In the Kingdom of Ben Affleck

Dunkin Donuts coffee is the new Boston tea party

by James Robinson

Dunkin’ Donuts (founded 1950, right here in Massachusetts), is personalized in Boston-conversation as such; ”I’m going to Dunkins for a coffee,” ”I went to Dunkins for a coffee,” and my personal favourite “I grabbed some Dunkins on the way home.” It is a member of the city, friend to everyone, punctuating your eye line in the hands of pedestrians or through its vast retail presence.

The Boston ‘Tea Party’ (founded 1773, right here in Massachusetts) is nowhere to be seen in town, despite its recent re-awakening and aggressive libertarian re-appropriation. In recent weeks there have been Tea Party outbreaks to the north (New Hampshire), and south (New York, Delaware).
But in Boston (home of 35 major campuses of higher-educational purpose, home of some of the most conservative Democrats, and liberal Republicans) there’s none of that ‘Tea Party’ stuff; just millions of people clutching their Dunkin’s and enjoying the slightly toyish coffee, complete with some of the best bad East Coast culture you’ll find.

Geography is just geography

Boston has the Charles River, which makes its way through the middle of the area and is the clear geographical showpiece of the town, with parts of the three major universities (Harvard, Boston and MIT) looking over it, as well as some of downtown. It looks handsome, as it does in the movies, and is nice to walk by. Aside from that, Boston is a large, tribal, sprawling major North American centre complete (thankfully) with a well thought out system of transportation. This makes it somehow both urban and suburban simultaneously, and impossible to convey succinctly without slipping into Lonely Planet redundancy. There are a lot more sirens than in New Zealand, and just a lot more city in general. There is nothing quintessentially Boston, the way you could parry that claim at New Zealand cities.

Meta-Boston, and the Affleck-inspired debate for a sense of self
The Town, which is the Mr. Boston (Ben Affleck) directed/starring vehicle has just hit the big-screen to the number one spot across the nation and a 23 million dollar opening weekend. It reviewed well, and people generally seemed to continue to take well to everything Affleck-related, post-2006.

The film is filled with nearly every notable Boston vista, wall-to-wall with the Bah-stun accent and vernacular (‘townie’/’tunie’ for one, representing the ‘from the block’/’sell out yuppie’ differentiation). Reviewers nationwide place it comfortably in the vault of the recent great Boston films alongside Gone Baby Gone, The Departed, and Mystic River.

The Boston Globe was less impressed, and hit back with an editorial headlined ‘Whitey doesn’t live here anymore’ :

“…these films abound with dark tales about sullen tough guys – all grunginess and grudges… Whatever their individual merits these stories are strikingly remote from the experience of most Greater Boston residents – those who avoid bar fights…”

Local novelist Dennis Lehane ( he wrote Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone) shot back in an op-ed in the Globe two-days later, pointing out that Boston has a massive working-class base, and he highlighted the futility of trying to place “the experience of most Greater Boston residents” under one label. Boston is tribal, and loyal. Its pop-culture lore is strewn with endearing tough guys, and the line between endearing tough guy and thug is small, and often a matter only of perspective. For instance : someone at a party told me that they could not wear their Los Angeles Lakers sneakers out in South Boston for fear of physical reprisal. Is this endearing loyalty? Meaningless bravado? Or thuggery?

As for the notion that Boston has the highest amount of bank-robberies/bank-robberers, it has had a lot – but overall crime is down substantially at the moment from the 1990s, and there are several different accounts as to the accuracy/falsity of this. You could say with some certainty that is not part of the current non-cinematic psyche of the area.

The South Boston tales of yester-year, a slight ‘good-old-boys-from-the-neighbourhood’ cliché that abounds, and the current bank-robbery hype – do they add up together to a stereotype (reality?) that Boston has to rebel against? I’m inclined to agree with Lehane. Such sweeping statements are redundant, and the argument in the first place is a mere insecurity of perception.

There are no hipsters in Boston

Ben Affleck himself, and to a better extent Matt Damon, are the perfect Boston icons. They are very Boston. In the same breath as I would express admiration for the cinematic output of Damon and Affleck, I would have never described them as ever being particularly hip. They didn’t crest in on a wave dependent on a particular cultural moment. There has never been anything ironic about a single movie the two have been in, or over-reachingly clever. [Editor’s note : What? Not even in Affleck’s greatest role – as the bat-wielding sadist O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused?]

A Damon/Affleck starring movie is either good, or it is not. It is never ahead of its time, or trying to be ahead of its time, or couching hidden-meaning.
I find this fitting because there is no hipster culture in Boston. For a week I just thought I hadn’t found the place where the hipsters were hanging out, before I realised that there was just no blanket hipster aesthetic in Boston. I felt off-put by this for about a day, before I came to find it refreshing. There are hippies, and then there are the raw elements of the components of New Zealand-hipsterism (op-shops, American Apparel, etcetera); but everything is appreciated in and of itself. There are no second guessing rules of personal taste and appearance. You either look nice, or you don’t.

A conversation was had in a bar about how A-Ha are awesome: they are Norwegian, fairly kitsch, and sing ‘Take on Me’. The conversation was just about how A-Ha are awesome, as in the songs, coming out of the speakers, into our ears. In Boston, Pavement plays in the middle of a massive university to a half-filled venue.

The youngest, oldest place in the world

Boston turned 380 in the weekend. Which I’m pretty sure is three times older than Edward from Twilight. There are Civil War graveyards in the middle of town, and preserved historical buildings named after Hancock, Washington and Revere everywhere. The city has maintained as open downtown park space an area where soldiers used to graze cattle.The North End actually still looks 380 (but somehow manages to be awesome and pleasingly filled with eccentric Italians) and several parts of downtown that have managed to hold deftly on to the old-timer feel while instilling just a gentle flavouring of upscale gizmo.

There are more universities per capita in Boston than anywhere else in the world. There are 215,000 students in the Boston Area (Harvard, a stones throw over the river is technically in a separate city, so isn’t counted) representing a large chunk of the metropolitan population. Its an old, but young city : the average age of a resident is 31; with 36 percent of the population being under 24.

Boston’s youth doesn’t create tension with its age, but it is a curious coincidence, this contrast coming in the self-named ‘Athens of America’.
It doesn’t even create a shabby sense of irony either. Its extreme youth does make me curious when viewed in conjunction with the previous section (see There are no hipsters in Boston).

The resigned deflation of the losing Boston sports fan

One NBA championship in the past 21 years, two World Series championships in 82 years, the New England Patriots have been luckless excluding three recent Superbowl victories in four years, and the Boston Bruins have had almost 40 years without a Stanley Cup. It is a town with a losing sporting mindset, which I get, and feel – as New Zealand is also a country with a losing sporting mindset. We set our clocks to national misery every four years, our masts snap in important boat races, and we try our best to support a scrappy-yet-redundant national cricket team.

Boston feels similar. People chat about sports constantly. And in the centre of town, Fenway Park opens itself up to every “stadium as heart of the city cliché” imaginable. I like this. Getting someone talking about sports and it is a sure way to get on the path to comfortable and easy friendship. The first night we arrived in the city the Red Sox (the most major of the area franchises, with not a single non-sold out home game since 2004), falling slightly behind in play-off contention, lost a narrow game to Tampa Bay.
Our Boston-hosts (whose sons were taught maths by Ben Affleck’s mother) were not worried.

But soon the Red Sox were stinking it up. Losing by three, five, eight runs. I looked for the vitriol, but it wasn’t there. Newspapers just slowly began to shuffle baseball off the front page. No disgust. No ridicule. No public questioning of their place as a city in the grand scheme of things.
Which is nice, I thought.