Hampshire House / aka "Cheers"

It’s a long-standing joke among Boston-area residents that we never visit the usual tourist sites except when family or friends come to visit. For a couple years in grad school, for instance, I lived in Beacon Hill, but I never set foot in the Hampshire House, the bar whose façade appeared in exterior shots of the TV show “Cheers.” As a resident, I walked by the Hampshire House countless times, but going inside was something only tourists did. It became a perverse point of pride that I could live a few blocks away from a celebrated spot without rubbernecking or gawking: there’s nothing to see here, folks, so move along.

Daniel Webster

This past week, we’ve had family visiting from out of state, so I’ve set aside some of this long-standing residential snobbery. Although none of our visitors wanted to see “Cheers,” we did pass the familiar exterior of the Hampshire House on a tourist trolley we took around town, and J and I finally had reason to visit various landmarks we’ve often passed without fully exploring.

Trolley fan

Before this week, for instance, I’d often passed by the Old North Church in Boston’s North End, but I’d never set foot inside…and although I spent several hungry years in grad school working a retail job at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, I’d never before this week set foot in Faneuil Hall’s impressive Great Hall.

Great Hall

Before this week, I’d often walked along Boston Harbor, but I’d never taken a “Spirit of Boston” lunch cruise, nor had I ever tossed tea aboard one of the harbor’s replica Tea Party ships.

Action shot

And for all the times I’ve been to Concord to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I’d never seen the inside of the Old Manse, where Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Nature and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Mosses from an Old Manse at a desk built by Henry David Thoreau…

Side door

…nor had I ever toured the Orchard House, where both Bronson and Louisa May Alcott lived and where Louisa May wrote Little Women.

Front facade

The greater Boston area offers an embarrassment of riches if you’re interested in history, literature, or the arts: where else, for instance, can you stroll from a house where both Emerson and Hawthorne lived (and where Thoreau dug the garden as a wedding gift to Hawthorne and his bride, Sophia Peabody) to cross the bridge where the Revolutionary “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired?

Empty bridge

As we toured Boston and Concord with our relatives this past week, J and I marveled at how much has happened in the general vicinity we call home. At times, it seems like everyone in colonial and 19th century New England knew and was influenced by one another. On the morning after Paul Revere’s famous ride, for instance, Rev. William Emerson, Senior (Ralph Waldo’s grandfather) stood in his farm fields watching the battle at the North Bridge while his young son watched the fight from the window of the Old Manse…

Rear window

…and when an unknown Concord boy named Daniel Chester French expressed a desire to become a sculptor, he received encouragement from May Alcott–Bronson Alcott’s daughter, and sister to Louisa May–and grew up to sculpt not only the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, but also the Minute Man who stands at the foot of the Old North Bridge in Concord.

Daniel Chester French's Minute Man

“People want to know what’s in the water here,” our guide at the Orchard House remarked, given how many significant historical and literary events happened in the region.

History lessons

It does seem like something magical must have happened in colonial Boston and 19th century Concord to inspire so many great historic and literary deeds…and yet modern-day Bostonians’ reluctance to check out these sites points to the way history still happens here. For as thrilling as it is to stand in the room where Emerson and Hawthorne wrote or to admire flowers in a garden Thoreau planted, at the end of the day we each have our own proverbial row to hoe. If something great happened in that house, then, why can’t something equally impressive happen in this house, today?

The title from today’s post is borrowed from a chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, where she suggests that writers should scour their surroundings for noteworthy details, just as tourists voraciously see the sights. It’s a title I used for a post several years ago when J and I toured the USS Constitution, which we re-visited with family this week: what goes around comes around.

Bruins goalie Tiny Thompson

Yesterday, in the happy aftermath of the Boston Bruins’ Wednesday night Stanley Cup victory, I took a moment to look through the Boston Public Library’s online collection of vintage hockey photos by Leslie Jones. Jones was a staff photographer for the Boston Herald-Traveler from 1917 to 1956, so his photos capture an era when “old time hockey” was simply the style of the day.

Bruins form the letter "B" on the ice, Boston Garden, 1930-31

Boston has a long history as a hockey town, and that is evident in Jones’ photos. There are team photos like the one at left, where Bruins players form the letter “B” on the Boston Garden ice, and there are posed portraits of old-time hockey heroes such as goalie Tiny Thompson (pictured above), a four-time Vezina Trophy winner who led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup victory in 1929. Just as interesting, though, are more casual images of players signing autographs, leading hockey clinics for local kids, or hanging out in the team locker room. Jones’ photos capture the news of his day, and now that news is history, a faded record of how things used to be.

Bruins team on the ice, Boston Garden

Throughout this past season, the National Hockey League has run a series of commercials encouraging fans to watch games because “history will be made.” Early in the playoffs, these commercials featured classic games such as the 1982 Miracle on Manchester, in which the Los Angeles Kings overcame a 5-0 deficit to beat Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, or the 1987 Easter Epic, a playoff game between the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals that went into four overtime periods. As the playoffs and Stanley Cup finals progressed, however, the commercials captured history-making moments from games that were merely days old, like the Canucks’ last minute win (“History goes down to the wire”) in Game 1, the Bruins’ 8-1 blowout (“History makes a statement”) in Game 3, or the Bruins’ 4-0 first period lead (“History works fast”) in Game 6. The message of these commercials was clear: keep your eyes open, because you never know when a lighting-fast play will make history.

Boston Bruins Clapper, Kamensky, and Barry, 1934-1935

And yet, the road to the Stanley Cup finals is filled with mundane moments that probably didn’t feel historic at the time. Today, I read an article about Bruins goalie Tim Thomas that explained how his working class parents in Flint, Michigan sold their wedding rings to send him to goalie camp as a kid. “They did it, likely, without even entertaining the idea that he’d one day make the NHL,” the article notes. “They did it, simply, because playing the game made him happy.” Thomas and his teammates won the Stanley Cup (“History returns to Boston”) because at each step along the way, they did the little things that add up to big wins. Some days, you know you’re making history by doing something monumental, like playing in a championship game. Most days, though, you’re just living your life: waking up, getting out of bed, and practicing (again) whatever job, sport, or craft you do. You send your kid to goalie camp, in other words, not because you think he’ll win the Stanley Cup decades later; you send your kid to goalie camp because you know it will make his day today.

Bruins goalie Tiny Thompson in locker room

I just started reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and in its opening pages, Bryson says something interesting about history. Realizing that people have lived in the vicinity of his English home for “centuries and centuries…quietly going about their daily business,” Bryson realizes this sort of mundane activity is “really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things.” Although Bryson’s childhood schoolbooks were devoted to “historic” events such as battles and treaties, Bryson realizes as an adult that history is really the story of people “eating, sleeping, having sex, or endeavoring to be amused.”

When Leslie Jones took these now-archival photos, did he think he was making history? I suspect not. The commentary for the BPL Flickr collection of Jones’ work notes that Jones was “[m]odest about his abilities as a photographer…call[ing] himself a camera-man, not a photo-journalist.” Leslie Jones, in other words, made history simply by doing his job. Those NHL commercials were designed to inspire you to watch hockey games, but maybe the tagline “history will be made” should be a reminder for us to pay attention in our daily lives. Whether you realize it or not, the snapshot moments of your life today will automatically become the stuff of tomorrow’s history.