Boston (Both Ways)
There are two versions of every big city: the one people call home, and the one tourists visit. A longtime Bostonian searches for common ground.
It turns out that the deck is being re-floored—a fact of life for any old ship. In normal times, the Constitution can still sail, and it's staffed with an active-duty Navy crew.
I join a tour given by Tony Barnardo, a petty officer whose last deployment was on a carrier in the Persian Gulf. Tony clearly regards this ship as part of the same Navy he serves in—he speaks in the first person about its achievements. "We fired a broadside," he says of the Constitution's role in an 1812 battle. "We basically destroyed the HMS Guerriere in 35 minutes."
It takes nearly that long for our whole tour group to squeeze down the narrow, steep stairwell to the lower decks, where a strange world opens up. The life of a sailor, 200 years ago, was incredibly constrained: You lived amid ropes and iron and gunpowder, and slept four hours at a time in a hammock. You ate bread so hard that you needed to soak it in soup first. You could be as young as 8.
Boston is a port town but no longer a Navy one, so it's interesting to imagine a city whose marketplaces and theaters were flush with sailors. If you read the Boston papers, you know that history isn't just trivia here, either: News recently emerged that the bodies of British soldiers may have been located under the backyards of several family homes just a few hundred yards away from the ship.
Boston history my way
There are two worthwhile museums near the ship—a Navy exhibit on the Constitution's pier and a separate museum about the ship itself. Equally worthy is the rest of Charlestown, a charming, gaslit neighborhood of 19th-century town houses that's home to the Bunker Hill Monument. Stop for a burger at Warren Tavern, over 225 years old and one of the first buildings to go up in the rebuilding of Charlestown after the British burned it.
Learning to quack
My personal boycott of the Boston Duck Tours ends on a brisk, sunny Saturday morning when I climb into a huge red amphibious vehicle called the Tub of the Hub and surrender to the idea that I will ride noisily around my hometown yelling "quack!" at totally blameless pedestrians who will look at me and think, What a loser.
You've probably seen something like a duck tour—a land-and-water excursion where a bus loads up with about 30 people and, at some point in the itinerary, drives straight into the water and floats. The vehicle I'm on was built in the 1940s to carry freight for amphibious attacks like D-day. "You can't beat tootling around in a World War II military vehicle," says Lance Cheung, a visitor from Texas who has done this before. "You get more stares than if you were in a Lamborghini."
I notice a guy on the sidewalk wearing a motley assortment of sports jerseys—a Red Sox shirt over a Bruins jersey over green Celtics pants. Only in Boston, I think to myself, at which point he clambers up the steps and introduces himself as Mike, our tour guide.
It takes about 90 seconds for me to realize that Mike was born to do this job. Before the first traffic light has changed, he has trained the entire bus to quack loudly together on cue. (Yes, me too.) He shepherds traffic around the bus and brakes regularly so people onboard can get pictures—all while unleashing a tidal wave of history and sports lore. He flags the sites of America's oldest restaurant (the Union Oyster House, where in 1796, future French king Louis-Philippe lived in exile on the second floor) and oldest continually operating hotel (the Parker House, which has hosted nearly every U.S. president since Ulysses S. Grant).
By the time the thing circles beneath a highway ramp and finally plunges into the Charles River, I find myself mentally enumerating the people I would recommend this to. We float down the Charles between Boston and Cambridge, gazing at a panorama of the Back Bay that most visitors never see from the water.
As much as I hate to admit it, it takes a man dressed in full Boston sports team regalia to help me see the city in a way I've never seen it before. Anyone who spends an hour listening to Mike talk, or an afternoon walking the Freedom Trail, or just a moment taking in the architecture of Quincy Market, will actually get Boston in some important way. The city is a lot more than the campy, fake-shoe-buckles version of its past, but that part is inseparable from what it is now: a lively and idiosyncratic American city woven from the convoluted streets and dense neighborhoods of a little colonial outpost.
Boston Duck Tours
617/267-3825, bostonducktours.com, $30, kids 3–11 $20, under 3 $6