DOWN and OUT in Cambridge
The Rue de Salaud, Cambridge, seven-thirty in the morning. The timeless, homeward, flat-foot tread of the night-cop down Plympton Street; the inchoate giggle of a street-corner Horatio in a black leather jacket; two red eyes in the shadows.
The red eyes belong to a short, unshaven, portly young man with a Saragossa shock of black hair, a pair of plaid suspenders, a polka-dot bow tie, and the look of John L. Lewis with a beer bottle benignancy. His shoe-soles are worn to a sharp angle and he occasionally scratches.
I sketch this scene to convey something of the spirit of the Rue de Salaud--approximately sixteen blocks of cold-water flats, back stairs, and cracked plaster stretching from the Radcliffe Graduate Center to Central Square. This is the Left Bank of the Charles, the garret-estate of the unwashed literati, the tenements of the night-crawler--that interim period creature who walks the Cambridge streets between Commencement and Summer School.
The night-crawler colony of summer artists numbers upwards of a hundred, living in various degrees of leisure from sublet Fresh Pond homes to park benches and sleeping bags. Its members have a particularly difficult lot: the coffee-houses and cafes are closed; the Brattle shows nothing but popular films; the banks of the Charles are too crowded for contemplation. And the bare bones of sustenance itself present a problem.
Let me tell you about Harold, the red-eyed bowtied young man mentioned earlier. Harold was tossed out of Adams House two weeks before Summer School. He is writing his thesis on Jack Kerouac. He wanders down Massachusetts Avenue in the infant hours with that burdened shuffle of troubled genius. He is typical of the night-crawlers, repressed, rebellious, and vaguely disturbed.
Harold is a writer. Although rejected by the Advocate (a local magazine devoted to literature), he sold a poem to a Greenwich Village little magazine for a free subscription, and an article (under a psuedonym) on trailer-camping to a Western magazine for $120. That $120 has to sustain him for the summer, at the pace of a dollar a day.
Harold sleeps in the Common. He awakes each morning to the sun, a stomach growl, and the stolid stone gaze of Lincoln watching Garden Street--at about seven-thirty. He usually steals a newspaper on the way to the Square (Dick Tracy fascinates him), and eats breakfast at the Bick.
Eating is a serious business--a matter of man's ultimate adaptability, involving both a sinister intuitive sense and a strong constitution. Breakfast is a cup of coffee (with cream for added nourishment) and a ten-cent side order of buttered toast. (Harold watches with a surly viligance; there's always the chance that the grim, spindly individual who passes for an all-night cafeteria cook might slight students on butter.) Harold is careful not to tear apart and devour the bread; his meal is precise and aristocratic, punctuated with frequent glasses of free water.
Mornings are difficult--what with people surging hither and yon in their daily occupations, the assaults of the shoe-shine boys, the little league, the baby carriage brigade and the woman shoppers; the subterranean rumble of the subway, the distant cacophony of bells, the mingled shouts of children and clash of pin-ball machines. Saddened (perhaps by the morning's news or the "No Loitering" sign), Harold sometimes sits at the corner table by the window and counts green book bags passing by or reads Kafka or sublimates with secretaries on their way to work.
In better moods he tours bookshops, or inspects unframed reproductions. (In his room in Adams House Harold has mounted a picture of Dover Beach--clipped from an insurance ad--on the laundry cardboard from his button-down shirts.) Occasionally he wanders to the river, looking for dandelions--the univer- sal symbol of simple innocence and purity. More often he stands before the plate-glass display or Cardullo's--with a libidinous twitch at the Italian sausage.
By noon, Harold has worked his way to Sage's where he invests in two dwarfed loaves of French bread (one thin dime apiece). From Brattle Street he ventures to Radcliffe to watch workmen labor over Ada M. Comstock, and eats his loaves of bread. There is a near-by drinking fountain.
Twenty more cents: a total of forty.
Harold spends the afternoon thinking.
Supper consists of a couple of Joe 'n' Nemo's hamburgers at two for a quarter--plus a carton of coffee which serves as mouthwash and handwarmer. Through the window he watches Boylston Street humanity and the Western demise of the sun. Harold has been known to mumble a few words about the weather to either Mr. Nemo or the corner cop--but they are measured words.
Thirty-five cents; a total of seventy-five.
Harold has a can of beer and a package of gum remaining; or a one-way subway token to Scollay Square (he can come back tomorrow); or English muffins and a cup of tea. Or a package of cigarettes. But it is night, the time of neon and lengthy shadows, streetlamps, hushed voices, nervous laughter, and sex. Night is Harold's garment of life.
Night, the repository of eternal verities, that time when inspiration sits like a lump between your ears and genius is a genie from a Chianti bottle. Night for Harold is a series of brown-ringed coffee cups and so many cobble-stones; a collection of footsteps, frowns, and scraps of paper; a time when janitors and hotel clerks are reading sex novels.
"Sex," writes Harold on a sheet of yellow paper, belongs to the night and together they conspire against Boston. They live illicitly, caress each other with streetlamps and shadows and juke box symphonies, the soft sob of loss, the subway shudder and the sigh. Night warms is black limbs by the gutter fires and furnace spit. We should bottle the night, prone and passive, siphon it into leather canteen flasks, take swigs of it while sunning ourselves by the river, savour it after a French loave-lunch, rub it on our arm in lieu of excrement.
Harold, you see, writes at night, and, as he finishes each page, rolls it into a little ball and puts it in his coat pocket (he reads that somewhere.) And then he dreams, strange dream of motorcycles and frisbee discs, the mystery of Bermuda shorts and one summer of happiness. Harold is, as well as an artist, a dreamer.
Shall I tell you of the other ones? The squat little man with the crewcut who sold his soul and pen to an Elsie's wall mural for three blue punch cards. Or the intense young man with thinning hair and a changing voice who reads Wallace Stevens to a saxophone solo. Or the boy from the Bronx who writes Spanish poetry.
Every Saturday night they have a blow-out--the ninety-nine cent steak at the Waldorf and a bottle of Vat 69. (Sometimes they buy a can of soy beans instead of steak; more protein for less money.) As the evening dwindles away, they sing camp songs and conjure spirits and chart their astrology from cryptic directions on a weight machine. Look closely, and you will see they have holes in their socks and need a man's deodrant, and the only thing which sustains them is a vision.
He is a bitter old man, lacking even the salt of irony. With a single yellow eye, and white hair growing in his ears. Leaning on a hickory cane, complaining out of pride, sexless slowly rubbing one palsied hand across his navel and nodding in that dead omniscience of the past. Waiting for the world to come to him like a pig-tailed child. He is a Society, a god sometimes called Moloch.
A dollar a day, and you begin to see him without too much imagination; a dollar a day and you have bought your way into the conspiracy against him. But then, you wouldn't know about that. In your Bermuda shorts and crew-neck sweater, your sweat socks and white tennis shoes and Jones Beach tan.
I can only tell you this: if you spot Harold on the street (you can tell him by the flies) pause to flip him a dime. You're buying posterity's culture cut-rate, not to mention tomorrow morning's toast