Lessons Under A Bostonian Icon

Surreality has a way of adding an indelible quality to the otherwise mundane.

Boston city officials announced Wednesday that the iconic Citgo sign, which has graced the city skyline at Kenmore Square since 1940, would stay right where it has always been thanks to an agreement reached between Citgo and the new owners of the building bearing the 3,600-square-foot sign.

In the wake of the announcement, I saw a conversation crop up on social media asking for stories about what the sign means to you.

It gave me a moment’s pause as I backtracked across my time in the city some 20 years ago.

I have a Citgo sign story, don’t I?

I flashed back in vivid detail to a 120-second span of time — something I hadn’t thought about in years.

I could feel the heat of the Boston summer rising off the Brookline Avenue bridge over the Massachusetts Turnpike, an afternoon breeze wafting the stench of humidity across the overpass.

I’ve written of this trip before —  I was in Boston for a summer performance program at the Berklee College of Music.

I remember glancing up at the Citgo sign, and then back the other direction toward the mammoth light posts towering over the red seats of Fenway.

As I’ve written, I wasn’t a Red Sox fan yet, but this might have been the moment it started.

Or at least one of several that got the ball rolling.

I’d seen this scene many times before, in Field Of Dreams as Kevin Costner drives James Earl Jones away from the stadium after hearing the whispers of “Go the distance.”

Being in it — peering past the precipice of the Green Monster as a wide-eyed teenager whose greatest prior brush with baseball fame was receiving a hand-signed Matt Nokes card from a house guest — I found my breath suddenly thieved by the moment.

It was as close to meeting a movie star as I’d come since Fred Savage came to my hometown to film ‘The Wizard’ — and that was in strained conjecture from across a county road crowded with eager onlookers.

My dad fiddled with a map while we stood under the arcing chain-link fence holding us back from the hoard of city traffic speeding under the bridge below.

He paused, lifted his hat to brush the sweat from his forehead with his forearm, and dismissively shook his head.

We were lost.

I balanced the awe of the background somewhat precariously with a growing sense of desperation.

My dad made the flight out with me only to drop me off. We’d arrived in the city, less than 24 hours earlier, and he was set to leave in the morning.

I had just turned 17, and it was the first time I’d even been east of Nevada, let alone the Mississippi.

First time I’d ever been away from home. First time I was ever to be on my own outside of our small farm town tucked away in the valleys below Lake Tahoe.

In a moment of panic the night prior, I briskly descended the five flights of stairs in my dorm toward the crowded sidewalks of Mass Ave. below, fully intending to wind my way back to the hotel where my dad was staying.

It was close to Fenway Park. That’s all I could remember. I’d figure it out eventually. It was a couple blocks over — with some turns here and there.

Besides, how many hotels could there possibly be in Boston?

And when I got there, I’d explain that this just wasn’t going to work, and that I wanted to fly home with him.

I reached the mezzanine of the dormitory and found it crowded with fellow students for the summer, all with the same shaken look that I must have been wearing.

Wide-eyed, with plastic, closed-lip half smiles masking a terror deep within.

Not yet adults, no longer children, not at home, though not alone and no clue what to do next.

One look, and there was an unspoken kinship with them.

I sat down there, with them, and waited, literally between one stage and the next — both within the building and in life.

We were all, it seemed, going to cross that bridge together.

A few of the friends met in that moment were with me the entire time I was in Boston.  And to this day, I’m thankful for them.

Back on that other bridge, though, the one between the immense sign and the immense wall, I fought back that same feeling, wrapping up the words, “Hey dad, I just want to go home,” under my tongue with all of the strength I could find.

My dad sighed, frustrated.

A man who had been sitting in the shade provided by the guardrail some distance down the bridge, a bundle of clothes as his cushion and a Red Sox cup in front of him to catch the change, rose to his feet and began to walk toward us.

As a small-town, ignorant kid, there was only one possible conclusion.

To my shame, I remember shifting my hand over my wallet pocket, bracing to run if needed.

The man gestured with a dark hand and reached out, pointing to the map in my dad’s hands

He asked where we were trying to get, my dad told him, and he proceeded to draw out the best path for us, warmly making eye contact with each of us on the key points to make sure we understood.

With that, he smiled, handed the map back over, wished us well and proceeded back to his spot.

My dad pursued him, withdrawing a couple bills from his pocket (in hindsight, he was keen to hide their denomination from me), handing them to the man — making a point to look him in the eye and not just drop it in his cup — and  thanked him.

As we walked back, now on a course plotted out for us by a generous stranger, my dad exclaimed, “This is a remarkable city. No one expects anything here. They jump up, and try to do something for you, whatever it might be. Recycle bottles, help you out.”

He never said how many, but he had several such encounters in his brief stay there. And that was true wherever he went in life.

It sounds naive, I know.

But he was right. And he showed me something then that I didn’t understand before.

God gives us whatever we have not for our own consumption, but to be used to reach and affect the people He brings across our paths.

I’ve watched from afar in the time since, as the city has pulled together during times of monumental adversity, not just for its own, but for whomever was in need.

It is a remarkable city.

It was such a small thing, what that man did with that map.

But it was meaningful to a deeper level than he could have known.

That was the moment, as a homesick 17-year-old holding onto the last coattails of childhood, where I realized I was going to be OK there.

While I was battling every other emotion I was feeling, that man reached out to a pair of visitors to his town and made me feel at home there. Like I belonged there.

There were two lessons learned on that Brookline bridge that have struck true for me in the two decades since — one from a man I loved and one from a stranger I had feared.

When someone is in need of help, you find a way to help. Lives are altered in even the smallest acts and shortest moments, and not just for the one to which the help was intended.

And, regardless of your ability in any given moment to give something tangible, even the small measure of hospitality and human kindness can make an extraordinary difference for someone else, particularly someone in a strange land.

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” — Leviticus 19:34 





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