Questions you’ve always wanted answered

Recently we’ve noticed small, colored plastic disks embedded in the asphalt on Boston streets, especially in sections that have been repaired. What are those disks doing there?

“They signify the utility contractor that did the work” wrote Gabrielle Farrell, associate press secretary in the mayor’s office, in an email. “This gives the Public Works Department a way of tracking work done on the street. PWD notifies these companies if work is improper or if after 60 days PWD needs to finish the job.

Turns out I could have found the answer on the city’s website at

Since the spring of 2011, Public Works has required all utility companies, private contractors, city contractors, and other agencies that dig up Boston’s streets to insert what they call Utility Repair Tag Pavement Markers. These plastic disks identify whoever dug up the street. For example, Verizon’s orange disk has the year it was installed in the center, its name at the bottom and its bond number of 416 at the top. National Grid and NStar Gas have both been assigned a yellow disk, but their names and numbers are different. Private contactors’ disks are green. J. F. White, which does much work in Boston, was assigned the number 287.

City officials can check the disks if they notice a problem. Citizens can also identify the contractor or utility and call the mayor’s hot line or submit a cell-phone picture of the problem and the contractor through Citizen’s Connect.

These disks may help solve a problem about which many residents complain: a recently paved street, dug up and left messy by a contractor or utility that has to do underground work.


Hosts on NPR thank guests for appearing on their show. Why do the guests respond with a “thank you,” when they should say “you’re welcome?”

First, it’s just a place-holder, said Dr. Shari Thurer, a local clinical psychologist who is a keen observer of human behavior. Lots of people say thank you when there is really nothing to thank people for. But on NPR, some people have a new book out. It’s hard to find venues to talk about such things. No wonder they are thankful. Even if they haven’t written a book, those who are interviewed are probably genuinely grateful for the chance to express their views. It bugs me, but Dr. Thurer takes it in stride. Maybe the guest could say, “It’s been my pleasure,” instead.


Tower cranes are operating all over Boston and Cambridge. Some have an arm at a right-angle. Others have a movable arm mounted on the diagonal. What determines the kind of crane used on a construction site?

Chris King, president and general manager of Liberty Construction Services, which owns the cranes Suffolk Construction uses on its projects, knows the answer.

“The right-angled tower cranes are typically referred to as hammerhead tower cranes,” he said in an email provided by Leah Pennino of Suffolk Construction. “These are the more popular cranes throughout the U.S. The “diagonal jib” cranes are referred to as luffing jib cranes, and they are not as common.

“The luffing jib cranes are used in tight areas like downtown Boston where other buildings are close by. By being able to “luff” up and down, these cranes can avoid nearby structures. Hammerhead cranes are typically faster to erect and dismantle and easier to operate. These hammerhead cranes are found on most concrete jobs that are outside of downtown settings or in areas without nearby structures.

“The luffing jib cranes typically have more capacity than most hammerhead cranes by design. This is why most buildings erected out of steel use them. Hammerhead cranes are better suited to concrete projects.”

Aren’t you happy you now know about tower cranes?

Closing a church and its garden

Church attendance is down all over America, but especially in New England, where only 17 to 22 percent of the residents report weekly attendance. Almost half of all Americans report they rarely or never go to church. One web site lists 27 churches in Massachusetts for sale to developers. The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has eight pages of closed or merged parishes from the 1990s through 2011 listed on its web site.

Closing a church is a dicey business. Parishioners in St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Scituate who objected to that church’s closing have occupied it for more than 10 years, despite court rulings that have affirmed the right of the Catholic Archdiocese to close it.       Sometimes there is a fight over the money brought in by the sale of a church.

But since it was sold to a residential developer in October, 2014, the mission church of St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street on Beacon Hill has been dealing with a different problem from most. It is a question: “What shall we do about the garden?”

“Our congregation cared about this,” said St. John’s priest-in-charge, the Reverend Katharine Black. The congregation’s numbers had dwindled long ago, but there were still members and friends for whom the church and especially its garden were important. “There was no way to sell the building without a plan for the garden.”

The garden was special because it had been affected by events unique to the end of the 20th century.

When gay men began dying of AIDS in the 1980s, their friends and family faced a trying situation, Black reported. Many cemeteries, not knowing how the disease spread and fearing that a dead body might still be contagious, refused to accept AIDS victims’ bodies for burial.

Church members felt anguish over such rejections. Many gay men had found sanctuary in the church, and members believed it was their duty to take care of them.

So they decided that those who wished to do so could instruct that their remains be cremated and the ashes scattered in the garden. Church members dug holes for the ashes, some near the hostas, some near the Japanese maple or the rhododendrons to mark the spot. Soon, the bodies of others, including three children and a young man who committed suicide, were cremated, and their remains were also scattered by church members or friends.

Massachusetts has laws regarding graveyards. When a body has been cremated and buried in an urn, it can be excavated and re-buried. But what does one do about ashes scattered in an entire garden?

The congregation came up with a solution. They would scoop up dirt from various sections in the garden, sometimes by the spoonful, and place the dirt containing ashes in an urn. But where would they place the urn, since the church was closing?

Plans were for St. John the Evangelist to merge with the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street. The $4.5 million received from the sale of the mission church would go toward the cathedral’s renovation. As part of the work, a chapel would be built commemorating the Church of St. John the Evangelist. The chapel was constructed so the urn could be placed in a wooden box, made by St. John’s facilities manager, Jim Woodworth, and that box would be placed in the floor.

When the floor was ready, the congregation of St. John carried the urn with the garden dirt and the remains inside. With due ceremony they proceeded up Bowdoin Street and down through the Common and placed it in the chapel’s floor. A placard in the container describes the contents.

St. John is still negotiating with Mount Auburn Cemetery to see if it will take the top layer of remaining dirt from the garden.

The church building and the adjacent mission house will soon undergo construction into large two and three-bedroom condominiums. The church’s hope and that of the neighborhood is that families will be enticed to move in.

Still to be decided is what to do with religious artifacts, pews, and some of the church windows. But compared to the garden and its sacred holdings, the disposition of other church possessions is easy.

The Reverend Katharine Black is satisfied by the solution that was worked out for bereaved friends and relatives. “It was important to do the right thing,” she said.

The more things change . . .

Larry DiCara remembers his first encounter with Mayor Kevin White. It was 1971. DiCara was newly elected to the Boston City Council. The mayor phoned. Would DiCara meet with him?

The young DiCara, outfitted in his best suit, entered the mayor’s office at the new city hall. White stood at the window overlooking Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. White said he had two goals—depress the Central Artery and fix Quincy Market.

White accomplished one goal while still in office. In 1975 Quincy Market and later the North and South Markets opened to immense excitement, bolstering Boston’s downtown success.

But accomplishing that task was much like the Olympics effort today. The knives were out. Pessimism ruled. Doom was predicted. Costs rose. A bold, perhaps transforming plan was mocked, scorned, condemned and denounced.

What saved it was a visionary, a prime mover, a deadline and a tough mayor.

Architect Benjamin Thompson articulated his vision for a successful city when his contemporaries were designing big empty plazas.

“Of all the pieces in the urban puzzle, the marketplace is the most fundamental, most civically important—and most neglected,” he wrote in the Boston Globe, July 4, 1971. “Historic marketplaces, springing up at intersections of navigation and trade routes, were the seed and heart of cities.”

Thompson cited the “natural pageantry of crowds.” He predicted that the crumbling Quincy Market and its flanking buildings could be brought back to life, recreating their original purpose in a contemporary way.

After a false start with one developer, Thompson found the Rouse Company. Rouse developed shopping malls, but also had created Columbia, Md., where housing was built around old-fashioned town centers instead of the usual suburban sprawl.

James Rouse was the prime mover. The Globe’s real estate reporter Anthony Yudis quoted him: “We should always examine the optimums and forget about feasibility. It will compromise us soon enough. Let’s look at what might be and be invigorated by it.”

White was excited by the plan. He wanted Quincy Market completed by Boston 200, the city’s bicentennial celebration, set to begin in 1975. Rouse would fund a portion of the celebration. Out-of-towners Chase Manhattan Bank and what is now called TIAA-CREF put up half the money or $10 million. Boston banks would provide the rest.

The critics erupted.

The meat, cheese and produce purveyors that occupied Quincy Market complained they would be displaced, and the renovated building would be unaffordable. Rouse’s promise they could return for three years with the same rent they were paying in the old building did not move them.

White’s own staff put up a fight. DiCara remembered that Herb Gleason, White’s corporation counsel, supported a scaled-down proposal by Roger Webb, admired for his reclamation of Old City Hall.

As city property, the markets needed approval from the city council for any deal. Yudis reported there was little interest in either proposal. Only three councilors attended the hearing at which the two were presented. The councilors were too busy fussing over the proposed Park Plaza. Yudis wrote, “Some urban experts think the Faneuil Hall-markets plan is the ‘sleeper’ in the future Boston that could have just as much significance as, if not more than, the Park Plaza concept.”

DiCara said it was a tough sell. Dapper O’Neill, Joe Tierney and Freddie Langone opposed the market’s redevelopment, but the proponents were finally able to get six councilors, including DiCara, to vote for it, mainly because of Rouse’s good reputation.

Remarkably, the BRA worked against the Rouse proposal even after the company was designated in 1973.

It took the BRA two years to sign a lease. The BRA board chair predicted the whole enterprise was foolish. “Only one sour note was expressed — several times following the lease signing,” Yudis reported. “The chairman of the BRA, Robert T. Farrell, made it clear to those connected with the project that, in his opinion, the project never will be carried off. Time will tell whether this was an astute observation.”

The BRA director, Robert Kenney, had no faith either in Rouse’s plan. Three months before the market opened he was still working to change it, trying to get a Hyatt Regency hotel into the mix, with the lobby in the rotunda, reported Ian Menzies, a Globe columnist. Rouse was having none of that.

Thompson said putting a hotel into the market was like the recently completed Harbor Towers on the harbor—a way to keep the public out.

Then there was the money problem. Boston banks refused to come up with their share of the financing. By early February 1975 Mayor White had had it. He called the heads of the local financial institutions to his office, recalled Budge Upton, Rouse’s project manager, who, with Rouse, was at the meeting. White told the banks they had 24 hours to arrange the local financing or he would pull the city’s money from their institutions. By the next day White had $10 million from the First National Bank, John Hancock, New England Life, State Street Bank, New England Merchants, National Shawmut, Charlestown Savings, Union Warren, Commonwealth Bank and the Mass. Business Development Corp.

A few months later, Faneuil Hall Marketplace opened. Among many last-minute snafus, said Upton, was awaiting the delivery of 80 wheels for the pushcarts. They arrived at Logan three days before the opening. No one knew if the rehabilitated market would attract any notice.

But on the first day 125,000 people showed up. Menzies then started writing about how the Central Artery had to go—another effort fraught with negativity. It goes to show—conventional wisdom is sometimes just conventional. It isn’t wisdom at all.

Love in the lab

Kerfuffle. Brouhaha, contretemps, a wrangle, rumpus, melee, a ruckus, a to-do. It is curious that some of the best words in the English language describe a commotion, a disturbance, a fuss. My big American Heritage dictionary, published in 2000, strangely does not include the word. But the online Oxford English Dictionary traces its origin to the early 19th century Gaelic “curfuffle” with the first syllable meaning twist or bend, while the ending used the Scots word “fuffle,” signifying disorder.

Kerfuffle has a light touch. A Boston Globe writer used it to describe the mayor’s aide bullying the president of the Boston Public Library at a public meeting for something she didn’t do. But that’s not the right usage. A kerfuffle must have more humor in it, more wonder, maybe a bit of irony. It’s not mean-spirited.

So I was happy to read about the outcry over comments about women scientists by Tim Hunt, a British biochemist with a Nobel Prize. The New York Times quoted him: “Three things happen when [women] are in the lab: You fall in love with them. They fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

It was then that, in another wonderful English language phrase, the shit hit the fan.

According to the Times, one female professor wrote: “Dear department: please note I will be unable to chair the 10 am meeting this morning because I am too busy swooning and crying #TimHunt.” Etc. The backlash was as funny as the comments.

Then Mr. Hunt said more things that got him more in trouble, and he resigned from the faculty of University College London.

But I sort of thought he was wonderful. (Another trait women are accused of—a man supposedly wouldn’t hedge with the words “sort of.”)

When I read his words, I liked them. Working in a lab together. Falling in love. Sounds good to me. I love working with my husband—he’s smart, he holds up his end and he gets things done. If I we knew how to work in a lab it would be lovely. We could cuddle without having to commute. (In fact, I know a married couple working in a lab together. I don’t know how they met, but there is a good chance they fell in love in a lab.)

Falling in love sounds better than what I imagine would really be going on in such labs—infighting, competition, subterfuge such as ruining another lab workers’ experiment.

I know that falling in love with one’s co-worker is fraught with all kinds of concerns about professionalism, yada, yada, yada. But people do it all the time, maybe even most of the time. And isn’t “what the world needs now is love, sweet love? It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” We need to lighten up on love.

We also need to lighten up on crying. I can attest that I cry more than the men in my life do. My daughters, my sister and my sister-in-law, all professional women, don’t cry much, but they do so more than their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Sometimes it gets you somewhere. Remember when Hillary Clinton shed a tear that helped her win the New Hampshire primary?

Pity women like Hillary. If they don’t cry, they are cold. If they do, they are weak. Can’t we let women cry if they want to? And while we’re at it, let men shed a tear too.

The only place I disagree with Nobel Prize-winning Hunt is that love and crying should keep women out of labs. No. We should instead learn to love that love is in labs—and law firms and hospitals and venture capital firms and retail shops and construction sites. Mr. Hunt has described a heterosexual problem. But now that gays and lesbians are finally welcome everywhere, a man falling in love with a woman is only one of the kinds of people men can fall for. So it’s not women, but it is love we must learn to handle.

As for crying? Mr. Hunt, it’s okay. If you’re not bullying, just criticizing, your words may make the crying woman a better scientist, and she’ll be happy about it later.

Mr. Hunt was mocked, but he actually sounds like a good man. Women fell in love with him and he with them. Not bad for a lifetime. He had empathy for the women he criticized and didn’t like to see them cry.

Maybe I wrote this whole thing just because I wanted to use the word “kerfuffle.”

Not your father’s Oldsmobile

The world has changed. Our cars are more efficient and safer than they were a couple of decades ago. We used to be concerned about the Soviet Union. Now it is Russia. At one time women stayed home and took care of children. Now almost 70 percent of mothers with young children work at least part-time. Members of the same sex have married, and the world has not fallen in.

So I thought I would roll right along when Bruce Jenner announced he was going to be Caitlyn. Bruce changing to a woman? No problem. Bruce becoming Caitlyn? No problem. Sixty-five-year-old Caitlyn looking like no 65-year-old woman I know? Really weird.

Is this what the former Bruce thought women were like? All makeup, nail polish, cleavage and big silicone boobs?

Take a look at the Vanity Fair cover. You don’t have to buy the magazine. Caitlyn’s picture is all over the Internet too. She has long, silky not-gray hair, beautiful skin and a gaze like Angelina Jolie. If pictures tell no lies, it looks as if she is also missing a piece of equipment that would pretty much clinch her former status as a man. This is her true self, she says.

Since I was on the Internet, I could look at more women who used to be men and had become their true selves. They were pretty much like Jenner—glamorous, lots of makeup, dramatic, tight-fitting clothes.

Most people I know have no problem with other people wanting to be their true selves.

But Caitlyn’s appearance is a caricature of womanhood. Her get-up would look appropriate on J Lo, but not on any real woman. She will need a whole beauty salon to follow her around if she aspires to always look like that when she is out in public. Most women are too busy for that kind of obsession. Why not aspire to look like women of achievement? Elizabeth Warren, Maura Healey, Hillary Clinton, Loretta Lynch, even 4-foot, 11-inch Senator Barbara Mikulski come to mind.

Caitlyn is going to have more and more company as a transgendered woman. Wellesley College and Simmons College have both announced they will accept people who identify as women, no matter what sex they were at birth. With all kinds of women to emulate there is a real question Caitlyn must ultimately answer: “What does it really mean to be a woman?”

Having recently spent four hours with 50 women who had gathered for a meeting and a lunch, I believe I’m something of an expert.

They were giving away money they had raised in an event—a small business actually. They were talking about their friends, husbands, families and neighborhood matters. They were dealing with plumbers, contractors and kids visiting colleges. They were taking time off from work to be at this meeting, and their cell phones continued to buzz. They were working the room.

I know these women well. Some are Patriots fans, many are interested in politics. Some run their own businesses. Some are doctors, others are lawyers. There were a few philanthropists. One shed a tear, as Gov. Charlie Baker has done.

Many were wearing the workplace uniform—trousers, shirt and jacket. There was no cleavage showing. (Now I know this is Boston, where we “already have our hats,” according to a 19th century female proper Bostonian. It is possible that Boston women are not a good comparison to anyone who appears on the cover of Vanity Fair.)

Maybe they were sharing more secrets, baring more soul than men would do. But it occurred to me that their clothing was also the male uniform, and their concerns and behavior were pretty much like those of men. Except that they can give birth, something men, as yet, cannot do.

So I guess I’m not much help after all in what makes a woman a woman.

What I do know, though, is that Caitlyn’s claim to fame is not that she once was a man. Her notoriety comes from being a celebrity, first as an Olympian and now as part of that bizarre, narcissistic group known as the Kardashians.

Celebrities are a peculiar bunch, often living extreme lives that most of us do not aspire to and that many of us pay little attention to. I wouldn’t bet on a celebrity teaching us anything.

So I’m not counting on Caitlyn Jenner. The ones I plan to follow are those young, anonymous people who will now be attending Wellesley and Simmons. It’s their experience that will help us understand better what it means to be a woman or a man and what it means to make a change from one gender to another. And I bet it won’t involve lipstick.