A walking tour of the city by a Red Line refugee

Riders outside a disabled train at JFK/UMass station in October 2010. Chris Lovett photo

It was just another morning, and just another problem on the Red Line. I can’t remember whether it was at North Quincy, JFK/UMass, or Broadway, but I knew I’d had enough. I decided to walk out.

Going back as far as the 1960s, my walkouts used to be exceptions caused by the weather. That changed in 2002, when I moved with my family to North Quincy and, for the next 11 years, rode the Red Line five days a week. It didn’t take long before the exceptional became the normal, and not always because of extreme weather.

Seventeen years ago, delays were not always explained or measured in real time. Confronted with an indefinite wait and an utter lack of control (long before I had a smartphone), I found the finite inconvenience of a long walk more appealing than a rerun of “Waiting for Godot.”

DORCHESTER BY FOOT

After I bailed out at North Quincy, I walked over the Neponset River Bridge and headed for the Red Line’s Dorchester branch. After dodging the traffic at Neponset Circle and taking refuge in the quiet shade of Minot Street, I made my way past Adams Village. Turning onto Carruth Street, I looked around, checking out the design features on Victorian houses, and the colors on trees, flowers, or political signs.

As I got closer to Peabody Square, my focus shifted to the Church of All Saints. The gothic design by Ralph Adams Cram is widely admired, but I was for some reason especially captivated by the tutelary snarl of the gargoyles lunging out from the main entrance. Though I was still heading inbound, I was noticing things I would never have considered while driving a car or riding a bus.

By this point, a platform crowded with angry people at North Quincy was a distant memory. I had escaped a place where some riders (even myself at times), when faced with a delay there, would increase the odds of squeezing into the next inbound train by going across the platform, taking the next train outbound to Wollaston, then catching a less-crowded inbound car. I wondered years later what it would have been like if both Red Line branches had been able to stop at Savin Hill, with frustrated in-bounders from Dorchester torn between waiting for the next Ashmont train and staging an advance by retreat across the Neponset River to North Quincy.

I also realize that, for many people with tighter schedules or budgets, walking off the MBTA is not an option. Slowdowns and disabled trains were just a price my wife and I had to pay for living in a place that allowed us to get to work without driving. My monthly passes entitled me to a certain amount of service, but I could never quite shake off the deeply resented notion, more prevalent toward the end of the last century, that riders were a greater public burden than people driving their own cars.

FROM GRAY AREAS TO A WALKABLE CITY

A monthly pass also gave me admission to the line’s gray areas—where what’s within or beyond the MBTA’s control becomes fuzzy. That was the case one hot summer morning when a pregnant rider on our crowded train keeled over near Broadway Station. Should she have fortified herself by eating more for breakfast? Or was the main culprit an old train with faulty air conditioning? Even when I saw that she had been safely escorted to a bench on the platform, I knew the train wouldn’t be going anywhere until the EMTs arrived. I lost no time heading for the exit.

After surfacing at West Broadway, I discovered that the city I had driven through so many times in heavy traffic was unexpectedly compact. Crossing the West Fourth Street Bridge on the inbound side, I would be struck by the morning gleam of office buildings towering over a tangle of tracks spilling out of South Station. Somewhere beyond the expressway and the Turnpike, I could look forward to the trees and brick facades of Bay Village. It was only a few blocks from there to the Green Line, then three or four stops before my destination, Boston University.

If you bail out of the Red Line at JFK/UMass, the walk is longer, but there are two historic attractions before you reach Edward Everett Square. One is the Blake House, the oldest dwelling in the city of Boston. The other is the statue of Everett himself, whose closest rendezvous with fame was giving the speech just before Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Whenever I was passing by as a refugee from the Red Line, I always noticed that Everett’s arm was raised, making him seem less like an orator than a hapless commuter trying to hail a ride.

Approaching Mass. Ave. and Cass Boulevard, the homeless and the impaired at the intersection were only to be expected. More surprising were the stately formations of birds overhead on utility wires. Like a flock of strap-hangers, they clung to their perches, oblivious to the underlying flow of traffic and human anguish. Then, for no apparent reason, they would abruptly scatter.

By the time I got to Washington Street, I was ready for the latest ripple of gentrification in the South End and the conspicuous decrepitude of the Hotel Alexandra. I could still feel the vacuum that was left by the removal of the elevated Orange Line, not to mention the Skippy White sign I used to see when looking down from Northampton Station. A whole sense of place had vanished, but more than 32 years later, the same orange-and-white trains were still running—if less reliably and more rusted—along the Southwest Corridor.

After Washington Street, I followed the avenue past Wally’s, the newer Orange Line, and Symphony Hall. Then I turned at Westland Avenue, heading toward the Back Bay Fens. Having made it this far, I felt less like a refugee than a purgatorial climber, finally approaching a semblance of Earthly Paradise—through the Westland Gate.

THE BALLAST OF HABIT

Over 11 years, my detours also became a form of collecting in the way that people accumulate travel souvenirs on their bumpers or refrigerators. Having abandoned North Quincy for every single Red Line stop in Dorchester, I had mental postcards of leaky platforms at Shawmut and the lure of a beachfront at Savin Hill. Even more noteworthy: I had covered on foot the ground between North Quincy and Kenmore Square. It was an achievement that would have been impossible without the MBTA.

So how could service on the transit lines have gotten this bad?

Sometimes I think it was because the Big Dig depleted the resources or the will for other spending on infrastructure. After all, the Dig was the most expensive public works project in US history—aside from the whole federal highway system. And some of the related costs for the project were billed to the MBTA.

At other times, I blame the determination 20 years ago to make the MBTA “financially self-sufficient.” With the recent surge in population and jobs in Greater Boston, that policy now seems draconian and even quaintly dogmatic. But the austerity was also prompted by fuzzy lines of accountability for MBTA spending, not to mention the need for management reforms that, even a few years ago, were politically unthinkable.

Official alarms about the MBTA go back at least a decade, most notably in the 2009 report for former governor Deval Patrick by John Hancock’s former chairman and CEO, David D’Alessandro. “It stands to reason,” the report warned in boldface, “that an aging, complex, and underfunded transportation system will have to confront unpleasant surprises that can result in safety hazards and service delays.”

The report was as prophetic as it was ill-timed, its release coming in the depths of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The Patrick Administration would later award contracts for new trains, but even those won’t be fully in service until after the next election for governor.

Then again, there are times when I put some of the blame for the state of the MBTA on the tortured resilience of the average rider. Because service went downhill so gradually and consistently, we found the “unpleasant surprises” to be less surprising, if still no more predictable. Maybe the unpleasantness dissolved into the blur of what felt like a single, prolonged residual delay.

Over the years of compromises between expectations and reality, the rigors of the ride were being cushioned mentally by a roadbed of repetitions. As Samuel Beckett put it, and much more bluntly: “Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.”

Chris Lovett currently lives in Boston and habitually goes to work on foot.