I Was Starting To Trust You, Massachusetts
Driving in Massachusetts is the dreaded nightmare of anyone north of the border. I even recall seeing signs on the highway asking people to drive “the courteous way” near the New Hampshire welcome center. Everyone knows that term “Masshole,” the badge of honor for those bad drivers with attitude and a few impolite gestures for the rest of us. Well, I don't mind a little bit of fast and clever driving, but sometimes I want to aim a 9mm at the back tires of the car slipping through and watch it spin off the overpass. Usually it has Mass plates.
And man do the roads suck down there. Just drive down I-95 or I-93 down through Hampton or Windham. You're cruising along a nice, smoothly paved road – probably paid for with toll money from those very folks who come here to visit, so don't think I hate their existence – but then you see the sign with the pilgrim hat and the faded white script: Massachusetts WELCOMES YOU. Or are you driving on Mars? The roads – pardon my French – turn to shit. Potholes and dust everywhere, roadwork vehicles and orange diamond signs around every bend, as if they were doing something. Oh, and the traffic congestion that comes with it. We don't need the sign to “welcome” us, we just know we're there.
And if you make it down Rte. 1 through Saugus and Revere to the Tobin Bridge, you'll be lucky to not miss three turns, get forced into lanes that lead to the other side of the Charles river, or into tight tunnels where no one bothers to drop a beat in mph. Oh, and they're texting. And if you try to merge, prepare for harassment. Think GPS can solve your problem? Once my friend and I drove to Cambridge to see a concert and for fun decided to try his GPS device: it got us lost. And we knew where the venue was. If you want to have a good time, just follow I-93 signs in Boston. You'll be driving all night and you'll never find it.
Especially as southern New Hampshire turns into North Massachusetts with its rapid population and urbanization, I've taken to driving anywhere south of my hometown as little as possible. Especially if that destination is below the Hampton tolls. And ever especially into Boston. I've been to Boston so rarely in recent years that my idea of a bustling city is downtown Dover. There has been gridlock in some of the main intersections there lately, and I've trembled at the thought of what's to come.
But let me be clear. Boston is a beautiful, crazy place. I just prefer to be on foot. And little did I know – I could take the train. Kristin and I had a date night planned and she decided it was necessary to break my MBTA chastity once and for all. We still had to drive the gauntlet that is Rte. 1, but parking in Medford for six bucks is a steal, considering Boston's roads on a map look like gutted intestines in a pile.
We parked at Wellington and found an almost-empty parking lot. I swiped my card in the beat-up parking kiosk, it took my six bucks, and I left the slip on my dashboard. Lock the car – beep beep! – and arm-in-arm, we marched in the cold. “Don't you just love the commonwealth!” I thought, as I admired the crumbling concrete buildings around us. The stale air of the subway hit me once we entered – warm, just a little moist – somehow nostalgic, mostly depressing. I stuck my card into another kiosk and put some money onto a ticket for the ride. A food cart right next to us was selling HOT DOGS and COCONUTS. The smells clashed with the setting, yet seemed so right. We passed a kid in a screaming match with his young parents, who seemed to have no idea how to handle the situation, and we went down to the launch pad. Everyone stood spread out and the only awkward moment was when a man walked by with a baseball bat.
So far, so awesome. This was marvelous. The train arrived on time, but stopped only a few feet into the standing area. Naturally, all of us on the platform wandered toward the train. The woman in the driver's seat grabbed her microphone and boomed to us all that she was about to pull up. Weird moment. Then she did and we got on in a flash. We were in a quiet car – still early on a Saturday, but also the cold kept people home, I'm sure. I sat and enjoyed ads for upcoming shows, peeling off the light paneling along the walls. Jeff Dunham and one of his weird puppets leaned forward and loomed over the seat across from me, extra creepy. It looked like someone had tried taping it in, but the tape was loose already. We rushed along from station to station, the conductor occasionally buzzing through the ancient speakers which station we were at. Assembly, Community College, North Station. Getting close! We were getting off at Downtown Crossing, right near the Old South Meeting House. I was pretty excited to be dropped right in the middle of historic Boston.
A woman walked up to us with a cardboard sign. Sorry, no cash. Everyone had their noses down in cell phones, heads wobbling as the train hung on for dear life to the rails. My phone began ringing. Some 800 number. Huh, on a Saturday night. They left me a voicemail. Well, now's not the time to listen to it. We were shooting through tunnels and it was loud with the train and the speakers and the doors opening and closing every two minutes and the soft chattering in multiple languages all around us. Then my phone rang again, same number. Left another voicemail. I've never had a voicemail from one of these telemarketer calls – let alone two from the same number – so I decided to listen to it once we got off the train.
But the neighborhood we stepped out into was amazing and I completely forgot about my voicemail. It was part historical drama, part science fiction. Ben Franklin's bronze likeness leaning forward outside the old town hall, cobblestone sidewalks, yet the constant chime of urban buzz surrounded us. The Old South Meeting House felt crammed in beneath the tall modern buildings and the shiny stores, high windows, colorful lights.We found our restaurant and sat down to a nice dinner. I still didn't check my phone, opting to savor the atmosphere – high mirrored walls, low lights, good steak tips, and my favorite bottled spring water.
After we paid, we hurried to our destination, the Boston Opera House, where we'd watch The Wizard of Oz. The Opera House is a beautiful, jaw-dropping building, nestled among modern shopping stores and empty storefronts. The molding and sculpture work on every inch of wallspace is ornate and extravagant. I particularly liked all the weird angel faces watching us watch the play. The skyboxes were not in use, but I imagined sitting up there would be quite the experience. We wondered how the heavenly scene in the domed ceiling was lit, and from our seats in the balcony we could barely see the outline of a hallway around the edges of the intricate woodwork bordering the art on the ceiling. There were so many dimensions and levels and nooks and crannies in here that I felt like it would be easier to navigate an M.C. Escher print. “If I went off to find the men's room,” I joked, “I might come out over there,” and we looked to a skybox up behind us. And then I'd pop out of that curtain, maybe – we looked to the side of the stage, just above the orchestra. Then maybe they'd have to stop the show because I'd be found dangling from the speaker above the audience. Yeah, I'll just hold it, I decided, if the need arose.
It might even be easier to drive through Boston.
The show was wonderful, by the way. I'm still dancing like the scarecrow around the house and reciting lines from the play. Will I ever stop? Not no way, not no how!
After the show, we shuffled out with the crowd back into the street, passing a cluster of uber-ing millenials. It was so satisfying, how quickly we got in and how quickly we were getting out. I was as stress-free as I'd ever been in Boston. Let's just hop on the train and head back to Medford, what a night!
We got to the Orange Line entrance gate and Kristin inserted the ticket. It spit back out and she was let in. When I inserted it, it was denied. Not enough funds. Whoops! Unfortunately, our train was there and the doors were opening. I had about ten seconds to reload the card and race in. In a bit of a panic and without Kristin to point at all the correct buttons for me, I fumbled around at the kiosk while she stood inside the gate, waiting for ol' grampy over here. First my card didn't read and I realized it was backwards, then I pressed the wrong button and had to backtrack to find the correct sale, a single fare. Then it declined the sale and I started over. Finally, the sale went through and I raced off through the gate. Too late. The train was still there, but closed. We'd have to wait for the next one.
It was quiet. I decided to check those curious voicemails. They were from my bank. The fraud detection department. Turns out, I had strange activity on my card. Well, I certainly don't ride the MBTA, I thought, and checked my bank account. Oh boy. There was a Paypal transaction for a company I'd never heard of – and the amount was significant. I called the bank.
The woman on the line asked me about a completely different transaction on Paypal, over six hundred dollars, that was rejected because there wasn't that much money in my account. Well, well. She shut my card down on the spot. Only that first, smaller transaction had slipped through, so I'd have to go to the bank and resolve it later. I thanked her for the useful service and hung up.
We got on the train and I sat stoically, wondering how this happened. I wasn't upset. These things happen. It's pretty common now for people to get hit with bank fraud, sadly. I decided the thief must have put a credit card skimmer onto one of those two dinosaur payment kiosks at the Wellington station, probably the one in that lonely parking lot.
Credit card skimmers are super easy to install, I read online, and they're hard to detect unless you have a keen eye for it – or an app that detects it. It's even easy to put one at a credit card reader inside a store if the cashier isn't paying attention. Yikes. Now as we walked back to my car, I had the foreboding feeling my car wouldn't be there. Of course it was, but the darkness around us, the vast empty parking lot, the chunks of concrete and torn up landscaping all felt like a wasteland. I was suddenly reminded of the dark side of civilization. A dystopian variation of reality hurried me to the safety of the car.
As we drove out onto the road, through orange barrels and Jersey barriers – typical – I saw the parking kiosk lurking under a lone streetlight. It felt like a horror movie. A good night gone awry with a subtle twist of the knife. I was starting to trust you, Massachusetts. I wanted to be your friend again. Instead, I merged onto the highway and got the hell out of there, resolved to live as far away from Massachusetts as I can forever and ever.
To be honest, the credit card skimming phenomenon happens everywhere, even in my hometown. I researched some tips to limit the chances of having your card information stolen, and I'd like to tack them on here. Please take them into consideration the next time you head out to not-so-sunny places.
Use cash. Of course. This is a challenge for many of us – myself included – because it's so easy to use cards.
If you use any digital wallets on your phone, use those when possible. Apple Pay, Android Pay, and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are more secure than the piece of plastic with almost no preventative protections or encryptions on it at all. This option is limited, especially at gross outdated government train stations, but it's becoming more popular as the market catches up to demanding consumers.
If using a card, use your credit card. Their fraud protection systems are much more robust than many local banks, and they will often resolve your side of the issue sooner. Plus, with credit, you're not putting your own money at risk, but someone else's. The credit card banks have every incentive to prevent fraud at all costs, rather than just respond to it.
Inspect the kiosk. Whether it's an ATM, a parking kiosk, a gas pump, or a soda machine, check it out. Look in the slot where your card goes, feel the keyboard and computer screen. If anything wobbles or seems weird, don't use it. To install these things, the bad guys often have to mess with the machines. There's an Android app called Skimmer Scanner that will go on the hunt for the signal these skimmer devices use.
Opt for the machine closest to a main entrance, near a camera, near people, in view of others, etc. Shady people like shady places. The kiosk at Wellington station was a perfect spot for such activity, all by its lonesome. Even the kiosk inside the lobby of the station could have easily been rigged at some late hour.
Lastly, and this is a message for myself first of all, don't let fear stop you from exploring. Outsmart it. That being said, I'll see you again sometime, Boston. But I like it up here much more.