Some nights, when the wind is off the harbor, the upswelling storm blows in ocean air, and the city smells like the sea. It’s funny: you can live in this town without ever seeing salt water — despite being on the Atlantic, the closest you normally come to littoral life is walking across the Mass Ave bridge. The occasional summer trip to the seashore is no help: it’s enough of a hike to get to a good beach that it hardly makes you feel any closer to the sea. The beach is a vacation, even to Bostonians. But on nights like these, when the streets of Cambridge are filled with the damp scent of salt air, and the wind puffs up and exhales a fresh pelagic breath into your living room, you are instantly reminded of your proximity to the ocean. It is close, and without seeing it you can feel its presence, like the warmth radiating from the body next to you, asleep.
It’s the bottom of the fifth, and the score is eight-nothing Red Sox. Next to me, Mike is talking about Manny Ramirez, and Jeff and Josh are jumping in with mm hms and words of agreement.
“Nice!” is shouted in unison in response to a great play by Nomar. On the screen, a shot of him tightening his batting glove, grimacing, accompanied by the sound of the Fenway crowd, the familiar voice of Jerry Remy, some sort of Boston lullaby. I can imagine some absurdly devoted fan listening to recordings of games to put himself to sleep at night, ears cupped in the soft seashells of headphones, awash in the ocean sound of crowds.
The couch springs shift beneath me as a hit bounces off the Green Monster: Mike is sitting up straight on the edge of the cushion, eyes focused far away as though staring right through the television and out to center field. Jeff returns from the bathroom and squints at the score; Josh lifts his eyes from his laptop to explain. As the Boston lead creeps up to 11 runs, Jeff’s fingers wander the remote control, stopping for a few minutes on the World Series of Poker, where an otherwise good-looking twentysomething guy clad in an orange jumpsuit is pushing a stack of chips into the pot. The commentary here is less soothing; Jeff flips back to NESN, and we settle in for the rest of the game.
In New York City on Independence Day, you can stand on a rooftop and see anywhere from zero to a half dozen fireworks shows, depending on how many buildings are in your way — but chances are you’ll watch them on television. In Boston, there is really only one place to see the fireworks, and consequently the entire city descends upon the banks of the Charles like the crowds at a rock festival, joyously taking over several of the city’s busiest thoroughfares and turning them from highways into wide footpaths and picnic spots. Unsurprisingly, Bostonians are a happier, kinder crew when you get them out of their cars.
July Fourth pulls the wealthy out of their brownstones and onto their coveted roofdecks, the MIT students away from their computers and into the sunshine, the Cambridge-Somerville twentysomethings back to the city they tell people they’re from when they travel but which they rarely T in to (unless Allston counts). Liquor store lines are long in the afternoon, the Sam Seasonal sold out. The city becomes a carnival; fried dough is no longer just something you can buy at Park Street. This is what Boston gathers around: the Red Sox, the Fourth of July.
When the music and the fireworks have ended, the streets are flooded with people, a transformation more intensely surreal than the emptiness of Storrow Drive; like when the circus comes to town, and they march the elephants up Mass Ave in the middle of the day, and everyone rubs their eyes, not knowing what to make of it.