The buses out here have changed their marquees. Normally they flip between the number and destination, and route notes -- they'll alternate 94 MEDFORD SQUARE and VIA W MEDFORD RD on the front, for example. Today, there's a third phrase: BOSTON STRONG.

Someone has also taken to sticking Post-Its all over Cambridge that say things like 'breathe' and 'trust'. Hats and jackets with the logos of Boston sports teams are even more abundant than normal, and I wasn't sure that was physically possible. Although I shouldn't be surprised, really. If Massachusetts has a state religion, it must be the Red Sox. I was giving out directions to Fenway Park months before I had any idea where the hell anything else was in this city. I eventually learned that anyone standing on the platform at Park St Over and wearing more than two articles of baseball-related clothing could just be interrupted after 'excuse me--' with, "Any train but E, get off at Kenmore. One of the exits leads straight to Fenway. There are big signs on the wall, you can't miss it."

I have seen complaints from time to time that people are rude in New England. I don't feel that way. Sociologists speak of two different kinds of interpersonal relationships, "Gemeinschaft" and "Gesellschaft". They're from German, and they mean, roughly, "personal caring-based relationships" and "functional transaction-based relationships". I suspect that people who think Yankees are cold are probably missing the idea that one can meet someone au hasard and fall into a Gemeinschaft relationship by accident, and from that point of view, it does seem like an upsetting place. People here don't normally wave and chatter to strangers on the street; if you're walking, minding your own business, they assume you're going somewhere and mind their own business in return. They would probably be annoyed if you stood in the middle of the sidewalk attempting to make lifelong pals with randoms who were trying to run errands.

On the other hand, people in Boston have a different idea of what goes into a Gesellschaft relationship than I'm used to from the Southwest. Gesellschaft relationships are not usually things you'd think of as friendship, but have some element of familiarity to them. If the counter man at the deli says hello to you unprompted and asks if you want your usual order, but is not someone you'd talk about your medical problems with like you would your besties, that's a functional Gesellschaft relationship. In other places, it's customary to assume that if you haven't got a Gemeinschaft relationship with someone, you need to keep your nose completely out and let them deal with things themselves -- I'm not just talking like 'ignoring shrieking domestic abuse next door' here, but even down to thinking it's intrusive and inappropriate to ask your elderly neighbor if she would like help getting her groceries inside. Or to thinking it's intrusive and inappropriate to be an elderly neighbor, asking the students next door for a hand.

In Boston, it is considered a legitimate part of a non-personal Gesellschaft relationship to tender help to strangers if it's obvious that they would like some, even if the request is not made specifically to you. There was a case, quite some time ago, of a lady who completely forgot to brain for a moment and walked straight off the edge of the platform in Kendall Square Station. It came up on a message board I read from time to time, and people from other places seemed surprised that it was other passengers who immediately ran forward to pull her back to safety. It didn't surprise me at all. People out here will generally not bother you if you're just standing around waiting for a train, but if you trip and take a header in the mezzanine, they will stop to ask if you're okay.

It's also not considered untoward to ask perfect strangers for help with something, if it's something completely non-presumptive that one might equally well ask of any other humanoid in the area. My personal experience with this is mostly in the area of asking directions, which I had to do constantly for my first few weeks out here, because Boston is laid out like the Puritans thought urban planning was an affront unto God. But it also applies to more urgent concerns. Even before the generally appalling week we've just had, the MBTA launched a program in cooperation with some other local organizations to raise awareness of sexual harassment in the T. The advice is pretty standard -- be aware, report it to the authorities, take photos of the offender if you can -- but they also advise the target of the harassment to alert the other passengers. It's predicated on the assumption that if strangers are aware that something bad is going down, they'll do something about it. It's an assumption that I have so far found to be true.

Comments