There’s no question that Boston residents have a bit of steel barrier between themselves and all others.
Maybe you’re a tourist on vacation and reading this column, or maybe you’ve lived in the Hub for a bit and haven’t yet cracked the code.
One of the best ways to penetrate the cranky veneer of us self-centered Bostonians is to ask a question – but not any question.
Please don’t comment on the weather with a southern accent, and certainly don’t ask directions in the polite quiet tones of the Pacific Northwest (mostly because we don’t know how to get anywhere either, except when we need to get somewhere), and definitely don’t pull a California cool attitude when inquiring about why we have a Hooker entrance at the State House.
No, you must be inventive; you have to challenge with your question if you want to pass the initiation.
Boston is a smart city.
The convenience store clerk might have been the valedictorian of his or her class; taxi drivers have a doctorate in the psychology of street smarts.
Small talk will likely get you a blank stare, or perhaps a bothered grunt.
As a small example, the other day I was waiting in a long line of natives and non-natives at a food shop in the new Public Market downtown.
The clerk was hurried and was in the kind of mood you might expect from a Boston person who doesn’t want to be bothered with what he or she is doing. His accent flared in all directions; I pegged it for South Dorchester or North Quincy.
With a sigh of exasperation, he tossed some food across the counter at a woman from Minnesota – who was shocked by the aggressiveness of the transaction. We all know what she was thinking.
He took my order and the price came up to $12.13.
As he rushed around busily in about five square feet of space, I laughed and proposed him a question that would make him think.
“How do you like that?” I laughed. “The price is in order – 12 to 13. How often does that happen?”
He liked that question.
He stopped and smiled.
“Well, the first week I worked here, it happened a few times and I noticed that, ya know?” he said. “I thought, wow, what’s the chance of that? Then it came up again later that day. After a week into this place, I saw it was happening about four or five times a day. So, the thing is, know what I’m sayin’, that when people order the combination you ordered, it always comes up that way. People think that it might be something big, like they should go pick those numbers in the lottery or the Keno, but really, it comes up a lot because so many people get the same thing.”
Beantown wisdom at its best.
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Now that the weather has broken, there’s no shortage of characters and personalities walking around.
In a Boston neighborhood, there are stalwart regulars that you see year after year on the same routine at basically the same time, and then there are people who all the sudden are everywhere all the time.
In the latter category, over the last month or so, a new guy has been walking my neighborhood like he’s headed to put out a fire in 10 different directions. Head pointed straight, legs moving and arms chugging, he’s one fella that’s on a mission, and you can tell it.
One peculiar thing that sets him apart is he walks with one hand full of scratcher tickets and the other hand full of crumpled up cash. Somehow, he balances a cigarette in that mix of activity.
The other day, when it was so blazing hot, he stopped for the first time ever, and right on my block. I ventured out and greeted him.
It was hot, we agreed. I offered him water and he accepted. As he took a drink, I asked him what was up with the scratchers and cash.
“Exercise!” he yelled, using an Indian accent by way of Trinidad that nearly blew me off my feet.
Next, he pulled out a crude, hand-written map out of his pocket. The map had a series of convenience stores drawn in and a set of stars next to each store. Some stores have four stars and others three, two or one star.
Seems he walks a huge swath of the neighborhood, going to each lottery retailer and playing the scratchers and a few daily numbers. He had kept statistics. A four-star on the map meant he had won a lot there. So, that’s the stores he would spend the most money at and play his daily number.
A one-star store meant he had rarely won there and he didn’t spend much there, maybe one $20 scratcher.
“I like to gamble and I like to exercise!” he yelled again, before handing me the empty bottle of water and motoring off.
Hey, he had a schedule to keep.
Now, he doesn’t just walk by anonymously anymore. He walks by and waves, yelling “Exercise!” at the top of his lungs – like eight times a day…