I spent the first seven years of my life in Boston and have visited the city at least once a year ever since.
But at age 32, I had never been to Boston Common, Faneuil Hall or Fenway Park.
I had never strolled the Boston Harbor. I had never heard of Beacon Hill.
My limited knowledge of the historical and tourist-worn parts of Boston can be attributed to two things:
1) My mom's family lives in Boston. When we visit, we go to their homes - which are usually crowded with friends and relatives, but are, in fact, not actual tourist attractions.
2) Boston, for all its Northern sophistication, is and always has been an extremely divided town. Roxbury and Dorchester, the areas of Boston where my relatives live, are mostly black and have been since before I was born. The rest of Boston is mostly white.
But I have spent most of my life in a more mixed reality. I grew up in Prince George's County and went to college in Washington, D.C. I am used to seeing a relative rainbow of folks wherever I go.
So when an opportunity arose here at The Sun to travel to Boston on a weekend getaway, I gladly volunteered.
My goal was to find out all I could about the Boston I never knew - without spending more than $500, including airfare, hotel, food and all my incidentals. Such a budget is difficult for me to keep when I stay home in my pajamas on weekends, much less when I travel.
I also had to contend with a mess of family, who expected to see as much of me as possible, and who, for the life of me, just couldn't seem to grasp what in the world I was doing.
"You're going to take a tour?" asked my cousin Ty, a Boston police officer. "A real tour? But you lived here. That's so lame."
"I don't see why you can't stay here with me," my nana said. "Who wants to stay in a hotel by themselves?"
As it turned out, staying within my budget was more than a little tricky. I decided to go on my weekend trip during Easter, a popular travel time. To make matters worse, it also turned out to be the weekend of the Boston Marathon. With the holiday and a major international event, the cheapest hotel I found was in a town called Billerica - about 40 minutes away from Boston proper.
"Bill-RICKA?!" my family screamed, each time I told someone where I had found a cheap hotel. (My family screams a lot.) "Why are you staying all the way in Bill-RICKA? Where is Bill-RICKA?"
But the hotel was nice - a luxurious Wyndham I found using hotels.com - and at $70 a night, it was a real steal. I found the king-sized bed incredibly cozy and the room blissfully quiet, particularly when the alternative was sleeping in my nana's bed, adjacent to the smoky room where she has her weekly poker game.
The airfare, too, was a good find. Only $128.60 round trip on AirTran. And unlike my original plan to take advantage of a Southwest Airlines e-ticket - which would have only gotten me as far as Providence, R.I. - I was able to fly right into Logan International Airport, just minutes from Roxbury.
The real expense came with the rental car. The best price I could find was $33 per day. Tack on taxes, service charges, fees and insurance, and the total came to an unexpected $131.37
So, by the time I arrived in Boston proper, I had about $100 left to spend, an entire city to explore and one very important thing to do: I wasn't leaving until I had lobster.
Friday morning, after handing over $3 at the tollbooth, I met my nana for breakfast at a locally famous spot on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester. Ashley's Breakfast Shoppe offers mouth-watering foods at pre-Reagan-era prices: apple pancakes for $3.90, honey buns for $1. Coffee for 90 cents! Hooray!
I had two eggs, toast with jelly, home fries, bacon and tea (true Bostonians drink tea, not coffee, with milk or cream). With tip, the meal came to $6.
I kissed my Auntie Fern, my cousins and my nana good-bye, parked my rental car at the subway station, hopped on the "T" - the nation's oldest subway system - and headed downtown.
Since no one in my family could really offer any advice about where to go - my Auntie Val once had to ask a tourist from another country where to find historic Faneuil Hall - I asked the subway attendant for guidance. He gave me detailed instructions on where to go, what trains to catch and what sights to see. And the train fare - only $1.25 no matter where or how far I was going - was great for my tight budget.
When I emerged from the train at Downtown Crossing, the weather was perfect - sunny, in the mid-70s and not a drop of rain in sight. It pained me, but I ignored the building directly in front of the subway exit - Filene's - and followed a crowd in front of me to a huge grassy park full of sun-loving loungers.
I asked two men sitting cross-legged on the lawn in front of a gold-domed building that turned out to be the statehouse for the name of the park. One nearly choked on his VitaminWater.
"This is Bahston Cahmon," he said.
My first time in Boston Common, the nation's first public park! Even with only a third of the leaves on the park's trees, it was beautiful. I sat on a bench for a few minutes just to take it all in.
That's when I decided to take a trolley tour. There are scads of them rolling about downtown. I picked one called "Discover Boston," which seemed to best fit the theme of my visit. It was $29, a veritable fortune for my dwindling funds, but well worth it.
The driver, Tim, wore a Boston Red Sox jersey and had a quick wit. The tour lasted two hours and included stops at Beacon Hill (where U.S. Sen. John Kerry has a home), Boston Harbor, Cambridge, the Theatre District and Chinatown.
I saw Fenway Park, the nation's oldest and smallest baseball field, and the Charlestown Navy Yard (where the Constitution - "Old Ironsides" - is docked). I saw the Cheers bar (the Bull & Finch Pub on Beacon Street) and the place where Paul Revere threw 342 crates of tea into the harbor, which is where the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum is. (It's closed for renovations.) We drove past Breed's Hill (the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill), and down world-famous Newbury Street, home to such fashionable stores as Marc Jacobs International, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace Boutique, Cartier and Donna Karan. There were chic outdoor cafes and art galleries.
"This is the street you want to be seen on," Tim, the driver said. And I didn't even know it was there.
I was exhausted after the tour, so I grabbed a slice of pizza and a pink lemonade from a little greasy spot downtown and headed back to nana's and then to Billerica for the night. My quest for cheap lobster would have to wait.
Now that I had seen Boston by wheels, the next day I decided to walk the town. First, I took a walking tour of Boston's Freedom Trail with a historically costumed woman named Freelove Bliss. For $12, Bliss, a member of Boston's Histrionic Academy, guided me and several others on a detailed 90-minute tour of the city. The site of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere's and John Hancock's graves, Faneuil Hall - America's first seat of local government. It was American history class all over again, but more interesting.
Then I walked along the Black Heritage Trail, which gives a detailed account of early black Bostonians, many of whom once lived in Beacon Hill. The free tour, which is guided by an information-packed National Park Ranger, starts at a memorial to Col. Robert Gould Shaw (the Matthew Broderick character in the 1989 movie Glory) and ends at the African Meeting House, where many local black heroes and heroines convened.
The tours gave me new insight into the important roles blacks played in Boston's history.
And all that walking made me hungry.
At long last
On Long Wharf, I hit the lobster jackpot: only $20 for a 1-pounder at a place called Tia's on the Waterfront. After my delicious dinner coup, I took a stroll along Boston Harbor from Christopher Columbus Park to Boston's South Station (the busiest train station in the country, after New York's Grand Central Station).
From there, I headed back to the family compound, where I prattled on about how they were all missing out. Boston Common is beautiful! There's history galore downtown! You are just as free as anybody else to walk down Newbury Street!
"I can't believe you went on a tour," my cousin Ty said, handing me his 10-month-old, whom I had never seen.
"You don't have to go all the way out to Bill-RICKA tonight, do you?" my nana asked.
I bounced my littlest cousin and considered my family. They love Boston, just as it is. My nana has never lived anywhere but Roxbury and probably never will.
And I guess it will just be up to me to put on my Pumas and walk the city they will never know, come home to nana's and tell them all about it.
BOSTON FUN FACTS
About 600,000 people live in Boston.
The Boston area is known for great educational institutions, and not just Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Music producer Quincy Jones and musician John Mayer went to the Berklee College of Music, and actor Henry Winkler went to Emerson College.
It costs anywhere from $40 to $90 to park near Fenway Park, the nation's oldest and smallest baseball field, and home of the Boston Red Sox. A beer costs $7.25 inside its hallowed walls. A hot dog costs $4.
Boston and its neighbor, Cambridge, Harvard's home, were settled in the same year: 1630.
Boston Common was established in 1634, and is the nation's oldest public park, built for "the common good" of the people.
The "T" - short for MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) - began running in 1897, making it the oldest subway system in the nation.
IF YOU GO
AirTran offers daily flights to Boston from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport starting from about $139 round trip. AirTran also has online specials starting at $49 each way. Amtrak offers daily train service to Boston from Baltimore's Penn Station.
Hotels.com offers a variety of lodging in the city. Some of the best deals are usually just outside Boston proper, such as the Wyndham Billerica Hotel. This luxury hotel offers great rates and rooms and is about 40 minutes outside the city at 270 Concord Road, Billerica 01821; 978-670-7500.
Ashley's Breakfast Shoppe, 260 Bowdoin St., Dorchester. Affordable home-style breakfasts. 617-436-1577.
Tia's, 200 Atlantic Ave., downtown next to the Marriott at Long Wharf. Lobster dinner special is a winner, but the restaurant also offers a variety of seafood specialties. 617-227-0828; tiaswaterfront.com.
Discover Boston Trolley Tour. Narrated two-hour tour of most popular tourist sites, including Boston Harbor, Beacon Hill, Fenway Park, Newbury Street and Cambridge. 617-742-1440; discoverbostontours.com.
Boston's Freedom Trail. Daily, public walking tours led by costumed guides. $12. 617-227-8800; thefreedomtrail.org.
Black Heritage Trail. Guided by the National Park Service, this tour explores the history of Boston's 19th-century African-Americans. Free. nps.gov/boaf.
HOW THE MONEY WAS SPENT
Airfare - $128.60
Hotel - $141.18
Rental car - $131.37
Meals - $35.75
Discover Boston Trolley Tour - $29
Freedom Trail Walking Tour - $12, plus $3 tip
Subway fare - $6.25
Tolls (one-way from airport) - $3
Gas to fill up rental - $10
Total: $500.15 (oops!)