From time to time, upon discovering that I moved here from my native London, a well-meaning Bostonian will make the conciliatory observation that our two cities are not, after all, so very different. Murky winters, pinched faces, an atmosphere of spurious cultural distinction. His feeling seems to be that if Boston is not completely like London, it is at least the most London-like place in America.
How to re-educate this amiable person in as short a time as possible? How to disabuse him, at top speed, of this vague notion of Boston/London fraternity? Here’s how: by sorcery or teleport, insert him into the London Underground. Send him hurtling through space until he arrives at the station called Tottenham Court Road, and set him down on the platform, by the machine that dispenses “crisps” (chips) and bars of Cadbury’s chocolate, and the busker who is performing a gnarled version of Hawkwind’s “Hurry On Sundown.” Within three seconds, as the parched, cindery odors of the Tube fill his nostrils and the Londoners around him shuffle and swear and spill their cans of Special Brew, he will know that he has entered not just another country, but another universe.
The T, to the city of Boston, is a sort of motorized basement, a place of curious depths and quaint old engines. One enters it, one leaves it, aware of no significant alteration to the state of one’s soul. The Underground, to London, is Hell: a dark under-image where all the sins of the surface are magnified and eternalized. The trains howl and sag in their tunnels; the subterranean halls ring with ancient odium. There are blackouts, fires, murders, now and again a bomb. Desperation is everywhere. The Northern Line, for some reason I have never been able to figure out, has a poetic association with melancholy and mental illness. (Perhaps it started with poor Nick Drake and his song “Parasite”: “Sailing downstairs to the Northern Line/Watching the shine of the shoes . . . ”) The Circle Line, on which you can literally go round and round all day, perhaps reading a Beckett play or a copy of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, expresses with terrible exactness the nightmare of infinite recurrence. And never, never ask a Londoner about the Hammersmith & City Line.
Compared with all this, the T is really a sweet-natured transportation system. True, my first ride on it made me want to throw up, but that was just a matter of mechanics: the grinding, irritable progress of an old-school Green Line train, its jolting stop-starts and near-senile querulousness with traffic, was not something I was used to. As far as passenger manners go, well, people are rude all over. They are also nice all over. The blaring hegemony of a student-stuffed late-night B train is not something I enjoy, but it’s better than a carriage-load of soccer supporters coming down London’s Jubilee Line. And one can have some interesting conversations here in Boston: on the Red Line once, a man who looked like Santa Claus’s distressed younger brother offered me a swig of something he was drinking from a Gatorade bottle. It appeared to have lumps of pineapple, or melon balls, floating in it. I asked him what it was. “This?” he said, surprised at the question. “This is cuckoo juice. Ah, you’re a good man.”
I do not wish to overstate the savagery of the London Underground, or the gentility of the T. There are pockets of civilization on the former, and pockets of anarchy on the latter. But London is a smoldering First World capital, and Boston is a tight-assed Northeast conurbation. And if you don’t believe me, go through a hole in the ground.