Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pleasant Cafe: This is your grandfather's bar

As soon as we got to the sidewalk in front of Pleasant Café, it was clear that the stories about it were true. It’s brightly painted side wall baring its name greeted us as we walked toward it from the north, and as we approached the front door, the façade almost totally windowless and with dirty neon signage reminiscent of movie diners and old stories, a couple of townies burst through the door and out into the unseasonably warm winter evening.

“We should be wearing bikinis!” the drunk-at-6PM-on-a-weekday tavern-goer exclaimed to my amused wife. She and her consort stumbled past us, pushing the door a little extra open as they left for us to make our way in.

Read more after the jump

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kelleher’s Bar & Grill: Wherein my positive experiences in new places end

It was dark and kind of creepy in here.

It was bound to happen eventually. After weeks of new places and fantastic results, I found myself a pretty uncomfortable stinker of an experience.

After a few recommendations by folks on the Universal Hub forum, I decided to give Kelleher’s Bar & Grill in Roslindale a shot. I was looking for a place to grab dinner with some friends, and none of us wanted to go far. Kelleher’s wasn’t far, so we went.

The strip of Centre Street where Kelleher’s is resembles a lot of the street in Jamaica Plain, but a bit more suburban in feel. The bar itself has parking out front, and very little in the way of windows to give you a clue of what you’re getting yourself into. My party entered to find a large, 8-bit zero shaped bar, half a dozen TVs on a few different sports channels, and about fifteen of the eighteen people in the bar suddenly staring at us.

Continue reading after the jump

Monday, March 5, 2012

An Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe - A Historic Breakfast Joint I've Historically Passed On

Since I moved to Boston in 2001, I’ve walked or ridden by Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe on Columbus St. almost every weekday. Over ten years, 300+ times a year, I’ve thought “what a cool sign. I should really stop there some time for breakfast.” Usually, this occurs to me on my way home from work, when I’m in no mood for sandwiches or eggs and they’re not open anyways.

I’d have been inside without issue back in the 1960s, when Charlie’s was a 24-hour hotspot for black jazz musicians (who I imagine played at places like Wally’s on Mass Ave.) and late-nighters. These days though, their hours are limited to mornings and early afternoons.

The trend of “should have, didn’t” ended one morning last week when I went for a ride before work. Riding by that classically designed sign reminiscent of Cheers, but more authentic, I made a U-turn and locked my bike up on a fence next to some renovated tenement-houses-turned-luxury-condos and went in.

I was greeted at the door by a college-aged man who informed me I could sit anywhere. The options were a long counter with diner stools that may have inspired a scene or two in Grease, or a variety of small table scattered throughout a small space. I scanned the room – a couple of elderly men chatted over coffee and eggs at one table. A family on vacation chatted at another over plates of everything. Two college kids sat at the counter. I opted to join them, taking up the second-to-last stool from the entrance to the very visible kitchen. A pretty but plain blonde girl who couldn’t have been more than eighteen asked if I wanted coffee and gave me a menu. I told her I did, and continued scanning the room. I spied a number of tacky but appropriate signs, a woman who seemed to be in charge scanning over the whole place but not really seeming to be doing anything, and an older man cooking over four different pans. Above his head, directly in front of me, was the same menu I was looking at written out on a whiteboard.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Ladies: Part Two – Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

I arrived in the Fenway on an afternoon that was colder than appearances let on. The sun broke in and out of the sky as I pulled up to the entrance of the Gardner Museum I’d used the two other times I’d come to the late lady’s house for a visit. Things had changed since my last visit though. In fact, it was the changes that prompted me to visit Gardner again.

To give some context if you’ve never been, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of those places that Boston tourist literature refers to as a “hidden gem.” Publications that locals actually read suggest otherwise: Not that it’s not a gem, but it’s hardly hidden. The pre-renovation Gardner Museum consistently appeared on Best-of-Boston lists. The reason is obvious enough: Equipped with a breath-taking garden in the spring and an interior garden year-round, the art is almost secondary to the architecture and interior design. At first glance, the visitor wonders how Mrs. Gardner – a famous philanthropist and contemporary of the previously written about Mary Baker Eddy – was able to accumulate all the statues, balconies, windows, doors, and other building parts without having an army loot most of Europe on a scale equal to the Crusades or Sherman’s March.
I was surprised to find the entrance was closed. Traffic had been rerouted through the new “wing,” so around I went to the recently opened glass box behind the historic Fenway Court.

Monday, February 20, 2012

JP Flea Market: Equal Parts Bread & Circus

Thanks to a window full of flyers at City Feed & Supply, I was led this weekend to the Winter Flea Market at Spontaneous Celebrations in Jamaica Plain.
I’m a sucker for flea markets, yard sales, or any other platform allowing for the trade of junk and ephemera for cash (wait until May when Brimfield Antique Show comes back and I go into weird junk overdrive!). Apparently there’d been a smattering of JP rummage sales over the years, but this was the first I’d heard of before the fact, so I collected a posse and went to check it out.
Spontaneous Celebrations is a strange and interesting place. It physically resembles an abandoned church in a Latin-American movie if that church was overtaken by squatters who really love to paint. Inside, there are two floors. The lower has a few rooms, including a kitchen, while the upper floor is set up like a venue with a performance space and a bar.
But that description doesn’t properly explain the space. Rather, it is building that almost physically transforms to accommodate what’s happening inside it. It can feel like a nightclub or the extra rooms of a public library depending on its occupants. During the flea market, it felt like a kind of dingy, but somehow not unhealthy, warehouse of weird.

The flea market merchants were the eclectic bunch you might expect at a community space in Jamaica Plain. A mixture of hippies, artists, and packrats sold Elvis Presley cardboard stand-ups, feather hair extensions, clothes, and model rockets from NASA missions long forgotten. Everyone was gracious and positive – no hard sells past “I bet you can use that!” when you pick up something there’s no discernible use for or “five dollars!” when you pick up something marked for ten.
In the kitchen on the first floor, a very skinny man with long graying hair and beard was serving homemade food that may have violates an arbitrary health code or two, but was delicious nonetheless. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Ladies: Part I – The Christian Science Center

For this excursion, I planned on hitting the life’s work of two prominent women of the late 19th-early 20th century: Mary Baker Eddy and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Eddy’s Christian Science Center, which is comprised of a reflecting pool, the Christian Science “Mother Church,” and a Library holding the Hall of Ideas and the Mapparium was to be the day’s first stop.
Riding there on a bike from Roslindale, I looked forward to a day mostly in doors, as the sky revealed all the colors of dirty snow and was spitting at me unmercifully.
On arrival, I entered the Mary Baker Eddy Library and I was greeted by a very plainly dressed, attractive, pleasant, and direct woman. I told her I’d like to go to the Mapparium, and she sold me a $6 ticket to go inside. I needed to check my bag quickly, as the tour started in less than a minute.
The Mapparium
Following my bag check, I walked into the “Hall of Ideas,” where I was instructed to wait. There was a video introduction of Mary Baker Eddy just ending as I walked in, and our guide – an equally plainly dressed, attractive, pleasant, and direct person – instructed me and a couple from New York to follow him.
I was surprised and pleased to be in such a small group as I followed the young man. At the doors of the Mapparium, he gave a brief overview of what we were about to see and what the format would be like. He introduced the architect of the Mapparium, a man named Chester Lindsay Churchill, and explained that the map might look a bit strange because it was the borders of a world that no longer existed – that of 1935.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Political Art Adventure: Wherein the Author Stumbles Upon A Great Exhibit

Sometimes you find cool stuff by accident. Often, it’s stuff that you don’t know much of or care about. So it was in my expedition to the “Colleges of Fenway” area, which I was crossing through to get to the new-and-improved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (more on that in a coming post).
Cutting through to the Fens from Huntington Avenue on my bicycle, I rode by the Museum of Fine Arts, noting that, though it was a weekday, they were bumping. The “parking lot full” sign greeted me as I rode by. On the other side of the road, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), there was a banner on the building that read “Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo.” I know very little about modern Egypt, less about modern art, and (embarrassingly) virtually nothing about the revolution that recently took place in that country. Regardless, I was out to check out new things, and I was frankly not doing so well, resorting to updated versions of things I’d already seen. This was an exhibit in a place I’d never been, and better yet, it appeared to be free. I decided to bite.
I locked up on a spiral bike rack I imagined was made in house. It was attractive, but not terribly utilitarian: The spiral was too short for my 53 cm Surly, so I had to sort of lean it diagonally to get my lock to connect. Walking through the mini-courtyard toward the school entrance, I was met by about two-dozen art students, all rebelling by dressing almost identically. About half of them were smoking. I brushed off my self-righteous inclination to indignantly question how people were still doing that.
Security’s pretty lax at SMFA. Or maybe I just looked like another art student. The guard at the door wouldn’t have questioned me, but I approached him and asked where “this Egypt exhibit” was.
He pointed it out, and then refused my offer to sign in somewhere. I took a right and entered a few rooms full of mostly-digital media.
There are, as the subtitle of the exhibit states, six Egyptian artists featured. To the layman (read: me), it was not clear that there was much of a different between the pieces. The majority were video projections of Egyptians on walls, or video on plasma screens. Immediately at the entrance, there was an Egyptian man yelling on a screen about being Egyptian. I went to the room on the right first, where I was face-to-face with a classroom full of Egyptian women (there were a few men) projected on a wall, repeating “My mind is” in Egyptian Arabic, followed by a series of poetic non sequiturs.

This was accompanied by another projection on a standing screen of a man scribbling on a chalkboard, and a poster of what appeared to be a subway map on a human’s head, along with the title of artist Shady El Noshokaty’s room-sized contribution, “Stammer.”
The next sub-room ran an old movie on one screen and an impromptu speech on another right next to it. The video for the speech was being run in negative. The words between the speech and the film, according to the subtitles, seemed to coincide. This was called “The Echo,” by Moataz Nasr.
On the main wall, there were three projections of men in flowing robes, one blue, one red, and one green, spinning continuously. The provided literature explained that this is a traditional Egyptian dance that allows Sufis to reach a “higher state of consciousness which raises them above difference and conflict into a perfect state of peace and balance.” It looked to me like it would make you very dizzy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Political Adventure: Wherein the Author Learns about Local Party Politics and Eats Donuts

I woke at 8 a.m., which mixed my brain up for a few moments, as it was under the impression that it was a Saturday. As everybody knows, alarms don’t go off on Saturdays. No, sir. For the nine-to-five, forty-hours-a-week Joes and Joans - those who still go out late and drink hard, but whose bodies can no longer bounce back without 10 hours of sleep and a multivitamin - Saturday morning serves primarily as a brief buffer between party o’clock and brunch.
After shutting off the Barenaked Ladies/static of my radio alarm, I shook out my cobwebs and remembered I’d done this to myself on purpose. I’d promised myself I’d try new things, hadn’t I? I’d just moved to a new neighborhood in Boston, and was now registered in a new Ward. Today was caucus day for Ward 20, and I’d decided to go, to meet some of my neighbors, and if possible, to be elected a delegate for the 2012 Democratic State Convention in Springfield.
Given my location in Roslindale, I’d been under the impression that I was in Ward 19. That would’ve been better, as Ward 19’s caucus was later in the morning and about a mile and a half closer to where I was standing in my boxers. Alas, from the state that brought you gerrymandering, I’d have to go to West Roxbury.
The Ward 20 caucus was scheduled at 9 a.m. at a place called the West Roxbury Pub. It was a bit early to be in a bar, and in fact, it was statistically early to be at a caucus. Of Boston’s 22 wards, only two others had their caucuses at 9 a.m., both of which are in South Boston.
The time of this caucus, to me, seemed designed to discourage young people from becoming involved. The reputation of West Roxbury (and South Boston), deserved or not, as an insular community that doesn’t welcome outsiders didn’t allay my suspicions.
I put on some pants, I tied a tie, and I went out the door at about 8:15. I was peddling my way to West Roxbury, and though it wasn’t far, I didn’t know exactly where I was going. I also needed some coffee.
By 8:30, I was on Centre St. in West Roxbury, locking up in front of an almost comically Irish-style bar, fully equipped with a shamrock-laden green and white sign in Celtic font and virtually no windows. Union guys were standing at the door asking for signatures to get incumbents on the ballot, allowing most of them to run unopposed.
I was surprised as I walked by that they didn’t ask me to sign them. With a half hour to kill, I walked up Centre looking for sustenance. I found it in a little donut shop called Anna’s.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Adventuring within the constraints of schedule, finances, and ability

If you've ever talked to me for more than a few minutes, chances are you've heard me go on and on about another place. While I am most notoriously known for jabbering on about my love of Paris, I can be brought to reminisce about the glory of Alaskan nature, the seemingly lawless joys of late night San Francisco, or the proletarian charms of Detroit if the proper situation presents itself. Frequently, this faux-worldliness is perceived as impressive at first glance, though after a few encounters I'd imagine it gets kind of tired.

With this in mind, I have a few admissions to make.

1. I haven't been to that many places. I've done a good number of road trips with bands, friends, and activists over the years, and it has allowed me to see a good number of American cities and towns. These mini-adventures drew me to want to see more places and things, but in reality, I've only left the US twice.

2. One of those two departures was to Canada, which barely counts.

3. I haven't gone anywhere in a long time, and I'm getting a bit itchy about it.

As is the case with most people these days, I'm having trouble justifying the costs of travelling. Or rather, I could justify spending the money if I had it, but I don't have it, so I'm not going anywhere. This lack of adventuring in places foreign or domestic has increasingly led to my becoming bitter with my surroundings. I've become bored with my day-to-day, spending hours dreaming of other places, and even keeping webcam streams of other places open on my desktop just for the change of scenery (see screen capture).

In the past few days, I've thought hard about this markedly first-world problem of not being able to go wherever I want at any given time, and I've decided to try to make some lemonade out of this sour attitude.

Thus the purpose of the blog. I will be striking out in my own back yard, seeking out stuff I've never seen or done right here at home. I'm going to explore neighborhoods I have little or no experience with, patronize places I've never considered going to or ignored because they're "all the way in Dorchester" or "at the end of the Green Line."

I live in Boston, Massachusetts. I've lived here for over 10 years, and I've lived around it my whole life. Like any long-time resident, that's made me pretty complacent with my surroundings. But Boston's still Boston, right? This is one of the most famous cities in the United States. People come here from all over the world. There are people sitting at their jobs in Nebraska and Croatia wishing they could go to places I don't even pay attention to anymore because I see them so much. Folks wait their whole lives to go to places I've been avoiding since 7th grade field trips. There dozens of museums and galleries I've never gone to in the metro area. Boston has a lacrosse team! I don't even know what lacrosse is! Sure, I've been to Chinatown, but I haven't eaten at many of the hole-in-the-wall joints that the locals line up for. And what the hell is on the Blue Line?

The plan is to go somewhere or do something new every week. I'm sure I'll miss a few, but it's a priority not to. Even if it's something small like a restaurant, it feels necessary to seek out the great stuff around here armed with nothing more than a bike, the subway, shoe leather, a camera phone and a couple of bucks at a time.

So why read this? Maybe you'll learn something about the area. Maybe you'll learn what not to do? It's possible you'll even get a laugh out of my ridiculous need to find meaning in my surroundings. Hopefully, it'll make you want to get out of the house and see the awesome stuff that's right outside your door.