I spent six whole hours of my life in Lowell this past weekend. Unless you have some sort of fetish for former industrial mill towns, I don't recommend you ever do this. It's a collection of old, rusted-out hulks being slowly overtaken by a collection of slightly-less-old hulks that haven't quite completely rusted out yet, broken up by a brief section of town that is being restored by a bunch of hipsters to a condition where it appears to be in the process of rusting out, but isn't. I understand there are people who enjoy this, in the same strictly-intellectual way I understand that there are people who enjoy living in the Sonoran desert. I am very much a city mouse, so mainly what it looks like to me is civilization giving up in its senescence, settling into a grayed-out state of minimal survival while it waits to eventually die.

The signs on the Commuter Rail fascinate me. They don't quite match the newer signs on the T. The typeface is subtly different than the one they use now. It matches best to the few signs downtown that were missed the last time anything changed, like the one that says the outbound Red train is 'to Harvard' rather than 'to Alewife'. They've been there for thirty years, at least.

I look at those signs sometimes and I wonder if they were the same ones my parents saw when they lived out here. I checked the CR lines while I was en route -- they have wifi on the train now, although their definition of 'service' when it comes to internet can be as loose as when it comes to bus schedules. When my father stayed out late with his buddies, the train my mother complained so bitterly about him missing was the Commuter Rail line out to Haverhill. And he would have been missing it from North Station. The platform at Porter looks like it may well have been there for forty years, but the subway station was part of the Red Line Extension and wasn't finished until after we left.

I don't think either of them have ever seen the current station at Harvard. There used to be a much smaller station there, when it was the end of the line, which is mainly gone; while they were blasting out the cavern that exists now, there were a couple of temporary station platforms that popped up at various places around Harvard Square. One of the station exits was in front of the Holyoke Center, and given the layout now and the fact that there's still a huge grate in the sidewalk, it's probably ventilation for the offices on the first landing. You can still see the temporary platform, if they leave the work lights on in the tunnel; it's got purple tile in an offset pattern, like in Central Square. They even left the ad poster frames up, although they're empty now.

The city changed a lot over three decades. The main things are the northern end of the Red, and the Big Dig finally being finished. I remember hearing about that when I was a wee little science-obsessed nipper in early grade school. I'm actually a little sad that I missed the elevated expressway through the city -- I know people on the ground loathed it, and the drivers on it weren't too crazy about it either, but I've read too much science-fiction to not be enchanted at the idea of a highway swooping around, high above the surface streets of the city below.

Characteristically, when they finally demolished the supports for the former Central Artery, they made the space into a string of parks. It's very Boston. I was following a treasure hunt on Something Awful Forums once when someone decoded a bunch of clues in a way that suggested the whatzit was buried out here, and naïvely asked if perhaps there were any significant parks in the city? The local goons laughed themselves stupid. The City of Boston proper is something like 15% greenery by area; if you add in the metro area, it's probably closer to 20%. Basically, whenever they find they have a plot of land and no plans for it, they check into filling it with either plants or train tracks, and plants are usually cheaper.

I suppose I'll have to be content with living out by the one section of I-93 that still is an elevated expressway. They're not likely to change it any time soon; several layers of it run directly over Sullivan Square Station in Charlestown, which has not only the subway tracks but also a Commuter Rail right-of-way, and the last el section of the Orange Line runs between the pylons until it dives underground south of Bunker Hill Community College. There's quite a view from the sidewalk outside of Sullivan, with I-93 flying by overhead as you look out over the lower terrain of the West and North End into the high-rises downtown, Charlestown to your left, and the Bunker Hill Bridge just out of sight beyond the station and highway supports to your right.

The Leonard P Zakim Bridge -- which I had to learn from Google Maps, because hand to God I have never heard anyone here call it anything but "the Bunker Hill Bridge" -- is enormously cool to drive through. I know it's just a regular cable-stayed bridge, and I realize that these things exist all over the world, but there's something about being in the middle of the fan of cables, passing under the tower at freeway speeds, that makes it a visually fascinating trip. The lighting is rather theatrical, and makes for a dramatic picture at night.

I am probably just easily amused by the trappings of civilization. Laugh if you want, but sit down for a second and figure out, if this wows me so much, what it must look like in Arizona where I grew up. Phoenix Metro has a population of 6 million, give or take, which is not far off from the population of Greater Boston. It's just spread out incredibly thinly, with the main goal of letting people avoid each other as much as possible.