COLUMN: Seeing It From the Street Level
Published: Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 23:10
This weekend I had two distinctly different views of Boston.
The first was from the Top of the Hub—a real novelty of a restaurant that sits atop the city’s beloved Prudential Center, one that I enjoyed courtesy of my parents. This view placed the cityscape of Boston before me, the John Hancock Tower piercing the sky, the smaller lights of Cambridge and South Boston in the distance, interrupted only by the darkness of the Charles River, the harbor, and the Atlantic itself.
This view reminded me almost instantly of a scene from Teju Cole’s Open City, a compelling novel in which Julius, a Nigerian American in the final year of a psychiatry fellowship, wanders Manhattan, reflecting on his life and the human condition. It may be interesting to point out that Cole spoke at Boston College last February as part of the Lowell Humanities Series—he was excellent, and much funnier than one who has read his book would suspect.
In the final moments of Open City, Julius wanders onto a fire escape near the top of Carnegie Hall, where he contemplates New York City and his place in it. He focuses his eye on a taxi, and then an ambulance, which he hears from four floors below him before it heads "toward Times Square’s neon inferno.” Viewing Boston from the Top of the Hub, has a similar effect—there is something about the sight of a city from above that people have collectively agreed is beautiful, inspiring, mysterious, humbling, glorifying—in a way, it is all things.
Still, despite all of its power, this sight is not the ultimate to me.
Because I had a second view this weekend.
It was from the Bristol Lounge in the Four Seasons hotel—a perfect place for a very comfortable brunch at the street level. (Another meal with my parents, of course—just want to prevent any readers from imagining me alone in this rather sumptuous restaurant, smoking a pretentious cigar in the corner of the room.)
The view from the windows of the lounge provided me with a much smaller slice of the city, with a view of the sidewalk and the trees of the Public Garden across the street. I watched people walking by on the street, catching only part of their respective days, like short movies as they passed by the wide windows of the Bristol Lounge.
There was something so infinite, so human about the lives that I saw passing by me—words passed between friends, an awkward effort to hold hands, a stroller so packed with objects that watching the baby’s father push it was purely comical.
There was something about this view of the sidewalk, the street, and the Public Garden that mattered more to me than the view at one of the highest points in Boston. In truth, it is this low-level view that Julius, the main character of Open City, mostly focuses on in the unfolding narrative.
Mostly, he just walks—not only in New York, but also in Brussels, talking to people he meets on the sidewalk, on trains, and in restaurants. Julius is not an ideal person. In fact, a revelation that comes late in the story suggests that he has a dark past.
Still, I admire his desire for the earthly, for the human connection that one cannot get when alone on the top of a fire escape.
Both that dinner at the Top of the Hub and that brunch in the Bristol Lounge were filled with typical conversation I usually have with my parents—we discussed my classes, they asked about my friends, I asked about my sister, we talked about some weird dreams we had all been having, but at the end of the meal, my mother said something so obvious that it was important to say:
“It’s just nice to be together.”