Something about Cambridge

The Thinker by Rodin

We are at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on the banks of the Charles River in (as the Car Talk guys like to say) “our fair city” Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge may be the egghead center of the country, since it houses both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The whole Boston area though is rife with universities and colleges, but Cambridge is in particular, which makes the city feel unnaturally young and overly educated. Yet the pretentiousness I expected to find in Cambridge (and in the Boston area in general) does not appear to exist. What I have found instead is something much more interesting: a real city, a real community and a friendliness among its citizenry that puts even southern states notorious for being friendly (like Tennessee) to shame.

If you want to experience Cambridge friendliness, try the 5th Street Laundry off Cambridge Street in East Cambridge. That’s where we found ourselves on Friday afternoon, with a large suitcase full of smelly laundry permeated with the odor of sunscreen. There is no humbler a place than a Laundromat. We arrived by taxi because it was just a bit too far to reach by dragging a suitcase on wheels. Inside we found customers, principally young people, all too happy to strike up conversations with us. It became more surreal when we exited the laundry and waited outside for our cab. A guy in the house next to the laundry became curious about what we were doing, started talking to us, and impromptu began flagging down taxis for us. No thanks, we said, as we expected our taxi to arrive momentarily. However, after waiting half an hour, he came out again and flagged another taxi for us, which we took back to the hotel.

Standing in the shade outside the laundry we observed a close knit community in its summer bloom. People waved to each other from cars passing along Cambridge Street. Neighbors were chatting with other neighbors. People wandering in, out and by the laundry started talking to us. One guy saw a friend in a car nearby, motioned him to the side of the street, and got into a long, animated and friendly conversation with him.

The laundry experience turned out to be one of many that occurred not just here in Cambridge, but also in Boston, Charlestown and other places we have visited. There is a natural friendly curiosity to the citizenry around here, but most surprisingly, a willingness to help people, even strangers, that would make Jesus proud. In a city rife with students, we found we simply could not carry our luggage on and off buses or public transportation. Students would step forward and unsolicited help lug the baggage. This would never happen in Washington D.C. I assumed Boston was a lot like New York City: cold and impersonal, but this is simply not the case. People instinctively give up their bus seats to an older person. People of any ethnicity are overwhelmingly polite and helpful. It seems to be stitched into the character of this city. Maybe in poorer and more remote areas of Boston that we haven’t visited this is not true. Boston, like any major metropolitan area, has had its share of ethnic tensions over the years.

Yet particularly in Cambridge it does not seem to happen. Everyone just gets along, which is amazing because it is incredibly ethnically diverse, and English is just one of the dozens of languages you will hear on the streets and in the shops. Still, it remains a principally white city, with a peculiar mixture of eggheads and regular guys like Click and Clack from Car Talk, many of whom are deeply rooted in their city. Those who are not, like the many transient students, seem to pick up the friendly culture of the city almost instinctively.

One of the reasons we are in the Boston area is to check it out some more as a potential retirement spot, and you don’t understand a place until you spend some time in it. We are repeatedly told that most people want to retire from Boston, not to it. A friendly bus driver told us about Boston’s harsh winters, the numerous double digit snowfalls that the area receives, the crusty hard snow banks taller than your head, and how its only really nice season is summer, which at least in this area seems mild. All I can say is that if I could afford to live in a real community like Cambridge, why on earth would I want to leave it? Why move away from a city with charm, character and community to an impersonal suburb in Northern Virginia like where I live where I know by name no more than a handful of my neighbors? I have lived in denser communities and I know their downsides. I am sure the snow and the ice would be annoying, but it would be a small price to pay to live somewhere that is not just a place, but a real community.

Another thing about Cambridge, due in part I am sure to the number of bright students living here: the people here look gorgeous: healthy, attractive, vibrant, basically alive. Yes, of course you will find some obese people here, but much less than the country as a whole. In many ways, Cambridge reminds me of Boulder, Colorado, another city where if the people are not exactly young they are at least fit and healthy looking. Some you will find jogging along the various pathways, but I suspect that many are fit simply because life requires them to do much more walking than us ordinary, sedentary Americans.

There is little reason to own a car, but plenty of reason to take the T, Boston’s public transportation system, instead. Which means: walking to the bus stop, walking from the bus stop, walking in and off buses, and going up and down subway staircases for a good part of your day. Exercise is something that happens naturally as a consequence of living here. And speaking of public transportation, by Washington D.C. standards it is unbelievable cheap. We bought a 7 day pass for only $15. This means you can cover most if not all of your transportation costs for $60 a month. It is so much cheaper than owning a car and if you know your routes and schedules, not that much of an inconvenience either. One car per household should be plenty, and may be one more than needed. If I lived in Cambridge, I would be tempted to get rid of my car altogether. Most of life’s necessities are less than a few blocks away. If I could buy it within ten blocks or so, I’d probably walk there, otherwise I’d take a bike if the weather is seasonal or public transportation.

Retiring to Massachusetts is more my wife’s idea than mine. The more I experience the Boston area first hand, the more inclined I am to agree that this area may be the right place to hang my hat for the next stage of my life.