Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Faneuil Hell.

The other day at work a man came in who could hardly walk nor hardly fully open his eyes. He stumbled around for a bit, then stood, wavering back and forth, while I helped another customer. He couldn't really make coherent sentences when he approached the counter, but I filled in the gaps: "Glass of water?" - blank stare - "Yep, okay, one second. All righty, here's some water, thank youuu!" Eventually, he walked away. Later, a woman who had been sitting in the cafe for awhile came up to me. "So that man, who was in here earlier," she started. "He made me really uncomfortable. But you, you were really good! You are really good with people!" She repeated this sentiment a few times, and it made me feel surprisingly good about myself. Which, perhaps, says something about what spending most of my time around 13 year olds lately has done to my self esteem. In any case, after the fact, I suddenly realized what I should have said: "Lady, I used to work at Faneuil Hall. You ain't seen nothin'."

Working at Faneuil Hall for two years was a special kind of hell which only those who worked there can truly understand. Luckily, I had a lot of friends who also worked there, including Kathy, so we were all able to bond over our time in hell together, which always makes hell even specialer.

For the unacquainted,  Faneuil Hall is one of Boston's most popular tourist attractions, located along the infamous Freedom Trail, a red line painted on the sidewalk which connects some of Boston's best historical landmarks. [PSA: A red line which is surprisingly slippery when wet--if you're in Boston when it rains, watch out. Seriously.] Faneuil Hall is steps away from the site of the Boston "Massacre," as well as Boston's monstrous, sprawling concrete City Hall, and many other things. While the term Faneuil Hall now refers to the entire general area, Faneuil Hall itself is a historic building where Revolutionaries such as Sam Adams used to make speeches, and such, and a National Park ranger will tell you loads of boring stuff if you go there, but you probably won't, because most people go to the other buildings behind and surrounding the actual Faneuil Hall. These buildings are marketplaces, the biggest and central one being Quincy Market, which is full of food, and which is where I worked, at Starbucks. (Very historical, obviously.) The outer markets are full of places such as the Gap, Urban Outfitters, Crate & Barrel,  Build-a-Bear, and American Eagle--you know, places the Founding Fathers liked to frequent.

I took a trip to Boston as a child with my dad, and I remember eating at Quincy Market, and we all thought it was so cool! A bustling market full of food possibilities, full of people everywhere! How neat-o! Oh, the naivety of tourists. So innocent.

Here's what you learn when you work in old, historical buildings: they are old, people. No matter how you clean, everything is dirty. Things are gross. There are rats and cockroaches everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Since Starbucks was one of the first things to open each day at Quincy Market, we were often the first to see all the critters who had been having a party during the night, before they scurried away when everyone else arrived. One of my old co-workers had a somewhat legendary story of coming in one morning to see two large rats in the midst of passionate love making, smack in the middle of the hall, where hundreds of tourists would soon be congregating. One time I was about to brew some coffee at 6AM, and in a half-awake stupor, went to swipe off the counter what I thought was a piece of corrugated cardboard. (We hadn't turned on all the lights yet, alright.) Much to my surprise, this chunk of cardboard skittered away from me--OH, BECAUSE IT WAS A BIG ROACH. (I screamed like a little girl.) Every month or so we'd have to cover everything in the place with plastic so that people could come in overnight and torch the place with chemicals, but that still didn't seem to do much. I should also add that it gets very hot and humid in Boston in the summer, and such a building definitely wasn't build in the 1700's with air conditioner. We had these pathetic fans which did nothing, and we were required to wear hats--for, you know, sanitation purposes--and sweat would pour from every orifice--very sanitary. Very hellish.

Yet, these stories of grossness aren't even really what define the Faneuil Hall experience, although they are still good stories to tell. What really fills my memories are the freaks that roamed its halls every day--and lots of other things. There are so many memories filling my brain right now, in fact, that the only way I can organize them right now is by making a list. This isn't just a list of freaks, but of other general experiences and feelings I lived for two years of my life. So here we go.

1. Smiley Face Guy. This was a guy who wandered around every day selling smiley face pins, which completely adorned his jacket, for a dollar. He would come to Starbucks every morning and tell us random, somewhat awkward, sometimes offensive jokes. For some reason, the one I remember best was: "What do you get when an Italian guy dates a Jewish girl? A pizza bagel! HAHAHAHAHA!" Or if he didn't have a joke, he would just bark out random slogans before wandering away. As in, I'd be in the middle of making a latte, and he'd walk up and shout, "NICE TO MEET YA, WOULDN'T WANT TO BE YA! HAHAHAHAHA!" and then walk away. Every morning.

2. Stacking Guy. This guy's mental health issues were much more acute than Smiley Face Guy's. Like many mentally ill folks in Boston, he was not specific just to Faneuil Hall, but hit up all the Starbucks in the downtown area. He usually came in at night, and would sit at a table for long periods of time, and stack things. Meaning, he would take whatever he would find--sugar packets, stir sticks, cups from the trash, what have you--and stack them, into intricate sculptures. He would stare at these structures for awhile, grunt, and then start over again. For hours. We liked to just stare at him, when we had a spare second. His inventions were quite remarkable. When not stacking stuff, he would come up to the counter and tell us about various conspiracy theories--one time he explained to me how the quarter I just gave him told of the end of the earth.

3. President Connor. Another mentally ill fellow, but a quite lovable one, who referred to himself as President Connor. And often. I can't count the number of times he shook my hand and said, "Vote for President Connor!" I believe he had some type of name tag, or T-shirt, or sign, or something, labeling himself as thus. I am disappointed in the murkiness of my memory. He was often prone to shouting, "Fuck Bush! Vote President Connor! Fuck Bush!" at unsuspecting tourists. One time he sat next to me on the T on my ride home from work. He sat down and said, "Hi! I'm President Connor!" I wanted to say, "Hi, I'm Jill, and I gave you free coffee twenty minutes ago," but didn't. Instead he asked if I had a boyfriend, and I said I had a girlfriend, and he said, "OH, you going to get MARRIED?" and I said I didn't know, and he said, "Why not, you should get MARRIED!" This conversation went on for quite some time. Strangely, although the T was pretty full, not a single other person was talking.

4. Murgitroyd. I do not know why we called her Murgitroyd. Maybe Zoe knows? Even Kathy can't remember. In any case, this was an overly paranoid, perhaps schizophrenic old woman with the most pronounced mustache I have ever seen on a lady. She always carried around a variety of wrecked plastic blags. Like all of these folks, her situation was probably horridly sad, but to shield ourselves from the brutality of the world, we kept ourselves amused by laughing at the times she yelled at tourists--again, so unsuspecting, so innocent--anytime they took out a camera or a phone in her vicinity: "STOP TAKING MY PICTURE!! I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING!" Hunched over, clutching her bags, she would shake a very angry fist at them, and they would say, "Uh, sorry?" and give each other an uncomfortable look before running away.

5. Mafia Guy from Pizzeria Regina. Pizzeria Regina is a famous pizzeria in the North End, the Italian neighborhood of Boston, and they had a stall in Quincy Market, too. The guy who managed it was a hulking Italian man who I couldn't understand most of the time, and who most definitely was part of the Mafia. He also often gave out lots of free pizza--workers of Quincy Market had a kind of food-sharing-pact-thing going on in solidarity--and so when every now and then he'd come down to get free drinks, we would say of course, of course, and make his strawberry and cream frappucinos as fast as possible, handing them over and then breathing a sigh of relief when he walked away without shooting us. Or, at least I did. In fact, maybe just writing this will get me killed. Maybe I should re-think this before I press the publish button.

6. Almost Break Dancers. In front of Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall were designated areas for street performers, which again, were fun for tourists, but created even more mayhem for normal folk. (Especially when there was a particularly loud group in the large performance area right outside of Starbucks--say, a marching band, or the like--and during their entire performance we would have to perform our job in shout-speak: "OH, YOU MEAN YOU WANTED THREE EXTRA SHOTS AND THAT WASN'T ENOUGH EXTRA CARAMEL TO CLOG YOUR ARTERIES, AND YOU WANTED SOME EXTRA DOUCHY-NESS ADDED IN? OKAY, SORRY!") Our favorite to walk by on our way to work, though, was this group of break dancers who were really good at gathering a huge crowd in a circle, blasting beats through their boombox, and stepping back and forth and clapping their hands while asking the crowd to get pumped up, all while shirtless and in gym shorts. They were SO GOOD at stepping back and forth and clapping their hands. Yet, I don't know if any of us ever actually saw them, you know, break dance. Or do anything else. And we walked by them a lot.

7. Rami Salami. This was a clown, and although he had a legitimate little stand and would legitimately make children happy with his balloon animals, I had to walk by him every day, and I HATE CLOWNS. I also feel forever confused by his seemingly Jewish-Italian hybrid name.

8. School/summer camp groups. The thing about working in such a place is that you never knew what you were going to be hit with. During the summer, it was a good guarantee that you would probably always be somewhat busy. But the worst were the moments you saw the hundreds (well, it always seemed like hundreds) of small children clad in the same colored shirts running up to your counter and shouting at once: "CARAMEL FRAPPUCINO WITH EXTRA EXTRA CARAMEL PLEEEEEASE!" Times twenty five. The other most frequent occurrence were large groups of Asians, many of whom had cameras and wanted to take pictures of you making their latte, for whatever reason. Seriously, several Asians have pictures of me in their vacation albums. Yes, it is slightly disturbing.

9. That feeling in summer when you reach the top of the stairs at Government Center. There were two ways I took to Faneuil Hall--you could take the T on the Orange Line to State, or you could take the Green Line to Government Center. The latter was what I remember taking the most, and it should be noted that Government Center was the hottest, grimiest, loudest, and darkest T stop of all time, which we took to calling the Hellmouth. So you would make your way to daylight from the Hellmouth, and you'd walk past the monstrous concrete City Hall in the sprawling brick wonderland of Government Center Plaza, and then you reached the top of the stairs. There was a pretty massive set of stairs which led down to the whole Faneuil Hall arena, and it wasn't until you reached the top of these stairs that you saw it--the masses. The frenzied, hungry, crazy masses of tourists. So many people you can't count them--like a section of Times Square has been transplanted to these blocks of brick. And you know. They are all going to want Frappucinos. And the only thing you can do is sigh, and be resigned to your fate.

10. Going to the restroom. In a normal work environment, one might say, "Hey Jane, I'm going to run to the bathroom for a second." Jane says, "Okay, see you in a second!" Or, in an even more normal work environment, you wouldn't have to tell anyone this--you would just go. At Faneuil Hall, when you had to go to the restroom, you made sure you had enough coverage on the floor for the next thirty minutes, and then you took a deep breath and said to yourself, "Okay. Let's go, Jill. You can do this." And then you threw yourself into the heartless throngs of people, the hundreds of souls who, for some reason, all want gross food from Quincy Market. Many of them will be standing, in huge blocks, in the middle of the hall, trying to figure out what they want. Next to them will be approximately ten families with large strollers who had some inconceivable notion they could push their babies through this insanity. Small children abound, running into your knees and kicking your shins, as well as even greater numbers of hunched over ancient people, who you will inevitably accidentally punch in the face or poke in the ribs, each time further convincing you you are going to hell, but really, what can you do. After this treacherous obstacle course, you reach the restrooms! Hallelujah! Lord have mercy! Here, you will wait for another twenty minutes and then play an eenie-meenie-moe type game to guess which stall is NOT full of shit and toilet paper.

11. The surprising variety of names which tourists referred to Faneuil Hall as. "Oh, I'm sorry, is this Nathaniel Hall?" or "Is this Thanuel Hall?"were the most popular.

12. Stressed out tourists who ask for advice but then never believe anything you say. 
"Oh, it's actually really simple. You see right outside there's a bright red line painted on the bricks--look, you can see it from here--and you just follow it straight that way, towards the waterfront, and it leads you RIGHT TO IT."
- blank stare, as if you have not said anything at all - OR
- uneasy glance at significant other, "Hm, well, oookayyyyy." (heavy sigh) - OR
- "FINE, I'll just ask somebody else."
13. The fact that a historical landmark is almost completely run by recent immigrants (with a spattering of college students). As, I imagine, most historical landmarks around the country are. My favorite was the super sassy Latina woman who worked at a cart selling Irish memorabilia. Or the people who worked at the Cheers gift shop and had definitely never watched the show. One of my favorite co-workers was Rosa, who had escaped what I believe to be a somewhat dreadful life in El Salvador. I tried to practice awful Spanish with her sometimes and she just laughed her sweet little laugh and said that everything I said was good when it clearly was not. The people who worked at Quincy Market were some of the hardest workers I ever met and taught me so many things I now feel strongly about when it comes to working with the public and having humility.

14. The best part of the night. It's a summer night, I have just made approximately two hundred overpriced froofy drinks for people I will never see again. It's still warm but with a nice slight breeze. Most of the crowds have emptied from Quincy Market, but bad loud techno music emanates from the cheesy nightclubs which inexplicably exist in the top floor of the market. I make my way towards the looming set of stairs which lay between me and the Hellmouth at Government Center. At the top of the stairs is a man playing a saxophone. The sounds from his instrument cascade down the stairs, over the street and over the bricks and relax almost all of the muscles in my body. I walk slowly up the stairs and feel the night air on my skin and give him a small smile as I pass. It is a small moment but feels larger. It is one of the best parts of the night, one of the best parts of summer in Boston, one of the best parts of my life.


  1. what a great blog!
    And you know you miss the mafia guy from Regina's, I used to have to go "buy" his coffee for him. I hated closing at Regina's cause that's when the rats would come out!


  3. "going to the restroom" was one of the most real things i've ever read. SO REAL, JILL. the tourists. i can't even.

    and of course your last part made me actually FEEL the summer air on those nights. and that sax. jesus.

  4. most perfect synopsis ever!! Can't forget the shop lifters, the white paper hats from Dicks, and that god forsaken cobble stone :)

  5. I didn't work there, but this brought back lots and lots of good, and terrible, memories. You are spectacular. And I agree with Kathy--that last part made me actually feel a summer night in Boston, which is pretty incredible, seeing as how it's February. In New York. Sigh.

  6. This made my day!! I'm pretty sure stacking guys name was Eddie from Maine and you can't forget the amazing laser lights show! :)

  7. God damn, I love this post.

  8. LOVED this Jill! And while it had far less tourists, I did a summer at the Starbucks in Central Square and our crazy population was about on par. I have been having a lot of Boston nostalgia lately and this totally took me back to all the things that drove me crazy but i truly loved about the city - THANK YOU for writing such awesomeness:)

  9. Sarah, the laser light show! Haha! So weird. And Dez, YES, I had totally forgot how every drunk asshole in the place would have those stupid white Dick's hats. Hahahaha.

    I love all the comments, glad everyone enjoyed this so much. :)

  10. omg how could i forget about murgitroyd??? remember how i'd come down to faneuil hell (FANOULIE HALL??) from the steaming pile of shit kettle, on PURPOSE, on my breaks just to be part of the amazing freak show? and i had almost blocked out my time at the mfa gift shop but this entry makes me not want to anymore. the sax. the sax. i love you!