Monday, March 15, 2010

The Boston I.D.

How can we understand the collective identity of this great city if we have not first embraced the individual identities of each citizen? In the words of a former student of mine, “It’s unpossible.”

There is no better place for people watching, and for the subsequent social behavioral exploration that comes from such an activity, than at a local pub. This urban truth is not exclusive to Boston, but apparent in every major metropolis the world over. In Dublin, I spent almost two weeks in unprecedented frustration behind the wrong-sided wheel of an economy rental, asking myself why I had foolishly chosen Ireland as a vacation destination. Then one afternoon, I decided to crawl into one of the many hole-in-the-wall pubs along my non-Temple-Bar walking route, and was invited to join a party there already in progress. The festivities were in honor of a great-grandfather turning 96, and I spent four hours drinking half-pints of whatever with his extended family and friends. I was able, and in fact, welcomed, to discover the personalities that had been missing from my touristy view of Dublin. And this same social phenomenon, minus the backward driving ritual, can be had right here in our fine city.

If you’re interested in meeting, or at least watching creepily from a distance, the real characters that make up Boston, one might argue that any local pub will do, so long as it has a personality to match its patrons. I would like to propose, as a prime example, one establishment in particular, that boasts both local color and the big-city vibe that Bostonians and travelers alike have come to love. Cornwall’s Pub in Kenmore Square has food and drinks, yes, and fully-functioning pool tables on occasion, but more importantly, it has character.

The menu at Cornwall’s is English, not Irish, and decent. You should order a burger if you starving, the nachos (complete with re-heated cheese sauce and a garnish of Old Bay seasoning) if you’re drunk, and the Shepherd’s Pie if you’re just visiting. Don’t expect anything from the menu beyond the description you read. If it says the salad has lettuce, tomato and chicken, that’s all you’re getting. But keep in mind that if you had wanted fancy and flair, you would have gone across the street to Eastern Standard and paid the price.

The beers are cold. Order a Guinness if you want to wait. If you’re pressed for time, get a Black Velvet, because the Strongbow pours quickly and reduces the wait on that Guinness flavor you really want. And the Bud Light and Amstel bottles are close at hand, for the patron who needs a drink pronto. Mixed drinks are hit or miss, and your Martini might (eventually) arrive in a pint glass or tumbler, but rest assured, it will always have the full alcohol pour and then some.

Because Cornwall’s is a family business, you will more than likely be served by a relative of the owner. Billy and J.R. are competent bartenders, if a little distracted by whatever is on the TV, and they know the Kenmore Square gossip like the back of their beer-soaked hands. The pub is also more laid back than most Kenmore establishments, so restaurant workers come from city blocks around, when they’re sufficiently fed up with corporate-chain-slavery, to work at Cornwall’s. Bad news for places like Pizzeria Uno and Bertucci’s, but good news for the Cornwall’s patrons, who are ensured of being helped by a less stressed bartender or waitress.

So far, Cornwall’s is landing only slightly off the middle of the road. But the people who drink there, who make up about ninety-nine percent of the Cornwall’s character, are the real attraction.

When you walk in the door, take a right down the ramp. Ok, get a beer first, and then take a right down the ramp. This is the path that will lead you to what the USA network promises, but never delivers…a character fantasy. A glance to the right at the bottom of the ramp reveals an almost hidden from view ‘Touch the Titty’ machine. The real name of this arcade is something more advertize-y and less vulgar, but if you’ve ever put any money into it, you’ll know it by its street name. There will be two or three older gentlemen sitting with stacks of dollar bills, playing Word-Dojo or Photo Hunt Erotic (where the street name comes from). If you’d like to know any of the Kenmore Square gossip Billy and J.R. were too busy to fill you in on, ask these guys. And if you have time, invite them up onto their political soap-boxes, too, because these guys have surprising vocabulary and knowledge of current events, despite their eyes being glued to the video screen.

If, instead of looking right, you turn left, you’ll run into the pool tables, and the slew of Kenmore collegiate that spend their lunch hours and quarters here. Most of them have tap water in hand, because, when faced with the frugal decision between beer and billiards, their choice is obvious. These are BU, NESOP and AI students with little cash and too much cool to waste in class. And any one of them will offer up a slice of academic or street knowledge, if you can stand the stench of shabby-chic long enough for a conversation.

Turn around, and exit the side door past the men at the machine. Here’s the meat of the sociological meal. The door leads to the patio. Don’t worry; it resembles anything in the world but a patio. It’s cement, for one thing, and startlingly bare.

The first table along the wall hosts two bartenders, both of whom ‘control the cool’ at their respective watering holes. If you order them a round of Powers, rather than Jameson, you might earn just enough respect to pass the line on a Thursday.

At the second table, the real estate agent that controls who lives and dies in Kenmore Square is clinking glasses with the guy you’ve seen everywhere in the square. It turns out he’s a BU professor with free time out the ass and the stickiest property-fingers you’ve met this week. But if you need to get in to a class, or in to an apartment above the photo lab, squeeze in with these two and ask for a light. Of course, they both smoke.

The third table down is a random assortment of greasy hair, hair gel, ballet flats and flat-brim caps. You’re welcome to join them as they chat about the latest Sox stats, alcohol trends and the new Kenmore hostess/sous chef couple.

No one of these groups holds the key to the one true identity of the city. But with the right blend of conversation and intoxication, which is all any bar can hope to offer, Cornwall’s reveals what many tourists and residents have failed to find in all their hotspot frequenting and Zagat’s research: the Boston personality.

1 comment: