It’s when I ride the crowded subway that I feel most Bostonian. “These are my people,” I think.
Not that they are much like me. They are younger than I am for the most part. Sometimes one will get up from his seat and motion to me that I should take it. I know I can still stand on the subway, but it’s hard to resist their courtesy. Sometimes I accept. Sometimes I don’t. I think to myself, “My people are so kind and polite.”
My people don’t look much like me. I’m pretty much white bread. They are whole wheat, oatmeal, pumpernickel, even seven-grain—some are so mixed in origin that they are unidentifiable as anything but my people.
In that way, though, we are alike—alike in our differences. My people were born everywhere but Massachusetts. In 2014, about 56 percent of those living in Boston came from foreign countries or other states, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The Boston accents—the rest of the country doesn’t realize there are several Boston accents—are vanishing on the subway. The drivers, all born and bred here, used to announce the stops in wonderful local inflections so deep I had to listen carefully.
Now the recorded announcement sounds like me, with “newscaster English,” a way of speech said to have arisen in Illinois and Iowa and also spoken in California, places I’ve lived. It’s an accent that doesn’t identify the speaker as coming from a specific place as a Michigan accent does or as voices from southern states or Brooklyn do. (Though it is not as if Brooklynites talk like Bernie Sanders anymore either.)
My people engage in all the activities normal people do. Some go to college. Some are in high school or even younger, well equipped with backpacks. Depending on the time of day, many are going to work or coming home. Some have been shopping. Some are babies asleep in strollers. Some young men look as if they are going home after playing soccer. Some look scruffy. Others are nicely dressed. But few wear suits on the subway. Except for the State House, most offices don’t require suits anymore. Whatever they are doing, my people are busy.
Most of my people spend their journey looking at their mobile phones. Some read newspapers or books. Once in awhile two people are chatting. Others look lost in thought.
However they spend their time, they are lucky. They can get around by subway. When I first moved to the Boston area—Cambridge, it was—I met my first cockroach, but I also met my first underground train. The sign in Harvard Square read, “Eight minutes to Park Street.” The subway is still the fastest way to get between downtown Boston and Cambridge’s subway stations. It’s hard to imagine what our streets would be like without the T.
I never feel as if I’m with my people when I’m driving. My people don’t cut other drivers off, they don’t blare their horns if a taxi or an Uber is letting out its passengers, they don’t drive as if all they can think of is, “Me first.”
The people on the subway have much better manners than do drivers on the roads. Instead of “Me first” it is usually, “We’re all in this together.”
Whenever I hear that the T has no money, that fares must rise, that we shouldn’t extend the system, I get sad. It’s partly because I know that a thriving public transit system, better than it is now and mostly underground, is essential to Boston’s prosperity and livability. We can’t grow an economy unless we grow the T and, as the fifth richest city in America, we have the means to pay for it.
But my sadness is more personal. We’ve got many ways to meet our fellow citizens. We see friends, we go to neighborhood meetings, we meet one another on the sidewalks, the shops, the library, the parks.
But our neighborhoods, with their defined boundaries, can isolate us. Those trains on the MBTA’s colorful lines are places where we all come together. We’re jammed in. By and large, we are safe. We are all Bostonians, diverse, riding the rails together, treating one another with dignity, one people all getting along. Imagine that.