By Matt Benedetti
Like most kids, I couldn’t wait for the weekend.
As a grammar school student at Sacred Heart in Roslindale, my Friday routine would include embarking on an urban journey across town to Somerville, Mass., the ancestral home of my mother’s family, the Hegarty’s.
My Nana suffered from diabetes, had a leg amputated and was confined to a wheelchair. A good daughter, my Mom dutifully arrived each weekend to visit, comfort and assist in any manner possible.
Despite the hardship, Nana’s spirits were invariably high and she frequently flashed a sharp Irish wit. Lines like, “Oh dear, bread and beer, if I had money I wouldn’t be here” or “Matthew, would bring the bathroom over here please?” were a few.
I always loved to see Nana for many reasons not least of which was the chance to watch National league baseball games on her cable TV. I could even stay up late and watch the Mets or Cubs if they were on a west coast swing. Fascinated with all things baseball, I was delighted with the opportunity to watch players compete that I previously only knew from baseball cards or This Week in Baseball (best show ever).
As well, I looked forward to seeing my extended family of 10 cousins in the three family house on Meacham Road near Davis Square. As an only child, I reveled in the ceaseless activity good humor and intrigues displayed by my older rambunctious cousins. My mother never sought a license or had any desire to drive. As a Somerville native accustomed to public transit, she simply never felt the need.
Our crosstown journey would often exceed two hours and required several stops, transfers and connections. The trip was at times illuminating, funny, dramatic and dangerous but always memorable in the eyes of a 10-year-old boy who learned to keep items in the front pocket and keep a vigilant eye on any personal possessions.
After meeting at the school on Canterbury Road, we would wait for the 32 bus on Hyde Park Avenue. Often crowded with commuters of every stripe, I recall holding on with an all the determination I could muster on the short trip to Forest Hills.
Arriving at the transit hub of southwest Boston was confusing and often chaotic Ellis Island sort of experience. The old dilapidated structure was always damp and dripping. Remnants of ancient puke green paint yielded to rust throughout. The place smelled awful and was filthy like a swamp. To touch anything would leave evidence of the error on your hand. Naval traditions adhere to the ethos of “women and children first.” Approaching and boarding an Orange Line train in the early 80s offered no such promise of chivalry.
The old elevated train lumbered along offering a panoramic view of Dirty Old Boston decades from gentrification. The vantage point at Green Street featured views into a Jamaica dotted with abandoned cars rather than the quaint window boxes that signal the arrival of urban pioneers.
Graffiti was omnipresent and the preferred motif of the day. Apparently, no one considered either personal or private removal efforts. The same tag would last for generations. I was instructed to always keep my bag between my legs and to never look directly at anyone (difficult in a cramped subway car).
The majority of passengers were working people hoping to get home or work without incident. However, the percentage who had seemingly nowhere to be made their presence known. Men wearing purple valor suits and yellow hats would flash their wad of bills inviting comment or dissent, although I didn’t know the reason at the time. All I saw was a loud dude in a wild purple suit. My mother would nudge me and remind me to look at the floor.
So many inebriated passengers that one wondered how they were able to navigate the steep stairways without plummeting toward the soot-covered platform. At times they seemed to be in some sort of vagrant voice competition. Again, Mom would advise me to look down. I can never recall any police or official presence rendered by the MBTA. It was women and children….take your chances.
The change at Park Street Station to the more civil but much slower Green Line would rarely be a smooth one.
I am convinced that the Canadian Yukon, Russian Siberia or the Andes Mountains are chilly compared to the polar vortex that was Lechmere Station in January. Perhaps it was the confluence of winds from the water and Kendall Square but the sustained frigid funnel is beyond description.
I recall my mother removing a glove to check a schedule that evidently was a general theme rather than an actual itinerary. The shivering people waiting for transport wouldn’t actually speak but occasionally nod in an effort to conserve energy.
The bus towards Broadway was jammed but warm enough to thaw.
Night had fallen across town by the time we reached the wind chimes at 50 Meacham Road. Nana was usually found playing cribbage with my Uncle Joe or one of the cousins and we would be greeted as returning explorers. Like soldiers returning from the front, My Mom and I truly appreciated ordinary comforts after the rigors of battle.
I would enjoy a crème soda and Mom would crack a beer sharing details of our cross-town experience. We smiled knowing that we had navigated the urban transit jungle and survived another journey.
However, we were careful not to gloat. In a short time, we would be tempting fate once again.