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.