'And to Think That I Saw It on Newbury Street!'
A verse to welcome conventioneers to New England
When politicians and the press converge on Boston this weekend for the Democratic National Convention, it's a fair bet that more visitors will gravitate to the posh boutiques of Newbury Street than to tomes on the region's rich history. That's too bad, as one Bostonian - summoning the muse of Massachusetts native Theodor Seuss Geisel - cheerfully points out.
Dear readers, come hither, in cabs and in planes,
On horseback, by sailboat, in spaceships and trains!
Descend on old Boston and perk up your ears
To learn of our city 'cross chasms of years.
I'll tell you a story of facts you're not taught
By books or by tour guides or patterns of thought.
But first, rest your mind from political scenes.
Come hither; I'll pass you a bowl of baked beans.
Now on with our story! Let's read Boston's book!
There's a street where it's lovely to just sit and look.
It's a glamorous strip of old money and new
With movie stars, shoppers, the bigwigs, and YOU.
There are tidbits of history, tales of the past,
The echo of voices and cannons' loud blast
'Gainst the clicking of heels and the patter of feet -
And to think that you'll find it on Newbury Street!
You've heard of the brahmins, the littlest duck,
The Irish who fled here when down on their luck,
But I bet you don't know that the "jaywalking" phrase
Had its birth on these streets, in the cobblestone maze.
Old Boston was small, and the Bostonites walked
To wherever they went as they ranted and talked.
So the paths were well worn by feet, horses, and sleigh,
And were crossed in a typically haphazard way.
When those paths became streets, well, the strides remained crazy.
Call Bostonites stubborn, or rude, or quite lazy,
But even today, all our crossings are jagged.
The drivers flick fingers; their nerves are worn ragged.
And now that you know this, please cut us some slack:
We drive poorly and honk, but don't get on our back.
We'll glare and shake fists from the front and back seat,
But don't laugh as you idle on Newbury Street.
You want other phrases? You're picking my brains?
Then we'll linger with pilgrims on cobblestone lanes,
And I'll tell you of "firsts" from this land of the pious,
From witches to rules born of strong Quaker bias.
We built the first bridge, crossing river to land;
First newspaper, too (though it quickly was banned);
The first laws against cruelty to four-legged friends.
(Public smoking and drinking met similar ends.)
The first published books and the country's first verse,
It all happened here on the roads you traverse.
The first public school and the first subway cars,
The first football game, with its sweat and its scars.
Want chocolate? 'Twas here the first factory stayed.
And the first public censor his first words forbade.
'Gainst pilgrims' fierce preaching of heaven and hells
Came the first billiards parlor, the first set of bells.
The court said that church doors would not only close
When the congregants settled on knees and in rows,
But the doors would all lock so that no one could leave:
If you tired of sermons, you'd have no reprieve.
Hoop petticoats (yes, they were once in great style)
Were banned as accessories God must revile.
Priests were all outlawed 'mid lashings of tongue.
Presbyterians were banned, and the Quakers were hung.
The folks here are kingless; they tossed out their tea,
But not all our people have always been free.
Despite lots of good, there were screw-ups and warts:
Slaves once came through this great city's sad ports.
Though many protested and hands must have wrung,
It was here that the nation's first witches were hung.
Despite days of grandeur and triumphs quite sweet,
It wasn't all roses near Newbury Street.
Now back to the tourists, and delegates, too -
The city won't hang and won't persecute you.
You're welcome to come! Stay as long as you please!
If you like, stay till winter when eyelashes freeze.
If you want, stay till spring; see the wonderful show
Of March - no, of April's - no, May's final snow.
We will toast you, regale you with accents and brogues,
Over talk of gay marriage and priests turned to rogues.
But speaking of talking, our language would cry
If there hadn't been Boston - and I'll tell you why.
This city has given us phrases galore -
"Muckraker" writers and so many more.
It was here that a bathroom was nicknamed "the john."
(That happened at Harvard.) But let me go on:
When Navy men entered our ports to the south,
The "submarine sandwich" was made for their mouth.
"Blue laws" and "hookers" were coined by our bay;
And "bloomers" to hide ... well, I just cannot say!
The phrase "ice capades" was a simple mistake --
One that the speaker had not meant to make:
A mess-up of speech by a city official
(And yet for our language, it's been beneficial).
He meant "escapades" for adventures on ice,
But a captain of Boston said, "Keep it! It's nice!"
You have heard that we're snotty, with egos immense,
High on our learning and pure common sense:
A city of brahmins that's trying to ride
On history's coattails, on blue blood and pride.
Yes, we've old money, and accents galore -
Blue collar and snobby, South Boston, and more.
But rest all your judgments and lend us your ears.
Cast off your bias and rumors and fears.
Yes, Kerry lives here - and I could go on,
with the Camelot Kennedys, Teddy and John.
But honestly, friend, how aloof can we be?
To be honest, this city is built on debris,
For we're standing on landfill just under the road,
Where water once rippled, fish swam, and tides flowed.
There is nothing you'd touch, there is nothing you'd eat
Just under the surface of Newbury Street.
But mind over gutter! Forgive us our sins!
Dine on good food and sleep well in our inns!
Edwards and Kerry and Clinton and Gore,
Making their plans for two-thousand-and-four,
May not know as much as you've gathered by now.
You have earned our applause; you can take a deep bow.
May your intellect prosper, may knowledge feel sweet.
And to think that you learned it on Newbury Street!
• Several of the historical facts in 'And to think that I saw it on Newbury Street!' were taken from the book "What They Never Told You About Boston (Or What They Did That Were Lies)" by Walt Kelley (published by Down East Books of Camden, Maine, in 1993).