where the street has a name


    Since Ginger and I don’t share a day off, we’re working hard to take advantage of any chance we have to hang out together. Since I was not working today, I rode into Boston with her because she had a couple of meetings to attend. We ate lunch together and I stayed in the booth at Cambridge Common while she went to her appointment. The pub brings back good memories of days at Winchester High because this was one of the watering holes we frequented after a day slaving over a hot grade book.

    I miss living in the city.

    Boston and Cambridge are residential and pedestrian: people live downtown and people walk from place to place. If we ever move somewhere else, I will need to learn quickly that drivers in most cities don’t stop to let people cross the street. In Dallas, they think those crossing the street are the human equivalent of ducks in a shooting gallery. You’re supposed to hit them.

    Massachusetts Avenue, or Mass Ave. to the locals, is the artery that runs from the most southern part of Boston to the northern end of Cambridge, past Symphony Hall & the Berklee College of Music, between Copley and Kenmore Squares, across the Charles River, past MIT and then Harvard, through Porter Square, and on into Arlington center and beyond. It’s an important street to both cities and one that is full of landmarks for both Ginger and me.

    The first summer after I started teaching, I worked for one of the other teachers who had a small business cleaning up abandoned and repossessed houses to get them ready for auction. Everyday we were in a different part of the city going through what people had left behind and putting it into garbage bags. It was hard work. One week, he had a different job for us. We were to clean around an building on the far south end of Mass Ave. that was going to be used by the city for some municipal offices. My job was to take the Weedeater That Ate Cleveland and whack down a small jungle of growth on one side of the building. By the time I was finished that afternoon, I was sweaty and covered in dust, which meant I was muddy, too. Since we were a one-car family at the time, my ride home was the T, Boston’s public transportation. I got on the 39 bus to Copley, where I could catch the Orange Line train home to Charlestown.

    Since we were so far south of downtown, the bus was almost empty when I got on, so I got a seat. As the bus continued the route, the bus filled up, but no one ever sat down next to me. No one even looked at me. I was invisible. I realized I was getting a serendipitous look into what it felt like to be one of the homeless people in our city. When I got off the bus in Copley Square, I had about a five or six block walk to get to Back Bay Station to catch the train. Copley is one of the places many of the homeless folks hang out because there’s a small park there and the public library will let them use the bathrooms. I continued to remain invisible to most of the people, but every one of the street folks talked to me – not asking for anything; they talked to me. I became visible to a whole different layer of humanity.

    On another day, at the other end of Mass Ave., I was in Harvard Square and passed a guy leaning up against the side of a church holding an empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup.

    “Got any change?” he asked.

    Ginger and I made it a practice not to give cash to people on the street, but to offer food instead. So I said, “I’d be happy to buy you a coffee and a muffin.”

    He paused and then replied, “Coke and a brownie?”

    I thought to myself, “Everyone deserves a Coke and a brownie,” so I said I’d do it. When I got inside the coffee shop, the brownies looked so good I got two. When I delivered his order, I sat down on the curb next to him and we ate together.

    Mass Ave. used to house the most wonderful Tower Records store. The Berklee Performance Center, where I got to see Emmylou Harris on my birthday is on that street. So are Pearl Art Supply, the Middle East, Daddy’s Junky Music, Mr. and Mrs. Bartley’s Hamburgers, Joie de Vivre, and Paper Source.

    The B. U. Bridge takes Mass Ave. from Boston to Cambridge, and vice versa. We walk that bridge every year as part of the Walk for Hunger, Project Bread’s wonderful annual fundraiser. Walking across the bridge, you see green marks that measure the span in “Smoots.” Many years back, MIT students measured the bridge using one of their own, a guy named Smoots, as the measuring stick. Right before we moved here, the bridge was completely renovated and the original measurements were lost. They wanted to measure the new bridge, but by that time Smoots’ grandson was a student at MIT. There was some discussion about which one should be the standard. Since the old man was still living, they brought him back to do it all over again.

    1369 Coffee House is on Mass Ave. So is the Harvard Coop, the Plough and Stars, and the Elephant Walk. It’s where Jake, my acupuncturist, used to have his office. There’s also a Korean church I have never attended. Oh – and the Friendly Eating Establishment.

    Moving up and down Mass Ave. is like moving through the layers of civilization in an archaeological dig, or moving up and down the most amazing buffet table you have ever seen trying to figure out how to taste a little of all of it. From the worn down row houses in Roxbury to the high dollar brownstones of the Back Bay, to the mixture of humanity that congregates in Central Square, to the the young people trying so hard to be alternative in Harvard Square, and the funky shops just beyond it. I have walked there, eaten there, laughed and listened and wandered there; I have shopped and sat and sojourned.

    Today, I remembered.



    1. And on the Orange Line I had a Hop Sing moment…and do you remember Aerobic Beverage Night? The Boston Brewhouse? Ah!

      Today I remember too!


    2. That’s so cool. You almost make me want to give up the rural life! (But not quite. I mentioned to a friend earlier today that my 6 minute/4 mile commute is totally worth it!)

    3. I’m hoping to move out of the city soon, to someplace where I can have some land to garden and can breathe fresh air in the mornings. But I live in Porter Square, just two blocks from Mass Ave, anbd I used to live two blocks from Mass Ave in Central. I walk and then ride the bus that road every week day to go to work, and on weekends, I walk up Mass Ave to go book and cd shopping in Harvard and Central Squares. Mass Ave in many ways represents home to me more than anything else in the city does. It probably will long after I’ve moved away. I m glad you remember it with fondness.

    4. Were you living in Dallas before?
      your post was so familiar to me. I have been living in Dallas for about 5 years now and will move to Boston Hope you will have more “boston” tagged posts.

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