Thursday, July 3, 2014

On a Wilderness of Error




I never forget the location of a bookstore.


Once, when I traveled to Boston on business, I bought several books at a bookstore a couple blocks from my hotel, the Parker House. I recall this bookstore as being vast and impressive, with three levels, a coffee shop, and a remarkable collection of books by Irish novelists. At this place, I bought Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.


Last week, on Martha’s Vineyard, at a congested intersection in West Tisdale, I heard a public radio spot about true crime books. The woman interviewed said that she thought the best of all true crime books was Errol Morris’s A Wilderness of Error. She said: "It is probably heresy not to recommend In Cold Blood, but I think A Wilderness of Error is a better book."


I crossed the Nantucket Sound from Martha’s Vineyard on a Massachusetts Steamship Ferry crowded with trucks carrying garbage. Estates on the Vineyard cost between 7 and 13 million dollars and, I guess, it is offensive to rich people to have to share their island with garbage. And so, it seems, they ship it back to the mainland.


I saw a seagull riding the wind next to the ferry that stank of rotting garbage. The seagull never once flapped its great, arched wings. Who says that animals are not capable of play? This seagull was playing with the breezes stirred up by the foul-smelling ferry.


We reached Boston at 2:30 in the afternoon and returned the rental car. We checked into the Hilton at the airport, immediately across the road from terminal A. Julie said that she had finished all of the books that she had brought to read on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. I told her that I would take the subway into Boston and see if I could buy her a copy of Morris’ A Wilderness of Error.


The Logan Airport Hilton is a great, lonely mausoleum of a hotel, hermetically sealed against the roar and bustle of the runways and terminals. I went to the lobby, which was empty and vast, and spoke with the concierge. He directed me outside and I rode a shuttle bus a half-mile or so to the train station


At the train station, I bought a 12 dollar day pass and, then, rode the Blue Line through the tunnel under the harbor and into Boston. I had done this many times and knew that the stop closest to the Parker House Hotel was "Government Center". My plan was to get off the subway at that stop and, then, walk to the bookstore nearby to purchase Morris’ book.


"Government Center" stop was closed as a result of construction. I took the Blue Line to Bowdoin, the next stop on the line. When I emerged from underground, I recognized a curving line of office buildings, a structure made from pre-stressed concrete, massive and ugly and brutal. But I knew where I was because of the concrete landmark and made my way back to the plaza atop the "Government Center" subway station.


It was 92 degrees on the streets of Boston, airless and with high humidity.


A great crowd of people stood in the open, sun-drenched plaza between the public buildings. The people were mostly silent, although, sometimes, they raised a great unanimous cheer or sighed at the same time. I estimated that there a thousand or more men and women, crushed together to watch several big color screens on which a soccer game was displayed underway. The United States team was playing Belgium in the World Cup Championship in Brazil.


I walked across a complex intersection to the sidewalk under the facade of the Parker House Hotel. Fremont Street was busy with traffic and the glare from the chrome and bumpers made me squint.


King’s Chapel Burying Ground was at my right, beyond the iron fence next to the sidewalk. The old slate graves looked like peculiar geological formations pushed up through the yellowing sod, black crystals emerging from underground. On my last trip to Boston, I recall walking past that graveyard in a hurricane, an avalanche of sleet and snow falling out of the sky and flung horizontally against the ancient graves. The dead seemed particularly forgotten and hapless in that wind-borne chaos.


The bookstore that I recalled with unerring accuracy was at a small plaza between School and Washington Streets. I walked past the ornate, French-empire style City Hall and rounded the corner only to discover that the bookstore no longer existed. In its place, the three-story glass windows opened into a Walgreen’s pharmacy.


I think the huge shop had once been a Borders Bookstore. Borders went out of business a couple of years ago. I was bitterly disappointed that the place no longer offered books for sale. I suppose that, if you are feeling ill or need medicine, a pharmacy is a useful business, particularly at this busy street corner, but this was little solace to me as I stood in the scorching sun wondering where I should next go.


A little dazed, I strolled a block down Washington and, then, walked back to Fremont on Bromfield Street. It is a narrow lane and the shadows were cool and the air smelled of restaurants preparing for dinner.


There is a subway station beyond the old Granary Burying Ground on the edge of the Boston Common. I entered the subway and tried to access the train platforms, but my Charlie Card, the magnetized pass that operated the turnstiles would not let me through the gate. So I ascended the steps again to the hot street and crossed to a larger subway entrance on the other side of Fremont, passing between crowds of street vendors and beggars and skimpily dressed girls in summer skirts and loose blouses.


It was over 100 degrees on the train platforms and the air was foul with crowd-stench. The heat and fog of gaseous sweat dazed me. Trains were sitting on various sidings, panting like hot dogs, and the place was thronged, big mobs of people pushing this way and that. It took me a few minutes to figure out what train I should take toward Copley Square. More steps, slippery with sweat, had to be descended and, then, climbed again. In the steam-bath heat, people plowed into one another, dully stumbling over the slick concrete.


I took the outbound Green Line train to Copley. Then, I hiked across the square to Trinity Church. I found a door leading inside and walked through heavy, dark vaults to where a young man was sitting at a desk. It was as hot as an oven in the huge brick church.


The young man sat a podium displaying brightly colored coffee-table books, obscenely spread-eagled for inspection. The books showed the interior of the huge church. I asked the young man what it cost to enter the church and he told me that I could buy a ticket downstairs.


"Where is a bookstore near here?" The young man blinked nervously at me. Then, he said: "I buy my books at Trident." "Where is that?" He said: "Go down Newbury – it’s one block over (he gestured). The bookstore is right at Mass." I went into the church crypt and bought a ticket to enter the place. I found a toilet, locked myself in a stall, and looked at my city map. It appeared that I would have to walk five blocks on Newbury to reach Massachusetts Avenue. But there was a Green line subway station at Massachusetts (Hynes Station) and I would be able to take the train back to the Blue Line from that place and, thence, return to the airport.


I went into the Church. The interior of Trinity Church is resplendent with color: Pompeii red covering plaster in the heights of the tower, majestic courses of fire-house red brick interspersed with bricks colored mustard-yellow and Rembrandt-brown, all assembled in a great, polychrome mosaic. From the outside, the church seems Romanesque, heavy, impenetrable, forests of turrets rising over formidable rampart walls. But, inside. the place soars upward with Moorish exuberance – it is like an immense fat man implausibly light and agile on his feet, like Oliver Hardy’s soft-shoe dance in Way out West, graceful and airy, murals and ornate cherry-wood carving wrapped around the interior space, bright alcoves full of gem-like stained glass hovering in the middle heights, close enough for the images to be legible, but still remote from the congregation, occupying a kind of half-accessible heaven above the dark prairie of rose-wood pews, and, then, the lofty heights above occupied by great shaggy giants, the evangelists cumbrous and immense in the high prophetic peak of the steeple. Somehow, the structure combines a sense of upward thrust and bright, even, radiant illumination with a vast weight, a gravitas equivalent to the bulk of Grover Cleveland, or a gilded era robber baron or fat, oyster-fed H. H. Richardson himself, the architect from Louisiana who designed this place. Trinity Church is one of my favorite buildings and it always takes my breath away.


Above the narthex, John LaFarge’s Jesus stands in stained-glass majesty. The Savior is outside of the building, in the world, Christ represented as a column of pale white light standing in blue darkness. Jesus occupies a dark blue mandorla – perhaps, we are supposed to imagine him striding toward the Church through the icy gloom of night, a towering spectre moving through the darkness.


One shudders at the glacial blue and white of LaFarge’s image of Jesus, but it was, in fact, exceedingly hot in the church, sultry, with huge fans nodding back and forth like mechanical deacons.


On the street, I crossed Boylston, went north a block to Newbury, and, then, hurried along the street.


The blocks were long and the walk was hot, without shade, on the crowded sidewalk. I passed girls in low-cut dresses acting as hostesses at sidewalk cafes, ice cream and gelato parlors, fashionable boutiques and hair styling places, restaurants offering Asian fusion menus or Spanish food or Italian specialties, expensive pizza places that bake their pies in wood-fired ovens, all of these enterprises occupying the ground level of elegant old brownstone apartments lining both sides of the arrow-straight and broad street.


The bookstore was where it was supposed to be. I went inside, talked to a slender girl in a black tee-shirt bearing an image of a three-pronged spear, and she found Morris’ book for me in the history section.


I bought a Film Comment with Morris’ book. The man at the check-out register wanted to discuss movies with me. But I didn’t exactly understand his comments.


Carrying my purchases, I hurried another half-block to Massachusetts where my map showed me that there was a subway station, the next stop on the Green Line: Hynes, named after the Hynes Convention Center.


I couldn’t find the train station. There were no plausible entries into the underground. I hustled up and down the street, looking in all directions for the subway but couldn’t locate it. I stooped to inspect manhole covers and peered into cavities in the bowels of buildings where coal had once been loaded to fuel furnaces and, if there was a crack in the sidewalk, I gazed into it, hoping to discover the passage downward, the way to the shadows. But my search was unavailing. There was a freeway across the road and an impromptu-looking shack on Massachusetts marked with the word "Hynes" and I went there and scrutinized the rear of that shanty looking for pits and crevasses, fissures leading downward but, again, found nothing. This was very disappointing for it meant that I had to hike back down Newbury, retracing my steps to Copley and the subway entrance by the Public Library.


The blocks were long and the walk was hot, without shade, on the crowded sidewalk. At street level, businesses occupied the front of the elegant, old brownstones: expensive pizza places that cooked their pies in wood-fired ovens, Italian trattoria, Thai bistros, a Spanish restaurant and, then, some Asian fusion places, hair-styling studios reeking of chemicals, pricy-looking boutiques, gelato and ice cream parlors, girls in low-cut blouses standing at the edge of the sidewalk beckoning pedestrians into sidewalk cafes.


It was obvious to me that a person of my kind did not belong on that street, that I should not be allowed to perambulate that sidewalk even for a minute, that I had traveled from Martha’s Vineyard with the garbage as a kind of penance and that I was hot and half-hallucinating as I walked as quickly as I could back to Copley square.


I rush down the steps into the subway to get out of the glare of the sun, but on the first sweltering landing, there is a tattered sign and it tells me that there is no access through this arcade to the inbound trains on the Green Line and, quite evidently, it is an inbound train that I need to reach the Blue Line and, then, the airport. So, I climb back up the the sweat-slick steps, cross the street toward the great marble barge of the Public Library docked there at the plaza and, then, hurry along Copley Square scanning the vantage ahead of me for some sign of the promised entry into the subway. But I can’t seem to find the steps leading downward and so I circle the block and, at last, find the entrance only a few feet from where I commenced my circuit of the Library, an assemblage of Victorian wrought iron hiding in plain sight. This alarms me. It seems that the sun and heat have entered my brain and that I am experiencing curious lacunae in the world, places that are right before my eyes but that can’t exactly be seen, or, at least, can’t be seen for what they are.


Since the Government Center station is closed and undergoing construction, and since that station is the nerve center of the whole subway system, it’s central neuron as it were or ganglion, I understand that the way back to the airport will be complex. I will have to go to Haymarket and, then, transfer onto the Orange Line and, then, ride that train for one station to access the Blue Line.


It is even hotter and more sultry, more difficult to breathe and, therefore, more difficult to see clearly, on the train platforms and in the grimy tunnels than I recalled.


The Green Line train is crowded this time of day, around 6:00 pm, and so I have to stand for several stops, exiting into the gloomy, furnace-like heat at Haymarket. The next subway train is nine minutes away. The people on the platform stand there withering in the heat, drizzling pools of sweat down onto the filthy concrete.


The Orange Line train is even more crowded, crammed with Latino women and their children, many of them in perambulators. It is only one stop to State Station. I exit there. Signs point the way to the Blue Line – that is, through a quarter-mile long wormhole, a cement tube tiled overhead with grimy white tiles that seem to seep some sort of rancid liquid, perhaps, sweat condensed on their (relatively) cool surfaces. Everyone trots down the tunnel which goes on and on endlessly, finally snaking around a curve where there is a thunderous roar – the sound of the Blue Line train to the airport just leaving the platform.


A sign overhead flashes the information that the next train will come in 12 minutes. It seems impossible to endure this airless, suffocating heat for that long. More and more people arrive at the station and I am standing on the yellow-for-caution lip of the platform, jostled ahead into a place where no one is really supposed to stand due to the dangerous proximity of fatal edge, and, now, behind me the crowd is eight deep, now ten deep, now twelve deep as more and more people throng the narrow platform between the walls and pit through which the trains move.


Apparently, the Blue Line travels to an immensely populace ghetto, a slum of some sort inhabited by tens of thousands of immigrants speaking incomprehensible languages, a vast polyglot assembly of the very poor crammed elbow to elbow, buttock to groin, shoulder to shoulder on the scalding subway platform. Children are shrieking and the crowd jostles and shudders and, as the train appears – headlights rounding a black humid curve – I feel the mob moving forward and pressing against me as if to hurl my body into the void, onto the third rail, under the grinding iron wheels of the train.


But, I think, at least, I am positioned to get onto the train first, ahead of the rest of this huge unruly mob, many of whom will certainly be left behind on the suffocating platform.


The train stops at the station with its doors fifteen feet to my right and also exactly fifteen feet to my left – in other words, I am trapped against the side of the subway car, equidistant between the two doors that are now crowded with people cramming themselves into the compartment. I struggle along the hot metal of the subway car and, at last, scramble onto the train just as the doors are closing.


The subway car is air-conditioned, almost cold, and the transition from the sauna heat of the platform into the chill refrigeration of the train is shocking. This can not be good for one’s health. People are treading upon one another’s feet and cursing, but also giggling and laughing in a good natured way and women are gossiping in Portuguese, I think, and Hmong and some of subway riders have desolate panicked eyes and look suicidal and others show bland, empty expressions like zombies and there are mad women and mad men gibbering, drug addicts wilting like rare exotic orchids, babies howling, the whole thing hurled through the black, boiling darkness.


All of my sorrow, all of the residue of my grief settles into my feet. It is a slow sedimentation of misery that goes into my lower extremities and makes them throb with pain. Ever since my close friend, Terry Dilley died, I have found it difficult to walk any distance without serious, searing pain – and now my wounded mourning foot is so sore that I am afraid that it will collapse throwing me to the dirty floor of the subway compartment where I will be trodden under heel and destroyed.


We roll through the silent, shrouded construction zone, the closed Government Center stop, then, to Aquarium, where the platform is mostly deserted, then, to Maverick where many people depart the train, then, to Airport where I stagger out of the subway. I call the Hilton for the shuttle bus to pick me up and the white van arrives in less than ten minutes. At the Hilton, the man driving the bus says in a cheery voice: "Welcome back, sir." "Thank you," I tell him.


What do I conclude from this excursion? In big cities, the urban poor suffer greatly. The level of inconvenience and suffering experienced by people compelled to ride these subways, sweltering in summer and frigid in winter, is immense, arbitrary and capricious, taxing, unjust, unreasonable, and, it seems, by and large, borne with equanimity.


That is the moral of this essay. No more, no less.