Logan Airport is totally fine. It’s better than some airports: it runs more smoothly than LaGuardia, it has a few restaurants where you can actually imagine yourself eating (Legal Sea Foods!), there is more than enough coffee (14 locations of Dunkin’ Donuts!). It’s worse than some other airports: it lacks the sleekness of SFO, the flair of Heathrow, and the sense one has in JFK that you’re in NEW YORK CITY, BITCHES! Logan feels like what it is, which is the logical culmination of a network of highways that make up the Greater Boston area, the knot of tunnels and underpasses borne out of the Big Dig. Logan is an emergence from those tunnels into a bland, fluorescent space. It is not quite a major airport and not quite a minor one, just like Boston, which imagines itself as a major city despite the fact that it is not.
It is the port of leave and return for me, in the city where I have lived on and off for a decade. Though I’ve collectively spent more time elsewhere, it’s the only city that feels like home at the end of a night flight: the inkblot of Boston Harbor, the pulsing veins of light where the city fades into suburbs, the moving red lines of highways.
Logan Airport is situated on the water in East Boston, bleeding into the town of Winthrop, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1923 on muddy tidal flats, a small airfield that grew and grew, mostly horizontally. The airport was later named for General Edward Lawrence Logan, a World War I veteran who served on the Boston City Council and in the state legislature. From his picture he looks upstanding and a bit severe—an old-fashioned Boston Irishman. The airport was mainly military, too, in the beginning, though it was turned over to the city in 1929. Unlike many airports, Logan was built close to the central city. Even in gridlock it’s a short trip from downtown; one of the best things about living in Boston, according to my father, is that it’s easy to both leave from and return to.
A telling thing about Boston is that the city has staked a portion of its identity not just on Dunkin’ but on an old sign for an oil company that is actually a blight on an otherwise boring but pleasant skyline. A telling thing about me is that I, too, am attached to the Citgo sign, which fills itself in like an Etch A Sketch and stands like a sentinel over Fenway Park.
Often reading about Boston, I cringe, because it’s true: as has been widely noted, Boston is racist. Often walking into a downtown bar in Boston I feel like I’ve entered a Dartmouth frat party, except everyone’s old. Often on Sundays in Boston I am disgusted by the cult of Boston Sports, and in particular the cult of Tom Brady and somebody named “Gronk.”Often when I fly into Logan and mount a moving walkway toward baggage claim, I feel a vague sense of dread. Here? Again?
If it sounds like I’m being hard on Boston, it’s probably a defensive move: the truth is I love it, I am a Boston partisan, but my love is complicated by the fact that Boston is often disappointing. Elizabeth Hardwick wrote about this first, and better, in her brutal 1959 essay “Boston”:
There is, first of all, the question of Boston or New York. (The question is not new; indeed it was answered in the last decades of the last century in favour of New York as the cultural centre of America.) It is, in our day, only a private and personal question: which of the two Eastern cities should one try to live and work in? It is a one-sided problem. For the New Yorker, San Francisco or Florida, perhaps—Boston, never. In Boston, New York tantalises; one of the advantages of Boston is said, wistfully, to be its nearness to New York.
To make generalizations about any place is silly, though if you’re writing about a place, what else can you do? That said, there are of course many Bostons I do not know, and when I write about Boston I’m really writing about myself. My Boston is probably more like Hardwick’s than not: part redbrick and vaguely puritanical, part Iace-curtain Irish Catholic; carols with bells on Christmas; sledding in the park; leaf piles, a Labrador and a golden retriever, a family scarred by drinking, silences in big empty rooms.
There is certainly also a kind of tenderness to this Boston, my Boston. The river running through the middle of it, the bronze statues of ducklings in the Public Garden, the drive out to Walden Pond, the Ted Williams Tunnel, the highways. People in New England love to talk about highways and I do too, the 91 and 93 and 95 all melting and intersecting, clogged with traffic, through this tiny corridor of the country.
When you arrive at Logan Airport, you might not notice at first, but there is some beauty there. If you sit for long enough in the bathroom or the baggage claim, you might begin to hear the strains of music. If you’re paying attention you might also notice that it’s good: quiet strains of jazz or part of a Handel concerto or a bluesy ballad that’s just north of sad.
There is a single man who picks every song that plays in Logan Airport, an astounding fact I learned when I was an intern at the Boston Globe. I tracked him down and wrote about him. His name is Dave Dalzell and he lives in a two-story yellow house in Providence. The light inside is like butter, and in the living room there are small bronze figures, family photos, three guitars resting against a wall. In another room there is a net of wires connected to a server that is connected to another server that is connected to the loudspeakers at Logan.
It is probably more complicated than that, technologically, but that’s how I imagine it. The way Dave sees it, the music in Logan Airport is the largest art installation in New England, in terms of the number of people who experience it—about 16,000 employees and, in 2016, 36 million travelers. (Though it is the great hub of New England, Logan is only the 19th busiest airport in the country, which feels about right.) Dave takes his job very seriously, and is careful about the songs he queues, because he’s afraid of amplifying the intensity that often comes with being in an airport.
“I’m careful to avoid songs whose lyrics deal with the sadness of goodbye or the impossibility of hello,” he told me, when I interviewed him for the newspaper profile. He showed me clips of songs he liked on YouTube. After playing one—a sad one, “Fort Worth Blues”—he said, “This could never play at Logan. Can you even imagine? This would bring people to their knees.”
So the music at Logan walks the thin line between happy and sad, gesturing gently at both. It’s enough to make me cry anyway. In the baggage claim, waiting, I always listen and think of Dave. Here I am in Boston, this disappointing city with its underside of incredible tenderness. Here I am, next to a Dunkin’ Donuts Express at Logan Airport, which is also the largest art installation in New England.