Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bricks, Ice, and Stories

Thursday night's snowfall was enough to make walking dangerous yesterday morning. I was hanging around in my bathrobe yesterday morning, drinking tea and looking out the window, when I saw an older man with a cane struggling on our brick sidewalk. He was stuck, unable to move in any direction. Doomed. As I watched in horror, he began rapidly shuffling backwards — out of control on a slippery patch — and then his feet flew up and he fell.

I realized for the umpteenth time that it's not smart to spend half the day in bare feet and a bathrobe. I watched uselessly while my husband raced outside, helped him up, found his eyeglasses, made sure he was okay, and escorted him back to his door. From now on (or at least until the sidewalks are dry) I'm getting dressed as soon as I'm up.

I love Boston's brick sidewalks unless we have snow. It doesn't matter how well they are shoveled because, as nearby snow piles thaw and refreeze, the bricks are recovered with a thin layer of ice that you can barely see and weren't expecting. Whoever shoveled our sidewalk yesterday also scattered ice-melt, but it takes a ton of it to really do the job. So when there's snow on the ground, I usually walk in the street, or on the Comm. Ave. Mall's asphalt, or any street with long stretches of concrete pavement. I avoid Charles Street. If Marlborough Street is bad, Beacon Hill is a nightmare.

One of the first stories I heard about Back Bay, when I moved here shortly after the Civil War, explained why some townhouses on Marlborough Street have brick sidewalks instead of cement. I was told that, when the city decided to replace the old brick sidewalks, certain Back Bay matrons "chained themselves to their fences" in the manner of the Suffragettes, to keep their bricks from being torn up. I never heard exactly when this was supposed to have happened, but if the Suffragettes were still in the collective memory, I imagine it had to be no later than the early 1930s. since women got the vote in 1920.

Anyway, according to this story, brick-replacement happened piecemeal, with cement going in wherever there were rooming houses, apartment buildings, and oblivious homeowners. And now we can easily tell which houses once had plucky, brick-loving, preservationist occupants.

I have no idea if it's true, but it's a wonderful story even if it's apocryphal. I thought I might have read about it in Bainbridge Bunting or The Proper Bostonians (my Bible, of course). But it doesn't appear in either place.

There's slippery brick under that snow and that cute bicycle.

It's been snowing all day, and as I write this the sidewalks are covered in white — along with everything else — and it's beautiful. For the moment at least.... Stay vertical!

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