The first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 in Plimouth. That is how they spelled it back then so don’t correct me. Anyway, there were only about 50 white people at the meal and no one knows how many native Americans but probably at least an equal number. Those 50 settlers were giving thanks for having survived that first winter which took 50 of their brethren. But they were also thankful that the local natives were instrumental in assisting them in farming and fishing techniques. Most of those settlers had professions other than farming or fishing and knew little of either.

But can you imagine living in America those first few decades? Between the Plimouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony there were only a handful of towns, Boston, Salem, Ipswich, and Newbury being a few. A quick look at any map shows these towns all sit on the ocean. And each had its own port. Two things were certain in the minds of the early settlers: they would need to harvest the ocean and they would need a supply line from England.

Landing in those few towns was easy. But as soon as they traveled inland things became extremely difficult very quickly. The natives were not unhappy with their new neighbors but neither spoke the other’s language so to ask a question of the natives, like, where is there a large body of water inland that we might settle near, simply was not happening. That meant exploration. And remember, there were no roads, no maps, no knowledge. There may have been trails the natives used but where did they go?

The Pilgrims who settled Plymouth did not grow in size at the same rate as their brothers to the north did. For one thing, they were still persona non grata in England and for those still not in America, arranging travel was a challenge.

The Puritans, on the other hand, were mostly middle class Englishmen in somewhat good standing and could come and go in England as they pleased. The King, Chares I, was just as happy to see them go as they had proven to be a thorn in their side. They openly challenged the beliefs of the Church of England which, at the time, was quite the sin. But these Puritans were more than capable of bringing more than the shirts on their backs to the New World unlike the Pilgrims.

By 1636, however, a schism in the Boston Puritans arose when several of the men asked to see the charter which John Winthrop had held close to his chest. Once they read it, and discovered they could not be compelled to believe as Winthrop believed, something he had done, they quickly moved across the Charles River and founded Cambridge and a quaint little school was started to guarantee their form of religion was properly taught. They were the first Congregationalists, no central leadership, no hierarchy. And that little theological college took on the name of its founder, John Harvard.

Now when the Puritans first arrived in the New World, they first settled in what is today Charlestown. But all the water was brackish, not fit to drink or cook with. By chance they ran across a fellow who was living on the peninsula across the Charles River, William Braxton, who claimed he had a fresh water well. And so the move was on. But this amplifies the very basic needs of the settlers and the difficulty surrounding such needs. The Pilgrims had had a similar experience ten years prior when the first stopped at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown today, and were unable to locate drinking water. While most of the Pilgrims left the Mayflower’s tight confines for the shores of Cape Cod, a small group of others went in search of drinking water and hence came to Plymouth.

Traditionally the first thing settlers did was to build their church and then continue on to small dwelling surrounding the church. But where did they get the lumber, the nails, and the other materials needed to construct any building? New England abounds with trees which meant they needed a brook, for power, and a saw mill built next to it.

One thing is certain about both groups, they were happy to be in this new world, a world where they decided what their religion would be, a world where they made all the laws, all the rules and through a democratic process in the earliest days, they decided upon their leadership. The Virginia Colony, the Plimouth Colony, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony all had one thing in common, a charter. And it was from those charters that each colony first developed its laws and later each wrote a constitution for the colony which defined their form of government.

The Thanksgiving tradition died out pretty quickly in those early years. It was not celebrated as a national holiday until 1863 when Lincoln declared it such. The first president to broach the question, however, was Thomas Jefferson who said that it was a religious feast and that there must remain an absolute separation of church and state. I think it wise to remember that it was the travails of those early settlers, their mettle and hard work, that kept us together and gave us a land to be proud of and to be thankful for.


Should Steetcars Ply the Streets of Boston Again?

Boston should have far more street car lines than the 5 existing lines. When buses were taking over in the 1940s and 1950s, their maneuverability and low maintenance were good reason to use them. But there is a certain charm, at least, but a new economy with the return of streetcars. Many cities, El Paso, Dallas, Sacramento, Portland OR, and other cities have rebuilt their streetcar lines. New Orleans, which at one point had only its St. Charles route for streetcars, has returned them to the city streets and is still expanding. Certainly if streetcars were so uneconomical and the public so much against them, they would not have sprung up in these cities and thrived. There must be something else in play, something city planners here in the east are missing.

I think Boston should consider returning trolley to the streets of Boston and surrounding communities rather than limiting them to the exclusive rights-of-way as present. One area, which is growing and lacking in ground transportation, is the seaport area. This area is ripe for a streetcar line which could be built along the area’s broad streets. If you look at a map, a line could run in a circular route, starting at Summer Street at South Station, and continuing out to Black Falcon Pier, turning left on Tide Street and then left again on Northern Ave, then Seaport Blvd to Purchase Street where it would turn left until it reached Summer Street. There is a wealth of people who work in this area and another large group, visitors, who depart South Station looking for easy transportation around the seaport area but finding none. And if the MBTA got just a little bit creative, it would find a way to shuttle these streetcars underground at South Station making a very convenience connection to the Red Line.

The MBTA under the agreement struck with the Federal Government promised a return of the Green Line from Brigham Circle, where it ended for a long while, back out to Forest Hills. Businesses along the route complained it would tie up traffic and reduce parking spaces. Each of these argument could have been allayed by the MBTA at the time but instead they simply caved in to public pressure.

The present MBTA proposal for extending the Green Line to West Medford is extremely flawed and the expense involved shows this. The MBTA would do much better but simply putting the tracks into the streets, McGrath Highway out to Broadway, left of Broadway and out Boston Ave to West Medford. The need for building new stations eliminated, construction costs could be kept to a minimum. And with proper planning, road closures could be kept to a minimum. And as for the branch off to Union Square, that could easily be continued to Porter Square.

One thing streetcars have over buses in spades is lifetime. The eldest MBTA buses go back to the early 1990s where as some of the streetcars date back to the 1970s with the Mattapan Line cars dating to the 1940s. The point being, a properly maintained streetcar can easily have 3 times the life expectation as any bus.

Making the a little more interesting, the City of New Orleans orders throwback style streetcar which look old but have all the modern conveniences and are ADA approved. The City of San Francisco found the actual old streetcars valuable as a tourist draw and use them rather extensively. Those cities used their imagination and probably reasoned properly with the public to gain its support.

While downtown Boston certainly is far from ideal for a return of streetcars, when you go just a few miles from center city you find roads more than broad enough to hand both automobile traffic and streetcars. Washington Street, Tremont Street, Massachusetts Avenue, Beacon Street out to Watertown Square and many others could easily be converted but the MBTA has to want to and has to do its homework.

While this may sound like pie in the sky, the operation of streetcars today is far less than that of the bus. And who knows, the public may actually welcome their return!

Five Must Try Ethnic Food Restaurants in the Boston Area

My wife is something of a gormet cook, though not trained as such, she has put a considerable amount of time towards making really good meals.  She has also made a habit of searching out fine eateries in the Boston area.  I really had no appreciation for ethnic foods before her but now, well, I have come to appreciate it greatly.

1.  Cafe Polonia, South Boston — Cafe Polonia is a tiny hole in the wall restaurant on Broadway in South Boston serving Polish cuisine.  At most, this restaurant seats 25 people at one time however, the dining area is immaculate and bright.  Traditional Polish food is based on pork, cabbage, and potatoes.  The center piece of Polish cooking is the pierogi.  A pierogi is basically a pasta shell filled with potato, cheese, fruit, meat, cabbage, etc.  They are first boiled before being pan fried.  In addition to the pierogi is the pork entre’, kielbasa, cabbage soup, and kishka which is also known as blood sausage.  For dessert I highly recommend nalesnik which is the Polish version of the crepe.  Also popular is babka which is a traditional cake.  Prices are extremely reasonable but parking can be difficult as only street parking is available.  Once done with the meal I recommend you cross the street to the Baltic Deli, a favorite destination for Polish people looking to buy traditional foods.  Also offered is the tradition middle-eastern treat baklava.  This is an extremely reasonably priced restaurant, but, like most small restaurants all parking is limited to what can be found on the street.

2.  Kolbeh of Kabob — This is a Persian restaurant located at 1500 Cambridge Street in Cambridge (right across the street from the Cambridge Hospital).  Middle Eastern food is known for its basics, rice, chicken, and beef.  This small restaurant is both attractive and comfortable.  The owner is also one of the servers and is dilligent in conducting her menu.  They make their own pita bread and serve it with hummas, both delicious.  Also offered as appetizers is egg plant and yogurt, each delicious in its own rite.  The main plates are usually skewers of either chicken or beef on a bed of basmati rice.  The rice is adorned with saffron, a unique middle-eastern flavor, and bay berries, raisins, and dates.  The combination is always delicious and brings a flavor to the rice that is delightful.  For dessert you must try the Persian ice cream.  It is simply a saffron based ice cream that is light and delicious.

3.  Ixtapa, Lexington — Ixtapa is a very family friendly Mexican restaurant located at 177 Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington.  This is barely 1/4 mile from Arlington Heights.  While boasting of tradional, and expected, Mexican fare, Ixtapa succeeds where others fail in its constantly excellent taste that is backed up by extremely friendly and fast service.  Any one of their meat dishes is available in a choice of chicken, beef, and pork, and sometimes a combination of all.  I almost always order one of their burritos or chimichangas.  Either of these is offered in at least a half dozen varieties so one never feel confined.  For dessert I recommend the apple burrito.  In the years I have been going to this restaurant I have never had to wait to be seated.  Furthermore, the Ixtapa has a second level that is reserved for larger parties.  The restaurant is fronted by a good size parking lot where parking is seldom a problem.  It is extremely reasonably priced, comfortable, and pleasant in atmosphere.

4.  Tango of Arlington — Tango of Arlington is an Argentinian restaurant at 464 Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington center.  Traditional Argentine food is centered around a really good cut of beef.  Chorizo and churassco are two cuts of beef that Americans call steak.  But these cuts are seasoned in a traditional Argentine manner that has to be tasted to be truly understood.  It is without compare!  Either is absolutely one of the best tasting steaks I have ever had anywhere.  Also on the menu are chicken, pork and fish, each equally cooked to perfection.  Even though the restaurant welcomes very casual dress, upon entering you cannot help but wonder that you are not properly dressed.  The feeling that you are in a very classy place is obvious to all.  The owner is always present and constantly checking the quality of the food served and the satisfaction of the customers.  The restaurant is a bit pricey, base meals starting at about $25, but certainly not unreasonable.  Parking is entirely on the street and it being in Arlington center can be problematic.  This city does have, however, a good size parking lot at the rear of the Bank of America which is a very short walk from Tango.

5.  The Aegean Restaurant — The Aegean Restaurant is located at 640 Arsenal Stret in Watertown, across the street from the Arsenal Mall.  The Aegean serves traditional Greek fare.  Traditional Greek food is based in beef, pork, and lamb, and sometimes all three put together.  From the start, with its Greek salad and homemade salad dressing, the Aegean serves really delicious food.  While the kabob is always delicious you can also order cuts of beef, chicken and lamb that are perfectly seasoned.  For dessert Greek baklava is beyond compare and I highly recommend it.  The only downside to the restaurant is its extremely limited on-site parking which means when its full your only alternative is park across the street at the pay garage and recross the busy Arsenal Street to the restaurant.  The Aegean is reasonably priced and worth a visit.

The Truth About Political Debates

There was a time, long ago, when candidates were forced to go to open air venues to have their debates in public places so people could take their measure.  In the early 20th century, a man named James Michael Curley burst upon Massachusetts politics.  At the time, 1910, he was simply trying to become a U.S. Representative for the 10th district, a seat no Democrat in anyone’s memory had ever held, and no one expected that to change.  But the 10th district had a heavy Irish population and other new immigrant groups.  Curley was a charismatic Irishman who had grown up poor but had worked in the wards under the bosses of the day.  He was an excellent speaker, never at a loss for words.  Curley was anything but a household name but at those debates he skillfully used his opponents own words against him.  He could turn a phrase and get his audience to identify with him.

The Brahmins of Boston, the well-entrenced Republican establishment, were outraged.  In  a later election when Curley ran for mayor of Boston, he said that on his first day of office he would turn the Boston Common into a parking lot.  Of course this was only a slap at the landed gentry who still failed to recognize the trials of the working class.

But it was not until 1960 and the Kennedy – Nixon debate, sometimes referred to as “the checkers debate,” that politics embraced television, and it has been downhill ever since.  Political parties write the speeches, figure out how to portray political positions, and dictate how any given answer needs to be given.  These are not debates at all but well-scripted advertisement.

I have a pretty good sense of who Barack Obama is and who Mitt Romney is, having lived in Massachusetts during his governorship.  I also have a pretty good idea of who Scott Brown is but, sadly, I do not have much of an idea who Elizabeth Warren is.  Something that is very important to me, family, seems to have been avoided by Warren making me very suspicious of her, and pushing me, a Democrat, into the position of likely voting for her Republican opponent.

It was during their last so-called debate that I came to this decision.  I found both of them to be rather disingenuous.  Each seemed to be responding to questions with very well-scripted answers that seldom properly responded to the question on the floor.  Frequently each simply side-stepped the question and said whatever they felt was important rather than simply answer the question at hand.  But this is our present state of politics at the national level.

It is my firm belief that when these politicians speak we are not hearing what they really think but rather what their handlers, those nameless people behind the scenes, want us to hear and nothing more.  The question on every American’s mind when they hear a politician in one of these so-called debates say something that appears to exactly reflect their views, ask yourself if they are simply playing up to you and in reality have another agenda entirely.  I suspect, regardless of party affiliation, the latter is closer to the truth than the former.  We need to go back to the days when two guys would stand on a stage, say their peace without anyone prompting them as to what is proper and what is not.

Massachusetts: An Example of How Government Fails People

If you are not from Massachusetts you are probably unaware of a severe cash shortfalls one of its agencies is experiencing.  Massachusetts and all of the other 49 states, as-well-as the federal government, is tasked with supplying certain services to all its residents.  One of those is transportation.  That transportation consists of all the roads with their bridges, all the airports, all the seaports, and all forms of public transportation.  Massachusetts is currently experiencing a serious budget problem with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).   The MBTA serves over 70 eastern Massachusetts communities.  The MBTA says it has $130 million shortage.  To deal with that shortfall it is saying it will make serious service cutbacks along with fare increases.

The MBTA is a state agency no different from the state police, Public Utilities, Parks and Recreation, and dozens of others.  Each is funded by a line item in the annual state budget.  That budget is put forth by Governor Deval Patrick and passed by the state’s representatives and senators after they have made their modifications.  Included in that budget is the MBTA’s budget.  Massachusetts also had another half-dozen or so regional transportation authorities that also receive funding from the state.  They include RTAs in the cities of Lawrence, Lowell, Fall River, Brockton, Worcester, Fitchburg, Springfield, and Greenfield.  Each of those areas supplies bus transportation to those cities and surrounding communities.

Massachusetts politicians have been extremely quiet on the financial troubles of the MBTA.  We have heard absolutely nothing from Gov. Patrick or any of the state’s senators and representatives.  Considering they are charged with overseeing the welfare of our transportation this is an unacceptable situation.

The MBTA managed to gain the $130 million shortfall for a variety of reasons.  One thing MBTA officials point out is that they collect roughly 35 cents at the fare box for every dollar spent.  They go on further to say how that number is low compared to other cities.  Studies have shown that Massachusetts does collect less than other cities.  But comparisons must end there and viewed as unequal.  That is because things like capital expenses, age of infrastructure, size of population served, debt service, and many other factors vary greatly from city-to-city.  The MBTA has the oldest subway in the United States.  That all by itself is hugely problematic.

In the 1980s and 1990s Massachusetts aggressively expanded its commuter rail system.  Boston, unlike cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Baltimore, has an extensive track system that lends itself to commuter rail.  But about half of its current system consisted of abandoned or freight only tracks that required upgrading or complete rebuilding.  Additionally, the MBTA expanded its commuter rail diesels and coaches.  It had inherited an aging fleet of rail diesel cars from the B&M Railroad that needed replacement.  But that happened over 25 years ago which happens to be the expected lifetime of such equipment.  Simply said, the entire fleet needs replacement.

In the past several years the MBTA upgraded the Blue Line by rebuilding stations and replacing the subway cars.  But the entire Orange Line fleet and half the Red Line and Green Line fleet also needs replacement.

The Green Line is the most problematic of all.  The ability of any rapid transportation system to serve the public is measured by how many passenger per hour can be served over any portion of its track.  The Green Line’s tunnel from Kenmore to Government Center is currently serving all four of the system’s routes.  The volume of traffic exceeds the ability of that stretch of tunnel to allow the passage of trolleys.  The solution is a simple, yet very costly, one.  A second tunnel must be built.  Anything short of that will not allow for any growth in Green Line traffic.

As for the MBTA’s bus system, its structure is almost completely outdated.  Many of the existing bus routes are leftovers from the 1960s when the MBTA took over the area’s  private bus companies.  For example, the 85 route goes from Kendall Square Cambridge to Spring Hill Somerville.  There is not a particularly high demand for this route.  If you look at the route two questions come to mind.  First, why not extend the Cambridge end from Kendall Square to Lechmere and then on the other end extend the route to Davis Square, a short distance from Spring Hill.  Or maybe this is a route that simply needs to be eliminated.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the 66 route that connects Harvard Square to Dudley Square.  This is a heavily used route that, as anyone who travels it knows, frequently has standing room only on its buses.

That the MBTA is threatening draconian service cuts is not only unreasonable, it shows just how miserably they have failed.  They are using this scare tactic at this time because rising gas prices along with increased patronage gives them the feeling that they have leverage.  It is not leverage that is needed, it is honesty.  These managers are at the very least disingenuous and more likely, outright dishonest.

These are but a few examples of the MBTA’s extreme mismanagement of its system.  Mismanagement always results in overspending.  This mismanagement is not just within the MBTA itself, but from those whose job it is to oversee the MBTA, the governor, his counsel, and others.

The solution is not easy but it is not all that complicated either.  First of all, the Massachusetts government must step in and assume the $130 million shortfall and provide more funding in the short-term.  Next, the Gov. Patrick needs to step in and replace all the political hacks that are entrenched there and replace them with transportation experts, people who have degrees in urban planning and transportation along with a long history of experience in those areas.  He must put an end to the history of patronage that has hamstrung this system and kept it from making desperately needed progress.

The state of Massachusetts is responsible to its people to make a comprehensive study detailing what must be done now and in the future to keep the MBTA running at its present level and at an increased level in the future as demand requires.  This means the governor and other officials are going to have to come up with how much money will be required to take the antiquated MBTA from the 20th Century, where it now exists, into the reality of the 21st Century.  This likely means an increase of the state’s tax on gasoline.  But if the public is provided a full disclosure of the costs involved in running the MBTA, and the other RTAs, the public will accept, if begrudgingly, the necessity of a small tax increase.

The state of Massachusetts, like the federal government, is dishonest with its citizens.  It keeps large amounts of vital information the public needs to make well-reasoned decisions.  The government officials do this for political expediency or because they do not believe the public will understand what they are saying.  This sort of dishonesty must end now.

Problems With Living in Paradise

I am certain some of you are saying, “how can living in paradise be a problem?”  That is a most reasonable question, however it depends upon your definition of paradise.  Milton spoke of “Paradise Lost” but his was of a religious philosophical gist.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel was “This Side of Paradise” but his paradise was a Fitzgerald commentary on wealth and society in the early 1920s.  Most people think of paradise as being a tropical resort where it is sunny and 80 all day.

One such “paradise” is, of course, Hawaii.  I lived in Hawaii from 1978 – 1979.  The day I arrived in Hawaii I remember the scent of gardenia’s filling the air.  I had had no previous experience which said to me I was in a tropical paradise to be sure.  I was there to join the 25th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, my last stop in my army career.  I was definitely not there for a vacation but I was there for an extended period which allowed me to gain a good feel for living there.

If there was something to be seen on Oahu, I saw it.  I went everywhere.  I also enjoyed days on end at Waikiki, sunning myself to a darkness I have had neither both nor since.  I have always loved the beach and took full advantage of the beaches during my time there.  There are a lot more beaches in Hawaii than Waikiki and I went to many of them.  I did have one mishap however.  I went to the beach at Makaha one day and there was a particularly severe undertow that day.  The beach did not, and still does not, have a life guard or anyone who monitor’s the conditions there.  You find out what is going on by going into the water.  I went into the water and was only a few feet out before I found just how bad the undertow was.  I could not have been more than 15 feet from shore but it took all my strength to return to shore.

I also had the good fortune to visit the “Big Island” of Hawaii while I was there.  This island surprises the uninformed.  It literally has three different climates on this one island.  The volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea each rise close to 14,000 feet above sea level.  If you leave Kona and head up the mountains you go from the tropics to the temperate climate to a cold climate en route.  If you visit the mountains during the winter season you will actually find them snow-covered.  Mona Loa has a ski tow to its peak.  And of course being there you get to see one of the world’s most active volcanos, Kilauea.

Those are many, but not all, of Hawaii’s wonderful parts.  But I am from a place that is over 5000 miles removed from Hawaii and has lots of cold weather and only about 2 months of hot weather.  Two years in Hawaii and I was ready to get back to the “mainland.”  I had, what is euphemistically called over there, “rock fever.”  The island of Oahu, like any island is limited in how far you can go north to south and east to west.  Oahu is 44 miles long and 30 miles wide at its extremes.  LA County is 4083 square miles and Oahu is 1320 square miles, or about 1/3 the size of LA County.  For those of us who are used to being able to go more than 40 miles in any one direction, Hawaii leaves us a bit wanting.

Honolulu is a wonderful city.  There is much to do there, of course.  But Honolulu is a city of 905,000 inhabitants.  Boston, where I am from, has over 2.5 million in its metro area.  But even more, it offers more educational institutions, more libraries, more museums, among many other things.

What I am getting at is, Boston is my paradise.  I was born here, grew up here, as did my parents and many generations of my family before.  This is home and I love it, even if I do want to trade in some of its winter weather for some of Hawaii’s winter weather.  I think for most of us, paradise is what we call home, where we have our loved ones, where we are most comfortable.  Paradise is truly a state of mind and not a place.  I enjoy paradise whenever I see my daughters, or enjoy a day out with my grandson, or hold my granddaughter.  Paradise is the company of my friends.  Paradise is being able to put a smile on someone’s face.

Let me assure you, Hawaii is a paradise in its own rite.  It is a paradise you can visit but not live in for most of us.  But even being in Hawaii and calling it paradise is just a momentary reflection on what is going on around us and how we feel.  Trust me, I have had many a good meal with good friends or family, and thought I was in paradise.