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Sports

Consider the Lobster Roll: Straining for Meaning at Fenway Park and the Boston Marathon

What Fenway Park's infamous $29 lobster roll taught me about the commoditization of tragedy.
April 20, 2015, 8:00pm

All photos by the author.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts rarely runs a deficit of mythology. That's particularly true when it comes to our devotion to sports; during normal operating hours, the idea of Boston itself is 15 pounds of symbolism stuffed into a ten-pound city. But this month in particular has brought with it a surfeit of rhapsodizing and tenuous thread-connecting that would make the purplest of hacks go red in the cheeks.

Earlier this month Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty on all 30 charges against him for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, two years ago this week. The conversation around the case has now shifted from the question of his guilt to whether or not the state should, in turn, end his life in our name. On the two-year anniversary of the bombing, the second most high profile trial in the region—which is saying a lot when it involves a prolifically murderous professional athlete—came to a conclusion when former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez was found guilty of the 2013 murder of a friend, merely one of three slayings he's suspected of. Hernandez will now spend the rest of his life in prison, a mere few miles from the stadium at which we once lavished him with adulation for his talents. Meanwhile a fierce debate rages on between city leaders and the community over Boston's bid for the 2024 Olympic games, the literal blueprint for the marathon, and the pool from which we all draw the water of our collective sports mania. All of this as the 2015 Marathon rears its head today, on Patriots' Day, a statewide holiday in Massachusetts that commemorates the first battles of the Revolutionary War in 1775 in the nearby towns of Lexington and Concord.

A man in search of a metaphor could give himself a hernia.

Contrary to popular consensus and street vendor t-shirt marketing slogans, there was nothing inherent in the region's steadfast reaction to any of this that should be read as uniquely Bostonian. Grandstanders and politicians have talked at length since then of the city's wounds healing, something that's a lot easier to say when you weren't among the hundreds of actually wounded of course. And in the early days, much of that healing process, or at least the outward expression of it, took place, perhaps fittingly, at Fenway Park.

Twenty-four hours after Tsarnaev was apprehended, just down the street from where I live in Watertown, after a prolonged shoot-out with law enforcement officers had transpired the night before, the Red Sox played their first game since the marathon. David Ortiz, as potent a totem of Bostonicity as you can find (short of Bobby Orr sitting in with Aerosmith), addressed the Fenway crowd in one of the period's defining moments.

"This is our fucking city!" he exhorted us, to rapturous applause, and more than a few FCC complaints. "And nobody's going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong."

Re-watching the video now, even the wettest of provincialism-jaded blankets can't help but relive the emotional pull of the moment.

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I thought about that speech in the stands at Fenway on Saturday as I watched Ortiz and company lose to the Baltimore Orioles. I didn't particularly care about the game, instead I was there trying to find something to believe in. Fenway, often called the cathedral of Boston, was where so many found catharsis after the attack. But like any good Massachusetts lapsed Catholic who hasn't been to confession in years, I felt like I was forcing it.

Much like church, I also haven't been to a game in a long time. I scarcely remembered how to go through the motions, when to stand, when to sit, when to be quiet, and when to make the appropriate noises. The last time I went to any sort of game was to see the Patriots at Gillette Stadium years ago. The post 9/11 jingoism extravaganza that's come to characterize all major sporting events was still in full blush, and my friend and I were loudly berated by those around us for failing to sufficiently genuflect before the militarized show of force at halftime. The pageant of believing in something together is a powerful drug.

In the ensuing months after 9/11, president George Bush infamously encouraged Americans to get back to the business of being American, by which he of course meant spending money. Go shopping, he exhorted us. Something similar happened after the Marathon bombing. We were told by city and state leaders that in order to heal we needed to resume our lives as normal. The return to business at Fenway on the day of Ortiz's speech was a galvanizing moment in that regard. People were afraid to ride the subway those first couple of months, to go to large gatherings like sporting events. But, it seemed gradually, that each act of consumption served as a sort a minor political victory. Our resolve would not be bent by the cowardly actions of two shit-heel terrorists. We'd once again circulate, without fear, within our fucking city, and, more importantly, circulate our hard-earned currency. Congratulations to us all for overcoming the odds.

Some of us are more capable of engaging in the capitalistic healing than others. Unlike sentimental jargon, a trip to Fenway Park doesn't come cheap. The recent [Fan Cost Index compiled by Team Marketing Report](https://www.teammarketing.com/public/uploadedPDFs/2015 mlb fci (1).pdf) found the Red Sox are once again the most expensive ticket in baseball. The team topped the list in both the price of an actual ticket, at $52.34, beer, at $7.75, parking, at $35, and hat price, at $25. For the average group of four to attend a game, it costs about $350.86, they conclude. Little wonder that after a tragedy we're encouraged to get back into the park—there's a lot of hot dog money at stake.

Having been denied press credentials for the game as a VICE reporter, I lucked out with a friend who happened to have an extra $30 ticket for standing room only in the grandstands. All things considered, it wasn't such a bad way to spend an afternoon, although without a dedicated vantage from which to watch the game, it's easy to lose track of the action, to forget where you even are. As my attention drifted, each cheer from the crowd snapped me back into the present like a cold slap in the face. It's an effect only exacerbated by watching the action on one of the many TV screens strewn throughout, playing on a momentary time delay—visual and auditory clues fall out of sync.

Otherwise I might as well have been at a crowded mall with a particularly robust food court. This isn't unique to Fenway, of course, but there's a curious disconnect here, given its century-plus history. It's an anachronism inside of a simulacrum, a document of a past that probably existed, but certainly not in any way resembling this onslaught of noise and commerce. Once inside the park, and along the enclosed open air mall of the adjacent Yawkey Way, Sox fans can avail themselves of all manner of concessions. A pepperoni or cheese pizza for $22, perhaps, (pepperonis come free). For the health conscious, a gluten-friendly pizza is only $8. Elsewhere, pigs in a blanket are available for $8, fried dough for $5.50, mac & cheese bites for $5.50, while something called "Oreo Churros" sell for a vaguely reasonable $5. For beer lovers, a can of Corona or Harpoon will set you back $9.25, while a cup of clam chowder is a mere $8.

I roamed the underbelly of the park, looking for a concession line that wasn't 30 people deep, for what seemed like an hour. You could miss an entire inning of action, say the Orioles scoring two runs to put up what would prove to be an insurmountable lead for the Sox's cold bats, while trying to order a beer. On the plus side, what you lose out on in witnessing actual athletic competition you more than make up for in the spectacle of dozens of men in baseball jerseys hunching over trashcans wiping chicken finger grease out of their goatees with cheap napkins.

Somewhere around the fifth inning, my second lap of the Escherian complex complete, I happened upon a lesser-populated line for a seafood stand. This being New England, I thought, what better way to force-feed myself into the hometown spirit. And there, in all of its resplendent, horrific, hulking majesty I found the leviathan I'd been chasing this entire time: a $29 lobster roll. Speaking of white whales, Melville's line "There is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men," comes to mind.

Let me dash my hull against this craggy shore, I thought.

At Island Creek Oyster Bar, a highly lauded seafood restaurant just around the corner from Fenway, a lobster roll will cost you $29 as well. But that comes with all of the attendant service and atmosphere a high-end restaurant like that provides. Here, at Fenway, the mayo-doused claw and tail meat comes with a few french fries, and a condiment table to hover over while eating it. It's 4.5 ounces of meat, but a thousand pounds of symbolism.

They sell about 15-20 of them per game, the cashier told me. "It's really good stuff," she said, excited that I was trying it. The lobster comes from Legal Seafoods, the unavoidable New England chain. "You're gonna get the Fenway up-charge burn, but if you're gonna spend $5 for a hotdog you might as well eat right," she said. Inside the park numerous other stands sell lobster rolls for $13, but unlike this monstrosity, those are frozen, the proud cook explained. "It's not old stuff, it's worth it."

They weren't the only ones excited. "So that's the infamous $29 lobster roll?" a security guard type who watched me order it said. "For that price it better be good. If it's not, say it is anyway."

About a half dozen people stopped to gawk at the lobster roll before I even began eating it. You might've thought Dustin Pedroia was walking through the crowd the way it caught people's attention.

"How much they grab you for that," a fan walking by stopped to ask. "Oh my fucking God it better be good," he said when I answered him. Behind me a group of what I presumed were children, but were actually 30-something grown men, were squealing with delight playing a ball toss game.

I took a few bites, and, true to its reputation, it was pretty good. It was fine, that is. A nicely toasted bun, and solid chunks of fresh-seeming sea arachnid. I carried it back through the winding staircases and ramps to where my friends remained up in the grandstand, navigating through boozy fans, paranoid I would drop it like I had been asked to hold onto a friend's baby.

"They got the whole claw in there, but I still feel like it's really mayonnaise-forward," a Baltimore fan said.

"There are baseball stadiums that serve the upper-echelon of food. Lobster rolls are what you expect in Boston, but $29 is pretty high."

"There's a lot of lobster in it," another friend said. I was passing out bites to anyone who wanted. "I was expecting it to be sweet, but it tasted like relish."

"This was my first lobster roll," my friend Mike Fournier, author of the 33 1/3 series book on the Minutemen, said. "I wouldn't eat it again based on that."

I could overhear the bros gathered behind us talking about lobster rolls, this had turned into a real conversation piece. Just then Pablo Sandoval hit a double, sending Ortiz in for the Sox' first run of the game. This was a goddamn rally lobster, I thought. I finally did it, I made the right purchase that would bring the city together. My spending power, specifically, had galvanized the team.

That wasn't meant to be, of course, as the Sox would go on to lose the game. But the important thing was that I'd come out of my self-imposed cultural exile, and gotten back into the spirit of my city. The lobster roll may have been over-priced, cold, and mayonnaise-flavored, but isn't that a pretty good description of Boston itself?

When I got back to Watertown later that night, my street was blocked off by a dozen plus police and fire trucks. It was two years ago that night that Tsarnaev had exchanged fire throughout the neighborhood, and this was certainly the most emergency response vehicles the town has seen since then. A three-alarm fire, it turns out, had completely devastated the corner store I walk to for groceries. It burned fast and strong for about two hours before they could knock it down. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

I thought about how quiet it was on the street here the day they were looking for the bomber. Teams of machine gun-toting military types walked door to door asking us if we'd seen anything suspicious, armored cars passing by in the distance. Tonight was different, however. Everyone had come out of their homes to see what was going on, to stand together and pay witness to what had happened as a community. I talked to people I've lived next to for years and never shared a word with. We watched the fire smolder for a while, then we all went back inside. From my porch I could smell the smoke for the rest of the night, the lobster roll digesting in my belly.

Luke O'Neil is on Twitter.