Infinite Boston was (and, you know, still is) a limited-run essay series about the real-life Boston area locations figuring in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which was published on this website as a daily feature from July–September 2012. Because this site has no search tool or archive feature, I’ve collected the series’ entire run into a single list, presented here in chronological order of publication for your convenience (and mine).
WARREN STREET T-STOP
FATHER & SON MARKET
ST. JOHN’S SEMINARY
THE UNEXAMINED LIFE
SHERATON COMMANDER HOTEL
VINEY AND VEALS
BACK BAY HILTON
STATE HOUSE ANNEX
PARK STREET STATION
PINE STREET INN
JAMAICA WAY (JAMAICAWAY)
MOUNT AUBURN CLUB
160 FOSTER STREET
Two previous posts (#1, #2) have focused on errors of geography in the Infinite Boston series, and today I’d like to add a few non-location-based mistakes. All have since been corrected or clarified, but not fully explained. Here are three I know I screwed up:
Somehow I managed to read Infinite Jest twice without it properly registering that the sign for Antitoi Entertainment, the “low-demand old film-cartridge emporium” which ties a few plot strands together, actually reads “Antitoi Entertainent” (note the missing letter “M”). The original version of my post made no such reference until Greg Carlisle, author of the estimable Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest pointed this out in a comment, with reference to a footnote making this unambiguous:
203. Whether English misspelling or Québecois solecism, sic.
As Carlisle noted, Anglophone POV characters Poor Tony Krause and Michael Pemulis both refer to it as “Antitoi Entertainment”, adding: “I’m assuming Pemulis, Poor Tony, and you are mentally correcting the sign, right?” It is fine company I keep.
In the entry about M.I.T.’s twin student unions (one real but intact contra the novel, one mostly fictional but actually housing similar facilities) I had listed Steven Pinker as “a Harvard man” based on the fact that the Canadian-born cognitive scientist and writer received his Ph.D. at Harvard and teaches there now. Well, I should have read Wikipedia more carefully, because as it states, he taught at M.I.T. from 1982 to 2003, a not-insignificant period of time. To mangle the title of one of Mr. Pinker’s books, it appears my mind was not working.
Somewhat relatedly, the series’ references to Harvard and M.I.T. generated at least one comment based on the schools’ longstanding rivalry; in a post asking why the Harvard Bridge is so much closer to M.I.T., one reader offered this finite jest:
As a side note, I heard that MIT won the right to name the bridge connecting their Cambridge campus with Boston. After discovering many structural defects they decided that they should name the bridge after Harvard.
Perhaps the most embarrassing textual oversight in the entire series is writing about a connection between scenes without actually realizing they were connected until this was pointed out by readers. In the entry about the difficult-to-locate Cambridge City Shelter I wrote about Burt F. Smith, a resident of Ennet House during the novel’s primary timeline, who had spent “nine months stuck” at this homeless shelter. I didn’t mention how he had come to get stuck there, although in retrospect I clearly should have. Nor did I mention his most prominent physical characteristic: when we meet him he has lost his extremities, and is introduced smoking a cigarette “by holding it between his stumps with his elbows out like a guy with pruning shears…”
The following week, I wrote about the defunct Bow and Arrow Pub, outside of which Emil “yrstruly” Minty and two fellow junkies beat up an “older type individual” on Christmas Eve and leave him in a snowy garbage pile. So, you can see where this is going. The error was worse than that; I’d taken away an impression that the victim had died but, as readers pointed out, it would be more correct to say they left him for dead, because there is no question at all that this is Burt F. Smith. From the very same passage introducing him:
Burt F.S. got mugged and beaten half to death in Cambridge on Xmas Eve of last year, and left there to like freeze there, in an alley, in a storm, and ended up losing his hands and feet.
All I can say is that, in this book of a half million words, if the author can be forgiven for the original mistake, so can the reader.
Earlier this week, I wrote about two locations from the Infinite Boston series that I got wrong: Brainerd Road, which I had (defensibly, I would argue) interpreted too narrowly, and missed some nearby geography that informed the invention of 412 W. Brainerd; and Harvard Square, where I had (indefensibly, I acknowledge) missed the Au Bon Pain not thirty paces from the T-stop I had exited. Today we’ll tackle a few more errors of location:
I went into the Riley’s Roast Beef / Kelly’s Roast Beef entry knowing that it was speculative; months of searching for area fast food establishments specializing in roast beef had led me to conclude that the place was either long-closed or possibly a fictionalized version of another roast beefery. (This was well before I had actually talked with anyone familiar with Allston-Brighton in the 1980s and 90s.)
When I visited Boston in July 2011, I basically just knew that Riley’s Roast Beef would have been somewhere along Don Gately’s driving route from Commonwealth and Warren to the Bread & Circus in Central Square, so when I found only a place called Kelly’s Roast Beef at the corner of Comm & Harvard Aves., I decided this was the best I was likely to do, and went on a-puzzling about other locations.
But when it came time to write the post in August 2012, I had come to realize that very few (if any) locations in the neighborhood were truly fictional, the same was likely the case here, and so the very morning I was ready to publish my findings—or lack thereof—I took another hard look at Google and Lexis-Nexis… and this time found reviews of Riley’s in Allston, including news about closures. (I also learned the above-mentioned Kelly’s location closed about six months after I visited (and I only found out after publishing that this corner was the site of Marty’s Liquors, mentioned in the book, but which I had not pursued in the same way. (Oops.)))
In any case, I revised my conclusions, published my confusions, and that very morning a reader pointed me to an old photograph of Riley’s on Flickr, published there under Creative Commons license and so republished above.
Writing about the Chinal Pearl restaurant in late August, I said that I would have written about a more interesting location nearby, Hung Toys Cold Tea Emporium, only it seemed to be fictional,
however my best guess is it would be either on Tyler where the China Pearl is located, or else Beach or Kneeland which bookend it.
I received no immediate response, but within a few weeks, two readers had agreed to the notion that it might be
Ho Toy Noodle Co. Inc, over on Oxford St., about a block away from China Pearl.
Indeed, on the corner of Oxford and Essex, there is a place called Ho Toy Noodle Co., Inc. (not pictured above, since I didn’t visit, though it is visible on Google Street View). Better still, a photographer on Flickr snapped a shot of the establishment’s owner in February 2011. Is this nice-looking man the real Dr. Wo? For the sake of all concerned, I hope the answer is no.
Here are three more minor mistakes I made in first published versions, later updated with corrections:
For errors of geography, I believe that’s pretty much it. Not bad, if I may say so myself! But also not my only errors: at some point in the near future, I’ll get around to discussing other misconceptions and unresolved mysteries from the Infinite Boston series.
Infinite Boston would not have happened without my summer 2011 visit to Metro Boston, where I searched for and sought to establish the positions of many locations in Infinite Jest. I gave myself four days to hit approximately 100 planned destinations, and I’m still surprised I managed to pull it off.
However, like any exploratory effort, wrong turns and mistaken impressions will be made, and this was no exception. Some of these errors and incomplete observations persisted long after the trip, only coming to light once I had hit publish, upon which readers of this series let me know.
In this post and one more upcoming, I’ll highlight some of my biggest blunders, at least as regards assumptions about geographic locations in the Boston area, though I will probably address other types of mistakes up ahead. For now, I’ll cover just two oversights—my first, and my biggest.
Among the first locations to confound me was the fictional address of “412” said to be found on Brainerd Road along the “downscale north edge” of Brookline. Yet Brainerd signage runs just six blocks between Harvard Ave. and Kelton Street before turning into Corey Ave., and it didn’t seem to match up with the novel’s description as much as I had hoped. In this entry, I listed several inconsistencies, and stated that, unlike the Brainerd of the novel, “the hills in its immediate vicinity are not ‘lung-busting.’” A few readers disagreed, and one who reblogged the post, Adam Lauver, added this perspective:
As a resident of 130 Brainerd for two years (near the Brookline border, but our lease said Brighton and the USPS recognized it as Allston), I must say that there is indeed one lung-busting hill on that street—the one I lived on near its intersection with Kelton St. I’d also point out that when you cross Kelton, Brainerd Rd turns into Corey Rd, and said hill continues for a significant (and, again, lung-busting) while. I’m wondering if Wallace conflated Brainerd and Corey into just Brainerd Rd to simplify things.
While writing out later entries, I would come to find that Wallace had indeed conflated differently named roads, forgetting or choosing to ignore the street name changes at intersections which are surprisingly and infuriatingly common in the Boston area. So I am inclined to agree: I had too narrowly interpreted which stretch of road was meant to be Brainerd. In searching for the “Hawaiianized” F.L.Q. house, it turns out I stopped just a block or two short.
The original version of my entry about Harvard Square contained the following sentence:
The Au Bon Pain where Poor Tony smokes hash and “where all those 70s-era guys in old wool ponchos play chess against those little clocks they keep hitting” no longer exists (presumably, nor do the 70s-era guys) although the specific address is still a coffee shop, pictured above.
The image (not the one above here) was of the Crema Cafe, a coffee shop about a block from the location I should have identified. Without question, this was my most obvious error, and it was pointed out to me quickly, and repeatedly. A representative comment:
Au Bon Pain and the chess tables still exist (where you can play the ‘Chess Mister’). On Mass Ave on the corner of Dunster St. (next to Cambridge Savings Bank and the main entrance to the T station).
Yep, I blew it: the distinctive orange awnings are visible enough on Google Street View. I corrected the post immediately.
Puzzling as this oversight appears, I can explain well enough how I made it. My pre-visit research consisted largely of punching the names of locations into Google Maps, and I either got the address of the Crema Cafe instead, or misinterpreted what I found. (At least so far as I recall; this is no longer the result.) And serendipity, or its mirror opposite, was at work during my actual visit. I had started at the T stop, headed up Brattle Street to visit the American Repertory Theater and up to Garden Street in search of the Sheraton Commander. Upon coming back to the Square, I took JFK to Winthrop in search of a homeless shelter, and then walked up Bow Street to find the former Bow and Arrow. From here I caught a taxi cab and went off in search of Antitoi Entertainment… which will come up in the second half of this series.
A coda: When I made my latest visit to Boston earlier this month, I happened to be back in Harvard Square and, with a colleague, I stopped in here for a coffee. The chess tables were exactly as described, although it was a bit too early in the day for actual games to be going on, let alone an appearance by the ‘Chess Mister’. But I am pleased to report I can now personally verify something I needed others to tell me in the first place: there is definitely still an Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square.
Blogger here. No, I couldn’t resist adapting that later DFW-ism, and no, I haven’t changed my mind about the Infinite Boston series’ end. The purpose of this addendum is to acknowledge some of the folks who helped The Infinite Atlas Project become a reality. For this and more, a sincere thanks is owed to:
Thank you all. Although the main series is complete, I do have a few follow-up posts in mind—plus I am sure more will come to me—so make sure to keep an eye on this space in the weeks ahead.
Infinite Boston finally comes to the inevitable end of its daily run with the entry now before you; while this is surely not the last time this site will be updated, it is the final installment of my Boston travelogue. And I would like to close with a location that is not actually from Infinite Jest, but from the life of David Foster Wallace.
The house pictured above is 160 Foster (‘No Relation’) Street, situated within the established boundaries of Enfield, Massachusetts. For a time, including the period when Infinite Jest was first coming together, DFW called it home.
I learned about it shortly before my trip from Matt Bucher, a friend who runs the wallace-l email list. He’d found it written on the inside of a teaching copy of The Silence of the Lambs in the Wallace archive at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. And so I made certain to pay it a visit, even though it took me a bit off my planned path.
The house is described in the D.T. Max biography, following the lead of its former residents, as a “sober house”:
Wallace’s stay at Granada House finished in June. … [He] moved into a transitional facility on Foster Street, just a few blocks away, with Big Craig and two other men from Granada House. … When the other residents went off to their jobs, Wallace would head for the library in bandana with knapsack to spend the day trying to write.
As Max reveals for the first time in his book, Big Craig is a former live-in staffer at Granada House who happens to be the the model for one of Infinite Jest’s central characters, Don Gately. I’ll let that sink in a moment—David Foster Wallace was housemates with Don Gately. (Or close enough.)
Turning back to the novel with this knowledge, I found that once, and only once, does Gately get the same nicknamed treatment, in which a character opines:
Big Don G.’s a Satanically tough motherfuck: this was his assessment. Said the way he heard it you could fight like you was born in a barfight.
The house at 160 Foster would appear to offer some essential tranquility for recovering addicts and barroom pugilists alike: a pretty, all dormer, three-story home, a front porch end-to-end, set back from an already quiet street, perched above a brief incline in an already hilly neighborhood—the next door neighbors are literally monks, in fact the “Dicalced monastery” we visited early in the series—surrounded by trees, including a large one out front protecting it from looky-loos like yrstruly. Even the power lines in front are like a force field, suggesting that one not get too close. Following a recurring theme in this series, I did not disturb.
And it’s a perfect place to conclude Infinite Boston. While not from the novel, it is of the novel. It also offers a chance to reflect on the real, the fictional and the fictionalized. Like many locations explored in the series, its significance requires special knowledge to appreciate. None remain who could answer the questions I would ask. Yes, this is a house where DFW once lived, but it’s not the same place it once was, nor will be again.
With my words and photos, careful research and chance discoveries, corrections from readers and assists from experts, Infinite Boston has sought to explore hidden corners of a familiar city while bringing new insight to a story experienced by many. Even so: time has passed, absence has entered, memories have faded, and David Foster Wallace’s Boston remains forever overhead.
For this penultimate daily installment of Infinite Boston, I’d like to identify not just a location but possibly the inspiration for a particular scene. The passage in question arrives nearly two-thirds of the way through the novel, a dozen or so pages and less than an hour in narrative time following Randy Lenz’s gruesome actions outside 412 W. Brainerd, which readers are likely to recall as one of the story’s key dramatic turning points.
But that scene is prefaced by an enjoyably intricate walk-through of Don Gately’s duties on the night shift at Ennet House, including a comic riff on the bureaucratic ass-painery of Boston’s then-near future:
And since metro Boston’s serious fiscal troubles in the third year of Subsidized Time there’s been this hellish municipal deal where only one side of any street is legal for parking, and the legal side switches abruptly at 0000h., and cruisers and municipal tow trucks prowl the streets from 0001h. on, writing $95.00 tickets and/or towing suddenly-illegally-parked vehicles to a region of the South End so blasted and dangerous no cabbie with anything to live for will even go there. So the interval 2355h.-0005h. in Boston is a time of total but not very spiritual community, with guys in skivvies and ladies in mud-masks staggering out yawning into the crowded midnight streets and disabling their alarms and revving and all trying to pull out and do a U and find a parallel-parking place facing the other way.
For Gately the nightly alternation is a logistical problem and figurative headache, because he first must lock up everything in the house’s front office that’s lock-upable, then “personally escort all residents who own cars out post-curfew outside into the little nameless streetlet” next to the Enfield Marine complex. The routine is always the same: Gately ushers them outside, and then herds them back inside, night after night. But following this particular ten-minute interval—and with a big no-thanks to Randy Lenz—nothing at Ennet House is ever quite the same again.
More to the point of this entry, the streetlet does in fact have a name: it’s simply a service road of Commonwealth Avenue, which is the street name in the address of real-life locations from the novel, such as the former Provident Nursing Home.
And toward the point of identifying a circumstance as opposed to mere location, the second image above is a street sign I happened to notice at the intersection of Comm. Ave. and a street that David Foster Wallace himself once lived on. It’s a simple tow notice, applicable just two days a month—a much different time interval than DFW’s invented annoyance. But I couldn’t look up at it without wondering if he’d once looked up at it, too, and got the idea for this passage.
Heartbreak Hill is the nickname for a long stretch of Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, Massachusetts, which rises to a crest just outside the border of Boston proper before leveling off and gradually descending toward city center:
…where the haze-haloed Boston sun drops behind the last node in the four-km. sine wave that is collectively called the historic April Marathon’s ‛Heartbreak Hill’…
Its reputation as the undoing of many participants in Boston’s Patriots Day marathon is almost a good metaphor for the struggles of the book’s characters, who buckle and break under the weight of their own addictions, psyches and other pressures.
The Marathon itself does not figure into the story, even though a few scenes occur in April and the marathon’s route almost passes right by E.T.A. and Ennet House. [Update: This entry originally, erroneously, stated that the course went right past them. D’oh!] But running is very much present in the book. The Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes, struggling to succeed in amateur and (with a lot of hard work and luck) professional tennis, run this stretch on the regular:
Here is how to don red and gray E.T.A. sweats and squad-jog a weekly 40 km. up and down urban Commonwealth Avenue even though you would rather set your hair on fire than jog in a pack. Jogging is painful and pointless, but you are not in charge. Your brother gets to ride shotgun while a senile German blows BBs at your legs both of them laughing and screaming Schnell. Enfield is due east of the Marathon’s Hills of Heartbreak, which are just up Commonwealth past the Reservoir in Newton. Urban jogging in a sweaty pack is tedious.
The slightly odd phrasing—“Hills of Heartbreak,” I mean—sounds more like the garbled English of the Wheelchair Assassin Rémy Marathe than the O.E.D.-reading Hal Incandenza, but this line is in fact voiced by Hal, narrating Tennis and the Feral Prodigy, a short film by his brother Mario—the very one riding shotgun with the certifiable Head Coach and Athletic Director Gerhardt Schtitt.
Schtitt is actually Austrian, and not altogether un-avuncular, despite making “judicious use of his pea-shooter to discourage straggling sluggards” from the seat of his “war-surplus” motorcycle. Yet it is the physically malformed, non-tennis playing Incandenza Mario with whom he pals around:
Coach Schtitt and Mario tear-ass downhill on W. Commonwealth on Schtitt’s old BMW, bound for Evangeline’s Low-Temperature Confections in Newton Center, right at the bottom of what usually gets called Heartbreak Hill, Schtitt intense-faced and leaning forward like a skier, his white scarf whipping around and whipping Mario’s face, in the sidecar, as Mario too leans way forward into their downhill flight, preparing to whoop when they bottom out.
Visiting this infamous incline myself, I could easily see how its long, slow ascent might cause a runner to lose all hope, especially after mile twenty. Turning around and facing the other way, I could also see how terrifically fun it would be to bomb down it at excessive speeds, especially with a crazy old Teutonic mentor. Heartbreak Hill doesn’t have to be: it just depends on how you approach it.
The conclusion of our Watertown trilogy is a split-location entry, and coincides with our final look at gender-dysphoric junkie thief Poor Tony Krause. You may have noticed that Infinite Boston has spent a disproportionate amount of time tracking Poor Tony’s unsavory activities, first through the eyes of fellow addict Emil Minty (Harvard Square), then escapades with the Antitois (Sheraton Commander Hotel), and a haphazardly violent mugging of two Ennet residents (Antitoi Entertainment).
His seeming ubiquity is unusual considering that he is one of the few recurring characters—if not quite a major character, nor is he a minor one—whom Wallace does not invite the reader to empathize with. I would argue that these two facts are related.
It is fairly evident that the novel consists of two parallel stories—the tennis academy and the halfway house—bound together by a third—the absurdist international intrigue of the Organization of North American Nations, the wheelchair assassins, and so forth.
It may help to think of Poor Tony as a joint or ligament between two of these, connecting the Québecois separatists and Ennet residents through the streets of Boston. It therefore seems plausible, if not probable, that Wallace created Poor Tony’s unattractive exterior for purposes of plot, and only later sketched out his unattractive interior. And whether DFW intended for Poor Tony to be purposefully unlovable, or could not fully relate to the character—Poor Tony’s thoughts turn to fashionable clothing at the least opportune of moments—I sure don’t recall Infinite Jest winning any awards from transgender advocacy groups.
Which is not to say he is entirely unsympathetic. Although unlikable for better reasons still—note that he is responsible for the deaths of multiple persons in the story, something even the loathsome Randy Lenz cannot claim—we are of course granted access to Poor Tony’s inner thoughts, including his deep agitation at his past estrangement from his late father. And today’s entry focuses on two locations related to the unhappy Krause family. First:
He kept seeing his sonless father again — removing the training wheels, looking at his pager, wearing a green gown and mask, pouring iced tea in a pebbled glass, tearing his sportshirt in filial woe, grabbing his shoulder, sinking to his knees. Stiffening in a bronze casket. Being lowered under the snow at Mount Auburn Cemetery, through dark glasses from a distance.
I don’t have too much to say about the Mount Auburn Cemetery; like many places, I visited briefly, photographing its only its frontal regions, before moving on to the next photo op. Its Wikipedia article, however, is not bad, and includes a list of its many notable permanent residents, among them: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Buckminster Fuller, both Henry Cabot Lodges.
More interesting to me is the Krause family home, which appears twice, near the beginning and the end, so the following ellipsis snips out literally hundreds of pages:
His own late obstetrician father had rended his own clothing in symbolic shiva in the Year of the Whopper in the kitchen of the Krause home, 412 Mount Auburn Street, horrid central Watertown. … Poor Tony’s father used to come home to 412 Mount Auburn Street Watertown at the completion of a long day of cesareans and sit in a chair in the darkening kitchen, scratching at his head where his mask’s green strings had dug into the head.
About that address: careful readers may recall that 412 is also the address of the F.L.Q. house at 412 W. Brainerd Road. A question for Wallace scholars and enthusiasts: what—if anything—is the significance of the number “412”? (Thanks, but no thanks, numerologists.)
Unlike the Brainerd Road address, which could not possibly exist, the Mount Auburn Street address very well may, although I’m not absolutely certain it does. Whereas Brainerd Road is just a few blocks long, Mount Auburn Street runs west from Cambridge through nearly the entirely length of Watertown. The street here is pretty non-descript, split between fairly large homes and apparently small businesses, with an elementary school and church each a few blocks away. Given its four-lane width, this may not be the best place to raise children, but “horrid” is not the word I would choose.
The house pictured above is where Google Maps drops the pin. However, it seemed to be split up into multiple apartments, none of whose addresses were visible from the street, and I declined to be the suspicious fellow climbing up the steps to look at your front door, only to mysteriously disappear. You’re welcome, Watertown.
Over the past ten weeks, a few of the locations from Infinite Jest this series has explored relate in some way to David Foster Wallace’s own life and times in Boston. The most prominent among them is the former Granada House, an addiction treatment center where he was a patient in 1989-90, and the obvious model for Ennet House. As D.T. Max explains in his recently published biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Wallace was required to hold job outside the house—just like his novel’s characters—and one of these was at the Mount Auburn Club in Watertown. But he did not stay long:
He went to work as a front desk attendant at the Mount Auburn Club, a health club in Watertown. His job was to check members in—he called himself a glorified towel boy—but one day Michael Ryan, a poet who had received a Whiting Award alongside him two years before, came to exercise. Wallace dove below the reception desk and quit that day.
The club’s role in Infinite Jest is just as brief, and concerns a character we never really come to know, the wife of the “Near Eastern medical attaché” who figured in the Back Bay Hilton entry. Living under the strict, patriarchal rules of Saudi society, the club is a rare environment where she can find a measure of freedom:
Wednesday nights … are permitted to be his wife’s Arab Women’s Advanced League tennis night with the other legation wives and companions at the plush Mount Auburn Club in West Watertown. … At 0015h., 2 April, the medical attache’s wife is just leaving the Mount Auburn Total Fitness Center, having played five six-game pro-sets in her little Mideast-diplomatic-wife-tennis-circle’s weekly round-robin, then hung around the special Silver-Key-Members’ Lounge with the other ladies, unwrapping her face and hair and playing Narjees and all smoking kif and making extremely delicate and oblique fun of their husbands’ sexual idiosyncrasies, laughing softly with their hands over their mouths.
I had intended for my own visit to the Mount Auburn Club, toward the end of the second day of my trip, to be similarly discreet. While my cab driver waited in a parking spot, I snapped a few shots of its front door, then its uncovered courts, and headed back out to the street for the entrance sign I’d first seen in Tim Bean’s 2008 Flickr set. With photos obtained, I was making for the cab when a late middle-aged man exited the building and began calling to me, asking what I was doing. I had run into minor trouble with authority figures at previous locations, so I was a little worried about being considered a trespasser. But I had the shots I needed, and took a chance on meeting the proprietors and telling something new about their own place of business.
This is how I came to meet Bill and Paul Crowley, the two brothers who have operated the club since opening it 1974. Following them inside the club, I explained the gist of my project, their health club’s bit part in a gargantuan novel, and the late author’s brief employment here. Neither remembered him—no surprise, considering just how low a profile Wallace intended to keep, not to mention his hasty exit. The Crowleys seemed amused by their appearance in this unfamiliar book, and readily agreed to give me a look inside their tennis dome (as I’ve since learned these things are called). In the novel, it is simply called “the Lung,” described as an
…inflatable dendriurethane dome, known as the Lung, that covers the middle row of courts for the winter indoor season.
Like the Enfield Tennis Academy, the Mount Auburn Club raises the domes seasonally, though this one had been left up over a little-used court. To enter, one must pass through a narrow, pneumatic revolving door; because they are air-supported, the PSI change is instantly noticeable. Neither brother had ever heard of it referred to as “the Lung” before—a touch that seems to be all DFW. Alas, I forgot to ask if there was a “Silver-Key-Members’ Lounge”—although I probably didn’t need to ask whether anyone there might be smoking kif. Perhaps better to leave both a mystery.
For the first time in a few weeks, today we venture back outside of Boston proper; from now through early next week—the last of Infinite Boston’s daily updates—we’ll visit a few locations in Watertown, north of the Charles, west of Cambridge. First among them, let’s check back in with one of Infinite Jest’s least appealing characters in one of his most appalling circumstances.
Since the “affairs of Wo and Copley Library and heart”—each covered in the China Pearl, Boston Public Library and Harvard Square entries—Poor Tony’s “entire set of interpersonal associations” has dwindled to “persons who did not care about him plus persons who wished him harm.” He has has nowhere to run, and fewer, decreasingly tolerable places to hide.
Unable to cop, Poor Tony first seeks refuge in a “dumpster-complex behind the I.B.P.W.D.W. Local #4 Hall” in the Fort Point neighborhood, and begins to “Withdraw From Heroin.” The stay is short-lived: after he accidentally befouls his formerly “new and unutilized” dumpster, Poor Tony is forced back out on the street.
It was the incontinence plus the prospect of 11/4’s monthly Social Assistance checks that drove Poor Tony out for a mad scampering relocation to an obscure Armenian Foundation Library men’s room in Watertown Center, wherein he tried to arrange a stall as comfortingly as he could with shiny magazine photos and cherished knickknacks and toilet paper laid down around the seat, and flushed repeatedly, and tried to keep true Withdrawal at some sort of bay with bottles of Codinex Plus.
The Codinex does not so much lessen the withdrawal as draw it out, slowing Poor Tony’s perception of time down to a crawl. If the narrator is to be believed, he spends more than a week in this stall, lifting his feet off the floor when the library staff makes a final check and turns off the lights at night. In the dark, Poor Tony begins to hallucinate: first a “red martial column” of fire ants, and then an orange-eyed bird that is a metaphor for The Bird he is unwillingly Kicking. In this basement (?) library bathroom, Poor Tony comes to know “the experience of time with a shape and an odor”; for the reader, the experience is harrowing, disgusting, and exhilarating—an example of DFW at his best.
And hey, what do you know? It turns out there is a real-world counterpart: the Armenian Library and Museum of America, located at the wholesome, all-Armenian-American address of 65 Main Street. It even has a Wikipedia article. The Armenian Library was among the first places I was surprised to find really existed—a discovery which was soon and often to be repeated.
But even after coming all the way to Watertown, my investigation ended at the front door. I suppose I had the opportunity to inspect its restrooms for plausible withdrawal sanctuaries, whether in the basement or simply a windowless, interior room. But when I arrived on a Friday afternoon in July, I just couldn’t bring myself to go inside and look around. After all: what could I possibly say at the front desk?
(click to enlarge panorama)
The astute reader expects a few references to Hamlet in a novel titled Infinite Jest and, indeed, fans of the Bard will not be disappointed. Hal Incandenza corresponds to Prince Hamlet in some interesting ways: he is introspective, passionate, considered insane by some, and has to watch out for his uncle (see the first chapter of Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity for more examples than you might think). One of the late James Incandenza’s production companies was called Poor Yorick Entertainment. There might even be ghosts and grave-digging. Listing too many more would not only require not only a spoiler warning, but an unnecessary tangent; the synchronicities make for some good “aha” moments, but they’re not necessary to understand the work.
One imperfect but fun example may be the Enfield Tennis Academy custodians E.J. Kenkle and Otto Brandt, “inseparable and essentially unemployable,” whose occasional appearances—typically heard coming or going, just off-stage—may remind one of Hamlet’s old pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Others have suggested Steeply and Marathe for the characters, and Carlisle briefly compares them to Elsinore’s gravedigger, but hear me out.
The similarities are apparent: they come as a pair; they’re not to be taken entirely seriously (they ride “the T at night, recreationally”); and crucially, they are in the employ of Hal’s uncle. In the one late scene Hal shares with Kenkle and Brandt, they each once refer to him, in a slightly different manner, as “Good prince Hal.” Not that it’s a perfect match: they don’t have any particular relationship with Hal; they are not quite interchangeable (Brandt’s IQ is said to be “Submoronic-to-Moronic” while Kenkle once earned a Ph.D. in “low-temperature physics”); and (again) crucially, they are not killed by pirates.
The reason I thought of them during my visit to Boston last summer was the description of their apartment:
[Brandt] lived with Kenkle in an attic apartment in Roxbury Crossing overlooking Madison Park High School’s locked and cordoned playground … His major attraction for Kenkle seemed to consist in the fact that he neither walked away nor interrupted when Kenkle was speaking.
The neighborhood is called Roxbury; Roxbury Crossing is a T-stop, but this is easily accounted for. The apartment itself is said to be on New Dudley Street, although so far as I could tell there is only a Dudley Street—and it happens to be a block away from Madison Park High School. I made a point of directing my cab driver to this area, expecting to find nothing too interesting.
I was surprised: directly across the street to the south was a hill tall enough to overlook the school, and a block from Dudley Street I came across the building pictured above, which certainly has an attic accessible from the outside. And while the high school has no playground of which I am aware, there is one right next door to this building, as you can see at far left in the panorama.
There were many locations along this journey that I knew David Foster Wallace had eyes laid upon, especially those easily recognizable and / or commercial: the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, the Father & Son Market, or Cheapo Records. But this was the lone occasion during my travels through Boston where I was struck by the notion that—just maybe? almost certainly?—no one since DFW had stood where I stood and recognized what I saw.
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Although Infinite Jest calls the Pine Street Inn the “biggest and foulest” homeless shelter in the Boston area, anecdotal evidence presented repeatedly throughout the novel would suggest it’s actually the Shattuck Shelter which truly deserves this designation—at least the “foulest” part.
We accumulate plenty of incriminating details as we follow Ennet House live-in staffer Don Gately, who spends “five A.M.s a week” cleaning the “Shattuck Shelter For Homeless Males down in bombed-out Jamaica Plain.” We also learn—with seemingly no detail spared—what the job of janitor at a homeless shelter entails:
The relative cleanliness of the Shattuck’s toilets might seem surprising until you head into the shower area, with your equipment and face-mask. Half the guys in the Shattuck are always incontinent. There’s human waste in the showers on a daily fucking basis. Stavros lets him attach an industrial hose to a nozzle and spray the worst of the shit away from a distance before Gately has to go in there with his mop and brushes and solvents, and his mask.
And yet there is redemption to be found here, in the “very grossest corner[s] of the Shattuck Shelter,” as Gately finds to his surprise and discomfort:
Near the end of his Ennet residency, at like eight months clean and more or less free of any chemical compulsion, going to the Shattuck every A.M. and working the Steps and getting Active and pounding out meetings like a madman, Don Gately suddenly started to remember things he would just as soon not have. Remembered. Actually remembered’s probably not the best word. It was more like he started to almost reexperience things that he’d barely even been there to experience, in terms of emotionally, in the first place.
During my research process, I was surprised to learn that this vividly depicted setting was in fact a real place. On the final day of my Boston trip, I paid a taxi driver handsomely to drive me around to what must have seemed like the strangest, least photogenic parts of Boston: a seemingly random skyscraper, unremarkable city streets and parking lots, not one but two homeless shelters.
The second of these was the Shattuck Shelter, and near the critical point of the endless drive around Franklin Park in Jamaica Plain—seriously, you could fit like ten Boston Commons in there—it became apparent the Google Maps pin drop was not precisely accurate (another issue I encountered repeatedly during my research). I basically had one chance to redirect the cab at a roundabout before I’d just have to move on.
Luckily, I made the right guess, and we found it: not on the road where I’d expected to, but one over, tucked into a plot of land hidden by a patch of woods just west of the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. I felt as much an intruder snapping a photograph at this place as any (let alone the above panorama) likely because of what I’d read about what goes on inside. At least from the exterior, it was serene, unbusy—sober, if you will—and then I was off again, leaving the Shattuck Shelter to its improbable tranquility.
This series has previously identified several fictional locations whose real-world counterparts differ in name only very slightly. In some cases, it’s a single letter (St. Columbkille) or placement of punctuation (Ryles Jazz Club) but none differ quite so slightly as the subject of today’s entry, which is distinguished only by the presence of a single empty space.
This is Jamaica Way, or the Jamaicaway—so fine, there’s a definite article in the mix as well—in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. It is a street with some history, featuring many large homes more than a century old, facing Jamaica Pond. Like Commonwealth Avenue, it was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, and early and influential landscape architect who also helped create New York City’s Central Park. And though it’s Comm. Avenue which is described as a “sine wave,” this four-lane parkway between the Arborway to the south and the Riverway to the north is probably more deserving of the metaphor. Not to mention, it really tests the limit of the number of -way suffixed words permissible in one sentence.
The peculiarity of its name and my minor quibble over its comparative description serve to remind the reader—at least, this reader—how different the reference tools available to writers were not so long ago. MapQuest launched the same year Infinite Jest was published, and Wikipedia’s humble beginnings were still five years off. With these services available to him, would DFW have made the same orthographic choice, or switched descriptions? Perhaps not; he was never much of an email user, for example, but it’s interesting to think about.
The Jamaicaway’s appearance in the novel is more interesting still, the basis of a morbid joke that I completely missed on my two full readings, and only finally picked up on while researching this project. It involves characters previously unmentioned in this series, although not much setup is needed to get the point across. First, know that Marlon and Kevin Bain are brothers, the former being Orin Incandenza’s doubles partner at E.T.A. Each makes a solitary, memorable appearance, in which neither fails to mention how their parents died.
After my own parents were horribly killed on the Jamaica Way commuter road one morning in the freak crash of a radio traffic-report helicopter, I became a sort of hanger-on at the Incandenza house out in Weston.
Then Kevin says but then by the time he was eight they were gone altogether, dead, smooshed by a dysfunctionally falling radio traffic helicopter on the Jamaica Way on the way to Couples Counselling.
The setup—or, as I experienced it, the punchline—is found (not easily) hundreds of pages away:
The E.T.A. Headmaster’s receptionist and administrative assistant is known to the players as Lateral Alice Moore. In her youth Lateral Alice Moore had been a helicopter pilot and airborne traffic reporter for a major Boston radio station until a tragic collision with another station’s airborne traffic-report helicopter — plus then the cataclysmic fall to the rush hour’s Jamaica Way six-laner below — had left her with chronic oxygen debt and a neurological condition whereby she was able to move only from side to side. So hence the sobriquet Lateral Alice Moore.
As far as I can tell, the connection is never made by the characters. Fair enough: I’m willing to bet the connection is rarely made even by readers.
With but two fleeting mentions in all of Infinite Jest, and no scenes taking actually place within its walls, the Pine Street Inn is only a peripheral setting, albeit one bestowed with an unappealingly memorable designation: “the biggest and foulest homeless shelter in all of Boston.”
It is first referenced in a terrific early Ennet House chapter consisting solely of unattributed resident dialogue. The attentive reader will recognize it is Bruce Green who stayed there for a time with his girlfriend, Mildred Bonk, and their daughter, Harriet Bonk-Green, once Mildred could no longer put up with their trailermate, the “infamous harelipped” pot dealer and snake owner Tommy Doocy (or Doocey). Unfortunately for Bruce, it is also where he soon loses the “fatally pretty and nubile wraithlike” Mildred L. Bonk, to a “guy with a hat” who claimed to ranch “longhorn cows east of Atlantic City NJ.”
Much later, in a section about Don Gately’s horrendous graveyard-and-day shift work schedule, we hear that it is where Stavros Lobokulas, “a troubling guy with a long cigarette-filter and an enormous collection of women’s-shoes catalogues he keeps piled behind the seats in the cab of his 4x4,” oversees the cleaning efforts of two “broke and desperate yutzes” from area halfway houses.
The Pine Street Inn is described in a bit more detail in author Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, as occupying “an entire city block of Boston’s South End,” the building itself “a landmark, a replica of a Sienese tower, marking the entrance into Boston as you drive north on I-93. The tower was used by fireman for a hundred years to practice jumping from a burning building into a net below. Then it became a shelter.”
Elsewhere in American letters, it is favorably reviewed on Yelp (!), where one contributor advises that “[c]ontrary to the name, Pine Street Inn is not a top notch Maine Bed and Breakfast” but in fact a “a top notch Boston homeless shelter” and one of “the few good things founded in 1969.”
My own visit was very brief and exterior only. The shelter was just one spot on the itinerary of a taxi cab tour of South Boston and Jamaica Plain, locations that will be profiled here later in the week. Ultimately, I can’t really say whether the Pine Street Inn is the foulest homeless shelter in the Boston area—let’s just say the reviews are mixed—but I can confirm that it is pretty big.
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