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  THESE ARE THE CONVENTIONS IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD.  
   
   
 

BOSTON -- The woman in 3A calls it a nuisance; the guys in 4F call it exhilarating; the girl next door calls it an attack waiting to happen. I call it home.

Boston's West End is a triumph of urban understatement: A campus

 
  of mid-range high rises and parks sandwiched between the site of the 2004 Democratic National Convention and the veritable city of military personnel who have taken residence on the banks of the Charles River. It's a 45-acre spread in the heart of Boston that many Bostonians have no idea exists. Tell someone where you live if you happen to inhabit one of the efficient, modern, insipid units, and you're typically greeted with a blank stare and a nervous smile until you recite the time honored sales slogan of the corporation that manages the ifs ands and buts of your  
 

home: "If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home Now."

It's unctuous, but it works for the hordes of rush hour commuters parked on Storrow Drive inching their way towards I-93 and home. As you read this, at least a half dozen people reading the same are nodding their heads, happy to be in on the joke, and still only half able to tell you where they saw the maroon and white signs posted proudly with a number to call if you're seeking long-term accommodation. We are a three-minute walk from the heart and soul of Bean Town -- a 10-minute walk from the home of John Kerry himself -- and yet we are largely anonymous. This is our little secret deep in the heart New England's biggest playground.

This week, the secret is out. The nation's eyes are on Boston, but really, their eyes are on my urban oasis. From where I'm sitting, I am able to stare directly out my window at the Fleet Center, the

 
     

home of the week's formal convention events. If I could hit the ball out of Fenway (and I probably can't), I could have put a few balls on the roof during Monday's opening festivities. It is for that reason that a copy of each resident's lease has been delivered under each door reminding us that we are in breach of contract should we elect to heed Boston urban legend and put our homes on the sublet market. Ten grand for the week would be nice, but the man is saying "no dice." It's also the reason that the roof was closed during this year's July 4 fireworks spectacular across the street on the Esplanade. A few baseballs are one

 
 

thing; a rocket propelled grenade attack would be quite another. From memos to concierge trainings to increased security presence, exactly who inhabits which units facing the convention site has become a point of interest in recent months.

Beyond my concierge suddenly knowing my name, however, the physical reality of the DNC buildup has been largely nondescript. Rumor, worry and controversy in Boston abound, but this year, in this state, what else is new? If we could manage to facilitate the first gay marriages in the nation's history without violence, the occasional police escort ushering VIPs through town and the veritable army of men clad in khakis, blazers and sunglasses with the mysterious looking telephone cord earpieces should be the icing on the proverbial cake. This neighborhood has been 'round the block, as it were.

Still, to dismiss the DNC as akin to a local political affair, no matter how passionate or significant, would be to ignore the subtleties of an event that has become for all intensive purposes the Academy Awards of Hollywood for Ugly People: The star-studded TV event brought to your living room and mine by the authors, directors and producers of contemporary American politics. This is a week where Ben Affleck isn't the most exciting patron of a Sox/Yankees match up. This is a week where pundits rule and where Kerry is King. The sound of helicopter rotors cutting the air outside my window; the band after band of delegates marching past my door; the guy on the street waving the "Kerry Kills Kids" sign remind me that the constitutional debates over gay marriage, while intense, lacked the organizational elements at work here this week. This is another ballgame entirely, and the last 24 hours have painted a vivid portrait of the new rules.

In 1980, presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan asked, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" It was a smart question to ask an American electorate crippled by double digit inflation, skyrocketing fuel prices and unemployment. It was a question that helped to win him the White House. Today the question the current administration's challengers should be asking is "Are you safer now than you were four years ago?"

A stroll through the neighborhood answers the question in stark terms. Welcome to Checkpoint Charlie. Bomb squads, military sentinels, barricades, and razor wire have replaced a landscape that was only a few days ago characterized by the lonely last unremoved remnants of Boston's Big Dig. Stationary truckloads of sand parked at the mouth of every street bear an eerie resemblance to a military perimeter. The National Guardsman with the assault rifle standing 10 feet away completes the backdrop.

Around the corner, the "free speech area" -- a pen of steel and barbed wire off of Canal Street -- is already full of anti-gay and pro-

 
 

life graffiti. An 11-year-old stands with his family wearing a Fred Phelps "God Hates Fags.Com" shirt. (The Black Table interviewed Mr. Phelps last year, who at the time was protesting Mr. Rogers' funeral.) A protestor assures me that God blew up the space shuttle. Our quiet little enclave has become something more resembling a political crime scene than a Boston neighborhood.

A palpable tension fills the air. The convention hasn't even started yet Monday morning, and already it smells like a fight begging to happen. On my way to pick up a pizza from a quiet neighborhood joint a

 
   
 

troop of 20-some living, breathing G.I. Joes in full riot gear march in formation down the middle of a sleepy Boston road. In the morning, we awake to news of SWAT teams and K9 units fanning through our courtyards to search for supposed enemy parachutists landing in our midst.

The White House assures us that we are safer than we were once upon a clear September day in 2001, but the DNC evidently isn't buying the hype. The neighborhood has been transformed to the closest thing resembling a police state I've seen in the flesh, and yet we are asked to accept the notion that the Democratic candidate will be 'weaker' on terrorism. It's an order that brings to mind the sentiment of a former president on Monday night's convention floor: Wisdom and strength are not opposing values. From where I sit watching helicopters zoom past and a nation divided by fear and mistrust, I'm convinced to take a gamble on a newer bet. If I'd hired a plumber four years ago to fix a leaky faucet to no avail, I'd have fired him by now too regardless of how unskilled he tells me his competition might be. Meanwhile, the helicopters buzz outside our windows and the troops march on past reminding us all just how simple something can look and how complicated it can be.

Still, the trappings of home prevail. After a 9-6 win over the Yankees on Sunday, I woke to find a mother and her son having a quiet catch between the banks of protestors and camouflage on a strip of grass outside my door. Even in the midst of our very own, very public military sanctuary, hope and optimism for a winning Red Sox season prevails. All the failures of the administration, righteousness of the opposition and temporary madness of our city are set aside for a few quiet minutes with a baseball and mom on a sunny July day.

It seems that thankfully, some things in the neighborhood will never change.

 

Matt Arnould is a freelance writer based in Boston.