Shipping Up to Boston

(Ethan Gates)– “In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.” – Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

When people ask me where I’m from, I typically just answer Cleveland; that is, after all, where I went to high school, where my parents live and where I still go on most breaks. Besides, it’s just small talk; they aren’t looking for my whole life story.

An unfortunate side effect of this answer, however, is that some time later I might be talking with this same person again, and perhaps I’ll mention my fierce passion for the Red Sox, or how I used to go on picnics at the Quabbin with my family when I was little, or how crushed I am that Friendly’s has gone bankrupt. Immediately I’ll be accosted with a quizzical look that distinctly implies “LIAR,” and a gotcha-infused query: “Didn’t you say you’re from Cleveland?”

Yeah, I fit in so well there.

My driver’s license may currently label me as a citizen of Ohio, but I’m proud that my birth certificate will always announce my rightful home as Boston, Massachusetts. I’ve bounced around a lot already in 21 years – no, I’m not an army brat. I’ve mentioned before that my father is a priest, and you might be surprised to learn that the average tenure of an Episcopalian minister at any one church is only about 6 or 7 years. When I was born, my family lived just outside of Boston, in the shoreside suburb of Hingham; before I was even old enough to form memories, we had moved to Ware, which geography-savvy Amherst students might have noticed is only about 20 minutes down Route 9 from campus. From there I spent my middle-school years in the WASP haven of Lake Forest, Illinois, one of the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, before finally landing in the Cleve.

I don’t know why I’ve always felt such a particularly strong attachment to Boston, when it’s been 20 years since I could actually call that city home. Perhaps it’s precisely because I’ve never settled down anywhere for terribly long that I feel this inevitable draw back to my birthplace. I’ve been to plenty of cities that I loved: Chicago, San Francisco, St. Petersburg, Venice, Oxford, Seville; but there’s something about walking around in Boston that just feels so right to me. After two days there over fall break I was tempted to drop everything at Amherst and stake a tent in Boston Common. Who needs the stress and hoopla of college when you could be strolling down Commonwealth Ave.? Or fighting for food at Quincy Market? Or just chilling and people-watching in Harvard Square, imagining Mark Zuckerberg or Natalie Portman passing by?

Why is it that everyone has a certain spot, a certain city, that simply soothes their soul? Can our bodies really instinctively feel where we were born? Director Werner Herzog often refers to the “voodoo of location;” he means it in the sense that the atmosphere of where you shoot a film leaks into the film itself, but I like using the phrase in broader terms: some places just hold a spell on us.