Saturday, January 12, 2013

First Night, Best Night

I spent New Years Eve with my girlfriend, Kelly, and her family. It was one of the best nights of my life. I had made the trip to southern New Hampshire to visit her with the plan to go with her family to First Night Boston. I had never heard of the event before but Kelly told me that there would be ice sculptures on the streets and plenty of events going on.

First Night is held every year on New Year's eve in cities all around North America but it originated in Boston. At first I thought it was odd that they called such an event "first" night, seeing as it falls on the last night of the year. Then I realized that telling people what you did "last night" is a terribly ordinary occurrence. Telling them what you did First Night is anything but ordinary. And it wasn't ordinary, it was so much more. It was the best New Years ever and one of the best nights of my life.

After meeting Kelly's family we all bundled up under many layers of clothing (some more than others) and cracked open some foot warmers. I elected to use my foot warmers as hand warmers because I already had sheepskin liners in my boots. Then the five of us piled into a car and made the short trip to the local "T" station.

The "T" is like a subway/tram/mini-train thing (you can tell I'm not a city person) which has this awful passcard and gate system in order to enter the station. To save time we all used the same passcard. One person would go through and then hand the card back to the next person. The doors kept swinging shut too quickly or not opening when we swiped the card. I got slammed as I went through because the doors shut on me.

Rubbing my shoulder, we entered the station just before the tram-thing pulled in. We went to the end and stepped through the doors. I looked down just as I stepped over the threshold. I wasn't too nervous, but because the tram rounded off on the bottom quite sharply it appeared to me as if we were floating nearly six feet off the ground. This didn't alarm me but it did register as being AWESOME.

We got in and the tram started off abruptly after sitting dormant for a couple minutes and waiting for passengers. Rocking from side to side, the speed changed constantly as we sped away from the station only to abruptly come to a halt at the next station less than a minute later.

The announcer sounded like they were trying to speak a foreign language and, failing that, decided to speak sentences as if they were one word. The doors opened and closed with a beeping sound Kelly likened to the sounds of a Mario game. As we sped into the city, station after station, I had the distinct sensation of losing all sense of direction despite the fact I was headed in a mostly-straight line. There was no way I would ever find my way home without Kelly and her family.

We exited the station and walked out onto the streets of Boston. It was at this moment that I was reminded that I am absolutely and without question a country bumpkin.

I've been to Boston before, several times, but every time I go it feels like I'm entering an entirely different city from the last time. It's like looking through a prism, adjust your angle just slightly and everything changes. Part of that is because cities are big enough that you can't see all of it in one trip but it wasn't just the section of the city that felt different. It was the flavor of the entire experience. Nothing was familiar. I think that unless I lived in Boston for a long while the city would never feel like the same place twice.

I'm far more used to places feeling the same no matter how much they change or how many times I visit them. A forest, no matter when you visit it, still feels like the same forest.

It had a shark, a manta ray, two divers, and an octopus.
It was a whirlwind of a night. There were so many things to do and see I've lost track of the order in which we did them all. We set off into the busy streets and soon spotted the first ice sculpture. These ice sculptures were FANTASTIC. Initially I thought the horizontal lines through the sculptures were odd until I learned that they are sculpted in layers and then stacked up. My favorite was the octopus in the underwater themed sculpture entitled "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

After passing by the largest library I've ever seen we entered the largest building I've ever been in, the Hynes Convention Center. The scale of the place was mind-boggling. The Hynes was playing host to most of the major First Night events. While we didn't manage to go to most of them we did see a brief salsa dancing demonstration. It is very odd to see several hundred people learning the salsa at once. After the salsa Kelly lost one of her gloves and we spent the rest of the night with a heightened awareness of lost gloves. We must've seen at least a dozen on floors and sidewalks throughout the night. We almost turned the glove-spotting into a sort of game.

Other events we saw at the Hynes included a Poetry Slam and a performance by Improv Boston. The poetry slam was AMAZING. I'd never been to such an event. About half a dozen poets faced off and took turns poet-ing their hearts out. To hear a poem spoken by the one who wrote it is incredibly powerful. Even the poetry I couldn't personally relate to blew me away. I would write more about it but nothing I could write about the poetry could come close to capturing the beauty and power of the poets. After the poetry slam we went across the hall into a massive "exhibit hall" where an improv group was performing. They called various people onto the stage, asked them questions, and then later turned their answers into impromptu movie trailers, songs, and skits. It was great fun and I was impressed by the ability of the performers to remember small details while coming up with funny material on the spot.

There's a "J" there, I promise
After leaving the convention center we walked by the Old South Church, a beautiful building, almost as nice as the library. We decided to go inside and look around. As we approached the door we realized there was some kind of performance or event inside. Interested, we stepped up to the threshold….and were abruptly turned away by a man proclaiming that there was no room left. Which was a bit ironic, given the sign they'd put out front. --->

At one point we had to make our way across the square in front of the massive library. There was a live band set up on the steps of the library. Consequently there was a teeming mass of teenagers and 20-somethings packed tightly into the square. Us five intrepid souls plunged into the throng in order to reach the other side. We formed a conga line of sorts and jostled our way through. I was at the end of our line and at one point I heard someone almost decided to join in, thinking that we were just conga-ing for fun. We made it through without being crushed, although I did almost manage to do a face-plant just as we pushed out of the crowd.

For dinner we stopped at an UNO's which was near filled to bursting. Noticing that the outdoor seating was unused and knowing that the parade was about to start we asked the waitress if we could sit out on the patio. She gave us an incredulous look. "You must all be from New England…" We smiled and said we were, and we were ready for the cold. It was the best meal I've had in recent memory. Kelly and I started off with some hot cocoa which arrived just in time for the start of the parade. Since the patio was slightly raised above the sidewalk we had a wonderful view of the procession. Top it off with warm food and drink and we had what felt like the best seat in the whole city for the parade. We even had plenty of celebratory beaded necklaces thrown our way from the floats. Here are a few pictures.

After we ate and the parade had finished we hurried over to the Swan Pond (which at the time I thought was the Frog Pond) in the Boston Commons to watch the fireworks. Kelly and I had our picture taken together on the bridge over the pond. As we stood there, waiting for the fireworks to begin I took in the scene around us. What were surely thousands of people lined the commons, all waiting for the show to start. 
The snow muffled the sound a bit, and my memory has muffled it further so all I can picture is a silent crowd of people encircling the frozen, still pond, gazing into the sky and thinking about the future. Whatever the scale of the buildings, or the city, or the fireworks, I was struck the most by the scale of humanity. The feeling of connection to the rest of this world filled with humans.

The show began and suddenly the world was filled with color and sound. The gasps of the crowd and the delighted screams of small children filled the air. The fireworks were diverse and each had a feeling contained in them. Some were patriotic, some were happy, some were prideful, and some were peaceful (at least as peaceful as an explosive can be). I especially liked the ones that looked like weeping willows. Each explosion could be seen in the mirrored glass of the skyscrapers, doubling the lights we could see. As heart shaped fireworks began to burst into life overhead, illuminating the smoky remains of their predecessors, I held Kelly close next to me. I felt a feeling of joy standing there. Kelly and I kissed and then returned to watching the fireworks. The moment seemed to last forever.

After the finale the feeling broke and life resumed again. Children began throwing snowballs at each other using whatever snow hadn't been trampled flat. We headed back towards the T station, this time making out way past a triumphant George Washington riding a larger-than-life horse. If he hadn't been made of stone he would have joined us as we walked down Commonwealth avenue. The avenue was lined with trees covered in lights. It was beautiful.

Finally we made our way back to the T station and got on board. I again marveled at the way the train didn't seem to touch the ground. It reminded me of the scene from Spirited Away. The five of us sped away, laughing about advertisements on the walls, the apparel choices of our fellow passengers, and discussing the amazing time we all had. I glanced up and into the window opposite me. The darkness outside made the usually transparent window into a partial mirror. I looked at my reflection and saw Kelly there too, leaning on my shoulder. The rest of my vision blurred as I peered into that glass world. I was glad to know it was my own world and that this moment was my own. I put my arm around Kelly and held her to me as we rolled out of the city towards a new year. It was the second everlasting moment of the night, First Night, a night which I will always treasure.