Category Archives: Cambridge, Mass.

Goodbye to North Cambridge

For the past three or four years, Carol has been taking care of a friend’s cat when he is away. This friend have been living in North Cambridge, near Porter Square since he travels ten or twelve weeks a year, Carol has been spending quite a bit of time in North Cambridge. And when Carol was in Cambridge, I went up as often as I could to spend time with her. But soon Carol’s friend will be moving out of the country, taking the cat with him, so there will be no more cat-sitting in North Cambridge for us.

Carol had to go up to sell her books at a fair in Maine this weekend, so I took care of the cat. When I left, I gave the cat one last scratch behind the ears, and she purred and went back to sleep, and I went down and got in my car and drove away from North Cambridge. I will miss some things about cat-sitting in North Cambridge: — I will miss the cat, who is sociable, good-natured, and affectionate; and I will miss being able to walk to McIntyre and Moore bookstore in Porter Square.

But I find the overall feeling on the streets and sidewalks of North Cambridge unpleasant. People generally seem rude, and abrupt, and aggressive, and entitled. I’ll give you one particularly egregious example of what I mean: — last night I was in a bookstore, with prominent signs asking customers to refrain from cell phone use; — and yet one man talked on his cell phone for a good hour, giving someone details of a pending lawsuit in a resonant, penetrating voice. His funny round potbelly stuck out between his suspenders, and his face was unlined and unperturbed by anything around him, and his carefully blow-dried grey hair curled down from his bald head, and his accent spoke of his privilege and his expensive education and the fact that if he was from New England he had scrupulously removed any trace of regionalisms from his speech. I’m sure he was a very nice man, but as I watched him walk yet again past a sign asking him to refrain from cell phone use which his sense of entitlement allowed him to serenely ignore, my blood boiled and I resented him. In fact, I started feeling rude and aggressive myself.

Of course I know that there are plenty of polite, courteous, non-aggressive people in North Cambridge. And of all the people I know who live in North Cambridge, only one is rude and aggressive; most everyone is nice. Yet somehow the general feeling on the streets is that people who live in North Cambridge are rude. This is in distinct contrast to the feeling on the streets here in New Bedford, where I get the feeling that politeness and courtesy are the norm, in spite of the fact that I know plenty of nasty, rude, aggressive people live down here. But every time I have traveled between New Bedford and North Cambridge, I have always been struck by the difference in public manners. It hit me again when I pulled into a parking place in front of our building: — relief that I was back in New Bedford. I’ll miss the cat, who is very sweet, but I won’t miss North Cambridge.

A day in June

It really was a perfect day. The air was clear and dry; the sky blue, but with enough white-and-gray cumulus clouds to make it truly beautiful; the temperature at mid-day just on the edge of hot, but cool in the evening; and all faces reflected the perfection of the weather.

I walked slowly through Danehy Park, looking and listening. Three soccer games were going on, men playing in bright nylon uniforms, with a couple of boys kicking around a soccer ball on the sidelines while they watched the game out of the corners of their eyes. Three young children egged each other on and decided to run down a little hill away from their parents, wide grins on their faces, giggling, their fathers calling after them, “Slowly! Don’t get too far!”; and then the fathers talked to each other about their children in French that was laced with one of the African accents. Two girls in pink dresses tossed a frisbee back and forth with their father until at last the girls (not the father) grew tired of the game. People lounged at picnic tables, empty papers and foil in front of them, talking idly and looking at the pink clouds in the sky. A man played with his black dog, telling it to stay where it was; he picked up the ball and began walking away; the dog quivered with anticipation and excitement, and began to rise on its hanuches; the man looked back, and the dog got down; at last the man threw the ball and the dog flew after it. It was a perfect evening for being in the park….

Earth gets its price for what Earth gives us;
    The beggar is taxed for a corner to die in,
The priest hath his fee who comes and shrives us,
    We bargain for the graves we lie in;
At the Devil’s booth are all things sold
Each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold;
    For a cap and bells our lives we pay,
Bubbles we earn with a whole soul’s tasking:
    ‘T is heaven alone that is given away,
‘T is only God may be had for the asking;
There is no price set on the lavish summer,
And June may be had by the poorest comer.

And what is so rare as a day in June?
    Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
    And over it softly her warm ear lays:

— lines 21-36 from the prelude to the first part of The Vision of Sir Launfal by James Russell Lowell


A small thunderstorm passed by overhead. A few raindrops darkened the pavement of the road and the sidewalk. Twenty minutes later, another small thunderstorm, a few more raindrops. The sun came out in the west, and I decided to take a walk.

A few raindrops were still falling as I stepped outside. The sun was shining brightly, and I looked up at the dark clouds to the east, and there was the rainbow. Rainbows have been co-opted by feel-good New Agers, and adopted by nine-year-old girls, but the rainbow I saw was not the kind that gets painted on tchotchkes or printed on decals.

The rainbow was brighter towards the ground, but even at its brightest it did not look like something substantial or corporeal. It was sublime:– both in the sense of a solid thing that turns immediately to vapor, and in the sense of an experience that can overwhelm our rational selves. The rainbow changed with the changing light, it was both part of and separate from the clouds, and as the storm clouds moved farther away it faded, beginning at the top, and ending with the lower leftmost or southern end. Of course the rainbow brought to my mind the promise made by Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible, a promise which sounds hollow in light of the promise of global climate change. Then I thought of Iris, the messenger of the Olympian gods and goddesses, who was also the rainbow:– the rainbow as the messenger of that which is transcendent. Iris does not always bring good news, but she always brings something of great importance:

On this Iris fleet as the wind went forth to carry his message. Down she plunged into the dark sea midway between Samos and rocky Imbrus; the waters hissed as they closed over her, and she sank into the bottom as the lead at the end of an ox-horn, that is sped to carry death to fishes. She found Thetis sitting in a great cave with the other sea-goddesses gathered round her; there she sat in the midst of them weeping for her noble son who was to fall far from his own land, on the rich plains of Troy. [Iliad, Book XXIV, 77 ff., trans. Samuel Butler]

In twenty minutes, after I had walked a little more than a mile, it was gone. During all that time, I did not notice anyone else looking up at the rainbow.

Nesting season

To get to the supermarket, I walk from the apartment where we’re cat-sitting through Danehy Park in North Cambridge. Danehy Park is built on top of a landfill. It has soccer fields, baseball diamonds, a couple of playgrounds, and a few picnic tables under the trees that grow along the main bike path. There are generally quite a few people, and some dogs, in the park — not the kind of place where you’d expect much in the way of wildlife.

Yet without even looking very hard, I saw three bird nests on my walk across the park: two American Robins nesting in trees right over the bike path, and a Northern Mockingbird nesting in some shrubs right next to one of the playgrounds. I also heard a Flicker, some Common Grackles, several Song Sparrows, and several Red-winged Blackbirds — presumably, these were all males singing to define their nesting territory. It’s remarkable that so many birds could live in such a heavily developed landscape, in a limited ecosystem with apparently very little biodiversity. This made me wonder about the fecundity that I might have seen in pre-Columbian times.

Changing cultural locations

From my perspective, Harvard Square in Cambridge has gone downhill over the past decade or so. My chief criterion for judging Harvard Square has always been the number and quality of the bookstores — there used to be more than fifty bookstores in and around the Square, and now there are only eight. People are pushier than they used to be and often nasty. The street musicians are mostly whiny singer-songwriters and pop-star wannabes.

This afternoon, I got off the subway at Davis Square in Somerville. McIntyre and Moore Used Books in Davis Square has become my favorite bookstore. People walking around the square seemed cheerful and friendly. The street musician in the subway station was playing Baroque music on an alto recorder.

Forget Cambridge. Forget Harvard Square. These days, Davis Square, Somerville, is where it’s at.

In the Grand Prix Café

The new Grand Prix Café on Mass Ave north of Porter Square has become one of our favorite hangouts. The free wifi was the initial attraction. The huge panini, and the pastries that are far too tasty, are good. The motorsports decor (black-and-white checked flags, helmets, car models) has a certain appeal.

But I enjoy the fact that the café become something of a neighborhood hangout for this part of North Cambridge. Everyone seems to know the pleasant owner, Sergio, by name. Sometimes you’ll see a bunch of guys hanging out watching sports on the big flatscreen TV — if it’s soccer it’ll be an international crowd, whereas if it’s kickboxing you’ll hear real Cambridge and Somerville accents. There’s always a few geeky people, like Carol and me, typing quietly away at laptops. Just now, a woman came in with a toddler in a stroller, and Sergio, the owner, brought out a small soccer ball and started playing catch with her. Soon, the little girl was making “brrrrm, brrrm” noises as Sergio zoomed a chartreuse Corvette model around her.

My only fear is that the café will become so popular, as happens with all good things in Cambridge, to the point where we won’t be able to get a place to sit. Which means that I probably shouldn’t tell you about it on this blog, because you might go and like it and help make it too popular.

Summer in the city

Walking down the sidewalk on a hot summer you day, you see small red and black splotches. Look up: it’s a mulberry tree, and if you’re lucky there will be ripe mulberries within reach, and you can pop one in your mouth for a burst of tart and slightly foxy flavor.

But when I looked up, the only berries within reach were red or white, underripe. Higher up, out of reach, were the deep red and black mulberries. Someone had gotten to the tree before me.

May afternoon

Three o’clock on a beautiful bright May afternoon in Davis Square. I walked out of McIntyre and Moore Used Books, blinking at the sun. Two cops were standing just outside the door, looking down the street.

“… why I don’t like him,” said one cop to her partner.

“He’s a troublemaker,” the other cop replied.

“Well, let’s try not to antagonize him.”

They were slowly moving up the street on the edge of the sidewalk. Without thinking about it, I moved over to the other side of the sidewalk, next to the buildings.

Twenty feet further along, a man was just sitting on the edge of the curb. Corduroy sport coat, much the worse for wear; slicked back messy hair; filthy bike messenger bag over his shoulder. He had to concentrate hard in order to sit down — drunk, or strung out on something.

A third cop was talking to the man saying, “No, you got in trouble because…”

I didn’t wait to hear what the cop was going to say. When you pass three cops lined up waiting to deal with one guy, it’s always best to keep walking. I threaded my way through the hipsters and students who populate Davis Square during the day, walking along under the bright sunshine of a May afternoon.

No Internet access yesterday, so I’m posting this a day after the fact.

Happy 200th, Henry

I managed to miss the two hundredth birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (27 February 1807 – 24 March 1882). A poet who is perhaps best known for his poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” it also happens that Longfellow was a Unitarian. If you go up to visit First Parish in Portland, Maine, they will show you the pew which he and his family rented.

Longfellow’s reputation has fallen on hard times. Today, the critics dismiss his poetry as too sentimental. And the historians rightly point out the gross inaccuracies in his poems;– when I was a licensed tourist guide in Concord, Massachusetts, I had to constantly explain to people that despite what Longfellow wrote in “Paul Rever’s Ride,” Revere never made it to Concord because His Majesty’s Regulars captured him in the town of Lincoln.

Nevertheless, Longfellow’s straightforward language and imagery helped create the political mythos of the United States. I still get chills as I read the last lines of “Paul Revere’s Ride”:

In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,–
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.
So through the night rode Paul Revere;–
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,–
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

…although, in the context of the current political and military adventures of the United States, it is worth noting that Longfellow was a pacifist.

So happy 200th, Henry. Sorry I missed the actual date. But according to the Web site of the Longfellow Bicentennial, I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to celebrate — including an “evening conversation” at 6:30 tonight, at the Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge.

Sunday school teachers can find activity kits here: Link (scroll down and follow the link labeled “Activity Kits,” which brings up a pop-up window).

Works by Longfellow at Project Gutenberg: Link.