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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Peerless Life in Allston Rock City

[Allston Rock City: Corner of Harvard & Brighton, circa 2005]

Allston is a thickly settled multi-generational, multi-cultural Boston neighborhood off the Mass Pike. It's a student ghetto, situated on the 57 and 66 bus routes, and the B train from Boston College to Boston University to Kenmore (Red Sox territory), and onward into Park Street, where you can change trains and get pretty much anywhere you want to go.

Upper Allston is the busy ramshackle Mah Jong board of brownstones and walk-ups and restaurants and coffee shops and tattoo boutiques and thrift stores and churches and a thousand other urban services and delicacies. Stand in the middle of Upper Allston any time of day and you're in the perfect spot to take the pulse of Rock City. It's a hopping hive of students and rockers and immigrants from everywhere, and when you stand on the corner at night, you think, "Excellent city."

Lower Allston, or "LA" so dubbed by its genial citizenry, is a comparatively quiet residential sprawl of vintage double and triple deckers.

[The Peerless: Allston MA]
In 2003 I somehow found myself moving into Joe's Upper Allston apartment. It was a small one-bedroom on the second floor of The Peerless, a tired but noble old dame of a building situated just one T stop from the corner of Harvard and Comm.

I love The Peerless. She dates from the 1930s when the roads were just carriage lanes. Some people still use the term "carriage lane" when referring to the one-way access roads that flank Comm Ave and the train tracks. The Peerless is overshadowed by a rather drab walk-up a few doors down whose legacy is jack-hammered into the stone surplices just because it's where Aerosmith used to live in the 70s when they were a local Allston band. Before you go "Ooo," remember you have to count everything before and after Pump.

Aerosmith returns in 2012



Joe's apartment was tiny. Somehow we cohabited harmoniously right on top of each other for seven years. That's love, baby. I wouldn't recommend trying it for as long as we did.

Ours was the unit over the entryway. The situation was a plus because there were no downstairs neighbors, but a minus because it only had one window, overlooking the street and the train tracks. To be specific, it was one picture window that didn't open, flanked by two small ones that you could open halfway and did jack squat to stir the stuffy air. No cross breezes, no sunlight. Summers were rough when the place became a 98,000 degree sauna. Going outside for some relief meant sitting on the front stoop at car bumper level.

The Peerless from across Comm Ave.
During my research, I found evidence suggesting that today's one-bedroom Peerless units are the result of breaking up larger two-and-three bedroom apartments many years ago, like the Bramford in Rosemary's Baby. They must have been gorgeous apartments. At one time all the Peerless units had front or back porches, which must have been amazing. If you open the front closet doors, the interior is all old brick, once the outer wall of the original porch that you can see in the old photos. I figure the divvying up separated along the living room and kitchen, so that these days, some of the corner units got a larger kitchen and bathroom, while others got a larger living room with a big picture window, but a tiny kitchen.

I met "Mo" online, she used to live in the Peerless
and actually had a photo of her place when it still had a porch!
Ours was one of the "tiny kitchen" units. Seriously, I'd tell people how small it was, but nobody got it until they came over. That kitchen was the size of a restroom stall. It was so small that you couldn't open the fridge and the oven at the same time. Half the linoleum floor tiles, glued down during the Roosevelt administration, were missing, the remaining tiles stained and so brittle with age that they'd crunch and break apart if trod upon. Meal prep happened on an 8-inch span of crackled 1940s formica counter space, mind you that's where the dish rack lived so...really, zero counter space. The small stove had one medium-sized coil-style electric burner and three teeny little burners, so you might be able to fit four pots or pans but only if three of them were toys from a play kitchen. And the creaky old oven mocked me and my cookie sheet, which was too big to fit inside it. Though it hardly mattered, that oven couldn't outbake a lightbulb in a shoe box.

When I moved in with Joe, I still had my baker's rack and my kitchen island from my much larger Somerville apartment, and I managed to cheat more kitchen area by configuring those two items outside the kitchen proper. Sure, that set-up occupied some living room, but I had to weigh that against how much I needed to augment that scant 8 inches of cracked formica counter space. It meant that you could sit on the couch and chop garlic on the kitchen island, but we made it work.

I became a space saving sorcerer in that apartment. I mounted metal grids on the walls and hung every utensil that was capable of hanging from a hook. I got shelves, shelf-expanders, under-counter gadgets, over-cabinet doodads, stacking wizards, you name it. My nested bowls were a work of art. Not a SET of nested bowls -- that's a no brainer. I'm talking rag-tag, bargain-bin hodge podge, baby. No ordinary person can stack bowls like that.

Space is like money. You don't think about it at all if you have enough, but when you have none, Christmas is a drag. First off, where do you stash Christmas decorations for eleven months a year? Secondly, family wants to gift you appliances when you're Dinks (Dual Income, No Kids) who never had a bridal registry. So every Christmas I'm under Joe's mother's tree saying sincere thank-yous, but inwardly I'm seeing my kitchen in my mind's eye, like the Terminator, as a mathematical grid and, even though I flunked every math class they had I'm hefting a wrapped Williams Sonoma box, mentally defining the variable of whatever's inside it, and multiplying by the coffee maker conjugate, so as not to have a complex number of sauce pans go undefined. Guess what was in the Williams Sonoma box. Thanks for the nested bowls. I keep them under the couch.

Still, it was a great apartment, and living right on the green line was super handy. Joe stepped out the door, crossed the carriage lane and waited at the T stop right there. That's gold. When I'd tell people that I live "on the green line," I'd specify, "I mean ON the green line."


But the proximity to the train and the traffic has its own set of issues. I found a new enemy at the Peerless. Dust. Not your ordinary, floaty mote-like variety of dust that retreats to a human hand with an old sock over it. This was an insidious, heavy dust from the constant trains and exhaust from Comm Ave traffic. It was black. It was greasy. And it was everywhere.

It was even coating all the stuff I had stashed under the bed. Every space saving Ninja's first go-to is that area under the bed, and mine was like a coal mine. So I bought a dust ruffle. When the box came containing the dust ruffle, I wasn't ready to do the whole project (strip the bed, haul off the mattress etc) so I didn't open the box. I, um, stashed it...under the bed. I never did open that box.

Seven years later when we finally moved to Lower Allston in November 2010, my space saving skills really came to light, because when I packed that Comm Ave kitchen, the stuff filled about ten boxes. "Where WAS it all?" marveled Joe.

Then when I unpacked at the new place, everything spread out into kitchen drawers and cabinets and what seemed like miles of counter space. I was SO HAPPY I still had my baker's rack and kitchen island.

My kitchen is tricked out, baby.

When I tell people how much I love where we live now, they nod and smile. No really -- you don't understand. This house is heaven. Twenty-four windows sending breezes everywhere. There's even a window in the bathroom. Clean white tile floor in the kitchen. Going outside means sitting out on the front stoop...or on our very own glorious private porch, WHAT?

Yet we are still within walking distance of all those Upper Allston restaurants and coffee shops and tattoo boutiques and thrift stores and churches and a thousand other urban services and delicacies. Best of both worlds isn't just a pipe dream!

The best part is...so much space...so little dust.

Heaven.

I totally returned that dust ruffle.

Sooooo much better...note the gifted nested bowls.