On a recent evening, H and I were walking home late from a night out. Walking home late — from a bar at our nearest square, the T station, a friend’s house, it doesn’t matter — on a winter evening means we were walking on cracked gray sidewalk, swaddled in jackets, gloved hands shoved in pockets, shoulders and necks hunched to keep our chins inside our scarves.
Winter in Boston is not a time or place for leisurely strolls with your beloved, hand-in-hand. Instead, you hunker inside your layers and try not to breathe too quickly, lest the cold dry air catch in your throat. At this time of the year I’m constantly getting nosebleeds when I walk off the frigid street into some superheated office or store.
The weather had soured my mood (as you can probably tell) and I was offloading it all onto H as I had recently stumbled into a word that, I felt, described the city and my mood.
“Drab,” I was saying. “Everything. Just… so drab.”
The technical definition of “drab” is “a dull, lifeless, or faded appearance or quality,” and for most of the year Boston is not a drab city. It wears the seasons like a changing fashion, celebrating spring in a dress of flowers, summer with hipster shirts covered in birds, orange sweaters in the fall and all that. In winter the foliage takes a break and precipitation takes center stage, so you have denuded trees and dead gardens, yes, but it’s all snuggled away under thick beds of snow. Logistically difficult, yes, and fundamentally hostile to warm-blooded types like me, but when you do go out to find the snow silently gathering around you, it really is stunning.
All of our seasons are becoming more unseasonable in one direction or another, and this winter has been unseasonably warm with very little snow. Stripped of its natural clothes, we’re left with the city as we’ve built it: scarred sidewalk scribbled with utility notes, oily water congealing in potholes, shredded plastic migrating down the Interstate, drifts of cigarette butts collecting at the back door of a restaurant.
As I was yammering away about all this (and H was likely scheming to spike my food with Vitamin D supplements), we stopped dead together on the sidewalk, seized by a vision.
There, in the center of the path and framed with piles of dirty slush and crushed ice fragments, was a discarded bag of dog shit. The bag was vomit-green and made with that biodegradable almost-plastic. The bag was split by a tear that ran the length of the bag from knotted top to the cement. A turd protruded through the crack, touching a finger of ice that crept out from the snow at the edge of the sidewalk. Icy wind howled up North Street as we stood together, hands in pockets, heads down, eyes fixed on the scene. The torn edges of the bag ruffled. H turned to me.
“Drab,” she said.
“About as drab as it gets,” I agreed.
It was a perfect composition of individually drab elements which, together, sung with a drabness far greater than the sum of its parts. And we had a revelation.
A Quick Word on Finding Your City’s Strengths
H and I lived in Seattle before we came to Boston. There, one of my favorite things to do was meet up with a friend, fill a growler with some of the best craft beer in the country, and then ride our bikes to one of the city’s many parks overlooking one of its many bodies of water, with views to one of the two snowy mountain ranges that flank the city.
So when we moved here 18 months ago, I dutifully packed my growler and hit the road — only to find that local liquor laws prevent breweries and bars from filling a brought-from-home container. And Boston’s water holes are often surrounded by freeways, or choked with pollution, or favorite hangouts for bugs.
In short: a biker’s picnic by the water is not Boston’s strong suit. Over time, I’ve found the things that Boston does well — museums, sports, bars, beaches (surprisingly), cute towns in the hinterland — and started exploring those.
And here, on our freezing street, H and I had found another field in which Boston excels: drabness. In winter (especially a snowless winter) the city is a symphony of drab. Boston is to drabness what Copenhagen is for hygge — a locus, a nexus, a worldwide hub — and we have become connoisseurs.
Here, I present a couple of recent examples for your edification.
Here is a discarded cup of coffee from Dunkin Donuts, a local icon. Of course, the visual drabness of this image goes without saying but, for those in the know, the effect is enhanced by its association with this beloved chain of coffee stores.
Dunkin provides one of the drabbest corporate experiences in North America. As you enter, you find a staff member on poverty-level wages struggling to handle a barrage of orders from under-caffeinated New Englanders — a belligerent people at the best of times, and this is not the best of times. The worker is often alone, because adding another meager wage to the store’s hourly cost column is undesirable to Dunkin’s shareholders, and so the agitation grows as wait times mount. When it finally does arrive, Dunks coffee tastes like lukewarm ash, the drabbest beverage in the world.
I should note that, for New Englanders, the above passage likely counts as a hate crime.
Here is a stump that I pass some mornings when I feel like treating myself to a (non-Dunkin’) coffee, and it exhibits several key elements of drabness:
The stump exemplifies Medford’s love of cutting down trees and then not replacing them or even bothering to remove the stump, presumably to heighten the general drabness of their streets. Note the colorless fungus enjoying this new ecological niche.
Let’s remain with the stump and note the branches growing out of the side. This tells us that the tree is still clinging to life and, in a few months, will once again bear flowers and leaves. However, the branches will continue to grow, resulting in one of two equally drab eventualities:
- The branches will become a nuisance to passersby, and someone will cut them away too, or
- The branches will be left alone, so that where a proud and lovely tree once stood to shade passersby in the summertime, a scraggly bush will block the sidewalk instead.
The dead leaves are an overlooked element in all this, but they provide a drab stage for the stars of the show to perform.
Finally, we come to one of the key elements in most drab scenes: trash. I chose this image specifically because it highlights a type of trash that is common in our neighborhood: the nip. The visual effect is drab, certainly, but have you considered each contorted bottle’s journey into this scene? Ancient plants and animals rendered by millennia into oil. The oil was extracted from the earth, worked through a series of chemical processes to create these bottles and then filled with cheap liquor — Fireball whiskey in this case, the frat favorite. It was distributed to a store, purchased, consumed in the blink of an eye and then discarded here. Left unattended, these bottles will drift and sink into the soil or waterways, outliving the person who slurped them as well as their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. A drab image. A drab story. A flawless exhibition of drab.
You’ll notice how the best examples of drabness don’t just provide a drab visual experience — they tell a drab story. In this case, the sad and sagging old tire tells us that one of my neighbors will soon experience disappointment, inconvenience and a financial loss.
It’s also important to note the observer’s role in each scene. In the examples above, I could pick up the litter and put it in a bin — as I did with the coffee cup. But in this case, as with the discarded nips, I did not help the situation. I could have put the nips in a bin. I could have asked around the neighborhood and offered to help the owner of the vehicle with the flat tire. But I didn’t. I just walked away, feeling drab.
“Quinten,” I hear you say, “all you’re doing is walking around taking photos of trash and flat tires, and you’re kinda bumming me out. If you frame the camera right, or zoom in on something ugly, you can make anything drab. I think this is all just in your head.”
In response, I submit this image of a dog beach in Salem, Massachusetts. Leafless trees, muddy low tide, some kind of industrial facility lording over all. You could not survive in such a place without a finely tuned appreciation for drab.
This one is a favorite for H. During the summer, there was a light collision between two cars on an intersection near our house. In the aftermath, somebody piled the resulting pieces of busted bumper here on the sidewalk nearby. H is the kind of person who notices this sort of thing — my head’s usually too busy in the clouds — and in the ensuing seven or eight months she has watched these pieces of bumper gather leaves and snow and ice. Now they sit here stripped by the wind of any natural adornments.
This is a work of drab street art, a sculpture built by someone and then left, untouched, by many thousands of passersby who presumably appreciate it as drab art and have not, as newcomers like H and I might do, mistake it for rubbish. As more time goes on, the drabness increases. It is a work of drab genius.
In previous sections I have alluded to the fact that Bostonians actually seem to enjoy and appreciate their drab surroundings, and here is the clearest evidence I have yet encountered to support that suspicion.
This memorial puzzled me for a long time. There are few spaces more dull, more lifeless, more drab than a parking lot. Who would attach their name — indeed, the very memory of their short stay here on Earth — to a parking lot? And it’s not like it’s an especially nice parking lot — the asphalt is scarred and potholed, bordered by a brick wall and a chain-link fence. It’s drab.
But lately, with my new lens as a drabness connoisseur in a drab city in its drabbest season, I understand: these New Englanders love the drab. What else — besides a deeply black sense of humor — could explain this memorial for Mr. Dudek?
Davis Square is a vibrant little community hub near our house, home to a number of bars, theaters, coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques and sculptures. In the warmer months, musicians play for families and old folks eating ice-cream from a nearby parlor. It’s a lovely place to hang out and, as an outpost for the T’s red line, it feels connected to the rest of the city.
A local bank — the Middlesex Federal Savings Bank — commands a large piece of square-side real estate, and its digital news ticker — white serif font on blue background — is the stuff of local legend.
Middlesex Federal welcomes you to Davis Square, it says, before informing you about Somerville’s winter farmer’s market hours and location. With those formalities dispensed with, the ticker launches into its core content: the news.
2 14 year olds missing from Boston, it begins, before adding: 19 year old from Cambridge. You keep watching, hoping for more information. For, as a community institution, the Middlesex Federal Savings Bank must want to provide additional information that might help lead to their rescue.
So you wait, filled with a wave of dread for the missing teens, but when the ticker runs again you read:
Lindsay Clancy timeline — here’s what prosecutors say happened in the family’s Duxbury home on Jan. 24
Again, no follow-up information is forthcoming. It’s a morbid internet headline with no useful information — clickbait without the click. Moments ago your brain was full of plans for the weekend or daydreams about your crush, but now, thanks to the Middlesex Federal Savings Bank, you must instead wonder who Lindsay Clancy is (or was) and what dark and depressing deeds went down in their family home.
On a drab February afternoon, the ticker is the brightest thing to look at if you’re stuck waiting for a light. It draws your eye, and you watch with trepidation for the next item:
Boston has one of the 10 best river walks in America, according to USA Today readers
This one’s pleasant and anodyne enough, but on the heels of the previous headlines it feels like the ticker is playing some kind of cruel joke. And it goes on like this:
Police: toddler and 2 adults found dead in Conn. home all from Worcester
Over 200 gather in Wrentham to honor local Marine who died volunteering in Ukraine
Did you follow the local news this week? Take our quiz.
Active shooter alarm scare set off at Framingham High prompts chaos
We’ll give you $50 today! Please come in to learn about our Simply Free checking account
The branded messages interspersed with the news imply that the ticker is a successful marketing strategy for the bank. On a cold, snowless night, the brightest light in the square is lit with news of slain families and missing teenagers and offers of $50 to open a bank account.
How Drab is Your Town?
Right now, my natural inclination is to spiral into some existential crisis. All these drab spectacles hint at pollution and societal disconnection from our ecosystem. Doing something about those issues is hard and depressing, while treating it all like an aesthetic and then cracking jokes is fun.
So we are going to skirt the existential whirlpool and keep having fun. What’s the drabbest thing you’ve seen in your neighborhood? Keep an eye out, snap a photo and send it to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s one I’ve received already, from a friend living in the highlands of New Hampshire. She sent it to H and I with the caption “art or drab?” to which H replied “Drab!” But I’m not sure — New Hampshire is still New England, and so it may well be both.
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