Category Archives: Cambridge, Mass.

Free wifi in North Cambridge

We’re cat-sitting again in north Cambridge, but the cat’s house only has dial-up access to the Internet. Being a cheapskate, I refuse to pay for wifi. Fortunately Carol found a great place with free wifi — Grand Prix Cafe at 2257 Mass. Ave. Good panini, huge slices of apple pie, decent coffee, and they don’t try to chase you out after an hour.

Spring watch

The incredibly warm weather this week still hasn’t melted all the ice in Cambridge — we still have to walk over a thick slab of ice when we go out the back door of the house where we’re cat-sitting. But most of the ice is gone, and I saw big fuzzy catkins on a pussywillow tree over by Alewife Brook this afternoon.

A conversation you might have in Cambridge

There was only one chair open on the third floor of the Harvard Coop. I took it, sat down to read through Clear blogging: How people blogging are changing the world and how you can join them. Since I was in Cambridge, I politely ignored the man sitting in the chair on the other side of the small table from me.

A third man, a tall well-spoken man, walked up, and spoke to the other man. “Hey, how you doing? Mind if I join you?”

The well-spoken man pulled up a chair and they began talking in low voices. I was deep into the blogging book, but even so couldn’t help noticing when the well-spoken man pulled a tabloid newspaper out of his day pack and showed it to his friend. I became aware of the conversation.

“I asked him if he wasn’t fearful, saying this kind of thing,” said the well-spoken man.

“What do you mean?” said his friend, who had a West Indian accent.

“Well,” said the well-spoken man, shaking the tabloid newspaper, “what this says about the history of racism in the United States, and international African revolution…”

“But wasn’t he a white man?” said his friend.

“Yes he was a white man, but he should still be worried,” said the well-spoken man. “I talked for a while to his friend, who was also white, and he admitted that he felt some fear talking like that on the street.”

I saw that the tabloid was Burning Spear, the “Voice of the International African Revolution,” offering “real political analysis of the crisis of parasitic capitalism.” I wasn’t going to break in, but after all they were waving around a revolutionary newspaper and having this conversation in a public place within four feet of me. “He probably should be worried,” I said.

“Yes,” said the well-spoken man, encouragingly. From his vocabulary and manner of speaking, I had thought him to be a graduate student, but from his face I decided he was middle-aged.

Continuing with what they had just been saying, I said, “In today’s political climate, it’s not necessarily wise to assert that the slave economy in the U.S. allowed American businesses to develop the capital that led to our current economy we now have.” I smiled. “That’s the kind of thing that can win you an FBI file.”

The well-spoken man grinned back. But the man with the West Indian accent remained skeptical. “But you’re talking openly about this.”

“It’s Cambridge,” I said, shrugging. “And we’re sitting in the Harvard Coop. In some other place like, oh, Indiana I might feel differently.”

The well-spoken man said, “I’m glad those two white men were willing to talk openly about this. But what gets me is when black people deny what’s going on.”

That led to a discussion of which American intellectuals are willing to talk openly about race and racism. I said I admired Cornel West for taking a public stance in Race Matters and Democracy Matters. The well-spoken man was dismissive of West, and instead championed a professor of sociology currently at Harvard (who of course was African American), who apparently is more radical than West.

We talked a little about the current political climate in the United States, they asked where I had come from, and the man with the West Indian accent said, “New Bedford is a pretty rough place, isn’t it?” I told him that the murder rate in Boston was higher than in New Bedford. Before I went back to my book on blogging, it came out that the well-spoken man was not a graduate student, and was actually unemployed and living in a homeless shelter.

Then I said I shouldn’t interrupt their conversation any more, and I went back to the book on blogging, which at last I decided to buy. When I got up to leave, they were deep in a conversation about the nature of human intelligence, and whether intelligence could be accurately tested and quantified.

An independent bookstore

I love Central Square in Cambridge: the co-op supermarket, the street life, the Cantab Lounge, and especially the independent bookstores: Seven Stars with its excellent selection of scriptures of the world’s religions (used and new), Rodney’s with its remainders and its used poetry books, and Pandemonium with the most comprehensive selection of science fiction and fantasy in the Boston area….

…and as it happens, Pandemonium is in financial trouble. They moved from Harvard Square to Central Square — 4 Pleasant Street, to be exact, around the corner from the Cantab — but the move took much longer than expected, and they have cash-flow problems. But you can help….

…Tyler, who owns the store, is selling t-shirts. You can pre-order a very cool t-shirt here: link. And so what if you don’t live in the Boston area! — here’s your chance to buy a cool t-shirt and save an independent bookstore. I already ordered mine. Buy a t-shirt, save an independent bookstore!

Tyler is posting updates on the store situation on his LiveJournal page: link. If you want to place your t-shirt order in person, visit the store or you can see Tyler at Boskone this weekend. Even though his predicament has been posted on BoingBoing, he’s still facing an uphill battle — help out if you can.


The subway car emptied out after Central Square. A man moved to take one of the many empty seats next to me, and started talking to his friend across the aisle. This short unhurried exchange caught my ear:

“Hey. Thanks for [unintelligible]. I’ll do the same for you next weekend.”

“Next weekend…. Next weekend I could be in jail.”

“Yah, but if I don’t drink….” [pause]

“Yah but I been busted sober.”

“But if ya don’t drink….”

“Yah. OK.”

Quiet in the city

It’s been so quiet at night here in Cambridge. The crickets sound louder than usual. The traffic is lighter, and I’ve been seeing far fewer people on the street than usual. It feels as if a large percentage of the city’s residents are away on vacation. The only places where the city has felt as busy as usual have been in the usual tourist traps: Harvard Square, the Freedom Trail, Faniuel Hall.

Day hike: Cambridge and Boston

The heat wave was getting to me. I went out at 12:30, thinking I’d climb on the subway and head off to find someplace air-conditioned to spend the afternoon. But the air felt drier, and even though it was hot it felt good. I went back home, ate a leisurely lunch, and started walking at about 2 p.m.

By the time I reached Harvard Square, you could feel the change in the air. I left Mass. Ave. and made my way to the Charles River. The air felt glorious. The wind backed around into the east, coming right off the ocean and up the river: a back door cold front. With the change in the air, my head cleared and I felt lighthearted for the first time in days.

I walked down along the Charles, past all the boathouses. The sailboats were having a good time beating up the lower basin of the Charles against the wind; right next to me, one sailor did two quick messy tacks and brought his boat up to the dock of the MIT boathouse. Crossing the Longfellow Bridge, the easterly breeze felt cool:– I was walking at a good clip, but not even breaking a sweat.

Down Charles Street to the Charles St. Meeting House, where there’s nothing left to remind you of the time when the white Universalist minister hid Huey Newton from the FBI in a Sunday school room. I went over the lower part of Beacon Hill — cool and quiet and very, very wealthy — to Boston Common.

The Common was crowded, not just with the usual crowd of summer tourists, but with all kinds of people enjoying the first good weather in days: office workers headed home, homeless people, construction workers carrying plastic lunch coolers, a gaggle of young mothers pushing strollers, older children splashing in the frog pond, a group of people sitting and talking and listening to a man playing a tenor sax.

Near the Public Garden, a crew was working on the lights at the stage for Shakespeare in the Park. Crowds of people on the path across the Public Garden: A group of Japanese tourists got their picture taken by a woman with a Boston accent. A child holding on to his mother’s hand looked down at the Swan Boats and said something I didn’t quite catch. “No, dear,” she replied. “We can’t go on them, they’re closed for the day.”

The lower end of Newbury Street was more chic and further upscale than I had remembered. Young women wearing chic dresses and chic flipflops walked the sidewalks, peering into the windows of the boutiques. Tourists held their cameras at the ready, and stopped in the middle of the crowded sidewalk to gawk at the stores. People got a little scruffier at the far end of Newbury Street near Mass. Ave. I stopped briefly at Trident Bookstore and inside no one was wearing a chic dress.

On Mass. Ave., people crowded the sidewalks getting on and off the buses. Around Berklee School of Music, young people with scruffy hair toted instruments cases for a variety of instruments — alto sax, guitar, woodwinds. But the quiet shaded back streets through Northeastern University were deserted all the way to the Museum of Fine Arts.

In the Fens, I paused briefly to look at the community gardens. A few gardeners managed to grow vegetables in spite of the shady trees, but mostly I saw flowers and ornamentals, gravel and even brick paths, trellises and chairs set out under leafy bowers. One woman industriously swept the path in her garden plot; in another, a family sat enjoying the green shade.

As I neared Fenway Park, I could hear them announcing the lineup for today’s game. People streamed towards the park wearing Red Sox hats and sometimes Red Sox shirts with numbers and names of famous players emblazoned on them. One little boy still had a shirt saying “Garciaparra,” even though Nomar hasn’t played with the Sox for a couple of years.

The M.I.T. Bridge across the Charles is still measured in Smoots, and on the far side I walked right up Mass. Ave. towards our summer home base above Porter Square. I stopped only twice: once to buy a quart of water (which was gone in minutes), and once to stop at Pandemonium Books (which has finally reopened in Central Square).

Ten or twelve miles.

Hot summer night

A hot summer night in Harvard Square. The usual crowd of upscale teens and suburbanites is missing. People have gathered around the window of Cardullo’s gourmet food store — in the store window is a large screen TV, tuned to the Red Sox game, with the sound piped outside on a hidden speaker. This is a real public service, since you can no longer watch the Sox on broadcast TV — it’s cable only.

There’s maybe thirty or forty people, much more of a mix than you usually see nowadays in Harvard Square, sort of like the Square was twenty or thirty years ago with academics and regular working people. Some fans actually brought lawn chairs to sit in. A couple of motorcycle cops sit astride their Harleys nearby, pretending to not look at the game. These Red Sox fans take up the whole sidewalk, and spill out onto the street. We walk around them, in the street — it is not wise to walk between Sox fans and a TV screen at this point in the season.

Something good must be happening in the game, because the fans all cheer and the motorcycle cops look up.

Street scene

Carol and I are looking out of the second-floor window of the place where we’re cat-sitting. A 1970’s-era Mercedes sedan slowly drives up.

“Wow, look at the old Mercedes,” says Carol, “it still looks good, especially in white. Is he stopping to look at the stuff I put on Craigslist?” She just stacked a pile of old junk at curbside.

A man gets out, about 60, longish white hair, aviator sunglasses, khaki pants, shirt in Madras plaid. He walks in front of the Mercedes, seemingly looking intently at the pile of Carol’s junk.

“Yup,” I say, “he’s looking at the blue wading pool.” The wading pool is leaning up against the “Parking Permit Required” sign, and from his point of view, all the other junk must be hidden behind it.

Just then, a slender young woman in her early twenties appears around the corner of the house, walking down the sidewalk past the blue wading pool towards the man. Carol bursts out laughing. “No, he’s looking at the foxy chick!”

The man turns away, but as soon as she passes by him, he turns to stare at her rear end.

“Boy, he’s a little obvious about it!” I say.

“It’s not that bad,” says Carol. “At least she was past him and didn’t see.”

“I guess, but,” I start to say, when Carol interrupts me.

“Shh, he’ll hear us,” she says.

We move away from the window.