We watched the SUV sail across all three lanes of Storrow Drive. It was Saturday night and Amanda was giving three of us rides home after work. The bars had just let out and Storrow, which runs alongside the Charles River and connects the West End to Allston, was pocked with traffic. Not that it deterred the drunk in front of us.
That year, Boston was launching a pilot program to keep a selection of subway and bus lines running until 3 a.m. on the weekend, up from 1 a.m. Working in the service industry, I welcomed the change – unfortunately, only temporary – as finding a Taxi on a Boston Saturday night is cutthroat business. Plus, Boston roads are less than ideal that time of night.
After the SUV narrowly clipped our rear bumper, Amanda judiciously let him pass. In awe, we watched the drunk race ahead, swerving across all three lanes to sideswipe the cement barrier on the left side before ricocheting back across the lanes and nearly careening off the road into the river before correcting.
From the shoulder, a sitting police cruiser watched the scene but didn’t move. We called 911. To our dismay, the drunk slid off the same exit as us. The SUV must have pulled off down a side street as we merged into traffic because we lost sight of him. I have no idea where the driver ended up, whether back home, in a police car, or with his head bisected by a tree trunk.
Watching the SUV abuse the road evoked a visceral response in me, a seemingly gratuitous anger. I’ve done my share of idiotic things while drunk but my reaction wasn’t because the driver almost collided with us; or, it wasn’t just that.
There is a beauty to a road at night, the serenity of a world viewed only in the high beams. Red and white lights passing in streaks, chaotic yet rhythmic. It’s game theory and ballet; it’s sacred. And one drunk was fucking that up.
Forget it Jake, it’s Allston
My arrival in Boston coincided with the beginning of the school year, and since the city is one giant college campus with a town threaded in the cracks, hundreds of thousands of students had already gobbled up every rental well before I began my search.
Only a few weeks out from my ninth move, I received an email from a guy named Lucas. He and another roommate, Emily, had locked down a four bedroom apartment in Allston, but two of the other renters had dropped out unexpectedly and now they were scrambling to fill the rooms. Their misfortune was my… not misfortune.
On Moving Day – the bitterest Boston holiday – I drove into the city under a torrential downpour to meet my three roommates. Together, the four of us would survive our apartment.
Allston is the cirrhosis-stricken liver of Boston’s college nexus. Calling it rat-infested inaccurately characterizes the natural ecosystem: Allston is human-infested; the rats just tolerated us. Our first floor apartment included easy access to the basement laundry and a quarter-inch layer of black, indeterminable grease coating every surface. It was a week before I realized our floor was actually made of hardwood.
Like any classic sitcom setup, the four roomies had one dynamic as a group, but split into pairs we developed distinct relationships. With Lucas, I chatted pop culture and liquor, money and politics; life. He worked in fraud prevention for a major bank and, of the four of us, was the only one with a traditional 9-5 job. He was also a practiced cook and spent many weekends with his out-of-state girlfriend.
Adam, the youngest of the four, had been studying film at UCLA before transferring cross country. He required little prompting to expound endlessly on his passions. He and I frequently debated art at length, somehow always circling back to David Lynch (he a devoted fan, me, not so much). An off-hand comment about a superhero movie trailer could unexpectedly turn into a three hour exegesis on the shifting classification of film genres.
Finally, there was Emily. She’d relocated to Massachusetts from Arizona for nursing school. Demonstratively bright and from a family of means, she could’ve studied anywhere in the country but was drawn out East by a desire to expand the borders of her world. With Lucas’s regular schedule and Adam being a morning person, Emily and I handled the late night conversation shifts and became fast friends from our first meeting.
On any given night, we could kill a bottle or two of wine while weaving through a range of topics, whether travel, music, mental health, or any tangents that might shake loose after midnight. Or, we might just have a 2 a.m. dance party, to Lucas’s chagrin.
Lucas, Emily, and I barhopped together – Adam, to our occasional amusement, wasn’t a drinker. We partied vicariously with the Founding Fathers on the Freedom Trail and danced to 90s songs in sweaty clubs. Sometimes we stayed closer to home to drink among the crystalline youth of Allston. My roommates could still pass for undergrads, in looks if not in lack of cynicism, but next to collegiate eternal youth, I couldn’t help but feel (and look) worn. The threshold for old age in Allston isn’t high.
In our apartment, indignities stacked up quickly. Even after we – well, Emily – gave the place a thorough cleaning, rodents were a fact of life. The rats and the mice maintained separate territories. Outside, long-tailed, beady-eyed rat bastards rustled incessantly in the garbage before retiring under the tires of passing cars, painting the streets like some sort of gut-splattered Jackson Pollock.
Though slightly less aesthetically repulsive, the mice were nevertheless a more persistent problem, scampering inside our walls and hungrily devouring anything within two feet of the ground. They got so comfortable in our home that they even invented a fun game: They’d hide in the trashcan and race up Emily’s arm when she went to throw something away. Boy how she howled with laughter.
As our landlord unhelpfully – but rightly – pointed out, mice were just a fact of life in Allston. The same could apparently be said of an apartment whose power grid had inexplicably been rerouted through the oven. Half of the apartment, including Lucas and Adam’s bedrooms, lost power unless one of the stovetop burners was left on. Not ideal.
When we eventually found a non-incompetent electrician (third times the charm), he discovered that the fuse box in the basement had previously caught fire and partially melted. Now, I’m no building inspector, but I suspect one or two codes had probably been broken to get to that point.
Then there was the paper thin ceiling. Usual college kid noises infiltrated our space, but we – again, mostly Emily – also had our upstairs neighbor’s awkward sexcapades projected down at us as if by loudspeaker. And yet, the true cherry on top of our shit sundae apartment didn’t arrive until New Year’s Eve.
With Adam and Emily out West, Lucas having an NYE dinner with his girlfriend, and me working the holiday shift, our apartment was visited by freelance movers. Climbing in through a broken window in Emily’s room, the intruders ransacked the place. In terms of financial loss, Lucas probably suffered the worst – I lucked out; though they swiped a couple hundred dollars I had sitting out, they unplugged but ultimately left behind my laptop, my only possession of any value.
The police were predictably unable to do anything about the break-in. While we could accept our material losses, it was the psychological intrusion that invoked the deepest absence. I’ve been robbed before, but never from inside my own apartment, even when living in some of the purportedly worst neighborhoods in the county. For Emily, especially, the use of her window as the point of entry was an unrectifiable invasion.
With the passage of years, we’ve come to appreciate the dark humor in our garbage dump of an apartment. Even at the time, though, the various frustrations never perturbed me quite as much as they did the others. In part, this was because I’d lived in my share of hovels. Even more so, though, I felt comfortable with concrete issues, problems with solutions. We could set mouse traps, put bars on the windows, call repair men. I didn’t feel, as I had in New Orleans, like returning home was a prison sentence. I actually liked the apartment; I enjoyed my roommates.
Lest I give the impression that I only experienced one Boston neighborhood, I did enjoy life outside Allston. I served tables at a pub in the Financial District, working alongside a diverse and rowdy crew, including my co-closer and concert partner, Amanda. I celebrated St. Patty’s Day in Southie with Emily and attended the Red Sox’s World Series parade with Lucas.
When the city started feeling too small, I left. The Northeast has an advantage over any other region of the US because a day trip in almost any direction will bring you somewhere entertaining and beautiful.
Meanwhile, Emily and I worked to bend Boston to our inebriated will. Boston doesn’t permit happy hour and its nightlife is mostly constrained to weekends. Allston dives were fine, but half the fun was in wandering. On one late night, in fruitless search of a rooftop to lounge on, we surreptitiously climbed the fire escapes of strangers, dodging the headlights of passing cars.
One Sunday evening, we trekked half of the city until we finally located an open liquor store. Stashing bottles of champagne, we entered Boston Common and reclined on the grass while the dusk burnt away to night.
For all its posturing as a city, Boston is a small town, for better and worse. It didn’t take long to feel like we’d experienced most of what it had to offer. When the city felt constraining, we sought out fresh avenues. Emily was a fellow traveler, accustomed to taking detours in life. Restlessness was our bond.
Twenty-four hours after the NYE break-in, I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona. The trollies and subways of Boston could be inefficient, especially in winter, so Emily was transporting her car across the country. To give her parents peace of mind, I volunteered to co-pilot. They expressed their appreciation, but fact is, I’d drop a baby to go on a road trip.
We had a loosely planned route: Avoiding winter in the Midwest, we cruised across thirteen hours of hypnotic, Texas nothing, then dropped into New Orleans overnight for Emily’s first visit. From the bayou, we crept through eerily quiet Mississippi and Alabama towns in pursuit of plantations and any restaurants open on a Sunday afternoon. Our progress was hampered by a snowstorm as we approached Nashville. Finally, we reached the coast, dining with Marianne and her beau in D.C. before swinging past New York on our way back home.
Somewhere in the lull between Texas and Tennessee, while I sat behind the wheel with Emily asleep in the passenger seat, I had a moment of such transcendent calm that it bordered on religious. With the road stretching to each horizon, no cars in sight, I was overwhelmed by a sense of timelessness, as if there was no future, no past, just that road, that instant. Maybe I wasn’t meant to have a home; I’d be okay.
I could’ve driven forever.
In the waning months of my year in Boston, while I focused on my final move, my roommates were also resolving plans. Adam jumped the Charles River to live in Cambridge; Lucas moved in with his soon-to-be fiancé in Connecticut; and Emily found a new apartment with Amanda so she could finish her final year of nursing school.
As for me, it was almost literally the last hour before I had a place in New York. It didn’t matter. Even if I ended up homeless, come September 1st, I was driving my few belongings the four hours to Brooklyn to begin Year 10.
I could see the finish line, if nothing else.