The Citgo Sign and the Boston Marathon

IconographyCitgo.jpg

Season 2 of Iconography begins with a look at the relationship between two New England icons - a marathon that's become not just the definitive marathon experience but perhaps the definitive Boston experience, and an advertisement that's transcended its commercial beginnings to become a symbol of civic pride.

In our attempt to figure out how the Citgo Sign was saved, we're joined by first-time Boston Marathon runner Andy Luce.

 

Episode Transcript

There are days when you can walk around in the rain for 30 minutes and not get that wet.

I had a lot of days like that in London, a city of perpetual drizzles.

The day of the 2018 Boston Marathon was not one of those days. I’m lucky I have any of this audio of cheering spectators, a) because it’s incredible that there were any spectators and b) because after a few minutes of recording, my phone was emergency-rice-treatment wet in spite of an Otter Box. My whole body felt like it needed to be put into a Tupperware full of rice to work again; I was soaked through.

I should point out that I was not running in Marathon. Ha… no… My calves were burning from the brisk 20 minute walk in the rain that brought me to my spot on Commonwealth Ave. You don’t want to hear about marathons from me; so instead let’s hear from Andy Luce, over 20 miles into his run through a downpour, already past the Newton Hills and six miles from finishing his first Boston Marathon, when he passed me.

ANDY: The hills were not the worst part of the race. I actually liked going uphill. Because the wind was coming from the east, and so going uphill it wasn’t hitting you very hard - like you were being shielded by the hill kind of. And then when you were going down the other side of the hill, it was like blasting 30 mph in your face, and that was definitely way worse.

At the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, my buddy who I was staying with was there. He was playing like a giant vuvuzela, and I was kind of out of it. I didn't even see him until I passed him and then I waved back and I was like "Uhhhnnhhh" and he was like "Oh man you are not looking good." After that,  mean it's the classic route the whole way in. They’ll never change it: see the Citgo Sign, you know you’re done, you turn right, you turn left, and... I was just like almost in tears crossing the line. I was just happy to not have died.

(THEME MUSIC)

This is Iconography. I'm Charles Gustine, your host on this tour of icons, real and imagined, and I’m thrilled to begin our journey into the buildings, people, delicacies, films, the ideas that shape our idea of a place, Season 2’s focus and my new home, New England.

That journey through New England’s icons will progress somewhat chronologically through time, starting next episode in the reign of King James in Old England, but before I get all Jacobean on you, I wanted to introduce you to the icon that first fascinated me when I moved to Boston in January. It wasn’t the Old North Church, or the Old South Church, or the New North… it wasn’t any church. It wasn’t the Bunker Hill Monument, or Harvard Yard. It has no connection to Paul Revere, or, well it does a bit in my mind, but we’ll get there.

My icon is a 60-by-60 foot sign from the 60s that pulses with color and light once the sun goes down, 200 feet above Kenmore Square. Red triangle, white background, blue letters. C-I-T-G-O. An advertisement. For a brand of gas that pretty much no one in Boston can actually buy.

Part 1: I Saw the Sign

This is the one time I’m going to admit that there’s possibly a huge discrepancy out there amongst you Iconographers.

If you’ve lived in Boston or its surrounding environs (or you’re a big baseball fan or marathon runner), you know exactly where I’m going, you’re up out of your seat, your whooping, your hollering! (In your mind… you’re probably listening to this on public transportation, and I’m guessing based on experience, you don’t actually have a seat and there are like 70 people touching some part of you right now...)

If you’ve never lived in the area, you’re probably doing none of those things. You’re like, “A sign? Like a billboard? That’s where you’re starting this whole icon thing?”

All I can say is stick with me. Because this icon is going to show us how something – anything really – can transcend its original purpose and can become something else, something new, without ever moving or changing at all.

The Citgo Sign – not just the sign itself but the elemental feelings that a red triangle sitting over any word (GoSox, Fenway, Strong) stirs in a Bostonian – is like a secret handshake that only locals know to share with each other.

The sign rests atop a building in Kenmore Square that, until recently, was owned by Boston University and still prominently houses the University bookstore, a Barnes & Noble. Kenmore Square is a multi-street intersection so complex if looks like an arcane Norse symbol, and at its center is a station that swallows up all the buses coming in from points west and spits them back out. The people on those buses, after a moment in the sun, slink underground to wait for a T that will take them east to their jobs. Or vice versa.

This is not downtown, not on the Freedom Trail. It’s past all the colonial churches, the monuments to patriots, the art museums. It’s not something you’d see if you visited the Harvard campus. No Duck Tour route goes this far. There is a prominent attraction just around the corner – we’ll meet it before too long – but the only things you might visit west of here are John F. Kennedy’s childhood home and – if you’re a staying with the locals sort – possibly your AirBnb. Passing the sign in Kenmore Square – if you even were to pass it on a visit to Boston - you might think it a cast-off from Piccadilly Circus, the Las Vegas Strip, or Times Square. A giant electric sign, orphaned, dancing by itself.

Give it time. Literally, this is an icon that needs time to steep. It doesn’t taste as good right when you pour it, but wait and… mmm...

Once you notice the sign, you never stop noticing it. If you live west of the city, like I do, it becomes a constant companion, a watch, a compass, a mood ring, a friend.

I am one of the mole creatures that slinks beneath the surface of the earth to switch from a bus to the T. When I see it in the morning, I know I’m half way to work. When I see it in the evening, flashing and pulsing, I know I’m pretty much home. It’s always peaking up over buildings, beckoning you in or out. From in here to out there, or from out here to in there. It’s like the triangle on a map calling out an important point – the border between Boston in quotes and Boston – but it’s real. 3D.

My first week or so in the city, I didn’t pick up on any of this. When you move to a new place, learning your commute, you look down, not up. Your feet might trick you and send you to Alewife or Wonderland instead of Government Center if you don’t watch them carefully. I passed directly under the Citgo sign ten or twenty times before I realized that the tiny but indelible red triangle I could see pointing to the Charles River from my office window downtown happened to be the same monolith perched atop the Barnes & Noble I passed every morning in Kenmore Square. One morning, I was starting to become a little obsessed by the way the tableau of our 14th floor office window – probably of thousands of office windows in Boston and Cambridge – had seemingly been divinely engineered to highlight this one advertisement for, of all things, Citgo. And so I broke the silence in the office and asked my deskmates what the deal with this sign was.

They both reacted as if I had asked them to explain Jesus to me; they were in disbelief that I needed to start at square one and also at a complete loss for words to describe what the contents of square one might even be. One of them was such a New England lifer he may as well have been raised by a lobster and an autumn leaf. The other was a Scotsman who had lived in the city for about two years. In spite of this, they both seemed to agree that the Citgo sign isn’t something you learn from a lecture, it’s something you learn to feel for yourself. To understand it is to become a Bostonian.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to go against their shared wisdom and try my darndest in this episode to teach you that feeling and make you an honorary Bostonian, an inductee in to the secret society of the Citgo Sign.

This will be about a lot more than the sign itself; we’ll think about Lexington by way of Hopkinton; run with Andy as he takes a right on Hereford, left on Boylston; and end by singing a rousing chorus of Sweet Caroline (bah bah) not yet, not yet...

First, let another Golden Oldie carry you back to August 10, 1983. 

("You Light Up My Life" begins playing)

Part 2: You Light Up My Life

It’s a brisk evening in Kenmore Square. Fall approaches tentatively.

The mayor is delivering a proclamation that rings out over the loudspeakers. Mayors will do that – proclaim – but you’re willing to patiently wait him out;  you’re here to see the lights. Not those spotlights tilted up towards the Citgo Sign; you and your 1,000 new friends are waiting for the moment when, for the first time in four long, dark years, the sign doesn’t need any help being seen, when it can take care of its own damn self again. That moment comes at 9:30. Neon flashes red, white, blue letters, here and gone, the triangles grow and shrink, grow and shrink.

There’s a cheer as the organizers crank that Debby Boone.

("You Light Up My Life" fades out)

The sign has woken from a long slumber. It almost never woke up at all – less then a year ago, a crew from Citgo was on hand to tear it down, had their tools on the roof and everything, but now, in a stellar reversal of fortunes, the company has agreed to pay 450 K to keep it lit for three more years of Boston nights.

Citgo have paid quite a bit more since that agreement ended in 1986 - to pay the lease, to light their sign and maintain it and switch out the neon for LED when that became outre.

This is essentially an act of charity on Citgo's part. They do not go into their board meetings asking "Is the Boston sign affecting our profit margin, is it increasing our market share, pull up the Analytics, we need to maximize our investment!"

I suspect Kenmore Square is a bottomless pit into which Petroleos de Venezuela SA (which owns Citgo) shovels money, for which they are paid back in goodwill, selfies, and, as of today, podcast episodes. They are now the curators of a beloved rooftop art gallery with one piece of art.

As early as 1983, John H. Dewell, VP of Marketing for Citgo back before Venezuela came into the picture, said the sign had “outlived its usefulness” for his company.

''Our view of that sign as a company had been one of advertising and marketing our products.''

By 1983, big neon signs weren’t the way you did that anymore. The Boston sign had already lost six Citgo siblings who lived in big cities like Chicago, Milwaukee... Boston was the home of the last of a dying breed. And it’s not like Boston was immune. The energy crisis had highlighted the obsolescence of these aging titans. Much older electric beauties like the White Fuel sign across Kenmore Square and the Coca Cola sign further down that told you the temperature as you drive by on Storrow Drive... they didn’t make it. The Citgo Sign was still standing, the last unicorn. But it’s neon hadn’t hummed since 1979, a four year long symbolic gesture from an energy company during the energy crisis. The Boston Globe had snapped “Neon is a cheap light source. Saving the CITGO sign’s cost of about $60 a week isn’t going to panic OPEC” while lamenting that “the Citgo sign without its neon is a scarecrow, a dead thing, a skull stuck on a stick.”

Pretty clear-cut business decision for Citgo then. In November of 82, they started hoisting equipment up to the roof of 660 Beacon; they were ready to pull down the dinosaur.

''Then, lo and behold, we ran into the public interest,'' Marketing VP Dewell said, it’s tough to tell from the article whether with a sigh or a wink. ''We discovered that people thought of it as more than just a plain old sign.''

People like Walter Guertin, whose letter to the Boston Globe from 1976, when the sign was first publicly threatened, comes very close to my own experience.

"As one who had to learn the streets of Boston through trial and error (mostly error), I remember that the Citgo sign at Kenmore Square was my savior on more than one occasion. It’s Boston’s very own ‘North Star.’ Keep the sign!"

People like Warren Thayer, also writing into the Globe in 1976, who, through their affiliation with Boston University, thought of Citgo as a friendly neighbor from pretty much the moment it went up.

"Ten years ago The Sign was already a legend—at least at BU. The highest status on campus went to those with top-floor, end rooms at Myles Standish Hall so they had an unobstructed view. If things were really bad, they had the inner peace of knowing that they could always relax, get stoned and watch The Sign all night."

It was people like this, who immediately latched onto the sign as a guide, a show, a piece of art, pretty much anything other than as an ad – it was these first members of the secret society you’re joining now, Citga Psi, who sent a petition to the Boston Landmarks Commission. Now the Landmarks Commission is, how should I put this, used to stumping for 18th century churches, graveyards, and houses that prominent figures existed in but found itself on shakier ground when the public rallied behind an advertisement that wasn’t yet 20 years old. It had been erected in 1965, and it had replaced two previous big signs that had glistened in the same place, which shouted impermanence. The Landmarks Commission ordered the dismantling be postponed while a hearing was held to figure out what a landmark… was…

Different century, same story. In 2016, another threat (660 Beacon being sold), and another stay of execution from the Boston Landmarks Commission, which had never given the sign landmark status but, now that it was at risk again, was open to another conversation. That’s how we end up at another hearing to debate the nature of landmarks. Citgo sent Brenda Rivera, corporate communications, to the hearing, where she acknowledged what had been true since Citgo was stopped from tearing their sign down at the last minute back in '82.

“Although the sign bears our name and is owned by us, it really belongs to Boston.”

Thus, an icon is born. This is alchemy, neon transmuted into gold.

Part 3: Cool Runnings

You actually see the Citgo sign everywhere in Boston – you don’t need to be anywhere near Kenmore. It’s on T-Shirts, hats, mugs. Except the word Citgo has almost always been scrubbed from below the red triangle – Citgo’s logo to this day - and replaced by some other word - Boston, Strong, Fenway, GoSox. It’s a good thing Brenda Rivera from Citgo is chill with this.

It’s pretty incredible actually, an active corporate logo being scrubbed of any associations with the corporation, able to stand innocently, without winking or smirking, fora city, for civic pride. 

(Coffeshop conversation fades in)

To see how that happened, let’s leave Kenmore Square and the Citgo sign for a while and meet back up with our marathon correspondent.

ANDY: …Oh we’re live... We're on the air!

Andy Luce I are huddled in a corner of Longfellow’s coffee shop, which could not be a more adequately named placed to kick off Iconography Season 2’s production schedule. It’s the day before Andy runs his first Boston Marathon, a chilly April morning in Cambridge.

ANDY: Oh that's little bits of snow!

It’s snowing very tentatively but Andy shrugs it off.

ANDY: Well my half marathon PR is in 27 degrees, so I'm okay with the cold.

Oh how innocent we were... The weather at the Marathon can vary wildly; some years April means sunny skies – a spectator’s dream, potentially a runner’s nightmare – and some years its freezing. The latter is the only Boston Marahton weather Andy has ever known.

ANDY: I came to the race in 2015 for the first time. I was at mile 23, and it was a very cold day, very rainy. You know, we're there huddled in jackets, freezing, sipping beer, but like no one wants a cold beer! And we're seeing people go by, and they're just defeated. I mean people were suffering at that point, they're walking by - they're walking, at mile 23 they're like "I've come this far, I'm going to finish the Boston Marathon." So we're giving them jackets and coffee. They're already wrapped in those reflective heat blankets. Everyone who was going was still going to finish, no one was going to drop out. The support from the crowd was awesome, including... Like, we felt like we were part of the race. You know, we were helping people out, getting them to the finish line. Some of these guys are walking by shivering and "Here's a cup of coffee, you can make it!"

And I wasn't really running at that time, but six months later a friend mine asked to run. He wanted tor run his first half-marathon, wanted me to run it with him. And I was like "Well, I can't lose to this guy, he's asking me to run with him." So I trained and I set a goal of  running under an hour and a half. And I didn't make that goal, I didn't get under an hour and a half.

I immediately the next day signed up for another half-marathon and I was like "I'm going to get this goal and then I'll be done!" This is a pattern that you'll recognize, every race, I'm like "Okay now I'm going to be done, now I'm going to be done," and then when you finish it, you immediately sign up for another. I think that's typical of runners in general, because you hate months of training and all the preparation.

I still said "Oh I never wanna run a marathon, I wanna run fast races." And then that same friend asked, he was like "I'm going to run the Chicago Marathon, will you run it with me?" Two of my friends wanted to do it and like the historical rates for getting into Chicago are like 50% if you enter the lottery likelihood of getting in. And so I said, "Okay... If all three of us get in, I'll run it." And - lo and behold, what is that, like a 12.5% chance? - we all three got in.

And so I set a very aggressive goal - if I'm going to run this I'm going to qualify for the Boston Marathon. For men under 35, that is a 3 hour and 5 minute marathon, which is right at a 7 minute pace. But what they do is the race is capped at a certain number of people so, if you wanna run, running 3:04:59, you know that's not gonna be good enough.

So I set 3 hours as what I wanted to run. The Windy City, it was pretty quiet that day and so I got 2:59:16 and I knew I was qualified.

I still had no intention to run, I was like "I qualified, running a BQ is a big deal, even if you never come to the Marathon!"

CHARLES (interrupting with question): What's that stand for?

ANDY: Boston Qualifier. Yeah, so people are like "I got a BQ!" That's a thing.

CHARLES: That's like the standard.

ANDY: Yeah at least in the running world.

CHARLES: That's what you put on the fridge!

ANDY: Yeah: "I BQ'd!" No one can ever take that away from you. You got that, you're a Boston Qualifier. Being in a running group and having a lot of running friends, there's a lot of pressure then, it's like "Now you qualified for Boston, you have to do it! It's like the race!"

CHARLES: Why is that? When do we become aware of it as "the marathon"? 

ANDY: I think maybe it's the qualifying standard that's part of it. I think there's so much lore about it too, Heartbreak Hill, the whole "Right on Hereford, left on Boylston," I mean yeah the area is, the streets are tied to the Marathon more than anything else. People that don't know where Boylston Street is know that that's where the Marathon ends! People that have never been to Boston know.

I love the environment in Chicago too, but even being a spectator here was a completely different experience than running all of Chicago. I mean the city shuts down for this, it is like... I don't think there's any... I mean maybe I'll do more, this is only my second one, but everyone talks about this as the premiere environment to race in in terms of the fan support.

And it's interesting too because you can't set the world record here; and so people that are trying to go for world records, they run in London or Berlin, but I think the Boston Marathon is way more historic y'know, it's been around forever...

The Marathon - the idea of it exudes permanence right? Like the Olympics, marathons aren’t just Greek, they’re Ancient Greek.

But like a neoclassical urn in a classy hotel, marathons only seem very old. They were designed to feel that way, to lend the first modern Olympics in 1896 a sheen of legend. You see there was this Robert Browning poem in 1879 that turned the story of Pheidippedes, who was sent from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce that Sparta had been defeated, into a blockbuster.

"Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
'Athens is saved, thank Pan,' go shout!' He flung down his shield,
Ran like fire once more."

That was the first marathon, I guess, run in 490 BC, and also the last marathon run until 1896 AD. So the Boston Athletic Association was pretty much getting in on the ground floor when they rolled out their own version of this newfangled marathon the next year.

And if the idea of a poet latching onto the larger than life story of a messenger racing a great distance and shouting about changed circumstances in wartime sounds a bit familiar familiar… it did to the Boston Athletic Association too. The Boston Marathon run in 1897 would be run on Patriots Day, which commemorates the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and was technically also brand new though it seemed very old, having been first commemorated only three years prior in 1894 (heck, the race would have been run from Concord to Boston too, to follow in reverse the route of Paul Revere’s ride, if Paul hadn’t been such a slacker – Pheidippides ran twice as far as Paul rode... We think, we ummm have no idea with Pheidippides...).

Even as the route of the marathon and the distance changed – seriously, it wasn’t until 1921 that the current distance was standardized across the globe – the day would be inflexible. The Boston Marathon is Patriots Day. Patriots Day is the Boston Marathon.

Sorry I left you in suspense – what would Andy do?

CHARLES: Was it hard for them talk you into it after Chicago?

ANDY: Yeah no, not really. The history and the draw of the city, the race, the whole experience, it's too much to pass up. There's a guy in our running group, Rick, he's in his 60s and he's qualified for I think this is going to be his 11th or 12th in a row I think. He runs it every year, re-qualifies, takes some time off and then works his way back up for Boston again. I know a lot of people that would never miss this race. They might run other races, but this is the one. If they're getting ready for one, this is what you do. 

And then when I first told myself I'm going to sign up, my first thought was, "Okay I'm going to take it easy, doing it once and getting the experience will be enough. I just want to enjoy the run, enjoy the crowd, enjoy the city, see the sights, run the Newton Hills, pass the Citgo Sign, right on Hereford, left on Boylston, do the whole thing and like be a part of the experience more than run the race.

And then I'm like, "Alright well, I wanna have a good showing, let's try and re-qualify."

And then I'm like, "Well, that's not too much harder than... I'm in better shape now, I've been running for a couple of years, I feel like I'm faster... Let's set a higher goal..." And that's the nature of running, it's always the next thing. But Boston is like the end thing for most marathon runners. It's the thing to get to.

I think when you think about Boston, I think the Marathon is one of the first things that you think of and that's definitely not true for like New York or Chicago or London or Berlin. The Marathon is part of the culture of the whole city.

The marathon has been shaped by the city – its turns and elevation changes are a consequence of urban planning that predated the idea of the modern marathon. But, considering its late arrival, can the city be shaped by the marathon?

(Fans sing along to Sweet Caroline at Red Sox game)

Part 4 – Sweet CitgoSign (bah bah bah)

I’m at Fenway Park. We - 32,886 strangers, one wife, and I - are singing along with Neil Diamond, raucously adding our own interjections in glorious unison because this is what you do at Fenway Park. Not since 1912, when the park opened, obviously, but for long enough that it’s… expected.

This may all seem a bit silly. A game, a show, a lark. I don’t think we – and I include myself in that we – take sports as seriously as we might when considering the transformational ideas that form the identity of a place.

But sports are major civic events. They bring disparate communities together in one place, sharing one intense experience. In Boston (you’ll probably agree with me even if you root, root, root for an opposing team) athletics are especially integral to a civic identity. That is a thread we’ll tug at more in future episodes, mark my words.

Right now, I just want to think about cold hard numbers:

  • around 30,000 people run the Boston Marathon every year
  • about 500,000 people line the streets from Hopkinton to Copley to watch them (when the weather cooperates)
  • more than 5 times that number attend Red Sox games at Fenway Park every year.

Let’s not even get into the numbers of people who watch from home, Bostonians from a distance, or Bostonians for a day. Which means that millions of people a year grow to associate the Citgo sign with their integral Boston experiences. And, I mean, could you ask for a more powerful, more dedicated, more terrifying lobby than Boston sports fans?

The Citgo sign, as it turns out, is in an absolutely magical location, somehow a crucial architectural piece of both of Boston’s oldest, most treasured sporting traditions – baseball in Fenway Park and Marathon Day.

Give Citgo some credit for that; they did once care about maximizing profit using the sign, and they knew the urban landscape of the Fenway/Kenmore Square neighborhood, knew the events that defined it. When they put up a new sign in 1965 to replace their old sign with their old name – Cities Service – they did the math, they tested the angles.

The sign sits just high enough on 660 Beacon that you can see it over the Green Monster in Fenway Park, so that, even though it’s three blocks away, on the other side of a major highway, it has essentially become an extension of the most striking feature in America’s most beloved sporting venue (tied with Wrigley Field in Chicago if you’re getting ready to @ me).

This quirk of urban topography - the notion of a ballpark not ending where the bleachers end but stretching into the city beyond (rather than stretching into a sea of parked cars as so many modern ballparks do) - it’s become part of the romance we have with holdouts like Fenway and Wrigley. And wouldn’t you know it, the Citgo Sign has been adopted there too, transcending its corporate implications and even its Boston connotations and becoming an icon of baseball’s bygone age. My favorite fact about the Citgo Sign is that, for years there was a Citgo Sign floating above the left field wall in Houston’s Minute Maid Park. The Citgo logo appears on the outfield walls of minor league stadiums in Maine and Texas. Boston’s Citgo sign lost its family during the energy crisis in the 70s and 80s, but, as a means of paying tribute, baseball’s stadium architects have given it a new family. The Citgo Sign is a mommy.

As if this weren’t a charmed enough existence, being grandfathered into the storied Fenway Park, the Citgo Sign is also perfectly positioned so that there are unobstructed views of it for miles down some of Boston’s biggest streets – most especially the one that marathoners run down for the hardest miles of their race, the final miles that they didn’t train for, couldn’t train for. The sign seems to speak to them.

As it’s become cliché to say (clip plays, announcer saying "...it gives these runners this extra mile, the Citgo Sign...") it gives runners a boost at exactly the moment they need it, and they’ve always returned the favor, giving the sign a boost when it was in dire straits. One runner called the landmarks commission in 1982, when the sign seemed like it would be gone in mere days and plainly stated they couldn’t take it down because when you see it, you know you can finish the marathon. The next year, when the sign’s lights were turned back on, a first time marathon runner, Paul G. Garrity, was quoted in the New York Times confirming “the sign is an important reminder that the end may not be near, but is at least only four or five miles away.”

''Boy, did I see the sign, 'It was the only thing to suppress pain for about a mile. I fixed on it because I was really sore. What other city would make an oil company sign a landmark?''

This connection has become even stronger since 2013’s Boston Marathon Bombing, which seemed to solidify the bond runners had with the marathon landscape rather than complicate it. Bombing survivor Dave Fortier, who lead the media blitz when the sign was threatened in 2016, ran his first and he thought at the time last Boston the year of the bombing; the shared trauma made him a regular and made him a fervent defender of the sign.

“I’ve got certain landmarks I look for to get myself back to Boston. That sign is the biggest to me because it says I’m back. It’s like I’m home.”

This is the X-Factor that saved Citgo’s sign in 1982 and 1983 (and 2016). This is how it survived when identical signs in other cities were dismantled, and when older, more prestigious signs were removed from Kenmore’s neighboring streets.

If it had just been about beautiful signs that evoked a different age, the White Fuel sign would still be spewing oil from its derrick across Kenmore Square, with the Gulf sign next door, the Shell sign a bit further down; Commonwealth Ave would be a Las Vegas Strip of petrol, a Piccadilly Circuit. And that would be a marvel, but what Boston has is even better, a survivor, an underdog, a statement piece.

It was by finding itself, uncluttered and alone, in the crosshairs of every marathon runner, every power hitter visiting Fenway Park, and, oh yeah, everyone who idolized them that the sign persevered, living long enough to become an icon, a pop art masterpiece, and maybe this time, fingers crossed, an official landmark.

If ley lines are real, if they truly do carry power, the Citgo Sign must be on one, right smack dab on the most powerful point on the ley line from which Boston draws all its mystical sporting essence, that power that’s equally alluring when its teams are legendarily losing or legendarily winning. The sign probably – I’ve not checked through the proper channels, but probably - sits atop a now inaccessible Lovecraftian portal where the Boston sporting gods live, doling out curses and blessings as they see fit.

I had my own first time marathon runner to check in with. I followed up with Andy after the race to see if he had experienced that magical Citgo Sign moment. Turns out thanks to the weather, it hadn’t quite worked out that way.

CHARLES: So when was the moment you first thought for sure you were going to finish?

ANDY: Ummmm.... I can't even say that it was like a mile left.

CHARLES: (laughs) That's how rough it was?

ANDY: Yeah... A lot of the last five miles I don't really remember too much, like you're more feeling the crowd than even hearing it. It was really washed together in a very visual sense where it's gray and windy and everyone's in coats. I'm just staring down with this big floppy hat sometimes covering my eyes, I gotta pull it back.

Andy started the race wearing very short American flag shorts...

ANDY: People were like, oh my goodness... who... WOO, GO AMERICA!

...a long sleeve shirt, two hats, and gloves.

ANDY: I actually made a pretty bad error. At one mile in I was warming up and then like by two miles in I was like "I'm getting pretty hot." And so at 5K I actually took off my long sleeve shirt and both hats."

By the time he passed my spot at mile 20, he was wearing the same shorts and gloves, no shirt and a poncho.

ANDY: I saw like a girl and I guess her mother. They were completely covered and ponchoed but over the edge there was a piece of plastic and I come to them and I'm like "Is thish a ponsho." And I can't really speak too well, my face had stopped being functional. (laughs) It was so cold. My lips were pretty blue. And then they give it to me and I have big gloves on my hand and even inside of it, they're like frozen. So I could not, I was like fighting with the poncho to open it and the girl just takes it and opens for me and puts it over my head. 

He also had picked up an entirely different hat from off the ground.

ANDY: And the hat was like two of my head big (laughs). It was flopping around the whole time and I had to like hold it on for the wind.

Andy did finish with pretty much exactly the same time he ran in Chicago two years ago, which is either remarkable because of the very different weather conditions or a bit of a let down after two years of training. Either way, he met one of the goals he set for himself before the race – he automatically requalified for the Boston Marathon.

ANDY: All things considered, a really good day. I mean it was pretty miserable, but yeah, it was... a special thing to have done.

As you might expect, especially after a run as grueling as his was, Andy isn’t committing to taking advantage of his BQ next year quite yet – he did tell us that’s the runners mentality, waxing and waning.

But, based on what I gleaned from our chats – this sense that even though he couldn’t see the course through the driving gales or his two-sizes-too-large beanie, he could hear it, could feel it, the crowd and something else pushing him along - I wouldn’t be surprised if that same runner’s mentality waxes after a few months of waning and I find myself cheering for him streetside on Patriots Day again. I hope the weather is better.

 

Before we wrap up and I make a very exciting announcement, I want to take you across the Charles River from Kenmore Square for a moment, just a little walk along the riverside. I didn’t tell the whole truth when I mentioned that all the other electric signs were removed. The Shell sign a few blocks down from Kenmore Square was, but it wasn’t scrapped; it retired to a Shell gas station in Cambridge basically within shouting distance of its old haunt. There it was dwarfing the gas station, a giant outline of a shell drawn in yellow neon, with the word SHELL in red. Older then the Citgo Sign by a generation. But this sign wasn’t on the marathon route and it wasn’t visible from Fenway, and it was falling apart after nearly eight decades of shilling Shell - by the turn of the century when it lit up it said HELL.

And so it too went dark for a few years. And then, this sign received an honor it’s younger sister across the river is still waiting to receive – in 2009, the Cambridge Historical Commission designated it a landmark.

Here’s the weird thing. When the sign came back to life in 2011, it was actually a different sign – the owner of this Shell Station Tibor Hangyal and his patrons had saved up for a decade and finally gotten Shell to get an exact replica made. So now Cambridge’s spectacular sign, the one championed by everyone who needs you to understand that no, Cambridge is not in Boston, and yes it does have an even more beautiful gas giant – is both much older and much younger than the Citgo Sign. I should also point out that, in the course of visiting the Shell sign, I did fill up my tank at the Shell station. I don’t know what that says about the integrity of the icons, but the fact remains: Shell 1, Citgo 0.

 

Iconographers, I have big news. The change in region isn’t the only new thing about this podcast in season 2. Iconography is now a proud member of Hub & Spoke, a Boston-centric collective of smart, idea-driven podcasts – I can say that because I have been a non-stop, incessant, effusive fan of all their shows. You can check all of them out at hubspokeaudio.org. You’re going to hear about all of them in episodes to come, but I want to tell you about a new episode from a fellow Hub & Spoke show called Ministry of Ideas, a show about the ideas that shape our world. I have been salivating over this episode for weeks, and now it’s here – Tomorrow, Today, an episode on Worlds Fairs. We wouldn’t have some of the world’s greatest icons without World’s Fairs – the Eiffel Tower, the St. Louis Arch, the entire climax of Men in Black. But alongside the grandeur, there were exhibits that reinforced and exacerbated ethnic stereotypes. I just listened to the episode, and, you’re really going to like it. Check that episode out at https://www.ministryofideas.org/ or anywhere fine podcasts are available.

Now I’m turning the tables on you, Iconographers; I’m ending every episode asking ya’ll what you thought of our icon, or in this case joint icons.

So you’ve heard my case for the marathon and the Citgo Sign, now you tell me: Isn’t It Iconic? (Donchya Think?)…

How have sporting traditions transformed the shape of your town? Don’t be afraid to go negative – in Boston, this has largely been a romance, but I know in a lot of places with newer taxpayer funded sports complexes like my hometown of Miami, it’s been much more like sitting through a horror film. “No don’t do that, don’t pay for THAT! RUN!!!”

P.S. If you feel like I didn’t go deep enough into the history of the marathon or Fenway Park, don’t fret; they’ll get their own episodes in good time. As a matter of fact, the current plan is to bookend this entire season by revisiting the Boston Marathon as the season finale.

Which brings us to the Citgo Sign. Enlighten me – get it, enlighten… Where you live, is there some strange landmark that has transformed – you know not how – into a beloved symbol? An objet d’heart as Time Magazine once called the Citgo Sign?

I want to hear about it and continue this discussion. I definitely also want to hear from those of you for whom the Citgo Sign is that symbol, will always be that symbol.

Office hours are open on Twitter @iconographypod, on the Facebook page facebook.com/iconographypodcast, and on the website where you can find show notes and a transcript of the episode. That’s at iconographypodcast.squarespace.com. Also if you want to leave ideas and questions in fawning iTunes reviews, I’ll check those too!

The next episode of Iconography will drop July 4th, and appropriately, it’ll be about the dueling origin stories of America, and the man who found himself very near the center of both: John Smith.

 

Season 2 Preview

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From England to New England. No I didn't move from London to Boston so I could have that catchy tagline, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Heck no, I'm going to ride that horse all the way from Charlestown to Cambridge shouting "Season 2 is coming! Season 2 is coming!"

Check out this trailer to hear about some changes to the format of the show, what topics we'll be addressing, and to hear a snippet of Season 2 Episode 1, coming June 20th.

James Bond in 2015

The Season 1 finale! Revisit 2015, when the most recent Bond film came out on the tails of a series of revelatory spy films - and world events - that argued for 007's irrelevance.

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This episode:

  • How the NSA shows up in mainstream entertainment
  • So many Bond themes
  • Melissa McCarthy showing the men (mostly Statham) how it’s done
  • Kingsman’s scathing class critique
  • Ilya Kuryakin and the demonized other
  • Bridge of Spies and the reality of spy craft
  • The wonders of Ilsa Faust
  • The murky waters of Sicario
  • A cameo appearance from HERCULES MULLIGAN!

The Death of Hercule Poirot

This episode contains spoilers for Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, and Curtain.

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There are very few things in life that are truly once in a lifetime experiences. If you had picked up the New York Times on August 6, 1975 you would have experienced one of them. “Hercule Poirot Is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective.” It would have been the first time you had ever seen the Times honor a fictional person with an obituary, let alone on the front page. It would be the last time you would see it as well.

The date of Poirot’s death is August 6th 1975. That’s the date “his death was confirmed by Dodd, Mead, Dame Agatha’s publishers.”

The date of death is October 15th, 1975. That’s the date they “put out Curtain, the novel that chronicles his last days.”

The date of death is sometime in 1940. That’s when Agatha Christie locked Curtain, Poirot’s last case, in a vault with the promise that it wouldn’t be opened until her death, and then, knowing full well how her most famous detective would die, went on writing cases for Poirot for decades.

The date of death is never. Poirot was just in a cinema near you, his mustache more voluptuous then ever. A sequel has been promised. Perhaps Kenneth Brannagh will play Poirot for decades until he too sends the detective off with his own version of Curtain. And still… Poirot will live on. He will outlive us all.

The Ghost Stories of M.R. James

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You never know what your legacy is going to be.

There once was a scholar at Cambridge who dedicated probably 90% of his adult waking hours to scholarship - cataloging dusty old manuscripts, caring for fragile old artifacts, studying creaky old churches. He never married, never had children, never retired. In the other 10% of his time, for kicks, he wrote and recited stories… stories about bachelor scholars went looking for dusty old manuscripts, found fragile old artifacts, and poked around creaky old churches, and oh yeah, these things were all cursed and studying them meant confronting unspeakable horrors.

M.R. James is iconic because of what he did in those rare moments he wasn’t giving his heart and soul to academia - those nights and weekends when he smirked and wondered “How can I scare the crap out of my friends?”

Terry Pratchett's Discworld

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I spent 28 apparently forlorn years without reading any Terry Pratchett outside of Good Omens. One month ago, my book club was reading his The Wee Free Men. And just like that, I was an acolyte. A convert. 

Which doesn't necessarily make Discworld an easy candidate for an Iconography episode. How does one map onto our world a fantasy world that rides around on the back of a turtle, where there is no London or England - or, to be more precise, where those places exist, but only in a magicless round world that’s kept in a glass sphere at Unseen University?

I went to the HisWorld exhibition at the Salisbury Museum to find out.

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Here's the outfit referenced in the episode: "Black cane, with a silver head - literally a head, the head of his most famous character Death. Black satchel bag, black T-Shirt, black leather jacket, and crowning it all, the piece de resistance, the black Louisiana fedora. The cane and fedora, joining his round spectacles and white beard, would put one in mind of John Hammond, a kindly old dreamer with a twinkle in his eye. But this was John Hammond taking fashion tips from Ian Malcolm; be old-fashioned, fine… but spice it up with some darkness and danger."

The label below the mannequin reads in part: “I don’t become a real person with the hat on. I become an unreal person with the hat on. It’s tough under there, sometimes the hat has to come off. The hat is an antidisguise.”

In the same room, there's a reconstruction of Terry Pratchett's study: "The centerpiece of the exhibition, even more alluring then the mannequin in Terry’s clothes, is the full reconstruction of Terry’s office, with his old desk topped with six screens. Every once in a while, an invisible Terry Pratchett types a few paragraphs about Sam Vimes or plays Doom while emails from Neil pop up, and you can feel everyone in the room inhale. It almost feels like he’s there."

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The walls of the HisWorld exhibition were gilded with fantastic art from Josh Kirby, Paul Kidby, and even Pratchett himself. These drawings of Tiffany Aching are from Paul Kidby.

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In the same room, the famous hard drive (recently steamrolled) containing Terry's manuscripts is on display, as well as Paul Kidby's Pratchett bust, part of his work on the 7 ft.-tool Terry Pratchett statue that will soon be in Salisbury. 

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There' plant of humor in the exhibition (as one would expect), but nothing made me chuckle more then a detail I caught on the way out - a Nac Mac Feegle in the donations box, eagerly awaiting your contribution.

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The Legacy of Dunkirk

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Here's the second half in a series inspired by Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. This episode goes far beyond what that film focuses on - it goes from Chamberlain to Churchill and from Sedan to Petain, and yes even to Charlottesville, Virginia. I simply couldn't have expected the condemnation of Nazis and their symbols to have become so relevant when I started this episode, but I hope I did the condemnation justice. I should warn you that there is some audio from Charlottesville in the episode; not much, but it could still trigger some truly harrowing emotions. On a lighter note, I do an impression of Queen Wihelmena of the Netherlands in this episode, so you'll probably want to see how that goes.

A Tapestry of Dunkirk

If you could only learn about Dunkirk from the stories that have gravitated towards it; from Mrs. Miniver and Atonement and The Snow Goose – the novels and films – and from Their Finest and The Battle Of Britain and the Dunkirk movie that was made in 1958, and the Dunkirk movie that just came out… If that’s all you had… what could you learn?

Would you understand how the French Army, supposedly the world’s supreme fighting force, bolstered by alliances with Belgium and England, and by an unbreakable border fortification, the Manginot Line, fell in one month?

Would you be able to explain how the 30,000 men that British high command hoped, optimistically, to be able to evacuate before the Nazis closed in turned into 300,000?

And, what would you learn? About Britain, about France, about Nazis… about soldiers, about civilians… about war, peace, victory, defeat, and humanity.

This episode, I imagine what’s just on the periphery of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk; who else, besides Mr. Dawson, is setting off from England in a little dinghy? Who is up in the air monitoring fuel readings alongside the self-assured RAF Pilot Farrier? Who else, besides the baby-faced private Tommy is ducking the Luftwaffe amidst the dunes of Dunkirk?

Paddington

Last month, Michael Bond passed away at 91. Inspired by a lonely teddy bear he saw at Selfridge's on Christmas Eve, 1956, Bond created Paddington Bear. 

That bear has overshadowed the station that leant its name to Bond - people flock there just to see his little statue, unaware that the statue on Platform 8 depicts the greatest engineer of his (or any?) age. This episode, we consider why.

Richard the Lionheart

This episode we consider the legacy of Richard the Lionheart - was he a disobedient son, a bad governor, a harbinger of death? This far out from the 1190s, does it matter anymore who he was, or does it matter who he's become?

To help, I pulled in three films that feature Richard: The Lion in Winter (1968), The Crusades (1935), and Robin and Marian (1975).

Robin Hood

This episode: one of our most iconic stories, one that has been popular for centuries. A lot of people wonder if the Robin Hood legend us based on historical fact – was there a real Robin Hood – but what I think we should be asking is “How much is history, the history we think we know, based on this story?”

The Full English Breakfast

This episode, it's our first culinary icon! (Researching this episode was great.) What does it mean for a national cuisine - one that finds itself frequently derided for its blandness - to be tied so obviously to a meal as fickle - as subject to trends, whims, diets, advertising forces, and let’s be honest, early morning laziness - as breakfast? And what do the French have to do with it? 

Plus: Why are these the foods that, when gathered together, give us the Full English breakfast? Why are some of them - eggs especially - so tied to breakfast in Western culture to the point of looking out of place in any other meal, and why are some of them - beans especially - so specifically English? Each ingredient of the fry-up tells a fascinating story about what breakfast has been to the English, and what it still is despite all odds. This episode, we'll tell the story of breakfast with some help from Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope, Nigella Lawson, a taunting Frenchman, and Misters Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

Spice Girls (Part 2)

This episode: why Britpop orphaned the very British, very popular Spice Girls, and why feminists refused to adopt them. Along the way: what a big step Ginger's Union Jack dress was, and how the phrase Girl Power evolved from Riot Grrrl to Spice Girl.

This is part two of a two part series, so be sure to check out part one.

Spice Girls (Part 1)

20 years ago, in March 1997, our world was, in truth, a Spice World. Revisit those heady days with me as we take a look at Girl Power and at its influence today.

This is part one in a two part series on The Spice Girls. I wouldn't have pegged Posh, Baby, Sporty, Ginger, and Scary as candidates for Iconography's first multi-part treatment when I started researching, but that's the beauty of doing this podcast. I pick topics that I don't know much about and let them sneak up on me in unexpected ways.

Twelfth Night

What happens when an icon dies? It's not just people that pass away, or buildings that get demolished... ideas can be weathered away by time. Twelfth Night, as it was celebrated in England for centuries - as Shakespeare knew it when he wrote his comedy (not) about the iconic revel - is but a ghost of its former self. But that's the thing. If an idea is big enough, and lucky enough, it can still persist in the strangest places, finding its way into people's lives with anyone even realizing it.