Across the River

I try to visit a hotel’s “health club” at least once during a stay. I push open the door, observe how the exercise machines have been shoved into a space that, if the hotel is older than twenty-five years, was not intended for them. A video screen typically hangs on the wall, tuned to a sports channel. . If the place has a pool, a thick cloud of scented humidity makes me want to shut the door, go back down to my room and order a pizza.

Guilt compels me to return, in exercise gear. If the place is unoccupied, I turn down the loudness on the video screen so I can hear the music squeaking through my earphones. I usually start with an FX machine, or something similar, because the range of movement is ludicrously simple and, after about ten to twenty minutes, the endorphin rush kicks in and I remember how exercise banishes the grumps and makes you feel good to be alive.

On Presidents Weekend my wife and I stayed at the Fairmount Copley Plaza, an old, beautifully restored Boston Back Bay hotel that has a health club on the roof. The health club didn’t draw us there, but we ended up on the machines Sunday morning.

We stayed at the Copley Plaza a few years ago when my son graduated from college, and we loved the hotel. The lobby has a an art gallery with Matisse, Miro and Picasso prints. The walls and high ceilings reflect the neoclassical palaces that Bostonians of another era copied when they connected their sudden American good fortune with European aristocratic privilege.

During our first visit we spent most of our time in Cambridge attending the graduation ceremonies and the celebrity in his cap and gown. We did have an afternoon of escape: a trolley ride down to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but our time there was limited.

Our other trips to Boston had been similarly filled with obligations, complications, cares and concern, thanks to a principal’s capricious decision to make me coach of the school’s speech and debate team. I told him I had been dropped from my school’s debate team because I had done a William Shatner impersonation during a speech. This did not matter and, because I wanted to make everybody happy, I took the position.

I knew nothing of high school competitions, though I learned soon enough that Harvard hosted one of the prestigious tournaments in the country on Presidents Weekend. The cost of transportation and hotel rooms was quite high, so only the children of the more affluent parents could afford the trip. I was told that my expenses would be covered by the “debate mom” who was in charge of finances. I paid for my wife’s plane ticket. She came along as a judge.

The hotel the debate mom had selected was in an old Hyatt shaped like a ziggurat dating from the era when the chain when for dramatic, John Portman-style lobbies and glass elevators. It stood on a picturesque turn of the Charles River, and was closer to MIT than the Harvard campus. A cab ride to Harvard Square was way too expensive, so kids had to take vans and shuttle buses that were delayed in the bad traffic made worse by piles of snow. Being certain that the kids were awake, fed, and on their way to more than 20 locations in a city that wasn’t exactly friendly to underage children (I had reviewed a book about a horrendous Cambridge child kidnapping and murder), and back at at the hotel would have been more than enough to bring on the heart attacks I eventually suffered. On top of that, I was expected to judge competitions, make sure the kids on medication took their pills AND keep them out of trouble.

This last task kept me awake at night, which was fortunate because I got an early morning call from the front desk that my room had not been paid for. The debate mom decided not to. I fixed that with my credit card, but I could do nothing about the food poisoning my wife contracted from airport fast food.

Still, I found time to go to the hotel’s exercise room, which was down a long corridor extending toward a parking garage. I gave myself a few precious minutes on the machines, and gazed through the windows toward the city of Boston which seemed so peaceful and serene after all the debate turmoil I had to supervise. I wondered, would things EVER get better?

They didn’t quite get better. I found a less expensive hotel for another debate trip that was on the public bus route. My team went on to become the best in the state, after which I was relieved of the position by the principal because he wanted me to “concentrate on my teaching.”  I decided to leave the school and concentrate on my writing and, two heart attack’s later, my wife and I had a long weekend in New Orleans. I suggested Boston as a follow up. With my son out of college and no speech and debate obligations, we could merely enjoy the city. We returned to the Copley Plaza with no fixed plans, other than a haircut for me.

We had coffee in the Boston Library’s beautiful Map Room, found a barber for me, had a late breakfast at Flour (a superb neighborhood bakery whose cookbooks I’d reviewed, ate recklessly, saw the Singer Sargents in the Museum of Fine Arts, wandered the nearby shopping mall, watched a public protest, walked from Copley Square through the Common to the North End and back (pausing along the way to have a Boston Cream Pie at the Parker House Hotel, where the desert was invented), caught the sun going down over Commonwealth Avenue and, finally, went upstairs to the hotel’s rooftop health club, where I found a free F/X machine and started moving my arms and legs to the predictable movement when–

I looked through the window across the Charles River and saw a hotel shaped like a ziggurat–the Hyatt of fret and worry! Here I was, in a place that, despite subsequent ups and downs, was so very much better.

And yet, if you asked me back in the debate days if such a thing could ever happen, I wouldn’t have believed it. During this, and a few other times when I wished for great change in my life, I could not see a logical, believable path to the future I wanted to inhabit.

I did have a song to keep me company. It’s from Bruce Hornsby, and it’s about something different from my experience, but the chorus rings true:

“Some fine day
You will find your way

Across the river…”

May we all find our way some fine day.



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