For the past 25 years we have lived in the middle of Boston — just enough time to reflect on what it means to be a city dweller.
Though our street is tree lined, we have no patch of green to call our own. The roof of our house offers an expanse of sky with views across the river to Cambridge, but its rubber membrane is not conducive to bare feet, barbecues or badminton. Sharing party walls with neighbors whose houses abut ours, both back and side, guarantees that, on occasion, we hear their plumbing and their conversations.
When our son, Oliver, was about 4-years-old, he bemoaned the fact that we didn’t live in a “real” house.
“What do you mean?” my husband and I asked in disbelief.
“We don’t have a back door,” he explained, “and without a back door you can’t have a yard. And without a yard, you can’t have a house.”
Then, after a particularly frolicking afternoon spent on the swing set and jungle gym at my sister’s house in the suburbs, our daughter, Fanny, was heard to remark, “I hope my mom’s going to buy me a back yard soon.”
Even my father, usually one of my biggest supporters, suggested that we move to Lexington.
“Think about it: You could have your morning coffee in a little garden,” he reminded me every time he came to visit.
With so many red brick buildings lining the narrow streets of our densely populated neighborhood, parking can be difficult. To avoid the problem of circling the block a half dozen times — especially between the peak hours of 5 and 7 p.m. — we pay dearly for a spot in a garage a few blocks away. I rationalize this costly decision by convincing myself that the hike up the hill to our house is good for my health, until it is pouring rain and I am weighed down with bags of groceries.
When our friend Rich comes to visit, he considers the obligatory parking ticket he finds affixed to his windshield — due to an expired meter or the lack of a resident sticker — a friend tax.
Not only have I grown accustomed to the challenges of city living, I have come to embrace them. But recently my love for urban dwelling was called into question. It started a few minutes after I realized that I would not be able to see Don Draper brood. Our cable was not working.
I phoned Comcast. Walking me through each step of the procedure, a polite technician patiently instructed me on how to refresh my connection. (This solution sounded hopeful — my aesthetician refreshes my skin, my husband refreshes my drink.) When this failed, she connected me to Laura, her supervisor.
Laura’s office was located somewhere in the middle of Texas — I know this because, as with my dentist, car mechanic, lawyer and hair stylist, I make nervous small talk before any procedure is about to begin. And pursuant to the hour-long conversation that followed, I also know that Laura’s office must be surrounded by open space for as far as the eye could see.
Laura was able to confirm, after running numerous tests of the system, that the problem was located somewhere outside the confines of our house, at the point where the cable enters. What ensued — Laura’s attempt to pinpoint the location of the problem, to ascertain “where that darn cable connection could be” — involved a cross-examination of my house’s physical attributes. Laura’s line of questioning stayed obsessively on point, centering on the house’s relationship to the yard, until the recognition of my problem became palpable even over a phone line.
“You mean,” she said incredulously, in her slow Texas drawl, “like, the houses are pasted together?”
“Well, sort of,” I said.
“Eww, I would hate that,” she replied.
But if I were the list-making sort, Laura would see that the positives of city living far outweigh the small inconveniences.
Within two blocks of our house I can find most of life’s necessities: a cup of coffee, freshly laundered shirts, a tube of toothpaste, a bunch of flowers, a new pair of running shoes and, most recently, a chocolate chip ice cream cone with sprinkles. And the procurement of these items often leads to a chance meeting with a neighbor I haven’t seen in a while or to a little free advice.
At the pharmacy, Herman offers the best remedy for a toothache or a pulled muscle. At the hardware store, Jack’s crew has taught me how to install a window shade, break into my own house when locked out and successfully keep out unwanted insects.
Recently we had house guests for the weekend. Wanting to give them a sense of the city, we showed them City Hall, traversed the North End, covered a good portion of the Harbor Walk and then traipsed back through Beacon Hill, before crossing over the Charles River to Cambridge, where by 2 o’clock we were eating sandwiches at a café in the heart of that city’s burgeoning technology hub.
When I am in need of inspiration, I visit the MFA, the Gardner or the artist studios in SOWA. I never want for movie theaters or food trucks. Or miss the chance to cheer on marathon runners and gay-rights advocates.
Even our kids are converts to city living, taking full advantage of the Hubway and the subway to get them where they want to go. Back yards aren’t on their radar now.
As for the cable connection, thanks to a savvy Comcast technician we flagged down when his truck passed our house, I’m all caught up on “Mad Men.” As for Laura in Texas — she’s the one in need of refreshing. She doesn’t know what she’s missing.
Do You Live In A City? Hmm. Let’s Find Out (click to enlarge)