Friday, September 4, 2009

End of an Era

The true measure of a man's importance I discovered this past week is not what he leaves in life, but the traffic snarl-ups he causes in death. Senator Ted Kennedy and mobster Gennaro "Jerry" Anguilo--two titans of Boston's power elite--were buried this past week, and I got stuck in the resulting traffic jams for both. First for Kennedy's procession, which tied up traffic for several hours downtown as it toured various sites in the city last Saturday. According to the radio, the crowds in places were eight deep to get a glimps of the flag-draped coffin and the surviving members of the ever-dwindling Kennedy clan. The second for Anguilo's wake in the North End on Wednesday, which practically shut down Commercial Street as a potpourri of old timers, thick-necked brutes in fancy Italian suits, bikers in Hell's Angels colors, and mothers with small children lined up outside Langone's Funeral Home to pay their last respects to one of the last old-school Italian mafiosa in the city.

I assume that Kennedy being Kennedy and Anguilo, having spent most of the past 20 years in jail, never personally met most of the throngs gathered in their honor. No doubt, some wanted to be there because they felt the deceased had somehow touched their lives. Others because they simply wanted be a part of the spectacle. But most, I suppose, were there to acknowledge the end of an era.

With Kennedy's and Angiulo's go the last vestiges of a time when Boston was run by powerful families and clans. Back then, who you knew and the neighborhood you lived in meant more than how much you earned or where you worked. Boston has always been a city of neighborhoods, more so then than today, but back then it meant something totally different if you said you lived in Southie or Charlestown or the South End or Brighton. It's still a city of neighborhoods, but it's much harder to tell them apart. Back then, the people you saw on TV representing Boston were guys who were part of those neighborhoods. Guys like Tip O'Neill, Mel King, Kevin White, Ray Flynn, Dap O'Neill. Mayor Menino is among them, but he is in dwindling company.

It was different, not necessarily better, but different. In a lot of ways, Boston is a better place today. It's cleaner, it's safer. There's more to do. It's easier to get around. But something's missing.

I had the same feeling when legendary rock radio station WBCN went off the air a couple months ago. The station had changed program formats so many times that I quit listening to it ages ago, but I remember when it was part of regular day: Charles Laquidara and Duane Glasscock, the Big Mattress, the Cosmic Muffin. Now it's gone, and in its place we have what? Twenty-four-hour sports talk?

What's missing I guess is character. Like every other place, Boston is becoming more like, well, every other place.

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