Back from Boston

Hey, I’m home again! To Boston and back again in 30 hours is a bit much, I’m afraid—I need a nap, but work awaits me.

We did have a brief gathering of science blog fans at Darwin’s this morning: Mark (whose last name I didn’t get…he can ‘fess up in a comment),
Revere (why isn’t everyone reading his blog?),
Blake Stacey, OM, and
Denis Castaing (Proud Atheist — he even gave me a big bold button that said “Atheist and Proud”) showed up and we chatted for about an hour and a half. Good people: only the smartest read Pharyngula, of course.

That button Denis gave me actually came in very handy. There’s a group,, that frequents the gas station in Sauk Center where I always fuel up. These guys are the Minnesota equivalent of the squeegee panhandlers—they run up and tell you they have a special full service offer at the gas station, they’ll fill it up for you and check your oil and clean your windshield, and then afterwards they shake a cup at you and ask for money. They’re very annoying, especially since their organization is simply a pseudo-“hip” front for anti-abortion, anti-drug, fanatical Christian baloney. Anyway, the guy in front of the station jumped up to run to my car as I stepped out, then he saw the button (which can be read from 20 feet away), and he stopped cold with his eyes bugging out. It was as good as a poleaxe, so I’m very appreciative.

Oh, another weird story from Boston: the trip was smooth and painless, except for the cab ride from the airport into the city. Did you know they have a weird accent in Boston? This driver had it worse than most, and he may also have been partly deaf. I told him, “Charles Hotel on Bennett Street in Harvard Square”, and he shouted back “HAHVAHD SQUA!” and off we went. We got to Harvard Square just fine, but then he’s driving around … “AH CAN’T FIND STATE STREET!” I was baffled, but he’s the cabbie, he must know the city better than I do, and maybe State Street is part of the route. Then he shouts out, “SHERATON?”, and I reply, loudly and clearly, “No, the Charles Hotel. On Bennett.” “STATE STREET!”

He pulls up along another cab, and asks, “WHEAH’S STATE STREET?”, and the other driver points off in some direction away from Harvard Square. We end up driving back and forth for 20 minutes, with the driver occasionally shouting, “SHERATON? STATE STREET!” and me yelling back, “NO—CHARLES HOTEL! BENNETT!” The next time the guy pulls up alongside another cab to ask directions to “STATE STREET!”, I open my window and am hanging half out of the cab, yelling, “HELP! TELL HIM HOW TO GET TO THE CHARLES HOTEL ON BENNETT!” There was a lot of finger pointing and handwaving, and the crazy cabbie got the car close enough that I could read the signs and get him to the hotel with gestures.

To add to the insult, when we finally got there he yelled, “CHAHLES HOTEL? YOU SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME AT THE AIRPORT THE NAME OF YOUR HOTEL!”

I didn’t tip him.

I take it there isn’t much regulation of cab drivers in Boston?


  1. says

    That’s why I take the T (subway) from the airport.

    You should have asked your readers for a ride!

  2. OptimusShr says

    I wouldn’t have tipped him either. I’m glad I have family members that know Boston.

    And I want one of those buttons.

  3. says

    Thanks for the shout out. You just quadrupled my traffic! I lived ten blocks from Bennett Street for decades without knowing its name. I know where State Street is, though. And it isn’t in Cambridge! You must have stayed at the wrong hotel.

  4. Mark Borok says

    The last name is Borok, and I very much enjoyed meeting you. Being the only non-scientist at the table was quite a humbling experience.

    Re: smallpox (the subject you and Mr. Stacey were discussing when I joined you); I may well be wrong, but it seems anyone who is smart enough to use it as a weapon is probably smart enough to realize that it won’t stay confined to “enemy” territory. Or does it have a really short gestation period, making it less likely that carriers will unwittingly transport it around the world? Does a short gestation period mean that victims can be more easily quarantined before they infect others? This is what comes of being a non-scientist. Go easy on me.

    I had a similar cab experience in New York. The driver was, I think, Jamaican and we tried to tell hime we were staying in the something-or-other building (I forget the name now) in the financial district. He somehow became convinced we were looking for the “financial building” and no amount of yelling “Financial DISTRICT” could change his mind. Finally we were given the right directions by a gregarious doorman straight out of central casting.

  5. Hank Fox says

    At 1:30 a.m. I read your post and considered just taking off and driving to Boston, which is about three hours away.

    I didn’t. Crap.

  6. Courtney says

    Can you find out where to get that button? There’s nothing better than scaring the crazies away.

  7. Carlie says

    Hah. I got to “HAHVAHD SQUA!” and my brain immediately followed up with “Cambridge, Ma, 02238”. I listen to waaaay too much NPR.

  8. says

    What the Holy Hell?

    Yeah, there are good reasons why I don’t take cabs. I’ve done it… three? Four times since I’ve been in this city? I’ve never had problems that bad, though.

    Maybe he wasn’t even a cab driver. Maybe he killed the real cab driver and impersonated him. Did you notice any suspicious bags in the trunk?

  9. says

    I used to live in Boston and have experienced many life-changing cab rides. My most exciting ride, however, was in a cab ride on the way to Logan International. The cabbie missed the turnoff to Storrow drive, and so we ended up heading back over the BU bridge (from where we had come). Rather than deciding to wait for an appropriate place to turn around, however, the cabbie decided to make an illegal left turn. I would have actually been fine with this lawlessness except for the fact that he also decided to create his own left turn lane – which happened to be the oncoming traffic lane! I quickly realized this and frantically tried to explain our problem – to no avail. Meanwhile, another cab pulled up next to us (on the correct side of the road) and started to honk and yell at our cab. Unfortunately, my cab driver only realized what he had done after the light had turned green – so we ended up playing a real life version of Frogger to make it across the intersection. My flight was at 5:30am – but after that cab ride I was wide awake for the rest of the day!

  10. Spam Sink says

    Oh please! Are you saying that in 20 minutes an idea to find a pen and a piece of paper (or to ask the cabbie for them) has not visited your mind? You’re not a linguist, for sure.

  11. T. Bruce McNeely says

    Next time, take the subway. I’ve been to Boston three times, their subway system rocks (once you figure it out).
    That accent thing is hilarious. My younger daughter developed a Hahvahd accent when she was about two. It was funny to hear her talk about “cahpets” and “bahbahcue”. Especially in a Canadian who has never been within 300 miles of Boston. It gets you thinking that she’s got a head start for acceptance to the Ivy League colleges. Unfortunately, she’s losing the accent, but she’s still pretty smart. Would you like to see some pictures?

  12. OptimusShr says

    I feel I should mention, I’ve lived in MA all my life and I don’t have the accent. I do pronounce my TH’s like F’s and D’s however.

  13. says

    “Hah. I got to “HAHVAHD SQUA!” and my brain immediately followed up with “Cambridge, Ma, 02238″. I listen to waaaay too much NPR.”

    Listen one more time. It’s 02138 (the zip code where I live).

  14. says

    Dad never told me he is moonlighting as a cab driver in Boston!

    I would like to get a similar button to wear next Thursday, May 3 afternoon at the Minnesota State Capitol. From 1 pm to 3 pm, concurrent with the “Day of Prayer” event outside, the Minnesota Atheists will be holding an event in the rotunda inside. They call it the Day of Reason and all are welcome to join. Just show up, it’s free and open!

  15. says

    yes, take the damn T, man. ask ahead. also, you stayed at the CHARLES HOTEL? for a fortune, i imagine. next time, look up the Mary Prentiss Inn. it across Massachusetts Avenue from Linnaean Street. much nicer, generally less expensive, and they have a breakfast in the rate which is amazingly great. i go for the meat free version. still plenty of food. they also do something i wish more hoteliers would, they have a workstation you can use to check your email, so you don’t need to schlepp your laptop.

  16. jonathan says

    Dude, shuttle bus to Blue Line T station (Airport). Inbound to Govt Center. Go upstairs to Green Line. Take any inbound train to Park Street (1 stop). Go downstairs to Red Line. Go outbound to Harvard Sq. It’s about a block from the T station. Should take about 45 minutes.

  17. says

    One important datum: I didn’t pay for the Charles Hotel, or for my airfare. I go where I am told, gratefully.

    And it was a very nice room.

  18. says

    I go where I am told, gratefully.

    yeah, but Prentiss is better, even if less expensive. providers aren’t gonna balk at paying less, are they?

  19. Ukrainka iz Bostona says

    I have lived in the great Boston area my whole life, and I do not have even a trace of that accent. Either accent, actually.

    “The accent” changes quite a bit, depending on where you go and who you meet. The cliche Harvard accent is the patrician, blue-blood, Beacon Hill Boston Brahmin accent. The cabbie accent is the working-class, regular-Joe, Southie, Revere Beach, “Yo, Sully!” accent. Of course there’s a continuum of variation, from Plymouth north to Newburyport, from Brighton west to Worcester.

    And then there’s Cape Cod. A college friend of mine from Centerville (on the Cape) explained it to me this way:

    “If you’re from Boston, you say ‘Cape Caahd.’ If you’re from the Cape, it’s ‘Cape Cwaud.'”

    That one simple example demonstrates quite a lot. :-)

    On our next program, we’ll go out on the street and investigate the differences between the Brooklyn accent and The Bronx, and pray we live to tell the tale.

    Mommy, look! Doggie! (Kseniya, 1987)

  20. False Prophet says

    Well, as someone who was driving around Boston last summer, I can’t fault the cabbie for not knowing the streets. That city has one of the most confusing street patterns I’ve ever seen. And I thought Toronto was poorly-laid out for traffic. Now I know why Boston has such a good public transit system.

  21. Bob O'H says

    Carlie – you missed out “Our fair city”

    (sorry, don’t know how to write it in the accent: all you Yanks sound the same to me. Well, except for Mel Blanc, obviously)


  22. says

    False Prophet:

    The Boston street system makes a little more sense if you understand how it came about (and I’m not talking about cow paths). If you think of it in terms of “squares” (i.e. downtownish areas) it makes a little more sense — you have big connecting roads like Mass Ave and Washington streets, and the side streets all kind of branched off from there as the area between central points became developed. In Boston and Cambridge particularly it became a matter of sticking streets in wherever they’d fit (and building out the land if they didn’t — most of downtown Boston is on landfill, especially Back Bay and the waterfront). The only real grid planning in Boston was done in Back Bay and South Boston (especially the Seaport District), both of which are almost entirely on created land. I believe Providence and much of Manhattan before the current grid system was built grew out in much the same way, although not nearly as chaotic.

    For what it’s worth, if Boston had a Main St, it would probably be Washington St, as that was the beginning of the old Boston Post Road before it branched in three somewhere south of town. When it was Orange Street, it was the only road off of the Shawmut Peninsula, and parts of it were apparently underwater at high tide. (Cambridge wasn’t much better — what is now Harvard Square was the original Newtowne settlement, and it was pretty much surrounded by swampland.)

  23. says

    Incidentally, the original street layout of the Town of Boston, before the massive landfill projects began with the wharves on the original waterfront, looked rather like a fish skeleton, with everything branching off of Washington St. You can still see parts of that layout on modern street maps, though it’s a little messed up around Chinatown and was completely obliterated in the area around City Hall.

  24. Chakolate says

    I’ve heard it said that Boston cab drivers put their kids through college off of people who don’t know how to get from the airport to their hotels.

    I think I would have made him stop the meter as soon as it became apparent he was lost.

  25. says

    Dear sir, that is hilariously awesome! I’ve been travelling the States & Canada (am from Australia) these last few weeks and haven’t had such an insane experience yet (but geeze louise the air travel situation here is messed up – two cancelled flights, mega-delays)… I must say I haven’t come across much religion-pushing (except for a crazy street guy somewhere), but perhaps starting in that hell-hole San Francisco might have something to do with it! (it was awesome btw)

    In other news, if somebody else hasn’t pointed this out yet (via BoingBoing), watch this:
    Warning: cephalapod perversion, could be disturbing to the faint of stomach…

  26. Richard Harris, FCD says

    I drove imto Boston, from Albany; my first visit to the city, with a car just a few weeks old, pregnant wife, toddler, & a couple of adult relatives. Managed to miss kamikaze pedestrians & would-be stock-car racers, then accidentally found the hotel shortly after announcing that I’d given up trying to get to the correct part of the city.

    I said I wouldn’t drive drive downtown again, under any circumstances, so we took a cab. No problems there. When we looked in a store window, I felt vindicated by a T-shirt bearing the legend, “I survived the Boston traffic”. That was long before the Big Dig.

  27. Denis Castaing says

    Courtney and Others,
    About Buttons: “Atheist & Proud”
    I had about 20 made from a button site on the net.
    I still have a few left and will happily give them
    at no charge to anyone who would like one while supplies last. Just send me a mailing address via email at:
    Anyone should feel free to make and distribute similar buttons. 3 lines, all caps, lettering as large as will fit on a large button.
    Denis Castaing

  28. MAJeff says

    For what it’s worth, if Boston had a Main St, it would probably be Washington St

    Which Washington St? My favorite is the five-way intersection in Brighton where three of the streets are Washington.

    And I gotta say, the T is not awesome. As someone who lives here and rides it everyday, it’s adequate. But awesome? hardly. Especially here on the E-line where trains have simply passed me by as I was waiting for them.

  29. Kseniya says

    Boston subway system is simple in comparison to New York (or London or Paris) – which makes it easy to learn and use – but Jeff is right, there’s nothing really outstanding about it, other than the fact that it is the oldest subway in the country.

    Five-way intersection… Jeff, I assume you mean Oak Square? Two have to be Washington (as it does go thru the square) but three? I only count two…

    “Daddy? Are we lost again?” (Kseniya, 1990)

  30. B. Dewhirst says

    Boston works on the principle that if you don’t know how to get there you don’t have a right to go there… and since a circuitous cab ride with bad service makes better coin than a direct cab ride with bad service…

  31. marcie says

    HA. I love it about the accent. When I first moved here, I felt assaulted by the flat A’s. The best part is that there is another accent where instead of dropping middle R’s, they add a second final R: “here” becomes “herer”. I call the law of R conservation.

    And yeah, if you come again, take the T. Funny thing about Boston, people feel compelled to offer you directions if you look the slightest bit uncertain about where you are going. They’ll put you on the right subway line, help you make a connection, and tell you how to get to your hotel. It’s truly amazing.

  32. Allen R says

    Wow, you actually got a pretty good cab driver, for Boston. ;-) Only out-of-towners take cabs here–the locals all know that cab drivers are homicidal maniacs who try to run up the fare by taking incredibly circuitous routes. On a side note, I resent the disparaging comments about our accent–we speak perfectly clearly, it’s the non-Bostonians who all talk funny. (On a recent trip to Virginia, I took pleasure in correcting two women trying to pronounce “Gloucester”–it’s pronounced “Glostah,” of course.)

  33. MAJeff says

    Nope, not referring to Oak Square, but to the intersection next to St Elizabeths Hospital.

  34. Kseniya says

    Ah. Ok I know where you mean. I still only count two, but I don’t get down that way very often…

  35. Jeff R. says

    One thing about the T that confuses people is the concept of inbound and outbound. My wife still can’t get her head around the concept that to get from Harvard to South Station you take an inbound train, and to get back to Harvard you also take an inbound train.

  36. David Marjanović says

    The best part is that there is another accent where instead of dropping middle R’s, they add a second final R: “here” becomes “herer”. I call the law of R conservation.

    That’s called a hypercorrectivism.

  37. David Marjanović says

    The best part is that there is another accent where instead of dropping middle R’s, they add a second final R: “here” becomes “herer”. I call the law of R conservation.

    That’s called a hypercorrectivism.

  38. MSR says

    Regarding the changing shape of Boston:

    Here is an interactive map of Land Fill activities on the Shawmut peninsula (Boston) from 1630 (original geometry) to 1890 (Back Bay infill):

    That really thin neck (“Boston Neck”, so-called, at the time)? As Brian X stated, it was occasionally under water during high tides…

    Please note that the map’s orientation has been shifted approximately 80-90 degrees in a clockwise direction (and I have NO idea why). Therefore, “north” is roughly to the right.


  39. Bruce says

    We don’t have accents. You midwesterners have accents.
    The way you transliterate “HAHVAHD SQUA”, it sounds like Mr. Cab Driver had a downeast Maine accent. But Mainiac’s are smarter than this guy.
    We may not talk like the rest of you, but we understand the rest of you.
    A cab driver who doesn’t know how to find a major hotel in a major tourist venue is like a creationist who can’t identify the organs when he dissects a frog.

  40. says

    Boston cabbies are regulated, just not in the way you would expect. The goal is not so much to provide good service as to provide colorful anecdotes for visitors to take back home with them!

    And look! This one succeeded admirably!

  41. MAJeff says

    The goal is not so much to provide good service as to provide colorful anecdotes for visitors to take back home with them!

    And to keep the T from running any later than 12:30.

  42. says

    My sympathies about your cab ride. My experience has been that the good ol’ Joe from Southie cabdriver is a menace on wheels. The nicest, most careful cabdrivers are immigrants; the very nicest cab ride I have ever had was with a black Canadian driver. It was Christmastime, the weather and traffic were lousy, but he was patient and helpful (I was carrying a very heavy package). I’ve also had fun explaining the T system to visitors. Last fall, I explained the inbound-outbound system to a couple of ladies from out of town, adding that “We do this to confuse people.” They replied that it works very well!

  43. Matthew says

    Wow, that is mighty weird. I mean, it’s a bit much to expect anyone, even cabbies to know Boston completely thoroughly, but your cabbie’s strange inability to comprehend which hotel and which street you were saying is just bizarre.

    Almost all the cabs in my part of Boston (Back Bay) are immigrants, who, as Rugosa pointed out, tend to be very helpful and careful. Boston being what it is though, I might recommend bringing a map printout from online.

    The T is terrible though. You might not get lost as easily, but it runs so slowly, by the time you get a train, you probably could have walked wherever you were going, especially on any of the green lines. Most of the other students I know at BU just walk everywhere, sometimes even to Cambridge.

  44. Denis Castaing says

    PZ, It was great to meet you in Person in Boston. Well worth the 3 Train rides from Newburyport. not quite the Pirate Cephlapod I had imagined. I had contemplated a cab ride at one point. I’m glad I didn’t judging by the discussion. I have had 2 requests for Buttons. See Comment #27 above. I still have some buttons to give away, no charge. I am happy to spread the word. “Atheist and Proud”. Good Luck with Button in Morris, PZ.
    Denis Castaing