A city rain dance

ONE Friday in August as I left the new federal building in Boston where I work to walk downtown for my lunch hour, I hurried because it looked like rain. Heading down Portland Street toward Congress, I tried to make up for my lack of a raincoat or umbrella by speed and a willingness to get my feet wet. (In honor of the not-yet-functional air conditioning in our offices and my recent return from a vacation in Italy -- where the women are too sensible to wear stockings under their stylish summer shoes -- I was barelegged and wearing a pair of white fake-leather sandals with cork innersoles.) The sky darkened rapidly and I felt excitement at the certain approach of a sudden downpour.

Ahead was a prospect of shelter: the garage that bridges Merrimac where it becomes Congress Street just below Government Center. As I crossed New Chardon Street, the first fat drops hit my face and I broke into a jog. Just as I got to the far curb, the air whitened with rain. I ran. Ten strides and I was under the high cement ceiling, my shoulders soaked through my dress and jacket and my skirt flying forward in the wind that sped under the underpass.

The sheltered area is big enough to stay dry, even with the wind blowing rain into the back of it. As I walked beside the long cement bench that separates the broad sidewalk from the slant-ed pavement dropping down to the basement-level pedestrian doors to the garage, the wind lifted the sooty grime that lay under the bench and blew it along in a black stream an inch or so above ground. I felt it enter the backs of my shoes at each step and fill my innersoles with grit. I stopped just short of the apron of sidewalk that extended into the rain. In front of me a torrent poured down on Sudbury Street, obscuring everything beyond.

With me under the garage were others dressed, as I was, for the office, and a few more in casual clothes -- tourists or academics or students, I thought. This dozen or so rain-stranded pedestrians stood here and there, on the open expanse of pavement. Some wore raincoats. There was also a pair of skate-boarders with flattops, basketball sneakers, and rather dingy T-shirts and Bermuda shorts.

The rain bounced off the roofs of the cars stopped for the light at Congress. Both Sudbury and Congress were rivers, the water shallow at the center line and inches deep near the high curbs. Sudbury flowed into Merrimac, rounding the corner and descending to the storm sewer with waves and eddies in a miniature white-water course. Inside the cars, people were only partly visible through the rain. They looked dry, miraculously dry. The wind was sifting a continuous granular dampness through the air while I stood looking around at some of my companions in isolation: a young, bearded man in a short yellow slicker and backpack with a shopping carriage, probably headed for Haymarket; three teen-age girls in shorts and blouses of bright turquoise, pink, and white who restlessly crossed the street to the far island under the garage; people in suits; a man in shirt sleeves who wore a transparent plastic cleaners' bag as a make-shift raincoat.

As the traffic stopped and started, the cars splashed up arcs of water that thickened the dense rain. Behind me I heard a rhythmic, metallic beating sound, a bongo-like tattoo, and I looked back at the skateboarders to see what they might be doing to make these sounds. They were taking runs down the slope to the garage doors, where they vainly attempted to roll up the wall. Their movements bore no relation to the percussive sound.

Then I noticed a bemused look on the face of a woman some distance away from me, and I followed her gaze to a manhole cover on the upper slope behind the bench. It was lifting and falling in a dancelike rhythm, rattling like the lid of a pan on the stove. I gauged the angle of the wind against its lower lip and decided the wind must be prying up and dropping the metal plate as it flew through the underpass scouring the pavement. Under the cement bench no dust or litter was left.

By now, all of us scattered in this open shelter were watching the dance of the manhole cover and listening to the iron beat it added to the smooth rush of the rain and the muted traffic sounds. BA-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DA-duh-duh DA. BA-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DA-duh-duh DA.

People smiled to themselves, and I imagined them that evening telling wives or husbands or children or roommates or boyfriends or girlfriends about this phenomenon. One of the skate-boarders came over and stood on the manhole cover. Even with his added weight the tattoo continued. I began to wonder if the wind could do this. The skateboarder stepped onto his board and rolled downhill to join his friend.

Suddenly the manhole cover rose majestically, releasing a crown of water to push up around it and spurt two or three feet in the air. Gallons fell in a ring on the pavement and ran downhill toward the garage doors. The water looked like one of those close-up strobe photos of a drop of water splashing, except that balanced in the middle was this dancing stovelid of a manhole cover. People stepped back a little, although we were all 10 or more feet away from this energetic new source of water. By now most people were openly smiling and even exchanging glances.

The ring of water lifted and fell and gradually let the manhole cover subside with only an occasional burble of water escaping around its rim. Now the rain outside was more transparent, and after a few moments more, the people with raincoats and the man in the cleaners' bag crossed the street and headed along Congress toward Post Office Square. I looked at my watch; it was 12:25. I decided to wait until 12:30. Then I would leave, even if it meant getting wet.

But by 12:30 the rain had stopped, as sharply as it had begun, and the sun came out as I crossed Sudbury Street. When I walked by the bottom of the stairs that lead down from City Hall Plaza to Congress Street, there was a small waterfall in progress, perhaps three or four inches deep and six inches wide. It fell as regularly as a Slinky down the side of the stairs against the wall. I waded in the clear stream delivered by the waterfall to the sidewalk, feeling it rinse my feet, and the city pavement shone in the sunlight after the rain.

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