Dear Massachusetts

First of all, I am sorry.

I took you for granted. And you are not what I took you for, whatever that was. I don’t know that I had ever formed a full-bodied prejudice against you, nor an ill-will, much less outright malice. The truth is, I didn’t know you well enough to dislike you that much. It was more like a vague and hazy skepticism. Folks in my part of the world may assume that Massachusetts people feel that they are superior to the rest of us, but if they do assume that, it could be because they secretly suspect that you have a right to. Many times, this suspicion is not so much the fruit of direct interaction with natives of the Bay State, as the result of being teed off by some southbound snowbird on hogging the left lane I-95 in a heavily-laden Buick LeSabre with the fully-stocked clothes rack suspended over the back seat. “Come down here and act like they own the damn place,” I’ve heard said more than once. We don’t know where you’re going but we have a pretty good guess. We just wish you would get there in the right lane.

Turnabout, they say, is fair play. So summer of 2017 was my turn to be the over-laden jackass moving too slowly in the left lane (albeit with North Carolina plates barely visible through the arsenal of bicycles off my rear bumper) as I took a long family road trip through your state. If you had seen me coming up behind you in your rear-view mirror (which you probably wouldn’t have, since you were more than likely coming up hard on my tail), I’d forgive you for thinking the Georgia Bulldog on my front bumper had identified me as one more redneck in a bloated SUV coming up north to get the vapors over all your old buildings and drawl obnoxiously about how good the lobster is, as if we were the first people in the world to figure this out.

Maybe the suspicion is mutual, I don’t know. I may be writing this against my own better judgment, because I can already hear my friends in Georgia murmuring, “don’t say anything too nice about them, it’ll go to their head!” In fact, I was going to send this to you a few weeks ago, but after flying Delta to New Orleans ahead of the Patriots-Saints game along with a fuselage full of Bostonians not at all bashful about flashing their five Super Bowl rings to unsuspecting Louisianians, I thought twice. Maybe there was some wisdom in those voices I was beginning to hear in my own brain. I didn’t want to give New England any more cause for Yankee sass than a Patriot beat-down in the Superdome was sure to send them home with.

But.

I will not speak for my fellow Southerners, but I have to confess: I was wrong about you.

My hitherto unfounded annoyance at Massachusetts may have stemmed from plain-old, chicken-fried jealousy. But also ignorance: I thought Georgia had the prettiest beach in the country (still do) down on an island I don’t want to name because I still return to Georgia quite a bit and I don’t want to be responsible for a horde of Yankees descending on our pristine beaches and then, a few years from now, seeing a bridge built out to the formerly car-free island, and then watching helplessly as a Caesar’s Palace goes up on the beach (I know that’s a New Jersey thing, but to most Georgians that is a distinction without a difference). I didn’t realize that Massachusetts even had beaches to speak of—much less ones composed of actual sand—until one day my parents’ friend invited us for lunch at her country club in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Manchester is as white as a loaf of Wonderbread, but on the Singing Beach, people of every color and size and shape had come to frolic at the edge of what Melville calls “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life.”

On the Singing Beach my attitude about Massachusetts—such as it was—changed, as if the tide swept out an old idea and threw ashore an entirely new one. I thought of buying a Red Sox cap to show my newfound admiration for the place. But I didn’t do it. I couldn’t do that to my kids.

Look, I know I saw some of the nicest bits of Massachusetts, and may not be getting the whole picture. I know you’ve got your problems (I’ve seen Mystic River and The Departed). I know you may not all feel that Ben Affleck has been good for the state.

But: I came to Massachusetts a skeptic. I left a fan.

I grew up attending baseball games in an very sixties circular stadium, which was torn down after thirty years of use and replaced by a beautiful new park built in the throwback style of Camden Yards and named after a mouthy television mogul, until that was abandoned after not quite twenty years for a new stadium in the burbs named for a big bank.

You still have Fenway Park.

I’ll be honest. I’m jealous.

My hometown is obsessed with reinventing itself, and has a habit of tearing down perfectly good old buildings to replace them with glistening new ones in a protected battle of architectural soullessness. I don’t want you to misunderstand me: Atlanta is a great city—a great, uniquely American city, but it is American in a different way than Boston is American.

Now bear with me a second; this is going to get a little theoretical, but I’m just trying this out.

Boston’s Americanness is historical, genetic, architectonic, memorial. Atlanta’s, by contrast, is second-hand, accidental, conceptual, amnesic. Atlanta is the embodiment of the American urge for re-invention, the lust for the new. It’s the epicenter of the idea that steady commerce can cover over a multitude of sins of the historical past, that if you just stay busy enough you won’t come to hate your neighbor who, frankly, is a bit of a jackass. Atlanta–“the city too busy to hate”–has thrived on a kind of deliberate amnesia, built its reputation in the image of the mythological phoenix, who supposedly burst into flames and then rose from its own ashes. Boston, for good or ill, is marked by monuments to its own history—living spaces like Boston Common that remain sites for the continued enactment of the American experiment. In Atlanta, one is presented with a blank slate of history: be whoever the hell you want to be, we don’t care. Just don’t go stirring up old ghosts.

In the new SunTrust Park—a spectacular example of the contemporary idea of the ballpark as multimedia-entertainment venue for all ages but mainly children whose attention spans cannot be entrusted with a full nine innings—no memory of Hank Aaron’s record-setting 1974 homerun lingers in the air. It was the most important episode in Atlanta’s sports history, possibly, but no one I know talks about it. Vin Scully called the game in 1974, and he wasn’t oblivious to the historic quality of the occasion:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”

Hank was one of the greatest all-around players the game has ever known, but the field where The Hammer officially became the greatest home run hitter there ever was is no more. No future for the field where he was accompanied rounding third by two long-haired white boys in bell bottoms (for the great accomplishments of black men in Atlanta couldn’t come without a gesture of white qualification or approbation), where his momma hugged his neck after he crossed home plate, where Chief Noc-a-homa, descended from his tepee in left field, shook Hank’s hand. It was all terrifically bizarre, an especially Atlanta sort of weird. But you can’t imagine any of that in SunTrust Park.

I imagine, though I don’t know because I have never been, that you can sit in the grandstand at Fenway Park and almost feel the Big Green Monster reverberate with the hollering at Ted Williams’s final homerun in his final at bat. I can imagine, though I don’t know, that in the stands at Fenway, over nachos and Sam Adams, you still talk about it as if it were yesterday. John Updike, who was in the stands for Ted’s final game, talked about it in a famous essay in the New Yorker in 1960 called “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”:

“Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We Want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.”

They may not answer letters, but in some places they still haunt the rafters. You may secretly resent all the historic sites that attract tourists like me who clog up your ferries and sidewalks during the summer months. If there’s one thing to envy y’all for, it’s the fact that you have ever-present reminders of the history you can never wholly outrun, and of the hopeful expectation that living memory can generate. The gift of a complicated historical memory is better than willful oblivion.

In Atlanta, few people remember Hank’s historic moment.

In Boston, you are still waiting for Ted to emerge from the dugout and tip his hat.

Please don’t stop.

 

 

 

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