We learned in May or June that, according to the MBTA, Saturday, July 20th was going to be the start of the long-awaited Silver Line down Washington Street, a block from our apartment. I promptly put the date in my Palm, and, when July 20th rolled around, we were ready.

Oh boy, were we ready: We'd seen the start of the Silver Line approaching for months, as Washington Street was torn up, repaved, torn up, repaved, torn up, left torn up, repaved, blocked off, used as a parking lot, and repaved again. The sidewalks on Washington Street were ripped out and new brick ones were put in; trees were planted; scenic new lamp posts, street lights, and cross-walk signals were installed; drivers were trained to drive the new Silver Line busses (a foul ploy late at night, so they wouldn't have to stop to pick up passengers, I think); and large new bus shelters with seats and LED signs were erected, all over the course of the year and a half we were living here. Believe me, we were ready for the Silver Line's grand opening, all right. At right, you see Robert on Washington Street only last July, in the middle of some of the worst construction.

As it turned out, Robert was going to leave on a business trip to Germany on the night of July 20th, so our sole celebration of our 37th monthaversary as a married couple would be at the Silver Line festivities during the day.

And what festivities they turned out to be! First, though, a two-minute history of the Silver Line, complete with actions of the ubiquitous Boston "they":

  1. There used to be a subway on Washington Street, but "they" ripped it up and put in the 49 bus. The 49 was still free with subway passes, though, and was clearly a subway-replacement bus--nice and gritty and subway-like. Progressing from Roxbury through the South End to Chinatown and Downtown Crossing, the bus didn't exactly move through scenic Back Bay type backyards, either, but hey, that's how we like our cities, so we're not complaining.
  2. "They" promised people they'd eventually put in a light rail line, called the Silver Line. Hey, it's a nice, high-tech sounding name.
  3. Eventually, "they" realized they were never going to put light rail here, and with Washington Street getting lots of new high-priced condos as Big Dig construction fever spread, they decided to reinvent the Silver Line as energy-efficient, CNG busses.
  4. The Silver Line, as unveiled on June 20th, is the 49 with newer busses. It runs the same route, but the busses are now silver and don't pollute. Technically, they run in a dedicated lane, from which cars are excluded, but try telling that to the double-parkers. Theoretically, the stops will soon be able to tell you, via RF transmissions, the exact arrival time of the next bus. Even more theoretically, the Silver Line busses will eventually run underground and connect to subways and run straight to the airport under the Harbor. In 2010, that is.
  5. Did I mention the Silver Line is just a prettier, sleeker, healthier 49? We love it anyway, but we're suckers for grand openings, energy efficiency, and public transportation in any case.

Free rides

The Silver Line was free all weekend long. Of course, since we both have T passes that normally wouldn't be a draw, but having lost mine the previous week, I actually found it very convenient.

Free stuff

The T cheerfully gave away many things this weekend besides just rides. They distributed:

  1. Silver pens, that were silver and really wrote silver. They're absolutely gorgeous, and I've been grading all my papers with them all week.
  2. Bottles of water with colorful MBTA proprietary labels. Now, if this were genuine Boston city water it would've been more exciting, but Robert still went crazy over the bottles.
  3. Paperweights (random, we know), that looked like silver rocks.
  4. And, if you're lucky enough to win the free drawing--a chance at one of five (count 'em, folks) Combo Monthly T passes. Yeah, the T is a big spender. We wondered why, with all the money spent on the Silver Line, they didn't add a measly $500 or so to the budget and give away something more exciting. (An Apple iPod comes to mind, actually.)


From 10 until 2 on that Saturday there were entertainers on each and every Silver Line car. The first time we rode, there was a loud fat woman singing gospel in the back of the bus, but the front and middle were extremely crowded--mostly with, as it appeared--Silver Line tourists or gawkers like us--so much so, in fact, that Robert peered to the back and then whispered surreptitiously to me, "I can't tell if she's a crazy lady or not. But she's singing, and no one's going near her."

Later, on a bus with a deafeningly loud violinist, we began to understand that the gospel singer wasn't your typical Boston-bus-riding raving lunatic: on the contrary, she was paid to be there.

On our final trip of the day, we got on the bus at the back and didn't see a musician. But, a large man stepped aside to let us on, then piled back on behind us, smiling and saying hello. New Yorkers that we are, we ignored him.

"Hey, where's the entertainment?" Robert asked a fat and cheerful T worker riding the bus.

"You're looking at him! He's a comedian!" he said happily, pointing to the large man in major league sports clothing standing by the door who had said hello to us.

"How do, man," the man obligingly said, between slurps of a soda.

"No, really," said Robert, "don't all busses have a musician or something?"

"You just lucked out," the T worker said. "You got the one bus with a comedian!" He sounded proud of that.

We turned back to the comedian and stared. In a moment, the "comedian" began his act. After introducing himself, he picked on a man who at best was emotionally disturbed and at worst severely retarded, asking him what he did. When it became clear that this was not the best audience member to choose for participation, he turned to me.

"You, young lady, what do you do?" he asked.

"I teach ESL," I replied.

"E? S? L? Now what's that?" he inquired.

"English for people who don't know English," I snapped back.

"Oooh, now everyone's a comedian," he said, and mostly left us alone.

After that, he mostly contented himself with making fun of an extremely drunk, but happy, man who was opening drinking out of a vodka bottle.

"You don't know what I got in my cup," he told the man, brandishing his Burger King cup and then whisking it out of reach as the man tried to grab it. "Oh baby, I've got the sweet stuff here. . . "

Thankfully, we got off the bus soon after this.


We decided to combine the Silver Line festivities with a Washington Street culinary tour, so we grabbed breakfast at the Flour Cafe, and then wandered down to Melnea Cass. We investigated a nice Caribbean market near Melnea Cass, which reminded me favorably of the Max Foods in Los Angeles and carried cheap dulce de leche in cans for immigrants (not the expensive repackaged stuff in bottles in gourmet food stores for yuppies). We toyed with the idea of eating an excellent steak and onion sub in Dudley Square, but really didn't think we could stuff it in. Instead, we trotted over to our new favorite place, the brand-new, family-owned, truly excellent Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich shop in Chinatown, just half a block closer to downtown from Kneeland Steet, and got some sticky rice with mugwort and a beef Vietnamese sub to go. We ate them walking down the final leg of Washington Street, and when a man called out, "Hey, nice sandwich," as I cheerfully took a large bite, I was happy to act as a salesman and direct him to the store a few doors down. Ever the economist, Robert added, "And it's only $2!"


At the Melnea Cass Silver Line stop they had tables (with silver tablecloths), chairs (white, not silver at all), a podium (not silver either, but with the seal of the City of Boston right next to a giant "T"), and silver balloons (yes, silver) set up for the main event. We happened to wander into it at 10:30, and, holding our sticky buns and pineapple pound cake, grabbed chairs while people in suits milled around. The speeches started right on cue as we sat down, and we listened to various T officials talk about how wonderful the Silver Line was and would be. Mostly, we brushed crumbs off ourselves and compared their Boston accents to each other's.

We also evesdropped on the conversations of a bunch of MIT urban planning grad students who walked around saying interestingly geeky things about everything from the busses themselves to the maps behind plexiglass at the new bus shelters: "Ah, they used proprietary screw-drivers so you can't get at the maps!" one exclaimed. "That's not proprietary, thought that'd be a good idea," another boasted, "I have this screwdriver at home."

At left, you see a little girl holding a giant Silver balloon on a stretch of brand-new Washington Street sidewalk, in front of a similarly new shining silver bike rack.


Across the street from the speeches was a much more vibrant gathering--protests, by the people who felt gypped out of a light rail line in favor of busses. Holding placards reading things like, "A bus is a bus is a bus," "Still stuck in traffic," "I'm not waiting for the bus, I'm waiting for the train!" they stamped around and yelled and chanted back to a vehement woman with a megaphone and giant speaker. "What do we want?" "A train." What did we get?" "A bus." Etc.

In general, we prefer trains to busses. And yes, we do think there's an element--as one sign said--of "transit racism" about the whole thing. But then again, Boston does not have a real subway system by any means. I'd just as soon have a refurbished 49 as the Green Line (light rail) trolleys, which creak and rattle at the best of times and are more susceptible than cars to rain and ice. And I'd rather have a 24-hour-a-day bus anyday than an 18-hour-a-day train--not that we're getting to choose between either of those, but than again, nearly the entire Silver Line discussion is theoretical. So, we mostly looked at the protestors amusedly, and noted how many times the speakers in suits gestured inclusively to the "differing opinions or viewpoints" being yelled at then across the street (four, by my count).

All in all, it was a lovely day--we took the Silver Line home, of course, and never wanted the day--or the free bus rides--to end.

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Created: 7/22/02. Last modified: 7/22/02.