a logo that looks stranger the more you look at it as if someone hung the footwear like a Christmas ornament, adorned the back of the scoreboard along with the simple-fonted Fenway Park Home of the Boston Red Sox. If the marathon finish line is the center of the world for distance runners, this is the same for baseball fans. There are arguments for Wrigley Field in Chicago, but as a lifelong American Leaguer, there is no place like Fenway Park.

I followed along the back of the stadium, passing up the box office until I spotted the entrance to the Bleacher Bar and descended into a relatively crowded, dimly lit space. On three sides, it was a typical sports bar – dark green walls, beer signs, Sox memorabilia – but it was the fourth that makes the place unique. Opposite the bar was a wall of windows that opened up to the outfield at grass level, the kind of view I always imagined the bullpen pitchers would have. The back of the Blue Jays’ center fielder was about fifty feet away as he lazily waited out a long at bat. The bar was called Bleacher Bar because it was literally underneath the bleachers, and apparently if you are there outside of game time, the bar opens up directly to the field.  Rows of tables spanned the windowed area, and they were unfortunately already full of revelers watching the game from the cheapest seats of all. With no cover and drink prices a quarter of what they would be once properly inside, I could see the appeal of lining up early to get those spots. The glass is apparently one-way, however, so it’s not as if Hunter Renfroe could watch you sloshing pitchers of Sam Adams and generally acting a fool as he runs down a deep fly ball. There were also signs strictly forbidding any photographs of the stadium from the inside with a warning that there will be no warning and that doing so will net you a prompt exit.

I ordered a beer of some kind and sat at one of the available seats by the bar, turned 180 degrees to look out onto the field. A couple in their twenties began asking me questions about this game specifically and baseball in general, trying to decide whether to use the tickets they had already purchased or stay put in the bar.

“It’s the fourth inning, out of how many?” asked the girl, pointing at the TV above the bar. She was Deanna and her partner was Kyle, both from Texas. They had just finished their masters’ degrees and while Deanna had moved to Boston a year ago, Kyle was just visiting.

The three of us sat together for a few innings, half watching out the window, but mostly talking about other things. I had mentioned that I walked here from the Seaport and of course they both thought that was crazy. I asked how Boston had changed with reopening and the general return to normalcy that had come this spring

“This is the second week things have been opened up, and people are just kind of going nuts.” Deanna said. “But I mean that in a good way.”

I looked around at the rowdy Bleacher Bar, out into the nearly full stands of Fenway, and recounted the crowds of the Back Bay and at Cheers, and agreed it did seem like Boston was exhaling after a long year and letting off some steam.

“Clubs were closed for most of the time I lived here, and until last week they only let so many people in, so it took me a while to like it here. Honestly, I’m just so excited to get annoyed at how long it takes to get a drink again.”

Kyle had been talking to the bartender for some time, apparently taking it upon himself to assist with the nostalgic pre-pandemic slow service as a line began to form despite their conversation. I felt bad I was interrupting this couple’s first week together in who knows how long, so I eventually made my way to the window and watched George Springer trap a pop up close enough to see the stitches on his jersey number. I tried to turn my neck enough to get a glimpse of the Big Green Monster in left field without bumping into the table of full pints to my right but couldn’t quite do so despite its imposingness. What slight drizzle remained was only visible in the warm glow of the stadium lights, and the crowd, looking like a single mass in crimson ponchos, leaped up when the home team did nearly anything of importance, sending their cheers and stomping into the Bleacher Bar. It did not appear they minded the rain, or that the game started late, but instead they were ecstatic to be at a nearly-packed ballpark for the first time after a stolen summer. Never had the seventh inning lines “take me out to the crowd” been belted more honestly.

I was about to leave when I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see Kyle and Deanna.

“We’re going to head to the game but it was nice meeting you!” she said. “We’re going to go to Such and Such club in the Back Bay after the game if you’re still out and want to meet up.”

I thanked them for the invite and left it open but, knowing there was a higher chance of me subbing in for Xander Bogaerts at shortstop than of that happening, I mentioned that I was leaving as well.

“Can you do us one favor first?” Kyle asked. I said that I would.

“Block for me, I’m taking a picture.”

I stood between Kyle and the bar, as he and Deanna took a guerilla selfie against the glass and then the three of us hustled back up the stairs and out into the night.

The walk back was much quicker as I headed straight for the Seaport, past the still booming Back Bay, the gaslit Beacon Hill, and the eerie emptiness of a nighttime Boston Common. 

Back at the hotel, I got into the elevator and discovered I was sharing it with the Yobot. When the doors opened, we both walked in the same direction. Apparently, I cut it off, because it said “Beep, beep, blorp” and its screen displayed something along the lines of ‘You’re in my way’. I stepped aside and followed it in the direction of my room. When it stopped at the door across from mine, I did as well.

“Beep, beep, blorp” said Yobot.

A man opened the door and the top of the robot slid aside, revealing a tube of toothpaste. My neighbor took it and ecstatically said to me “Can you believe it!?”

“Pretty neat” I said, and wished I had forgotten something myself so that I could get it delivered.

“Can you believe it!?” he shouted again, far too loudly for nearly midnight in a hotel. “I asked it for toothpaste, it gave me toothpaste! I just can’t believe it!”

I said goodnight, the robot beeped a similar sentiment, and then I went to bed. I had enjoyed my evening in modern Boston, but tomorrow I would see its historical side, from the Freedom Trail and Bunker Hill, to Boston Common and Faneuil Hall. 

Continued Here: The Freedom Trail: A Walk Around Old Boston

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