Tag Archives: Cambridge

Summer and Fall of 1979

🍎 When we were very young

…and now for a brief diversion from The Great France Art Tour of 2017

RailroadTracksI didn’t know when to expect Richard.

He was supposed to be riding the rails across the country, to show up in Boston sometime at the end of the summer. In the letter, he described how this journey was not to be.  Just a mile or so from Davis, California, he and his friend Jamie jumped from a moving freight. Richard wrote: “This was a mistake, I thought, as I plunged headfirst into the gravel… Jamie suffered a broken collarbone.

The tentative word was that he would arrive around the middle of August on the “Gray Rabbit”, an alternative bus company vehicle.

August 18

He showed up with his Chaldean friend Ed. Ed had thick, dark, wavy hair, a thick mustache and a middle-eastern complexion.  Ed was originally from Detroit, a Psych major looking into graduate and law schools. He and Rich appeared around the 18thand spent almost a week with Pal and I, sharing the apartment. They were both looking for work and seeing sights–I showed them around a bit, but we were all together so much and I tried to be alone with Pal on my days off.

Richard got a job in no time, hired at a food processing plant across the harbor, spouting Marxist doctrine about “experiencing the lot of the proletariat”,  he became an onion man on an assembly line.

“Well, how’d it go?” I asked him, noticing the strong odor of onions that filled the living room.

“I quit.”

“Really?!”

“Yep.”

“Well, what happened?”

“I wore a hair net. The foreman told me to space onions about six inches apart on the conveyor belt. So that’s how I spaced them, until two guys down the line started throwing onions at me; telling me to slow down. A big black guy came over and told me to space them twelve to eighteen inches apart so the guys down the line would have time to do their work. So I’d space ‘em that way until the supervisor would come over and tell me to put ‘em four inches apart, and I’d do that until he was out of sight.”

“Jeez. So what happened?”

“At the end of the day I quit.”

“What did you say?”

“’I quit.’”

“Yea, but what did they say?”

“The foreman said, ‘Too tough for ya, huh?’’’

“And?”

“And I told him, ‘No, but I’d go crazy by the end of the week if I had to do it every day.’”

Richard looked around some more for work, talking with Ed now and then about going to New Hampshire to pick apples.

August 25

 It seemed like they were always hungry. Pal doesn’t eat meat and I rarely do—we’d prepare a big meal, give them seconds, have no food left, and they’d still be hungry. Mind you, they did buy groceries and chip in; I was just astounded by their appetites. I imagined they wanted huge bloody chunks of meat and we were feeding them rice, beans, and tortillas. After about six days—I don’t know, call it my own uptightness or whatever, but their stay began to wear thin. Personally, I was simply bothered by my own ignorance of Ed. Ed didn’t say much. He’d sit and listen and stare with those dark eyes, nodding his head. When he did talk, he mostly talked about going back to Detroit, where people were friendly.

“In Detroit?” I thought.

******

I just wanted to be alone with Pal. Brad offered to put up our two visitors at his apartment. We finally got them to take him up on the offer the same day that they found a place on Marlborough Street in Back Bay. They could have the place through August for practically nothing, so they took it. In no time, Richard found a baking job at the Somerville Bel Canto and Ed began work as a bar boy at the Salty Dog down in Faneuil Hall.

We didn’t see much of them for awhile. Then we saw Richard somewhat regularly—he and Ed didn’t seem to be doing much together. Ed was lonely and didn’t think people were friendly in Boston. He was going back to Detroit. In one week his departure time shrank from “a month”, to “a few weeks”, to “a week”, to “Friday”, and he was gone to Detroit without our ever being able to bid him farewell.

Seeing Richard then was no problem at all.

September 1

Richard left to pick apples in New Hampshire. He had managed to get a passport in the time he was with us. He spoke of leaving for France after a short, profitable term as an apple picker.

We spent one long evening at the Café Pamplona, Brad, Richard, Pal, and I. We had fun; we were all pretty wound up. We didn’t speak softly as we often do at Pamplona; we laughed openly at the pieces of pretentious Harvard Square conversation that came our way. We all wished Richard luck. We made him aware of the possibilities: stiff neck and shoulders, apple chowder, apple pancakes, turnovers, pies, and apple sauce in the mess, and who knows what in the co-ed bunk house. And the next day Richard was gone.

We didn’t hear from him for about a week. The letter he wrote made it sound pretty dismal. Long days, hard work, not many apples. Then a week after that we got another letter.

September 12

Yesterday and especially today, it became everything I could have hoped it to be. It was exquisite today. Two reasons. First, in a scene out of a Russian novel, I and two others make our way down our respective rows of trees shouting, singing, laughing back and forth, calling to one another from the tops of our 15 foot ladders, hands flying among the branches, picking apples as fast as we could—all the time Great Topics hovering over everything. Religion, Literature, Philosophy, History – these and more tossed back and forth. “What does it mean to seek after God?” “Is Marxism a conservative doctrine?” “How does Nietzsche figure as a character in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus?” – some of the questions.

Bedo, a Whitmanesque figure, with a great beard and a great belly and a trunk of popular songs from the gay nineties and Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, stoutly defended his adherence to an obscure religious movement founded by an American mystic.

Jean, an ex-school teacher, marathon runner, sang fifties rock standards and spoke knowledgeably of his current passion, neuro-biology.

I played the part of the brash young man who thinks he knows it all, pestering each with question after question about their beliefs.

“You have a Socratic mind,” Jean told me, and I was very flattered.

Secondly, today was an all-out bust-ass competition. Bedo is an old hand, been picking for years. Jean and I killed ourselves trying to keep up. We did until 3:30 or so, and then Bedo pulled away. “SEVEN bins!” He called out. Jean and I were at about six and two-thirds. Hour or so later, “EIGHT bins!” Jean and I at less than seven and a half. We struggled in over an hour behind him; eight bins a personal triumph for both of us.

The next month or so should be very nice, very fun.

Take Care,

Rich
Brookdale Fruit Farm
Hollis, New Hampshire

******

September 16

“Chris?”

“Rich?”

“Chris! It’s Rich.”

“Hey Rich. So what’s up?”

“It seems the Peace Corps wants me after all. My parents got ahold of me at the fruit farm. I have to catch a plane.”

“Really!? So where are you now?”

“I’m downtown. I was wondering if I could impose…”

“Hell Rich! C’mon over! We’ll be glad to have you.”

So Richard showed up a couple days after his second letter arrived. Ready for yet another adventure. The Feds would fly him down to Pennsylvania for seven days for a final intensive screening, before deciding if he and the six other candidates are prepared to spend two years in Botswana, teaching natives how to run and repair diesel powered well-pumps.

That’s where he is now. He gets back to Boston Sunday. If they liked him, he’ll be around for about a month more before he leaves.

September 23

First day of Fall, Rich gets back, ice cream with Brad at Steve’s in Somerville. I had honey vanilla with Reese’s mix-ins. Brad had coffee with mix-ins, but I forget what kind.

October 8, Columbus Day

Leaf_Yellow
Pal is changing. I’m here in the living room. We just walked Ally, and realized we’ll need more than the clothes we have on when we leave. Today we are borrowing Brad’s MG Midget and heading out of Boston on a leafing adventure.

It was too cold to put the top down on Brad’s car, but we took Ally anyway. We drove to Concord, Mass. And then headed west and north, for New Hampshire. We chose our route with only two criteria in mind: That the road be in a wooded area, and that it be somewhat untraveled. When we came to intersections, we always took the road where the most traffic did not go.

Of course, it was beautiful. There weren’t many places where the leaves had “peaked” already, but everywhere we went the foliage was turning bright orange, yellow, rust, some leaves golden, and that deep, deep red against the still present greens.

“Ally, please lie down,” was the constant comment as we toured the countryside, our large, fluffy, white Samoyed, excited by the cool air, dancing on the rumble seat of the tiny MG Midget. “I can’t see behind us! Ally!”

We stopped in Wilton, a speck of a town just on the Massachusetts side of the border. There we bought cider, some delicious Vermont cheddar, and a dog biscuit for Ally. We walked her in the cold wind, then continued. We only went as far as Hollis, New Hampshire. That of course, is the big apple town where Richard found employ. We didn’t see the Brookdale Fruit Farm, but as we sat in a diner called The Corner Cupboard, munching our western’s and sipping corn chowder and coffee, we saw an old guy hitching up the road. For the absence of a beard, he could have been Richard’s “Bedo”. Plaid shirt, heavy coat bulging with a big belly, jeans, and rubber shin-high picking boots, just like those Rich came home with.

October 23?

Richard was leaving Saturday afternoon. Friday night Brad had Rich and Mary over for dinner. Pal and I just couldn’t make it. I was tired and Pal was trying to get the house cleaned up for the arrival of her friend Tom Smith.

Mary brought her Lebanese boyfriend, who has some shady past connections with Christian terrorists. He told them some interesting stories, I guess, they seemed most impressed by his belief that Henry Kissinger would be murdered “on general principles”.

Pal and I argued and fought and yelled violently at home before Tom came. There were reasons I suppose…but mainly because we were both exhausted. We left to meet Tom’s train at the Back Bay Station. It was late, so we went to the Half Shell, a small waterfront bar on Boylston Street, for a beer.

In the morning Tom and Richard accompanied Pal and I to Cardell’s. Cardell’s is a cafeteria-style restaurant. Tables are shared with Buddy’s Sirloin Pit (est. 1964), which luckily doesn’t open that early. Bran muffins, OJ, and coffee can be had for the best prices. The place is really a dive, but the sawdust on the floor and good prices, and certainly the unhurried atmosphere make it worthwhile.

“Well, this is it.” I kept telling Richard. Trying to get us both to realize that he was about to leave for two years.

***

Ally and I are in the backyard at Bigelow while I write. She is tromping around in the leaves, exploring, tied to a chain which is connected by a pulley to an overhead cable that spans half the length of  the yard. A good arrangement, I’m not sure that it was originally intended for a Samoyed, but more likely – to dry clothes. Vito’s marigolds are still blooming by the side of the house, yellow orange and orange tinged with red. The way things are going they’ll soon be covered by leaves.

Today is the day that the leaves fall from the trees. They’ve been sitting there looking beautiful in the cold crisp, bright and alive in their death throes for over a month. The warm Indian Summer came and seemed to put them out of place. They’re falling now like lasting snowflakes in the warmth, like teardrops on the wind, they flutter downward, covering the earth with rough golden rust.

Yesterday I got a letter from Rich. I guess it was the last thing he wrote from Las Vegas, saying he was on his way and he’d write when he got to Africa.

LeafRedThe afternoon has grown quiet as the sun stepped behind the buildings. Fluffy white clouds are passing rapidly overhead, moving against a grey, blue. Ally is lying on my leg now, beneath the picnic table. She stirs, and the deep dusty smell of leaves fills my head.

— Christo

Three Days in Paris (Partie deux)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

VanGoghs_YellowCafe_inArles

…continued from Three Days in Paris (Partie un)

You may know that the French were reputed to be smoking fiends until the last ten years or so. Just watch a French movie. They ALL smoke! Historically they had their “national brands”, the blonde Disque Bleu and Gauloises cigarettes, strongly aromatic and somewhat similar to the much milder American plain end “Camels”. I had smoked Gauloises when I first visited Paris. They seemed cool then. But I was fifteen.

Then there were the “Gitanes”, of many types, in my experience, made with black Belgian tobacco wrapped in slightly sweet tasting, yellow corn papers. I had tried a Gitanes just once after college at Lawrence and Pace Tobacconists. Those fat Gitanes monsters were a little squishy between the fingers,  smelled like a bad cigar, and were known for driving away mosquitoes and other pests.

At least the smoke wafting over from the nearby tables was not that!

A Bleu Memory

screen-shot-2017-10-13-at-9-15-36-pm-e1508449013423.jpg

It was 1978 and I was living in an extremely modest rented room near Harvard Square. In that dark room, the narrow mattress sagged nearly to the floor, which was littered with feathers and other debris of the pigeons that managed to come through the rafters at night. Why they came in? I don’t know, on that top floor it was ungodly summertime Cambridge heat and humidity, and there was no air conditioning. If I were a pigeon, I’d stay outside.

And we did. We stayed out as late as possible, those of us at the so-called “Lincoln’s Inn”. Waiting for the city to cool down. I’d watch a Fred Astaire double feature at the Brattle Theater, and then scrawl the exciting details of my new life in my journal at a table in a corner of the Casablanca coffee house. It was my first exposure to iced coffee, served there with a bit of Crème de Menthe and a dollop of whipped cream, it cut through the heat, and I could nurse one for an hour or two before they’d kick me out.

In the morning, I’d pull open the window screen and chase out the pigeons. And this was okay. I was fresh out of college with my degree in English, and was in no hurry yet to work as a teacher—which I felt was my destiny—or to go to graduate school, which might be required, and which I could not afford. I had managed to get all the way across the country from California, and I was pleased to have work in Cambridge. Working as a tobacconist seemed as good as any other job, and better than most.

Before the whole civilized world had quite sensibly turned against the cancer-inducing addiction, there was a certain romantic and literary allure to tobacco and tobacco products. Especially at “Lawrence and Pace”, which was known to have been the preferred local source for a number of current and historical celebrities who attended or visited Harvard. There was the Perkins shop in Boston, and Ehrlich’s too, on Tremont Street, but those were the domain of business men, old men. They didn’t have the hip Harvard Yard cachet of “L and P”, a living museum of Harvard sports and its own tobacco history collected in framed and yellowed news clippings, articles from Time to the New Yorker, and a tremendous collection of other ephemera. Plus, we benefited from the living book of colorful local characters who came and went, revealing their own stories or narrating the tales of others.

On an August afternoon, our Assistant Manager, Thomas, persuaded one of the local Cambridge “boys in blue” to sample a blue-boxed French Gitanes cigarette.

Bill stepped off the street into our air-conditioned store to escape the swampy New England summer heat. He was about 6’5”, a large slightly paunchy man in his late thirties with a pencil-thin black mustache. He walked the Harvard Square beat in shiny black shoes, with a holstered billy club, the usual blue uniform and a blue hat, tilted back. It seemed too small for his slightly bald, large, round head. He was mostly known for writing parking tickets and harassing the many buskers and pan-handling street people who hovered around the Red Line T- stop like yellow wasps circling a glass of Burgundy. He occasionally purchased Newport menthol filters, and not many of those, and this day, made the mistake of telling Thomas he would like to try a different brand, something “more interesting”.

Thomas turned on the charm, the whites of his bulging brown Peter Lorre eyes flashing. He described the romance of “the continental” cigarettes, peppering his spiel with French, German, and Spanish—all languages with which he had proven on previous occasions to be at least passingly familiar. Thomas loved to wax dramatic, and his show went on for 15 or 20 minutes. He pulled various brands in exotic boxes from the shelves, German “HB”, Swiss “Davidoff”s, even the weird papirosa Russians. He took one of those, crimped the long hollow “filter” at the end in the proper manner—pinching it at right angles—occasionally taking a puff from it, but mostly using it as a pointer. Six or eight different boxes lay on the counter top.

Thomas lifted his thick dark eyebrows dramatically as he painted a picture of the Paris scene of the 1920s—which of course included brilliant ex-patriots smoking Gitanes cigarettes as they piled up the color-coded café saucers on the tables where they wrote their stories or poems. (Of course L&P had facsimiles of these props as well, used for ash trays.)French Cafe Saucers

In the end, Bill selected a blue pack of Gitanes, pronouncing the name, “Gee-tanes”, tapping his finger on the box. I watched in horror as he opened his wallet. Thomas took Bill’s money at the register, closing the deal with the explanation, “The French pronounce it softly, ‘Gee-tawn’,” then added his usual overly affected, “If you don’t like the cigarettes, bring them back and I’ll refund your investment. Bon appètit!”

(And yes, he did say, “investment”.)

Bill walked out the door.

There were no other customers for the moment and it seemed very quiet. I shook my head. Thomas leered his crocodile smile, glancing at me, sighing and leaning forward as if exhausted from his efforts, resting his arms on the glass top of the display case of hand carved meerschaum pipes.

He was smug. Laughing slightly, he said, “I think he’ll like those, but his buddies at the station house may not want him nearby!!”

Only moments later, Bill pushed his large frame back through the shop’s heavy front door, one huge hand wrapped around the door handle, clinging to it as if he needed the support to keep from collapsing. Like many of the furnishings at Lawrence and Pace, the door handle was unique, silver metal cast as an oversized briar pipe. At first, Bill just stood there. Even from across the store, in the walk-in humidor where I was stocking cigars, I could see the pained look on his dark green face.

Bill blurted, “I’m going to be sick…” and Thomas quickly escorted him back to our washroom, left him there, and came out to get him a glass of water, explaining, “The Gitanes were too much for him.”

Thomas’s eyes twinkled a bit. This had been his little joke, but things had gotten out of hand, and he quickly adopted a compassionate pout; he had not intended to hurt our friend and customer.

When Bill emerged, he was sheepish about the incident. Thomas refunded Bill’s investment and spent the next few minutes apologizing for overselling the smelly dark cigarettes.

For his part, Bill politely refused Thomas’s offer of more advice and a complimentary box of some other brand, explaining that he was now quite seriously quitting the dirty habit altogether. He was, he said, done with cigarettes, forever. “Nothing personal guys,” he proclaimed, regaining something of his normal commanding composure, “Newport, Gee-tanes, Gee-tawn, whatever. I’m done.”

— And I have to say, that although Bill still dropped in to the shop to visit once or twice a week, to my knowledge, he never smoked another cigarette, or consumed any other type or form of tobacco. In the end, for all the romantic expectation and comic drama, some good did come from that particular pack of Gitanes.

Gitanes_cigarette_pack

To be continued…

— Christo