Travelers like to champion locals a lot, I’ve noticed. And “travel like a local” has become the new “off-the-beaten track,” a well-intentioned mantra that’s now sort of a cliche. Still, it has a point.
I’ve just finished a humbling opportunity to follow Andrew Evans’ shoes as the National Geographic Traveler’s Digital Nomad, going by train between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and DC. I thought I’d share a few of my favorite LOCALS met on the trip.
“Every place you look there’s some weird little mechanism. I mean, holy smokes!, look at this, somebody made that.”
Bob Tanner, a ballcapped ex-civil engineer in the Boston suburbs, loves his job leading tours at the Old Schwamb Mill in Arlington, Massachusetts — an oval frame-maker in operation since the 1860s. And he’s noting the panache an 19th-century blacksmith used to build a “water-fly ball governor,” a tool to moderate water levels that I never expected to have any interest in. But his enthusiasm makes me pause.
“It’s great being here, just looking at stuff and asking what what this for?”
Bob grew up in a utopian community in Indian and now lives not far from Thoreau’s Walden Pond. For years he ran his own company to fix old machinery no one else knew how to use. Next he stops at the “buzz-planer,” used to smooth out frames, and casually notes how hands are easily mangled if not handled carefully.
“That’s how they got the idea for pulled pork.”
“The state tries to boot us out every now and then — last time was 12 to 14 years ago.”
Kurt is silver goateed, wearing a dolphin chain and tiny turquoise shorts, and speaking about this white wood cottage he bought for $700 in 1981. Like his neighbors, on the Boston island of Peddocks, he has no electricity or water.
“You’re standing in the old Port-you-gee village here,” he says of the dozen or so cottages around his that made up a Portuguese fishing village, founded a century ago. The city has only barely tolerated its existence since.
Only one other person is allowed to use it when he’s not around. “I only let my ex-girlfriend stay here. She’s an islander. She gets it.”
(She once re-painted it when he was sick.)
“I was a hip-hop baby from the Upper West Side.”
Now graffiti artist SpazeCraft, or Aaron Lazansky-Olivas, is all about the Bronx. “It’s seeping with inspiration,” he says from his artist-in-residency studio at the Bronx’s Andrew Freedman Home. “When I first met my wife” — on a subway in the Bronx several years ago — “she told me, ‘I have to let you know I have kidney disease.'” He ended up marrying her, donating one of his kidneys to her, and now their kid spends time in his studio.
Part of his role at the Andrew Freeman, built as a retirement home for well-to-do locals gone bust, is helping kids. “My envision is to put together a teen SuperFriends, if you will. Everyone helping each other. It’s already working.”
“Grip was kind of a dick.”
Caitlin Goodman tweets for Charles Dickens’ dead raven, Grip — a permanent resident of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Books department. Her new job description, given because she’s the youngest person in the department, has changed her.
“I sometimes have more attitude,” she says, standing by Grip’s hallway case. “I mean, look at his arrogant little beak. That chin lifted that way… He bit Dickens’ children. He was a jerk.” During daily tours she leads at 11am, some people wonder if it’s even real. “So I give my spiel, emphasizing the oddness of it. That it even exists.”
I asked Caitlin if she felt, as I do, that her hometown is sort of weird at times.
“Well, we do appreciate a good oddity. I mean, this belies how much I like eating, but look at our soft pretzels. They’re not round. They’re lozenge-shaped.”