Back at the Tremont Hotel lobby, I waited for the arrival of my Boston contacts. Betsy and Bob. Bob had known my old friend Scots Tony even longer than I’d known him. But, to me, they were still strangers. I need not have worried.
“Hi, you gotta be Neil. I was told to watch out for someone who looks like an actor.”
It was Betsy – a friendly, intelligent face, and an immediate empathy. She bubbled with that glorious American enthusiasm that picks you up and carries you along and, within five minutes, I felt like I’d known her for years. Then, as we sat in the Piano Bar, she waved to a newcomer – it was Bob. As he set down his suitcase, we shook hands – moustache; calm, watchful face; amusement in his eyes. He was the laid-back foil to Betsy’s bounce, and immediately likeable. It felt like coming home.
“OK, Neil, we gonna show you the best bar in Boston.”
At 7pm, we hailed a cab and drove through Chinatown to Quincy Market. The sidewalks were filled with Saturday evening shopping crowds strolling under the Christmas decorations. We drew up at the Olde Union Oyster House on Union St.
As we went inside, Bob said: “This is the oldest restaurant in America – it’s been going since 1826. Daniel Webster was a regular, so was JFK. All the Kennedy clan were here at some point.” It was a crowded, cheery place, with low ceilings and a real feel of Yankee clippers and Captain Ahab measuring up harpoons. Betsy managed to hustle us on to three stools at the prime spot, a crescent shaped bar facing the street windows, with waiters in full-length white aprons splitting open oysters in front of us with extraordinary dexterity. One of them looked exactly like Fred Flintstone.
Bob ordered the meal – clam chowdah soup, then plates of large oysters with sauces, and a steady flow of Budweiser beer. He explained his accompanying suitcase; currently he was working as a customs/coastguard man on boats plying between Boston and New York, two weeks on, two weeks off. He had been in Vietnam during the war “mostly in the safe areas, thank God”, but had also travelled in Europe during the Sixties with Tony and another friend, Scots Bob.
“We were in a bar in Paris discussing literature. Some Frenchman announced that Robert Burns was a second-rate poet. Scots Bob got up and laid the guy out cold with one punch. It was then that I realised that you don’t mess about wi’ oor Rabbie.”
Amidst the Budweiser and the anecdotes, I’d forgotten the reason for our meeting. Then Betsy suddenly perked up: “If you’ve got a problem with a venue, why don’t you do the show at our house tomorrow. It’s in Westford – out near Concord.”
Oh, Betsy, you beauty. “That would be fantastic!” Saved from Cheech and Co at the last moment!
We arranged to meet the next day and walked unsteadily from the bar.
1997 December: Sunday
I didn’t wake till noon and when I did it was with a thumping hangover. The eight or nine pints of Budweiser at the Olde Oyster House had mingled with about a pint of whisky that I’d polished off afterwards. The only consolation was that Bob, when he arrived to collect me, looked in an even worse state. The conversation was subdued as we drove off.
We skirted along the south side of the river, passing the M.I.T buildings on the far bank, crossed a bridge into West Cambridge, then headed out into the countryside. Despite the bleak wintry drizzle, it looked lovely – the woods and small hills, the clapboard mansions like old Dutch barns, the Christmas lights edging their walls and lacing the surrounding trees – American Dream country.
As we continued through Concord, it struck me that Wilde must have been through here himself. It was the heartland of the old New England Transcendentalists, arguably the first really American writers – of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Wilde definitely met Alcott, and he even quoted Emerson’s line about ‘Nothing is more rare in any man than to act on his own’.
Bob pointed out Walden Pond, the subject of Thoreau’s famous and eponymous book. “Recently, there’s been an argument about whether to build over it or not. You know something? Thoreau borrowed Walden Pond and the house there from Emerson. He got it for free as long as he did the gardening. Emerson got real pissed off because Thoreau never did any work – he just wrote about it!”
Twilight was falling as we arrived in Westford, a pretty little village outside Concord. Bob said that the town of Lowell was not far away: “That’s where Jack Kerouac lived. They’ve put his typewriter and knapsack in the town museum now.”
Betsy greeted our arrival with a whoop of welcome – her alcohol intake last night had been considerably less than ours. “I guess the best place for your show is in the kitchen. We can get more people in there than anywhere else.”
It was an unusual stage set for a 1890s Parisian café, but we removed the more anachronistic features like the vegetable blender and the microwave, and disguised the fridge with a tablecloth. A few other touches and all was ready – the only problem was myself. The energy and concentration were hovering on empty.
At 6pm and with a crowd of hastily recruited friends and neighbours seated around the kitchen tables, Betsy announced the show. I ambled on, delivered the first line, and completely blanked out. For the first time in my theatrical life, I had to stop, apologise, and start again. After this appalling opening though, I managed to get a grip and surged forward. Oddly enough the sheer rawness of the hangover began to help the delivery, especially during the tragic scene of ‘Oscar in Jail’ – it matched the mood. The show ended to a thoroughly undeserved round of applause.
Betsy was bright-eyed with praise: “You transformed the kitchen into Paris just by the power of performance”. The ‘Moderator’ of Concord, a sophisticated lady named Ellen, added her congratulations. I felt humbled by getting this sort of reaction to a very under-par show. On the other hand though, it dawned on me – gloriously, wonderfully, gratifyingly – that I had ‘Played Oscar In America’!! Not exactly Carnegie Hall or even Dooley’s Irish Bar – but undeniably America!
The show was followed by a small dinner party with Bob, Betsy, and two other couples. The eldest man Ralph resembled the actor Ralph Bellamy, and had been a fighter pilot in WWII. The other man Paul had been a fighter pilot in the Korean War, while Bob himself had had piloting experience in the Vietnam War. As my flying experience was almost entirely limited to Virgin Cattle Class, I shut up for a lot of the conversation.
However, at one point Paul let slip that his nephew was John Lithgow, the star of the hit TV comedy ‘Third Rock from the Sun’. He added: “John gets 100,000 dollars for each episode. I reckon you’re doing work of real importance but I’m guessing that you don’t receive that much. I was wondering if you felt any resentment about the difference in pay between TV and theatre?”
Thinking back to my last performance cheque of £100 gross, I murmured “No, not at all, not at all”, and chewed a potato.
I think it was over this dinner, though, that I started to fall a bit in love with the New Englanders. It was their manners that did it – it was as if they had taken over the mantle that the British used to wear before Britain drowned in irony. They were self-deprecating without being self-destructive, and courteous without being self-conscious. It was their tolerant toughness. There was something so… well… so Spencer Tracy about them.
The guests departed into the snowy night and we sat back in the library with beers and a log fire. Bob and Betsy went to bed at 11 30pm; I stayed up to watch a bit of the TV News Channel.
The lead item was that the Catholic Bishop of New Hampshire had just died and most of the programme was dedicated to comment on the event. It showed a real difference to the UK. This was still a religious country. In Britain, it would have needed the Archbishop of Canterbury being murdered at a sado-masochist orgy to get this much coverage.
1997 December: Monday
Next morning, Betsy drove me back towards Boston and dropped me off at a subway station called Alewife. Despite sounding like a character in one of Chaucer’s raunchier tales, the reality of Alewife was dire – a sprawl of multi-storey car parks and rotting concrete made even more miserable by the freezing rain and leaden sky.
By the time I reached central Boston, the rain had turned to snow again and I hurried across the Common to the last unmissable port of call. Right through the 1980s, I’d watched and revered ‘Cheers’, the TV programme set in a Boston bar that recounted the misadventures of its inhabitants – Sam Malone, Diane, Cliff, Norm, and the rest. It had been a grand tribute to pubs and all who drink in them.
The building’s exterior still stood unchanged on Beacon St, although the bar itself had kept its original name of ‘The Bull and Finch’. The approach down steps from the street to the cellar bar and the entrance itself (complete with wooden Indian), was faithful to the original, but little else was. The remainder was much smaller than the stage set and more like an English country pub.
However the chances of meeting a Boston native here struck me as remote. A couple of Japanese tourists sat in one corner; a French family in another; a morose barman scowled at the falling sleet outside; a baffled, nervous silence ruled. It truly was ‘the place where nobody knows your name’.
I flew back to Britain that afternoon.
Beacon Hill, Boston