The Homes of the Gods
Some cities are hubs. People move there and write songs and make TV shows about them. New York. DC. Los Angeles. San Francisco. The truly rich — the Highest Gods of the Church of Capitalism — live there and in nearby enclaves just far enough away from poor people.
Boston is different. Except maybe higher education, everything Boston has is shiner somewhere else. Blame the crazy streets. Sure, people come from Boston, and they defend it to the bitter end, (Don’t fuck with Bawston, yah heah me?), but Boston will never be New York. The Highest Gods need not build their abodes in Beantown. But there are still some very rich people here. They live mostly in Beacon Hill.
And I thought I would pay them a visit.
I took the Green Line in from Newton, where my family was driving to my younger brother’s therapy appointment. Newton looks old and oddly shabby for how expensive the town is. Perhaps Newton homes look better inside. Perhaps the only difference between “historic” and “shady” is the people.
When we got there, my father asked if I wanted a cup of coffee — and I never turn down coffee.
The indie café my father took me to had the cramped layouts, brick walls, and glass display cases that epitomized indie cafés (and inspires Starbucks branches). A double-shot mocha cost an eye-popping $5.00, so I ordered a double-shot latte for $3.70 instead. My father asked if I wanted some baked good from the display case. I declined.
On the way to the Newton Highlands station, which was within sight of the café, I passed a second indie café.
On the way, I noticed that the Longwood area, the healthcare sector of Boston, is only a fifteen minute Green Line ride from Newton. I wondered how many doctors lived in Newton.
After a half-hour on the Green Line, I disembarked on Park Street, crossing the Boston Common to Beacon Hill proper.
The homes on Beacon Street itself, overlooking the Common, were brick and stone, iron and ivy, oxidized copper pipes and small gardens, heavy wooden doors and Greco-Roman columns. They looked old yet dignified. They said, “We’ve been here for a while. And we’re here to stay.”
To the left, shrouded in fog, I saw the glass high-rises of the Financial District, where the rich, the residents of Beacon Hill, probably went to work.
In front of 55 Beacon Street, I saw a man with a Patriots hoody and silver stubble on his angular jaw standing in front of his beige ’90s Ford Escort with a ladder on top. I stopped next to him and admired the architecture.
“These buildings are amazing,” I said, “They look so old, yet so rich.”
“Yeah, it’s mostly the style,” he said. He pointed to 55 Beacon. “This one is a historical house, owned by a…” He looked at the sign on the building. “…William Prescott.”
Mr. Prescott was a historian, specializing in the history of the Spanish Empire. He was considered one of the greatest intellectuals of his time, and he helped make history the rigorous study it is today.
I was surprised that anyone still cared about historians.
The man and I stared at the building in silence. The house looked bigger than my suburban home in Franklin. I didn’t want to know what it was worth.
I resumed walking down Beacon Street.
“Have a nice day,” he said.
“You, too,” I said.
I turned right on Beaver Street and dove into the heart of Beacon Hill, walking past private schools and parking garages hiding in the antique brick.
BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes and Lexuses and a surprising number of Minis crowded the shoulders of narrow one-way streets. Most of the cars looked new, but the occasional old Hyundai Elantra or Honda CRV suggested that maybe, maybe, a few hoi polloi still lived here.
Or maybe they were just visiting.
Beacon Hill is effectively its own town, and it indeed had its own downtown: Charles Street. Cars populated the three-lane street, driving only one way for some reason, and stores and well-dressed (white) pedestrians crowded the brick sidewalks.
On Charles Street alone, there are eight antiques stores, seven realty offices, four small-scale cafés, and two Starbucks. No Dunkin’ Donuts locations graced the street, despite that chain holding the distinction of being New England.
In fact, the only Dunkin’ Donuts stores near Beacon Hill were on the perimeter, facing out to plebeians like me.
I walked into one of the antiques stores out of curiosity, and was greeted with a low ceiling and the smell of nicotine. Everything was wood and crystal and had tags with illegible handwriting. The floor was a few inches higher in one location, running the risk that someone might trip on some priced piece of history. Myriad paintings told me what I probably should look like, lightly tarnished mirrors reminded me that I don’t look like that, and clocks of all shapes told me nothing.
There was nothing here for me. I walked out without a word.
A few blocks down the street, I walked into a realty office, where I saw a woman with platinum hair behind a moderately messy desk.
“Hello, there. Would you like some help with something?” she said in a medium-roast Boston accent.
“No, I’m just looking around,” I said, “It’s beautiful here, though.” I fumbled over my words as my lips slowly recovered from the brisk weather outside.
“Isn’t it? It’s a beautiful neighborhood. Here’s nice, Back Back is nice, South End is nice…Where are you from?”
“Franklin, Mass…?” I wasn’t sure if she would know where that was.
“I know there. You should move here someday,” she said.
I said, “I’m just a college student right now. And it’s expensive here…” We both understood what “here” meant.
“Expensive, indeed…rentals here are around $2500.” She could tell I wasn’t even considering two-bedroom apartments. Or perhaps realtors first mention rates for 1-bed apartments to make the neighborhood seem more affordable.
“I guess I’d better work hard,” I said with a sheepish laugh.
There were a few seconds of silence.
Then I said, “I love how Beacon Hill is a town within a town, complete with its own downtown…”
“Oh, yes, it’s wonderful,” the woman said, “Have you gone to Beacon Hill Chocolates?”
Her eyes lit up. “Oh, you should go there!” she said, “You like candy, right?”
I smiled. “Yes,” I said.
“Beacon Hill Chocolates has the best candy! You should check it out. It’s a few blocks down, on the left.”
“Thanks!” I said. And then, “Oh, I’m Ajey.”
“Nice to meet you.” I moved to shake Janet’s hand, but I didn’t move enough, so she ended up shaking my cold fingers.
I walked out of the office, looking for her candy recommendation.
Beacon Hill Chocolates was the ultimate in “whimsical little store.” Chocolates of all shapes and sizes and flavors and keepsakes extolling the virtues of said chocolate cluttered every shelf. If Manic Pixie Dream Girls were real, they would work in places like this.
I didn’t know what to get, but I had noticed a sign outside advertising hot chocolate. That hot chocolate cost $2.80, and it came in an absurdly small cup that was only somewhat justified by how wonderful it tasted.
“This is great!” I said to the young woman behind the counter.
“Thanks! Glad you liked it!” she said.
“I was talking to someone on the street,” I said, “and they were like, ‘You have to go to Beacon Hill Chocolates.’” To this day, I have not developed my mother’s gift for banter.
She laughed. “Our most famous items are the truffles,” she said as she gestured to the colorful display case facing the window to the street.
“How much is one?” I asked.
“$2.50,” she said without pause.
“Oh!” I yelped, as if she had poked in the side instead of telling me the price.
I didn’t buy a truffle. I wasn’t money enough to justify it, even as a splurge. I wasn’t a god.
I walked to Faneuil Hall for lunch, walking up and over Beacon Hill on the way, scanning the street for a public trash can for my empty cup of hot chocolate, and finding nothing until I reached the Suffolk University campus, which had the first modern buildings I had seen in three hours.
I then continued in the chilly-but-too-warm-for-January air to Quincy Market, following the stretch of the Freedom Trail that was painted onto a Congress Street crosswalk.
As I ate exorbitantly creamy mac and cheese, played peekaboo with a random five-year-old, and tuned out a street musician with a Facebook and Instagram but no SoundCloud, I had only one figure stuck in my head:
The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Beacon Hill. I remembered a common heuristic: one can afford housing that takes 30% of their pretax income. Some quick calculator work told me that if I made $100,000, I could afford Beacon Hill.
An electrical engineer in Boston makes about $70K out the door. A lawyer, if I go that route, makes a bit more to start. And barring a dramatic turn in my life, that’s where I’ll end up.
The homes of the gods are a promotion or two away.
On a whim, I searched for Back Bay apartments around $1800/month — apartments I could afford with an entry-level engineering job.
And there were tons of openings.
Right out of college, I could afford Back Bay. I could afford to live near Newbury Street and all of its indie cafés and art galleries. I could afford to tap into everything Boston offers, a mere walk or MBTA trip from anything. I could afford to be a vaguely trendy intellectual with a latte habit.
And it’s a half-hour walk from Kendall Square, a local tech hub, so in all likelihood I will do just that.
I thought the gods were unreachable, too rich to be. But I’m basically there. My future is easy.
Yes, there will be hard work. There will be struggle. There will be afternoons spent screaming at MATLAB or struggling to comprehend dense texts. I can’t kick back and relax, knowing my work is done.
But I don’t need to change my life.
I don’t need to take my classes and work two jobs. I don’t need to drop out of college and start a company or a rebellion. I don’t even need to lose sleep (probably). My life will never have to inspire an Oscar-winning film. I just need to show up and do my work, like I always have.
I could achieve my wildest dreams — without ever breaking the mold.