Sweet Tea and Snow in Boston

Story Allen Bryan

People_AllenBryanThis is my fourteenth year in Boston, where it’s finally starting to warm up! (Our spring starts about a month after it does at home.) The polar-vortex descended this last winter with more snow than I could have dreamt of in my Columbus childhood. I keep trying to explain to people that, despite snowfalls happening with regularity every year, that first snowfall is a miracle every single time. They never believe me. I guess no one understands unless you grow up collecting a whole yard’s worth of snow to make a snowman. With the spring, we clean away the piles of dirty, gray residue — the leavings of all the sand and salt used to melt the snow — and I complain about the ugliness of these just like everyone else. But every December, when the first pristine snow makes every surface in the world smooth and shining with white light, I once again become that kid who used to imagine what real snow was like.

I was apprehensive back when I started school here, for everyone said I’d have nothing in common with folks in Massachusetts. It turns out the stories of New England unfriendliness are just stories — folks here form warm communities just like at home. The difference is a thin shell of reserve that throws off most Southern newcomers. No one greets you walking down the street or says “hello” in an elevator, and trying will get you odd stares. Folks never, ever brag or draw attention to themselves.

At first, I thought that was a reaction to big-city living, but even in the small fishing villages (like Gloucester, which you might have seen in “The Perfect Storm”) it’s exactly the same. All that changes as soon as you join any group. Say you’re at the pub (what we would call a ‘bar’), and it’s Trivia Night. Even if your table consists of total strangers, you’ll be swapping stories and restaurant recommendations before the third round of questions.Another way people bond is, believe it or not, shoveling all that polar-vortex snow I mentioned. When getting to your job depends on everyone working together, it’s amazing how quickly people connect.

What have I been doing here all this time? Well, in a decision many called crazy, I stayed for not one but two doctorates — medicine and bio-computing — making me a “physician-scientist.” Now I work in the laboratory of one of Boston’s many major hospitals. There, we “grow bugs and pour potions,” testing the samples sent from every doctor’s office and hospital ward. We help treat people using medical microbiology and toxicology, telling the doctors at the bedside which drugs could best treat their patients.

Few patients ever see us in person, but the lab is the only place where you are part of every patient’s care, and I never go to sleep wondering if I made a difference that day. I hope to bring those skills back to the South when I finish training next year. I’m looking forward to a bit more sweet tea, and a bit less snow.