Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Surveying the Squares

“There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” – C.S. Lewis

When you think of Cambridge, do you think of Harvard? That’s the only place I was familiar with before my husband and I considered moving here. We vacationed in Boston many years ago, and as part of our trip, we took the T (train) over to Harvard Square in Cambridge. At the time, my husband was in graduate school, and I said, “If we ever have to move, let’s go to Boston,” because it reminded me of Queens, NY, where I lived as a child and where we lived after we were married. My favorite memories are of the two years we lived in Forest Hills in Queens.

Years later, we finally considered moving. My husband, son, and I took a trip to visit a friend in Cambridge. We drove through rundown parts I’d never seen down Prospect Street, through Central Square, but I still loved the area, so we moved, and my husband began his post-doctoral work in Boston.

Harvard Square is the most picturesque, though it has its share of poverty as evidenced by the homeless people that congregate in a couple of areas. One person has a sign asking for donations in order to support her and her cats that live on her cart.

There’s Kendall Square to the east, which may at one time been grimier when it was full of candy factories, but with MIT and biotech companies in its vicinity, it’s nice and clean, and quiet when office hours are through.

To the North is Porter Square, which kisses Harvard Square, has lots of nice shopping, and a more suburban feel (Read, large parking lot). It’s where businesses move from Harvard Square when the economy is doing well, and its rents go up. When the economy goes down, businesses migrate back to Harvard Square. Porter Square boasts a deep station that rivals the London Underground (And demonstrates how out of shape I am). And, for some reason, my friends who live there rarely want to meet at any other Squares.

Inman Square is small because it has no T, but it’s as close to my place as Kendall and Central Squares, but I still like it with its practical and quirky stores, and a few good restaurants.

I’m not counting Huron Village, which doesn’t even have the word “Square” and whose shops sell items out of my price range. I remember looking at the first floor of a house for sale in that neighborhood and saying, “They’d never let me move here.”

If I had to say why I hold Central Square dear, it would be the conversations overheard there. Just this afternoon on the way to the bank:

Hobo One: “I got all of these cuts and bruises on my arms and shoulders, but I don’t know where they came from.”

Hobo Two: “You were out cold! The police had to drag you away.”

Hobo One: “No shit?!”

Another time, on the way to the same bank:

“You’re a big fat bitch!” screamed a standing man to a woman sitting with another man on a park bench.

“Fuck you, you skinny bastard!” she yelled back.

“Go to hell!” the man bellowed, and then stomped off.

The woman turned to her bench-mate and said in a syrupy voice, “I’m sorry. He’s my husband.”

Maybe I should switch my bank location.

This summer, my husband, daughter, and I were sitting on the expanse of grass in front of Town Hall, when a man who’s always in the area with his boom box, was sitting on a bench below us, playing Motown near a couple in the midst of an argument. I don’t remember the problem, but at some point the man took a vodka bottle in his pocket and slammed it onto the ground. His woman was upset over the loss of said vodka. The man left for a few minutes, to return with a fresh bottle of alcohol and they made up. Ah, love.

My husband and daughter witnessed a scene between a well-dressed man and a napping, homeless woman in Dunkin’ Donuts. The man woke the woman and asked for money, which struck my husband as odd, since it seemed that it should’ve been the other way around. When she refused, he kept hollering, “Give me some money for a hamburger!” Apparently, each time my husband daughter go into that Dunkin' Donuts they witness some altercation.

Today, I stopped at Walgreen’s after the bank. While I was on line, a large man walked through the electric door. At the same time, (apparently) an advocate for the man entered through the revolving door and began to yell at my cashier, “This man is handicapped. He has a wheelchair, but he had to walk in because of your door!” I didn’t understand what the issue was since there’s a handicapped button. Was it broken? Couldn’t the advocate hold the door open while the man wheeled through the entrance?

“Do you want me to get a manager?” asked the cashier, barely paying attention.

“No,” said the large man, disappearing down an aisle.

His advocate was not satisfied. “Yes. He’s going to fall and his brains will be all over the floor.”

I decided to leave to avoid seeing the brains and went on my way.

The Square isn’t scary, but it is gritty, and full of wealthier Cantabrigians exiting the T to go to the tony Cambridgeport area, students going to and from MIT and Harvard, and others heading to my neighborhood. Then there are the homeless and/or alcoholics with familiar faces who populate the streets, often haggard and unkempt. While diners eat at tables in front of restaurants, the indigent are seated on the other side of the rope boisterously chatting away. Enter Supreme Liquors to get a survey of all Cambridge residents, from those buying expensive wine behind the locked case, to those buying lottery tickets from money they’ve begged for on the street, to all of us in between. Central Square is Cambridge.

“I have an affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


  1. I actually miss Cambridge now. Thanks Theresa.

  2. I'm glad my blog brought back good memories.

  3. You just made me very nostalgic for central square & my own memories of hobos! You really brought Cambride to life:)

  4. this is cool for kids maaaaybe up to 4th grade? Then embarassment city!

  5. Martinis, did you mean this for the "Not Just Yet" post? It seems more fitting there.

  6. Hi

    It's gritty as well as never boring! I like that you capture these little telling moments between people who make this place the way it is.

    Take care

  7. And people ask where authors get ideas from...
    Life is a stage and though we are all players upon it, we are also the audience as well as the playwrights.
    The latter, I suppose, is more true for some than for others. ; j

  8. Alesa, Central Square does provide plenty of inspiration! Observing people and places is what writers do. There are several authors who have used Cambridge as a setting - you write what you know.