The city feels like it belongs to me on Sunday mornings. Brunch lines are not much more than a suggestion outside of tiny, hip farm-to-table breakfast spots. Neighborhoods appear emptied out, the inhale before the rest of the day is expelled. The T is sleepy still, lumbering through Boston’s ancient tunnels like a primordial beast. I board the train and take it to the Charles MGH (Mass General Hospital) stop.
It’s my favorite place to disembark—if one cares to cop to such an oddity as having a “favorite” subway stop—for two reasons. First, the view. The train briefly climbs out from the underground to trail across the Longfellow Bridge that stretches across the Charles River connecting sections of Boston and Cambridge. For a few moments you feel cradled in the great arms of the Charles with its smattering of sailboats and crewing teams. Ridges of the Boston skyline spill out in either direction.
Second, the location. The Charles MGH stop lets off at the edge of Beacon Hill, one of Boston’s oldest, historic neighborhoods. A small network of cobblestoned streets run up from Charles Street, the area’s central vein. Stately brownstones line each avenue, many dating back to the 1700s. Gas lamps (now juiced up by energy efficient electricity) punctuate the sidewalks of the narrow streets. They loiter outside of brick stoops and the iron gates that are twined with leafy scrollwork like cops marooned on the beat.
Part of my Sunday-in-the-city ritual, what I sometimes refer to as “a date with my town,” usually involves zig-zagging my way through the streets of Beacon Hill. This particular Sunday was no different. Exiting the T, I took the first side street I came to, relishing in how stepping onto the uneven brick sidewalk feels like popping through the portal to Narnia if Narnia were New England circa 1780.
The higher I climb into the hill, the quieter and more still the atmosphere becomes. Rarified. The Hill is one of Boston’s most expensive areas rumored to have politicians and sports stars in residence. No matter how many times I’ve roamed up and down the streets, I always discover something new or interesting—the flash of stained glass in a third floor window, a plaque on the side of a house stating that it once was residence to a famous statesman, the crazy vines skittering up to a terrace garden I swear had never been there before. In this way I think Beacon Hill has borrowed a little bit of Venice—a place subtly shifting and morphing like the lines in an M.C. Escher drawing.
I make my way back down to Charles Street, letting the smells of cooking eggs and frying bacon chase after me, the contrails of Sunday morning. I head to my favorite café to grab a coffee and pastry and continue on to the end of the street that brushes up against the edge of the Boston Common and Public Gardens.
I settle on a bench overlooking the compact pond where, in season, college students propel tourists around on the Swan Boats, one of the cities oldest and still most popular leisure activities. The pond is empty of mechanical birds, making room for the real ones: ducks and geese splash around in the shallow water, waddling up on shore to startle the random dog into thinking it has a chance of chase.
A couple of raised voices catch my attention. My head swivels to a couple in their late-30s walking toward me along the edge of the pond. He talks animatedly into a cell phone jammed against his ear. She follows a few steps behind him. She also cradles her cell phone against the side of her pink baseball cap, feeding short lengths of speech to whomever she’s talking to: “yeah,” “mm-hmm,” “well, she didn’t say that for sure, did she?” They wander by and in the Monty Python sketch running inside my mind they both calmly walk into the water, sinking down to their chests, still chatting away on their respective phones.
A toddler’s shriek draws my attention to a young, Indian couple walking near a patch of flowerbeds. The little girl chases after her mother who jogs ahead, egging her on. The girl is practically apoplectic with the joy for this simple game and I can’t help but laugh just from watching it. Dad brings up the rear. He pushes the empty stroller. His eyes are fixed to his phone. His pace is glacier because phone scroll. He stops for a second and raises his arm to take a selfie of what appears to be himself with the backdrop of a tree, its bark speckled in grey patches, its branches nearly shed of all its leaves. I have so many questions: why didn’t he call his family over to take a photo? Why didn’t he at least take video of his wife and daughter skittering around the gardens? What the hell does he really want with a photo of himself near a tree when the Public Garden is lousy with statues and fountains and gorgeous flower beds still spilling over with roses and other blooming things?
I see other people milling around—couples, families, a group of students—in various stages of tech distraction. Some are walking and texting, some are taking video or selfies, others simply have their phones out, gesturing with them as they move and talk, an extension of their hands like a second thumb. You’re missing it, I think, we’re all missing it.
This is not a novel observation. Hardly. I’m as guilty as everyone else in various situations ogling my screen. I internally wince in those moments, owning up to the fact that I’ve traded three minutes stupidly gawking at Twitter for three minutes where I could have funneled my attention literally elsewhere with more positive results. It’s not just that we invest too much time and attention to these devices, it’s that we choose to focus on those things. We choose to miss out, to swap the real for the virtual in some form. We choose it. We keep choosing it.
The cobble stones, the brownstones, the gardens, the river—I could have chosen to miss it all. I could have been a bad date, muting myself to the city to, instead, virtually be everywhere and nowhere, really. We can’t have both—here and not here—and claim to feel like we’re really living. We can’t and shouldn’t settle for experiences filtered through our screens.
Maybe we’re not aware that this is a choice, but that feels just a little too convenient to me. It feels like that’s a “get out of jail free” card we play to sidestep things like conscientiousness and responsibility and effort. It feels lazy and gross to admit that tractor beaming into our tech is just “how things are,” when the truth is it’s how we choose them to be.