'Tell Us Again Al'

The CRIMSON news room is the most desolate spot in Cambridge on Saturday night. There's no paper the next day, but the door is open, the lights are lit and the phone rings to an empty room. Alfred E. Vellucci, vice mayor of Cambridge, sat in a chair by the night editor's desk, alone, unnoticed seeking to exercise his authority on something other than typewriters and fluorescent lamps. A girl entered from the back, bewildered at this sight.

"Can I help you?"

"No, I'm waiting for somebody."

A boy entered from the other end of the room, recognized Al Vellucci, and inquired what he wanted.

"I'm looking for a couple of writers who would like to find out what goes on in Cambridge Saturday night. I'll be going to different places where lots of things will be happening and I'm willing to take some people from here with me."


"Well I don't know, nobody's here, most people are already doing something tonight."

This was his cue. It struck a tender nerve, and he replied quickly. "None of you Harvard people know what goes on in Cambridge and none of you care. There's a wall between you and everyone else. You all stay here and you don't know what goes on in this town. You don't want to meet the people, you don't want to mix with them, you don't care the least about them. You think you're above the people. You're all sitting way up above them, way up high. Pusey and his men in their diamond cuff links-they could care less about the city. The City Council has invited them to attend its meetings but they've refused. Well, I'm going to change that. You know I can subpoena them? Did you know that?

"I found out that I can subpoena them and make them appear before us. A few years ago the Harvard Corporation promised one quarter of a million dollars for a boys' club center. Now they say they don't know anything about it, but we're going to make them keep their promise, and we're going to make them testify before the Council.

"How about you two? Would you like to come tonight? You have cameras, don't you? Bring them and take pictures. What are your names?"

"Marian and Bob."

"Marian and Bob? Well then come my children and I'll show you a world you've never seen."

We got into his '67 Bel Aire and he drove slowly into the Square. For the next forty-five minutes Vellucci conducted a tour of his Cambridge.

"Lots of people are confused, don't know what to call the Square-Harvard Square. Piazza Leprechauna, Columbus Square. You know that John Harvard really had nothing to do with Cambridge. Just gave the college some books when it moved here. Later though a lot of Italians came here and the school got better."

We came out through the underpass, proceeding past 1737 Cambridge Street.

"We're out of Harvard now... no, not yet. Now we're in Cambridge. Smell the air: it's fresher here.

"See the hospital? That's the Cambridge City Hospital, that's where the babies are born around here. You know the hospital? There's a new building we built.

"Harrison School's there. Cambridge is getting lots of new schools. I built that one."

One of us tried to appear knowledgeable by commenting on the good restaurants in Inman Square. And not to be outdone Vellucci began to name the owners of every other shop, men of all different nationalities. "We've got Portuguese, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Indian... There's an Italian pastry store, and that drugstore, no he's Portuguese."

Past Inman Square Vellucci seemed even more at home. He spoke to us as if we were complete strangers to Cambridge, as though we had never come up this way, had never gone to the courthouse or to Lechmere. He turned down side streets, doubling around blocks, pointing out all the houses with Vellucci placards on them. He stopped the car outside a small delicatessen and peered in past the salami to see who was there.

East Cambridge is Vellucci's home and he knows everybody there. As we drove down the street behind the courthouse we passed some boys about ten years old, walking in the street. Vellucci stopped the car short and veiled out the window, "Hey Benny, I caught you kid. What are you up to?"

From among the boys a low voice said, "It's all right. It's Al." Then louder. "Nothing Al, just taking a kid who's new here home."

"Nothing wrong is it? You're O.K.?"

"Sure. Al, everything's fine."

"Okay, see you."

"See you, Al."

We continued our tour. We drove down streets lined with two-and three-story wooden frame houses. They seemed old and worn, ripe for urban renewal. Vellucci explained how Cambridge was getting crowded and what pressures Harvard and M.I.T. were putting on the city and its people. He talked strongly and with pride about the community that East Cambridge is: how the men there are all skilled workers, how the Puerto Ricans get a much better deal living there instead of Boston, how he wanted it to stay just the way it is. He didn't want the homes replaced with high rises even if they were "low income" dwellings.

"People need a house to live in. It has to have its own back yard. There has to be space between it and the next house. People need this, otherwise they couldn't live."

He explained to us that East Cambridge had its own industry but added emphatically that the land was zoned so that all factories and warehouses were outside the residential area and couldn't encroach on the people's living space.

We crossed back over Cambridge Street down to an area near the tracks. There in front of us was a large plot of scarred land. Vellucci spoke enthusiastically of the plans the city (he) was carrying out there.

"You see all this. This was a field of oil storage barrels. We forced the owners to clear out and now we're going to put a skating rink for the kids in here. There'll be a park here too, with bocci courts. This'll be a place where everybody can come and relax."

He headed down the street to a VFW post which was to be our first stop. Suddenly Vellucci started backing the car up. There was a site he'd forgotten to show us. An old factory building, deserted, stood on the site where M.I.T. will erect a 250-unit project for old people. Vellucci was strangely enthusiastic about it. He dwelled on M.I.T.'s good faith, their genuine concern for the plight of Cambridge.

"They've actually bought the land and now they're seeking funds from the government for construction. M.I.T.'s really moving to help, but Harvard, all they've got are some plans. No land, nothing but some plans they drew up so they wouldn't look bad."

Now we could get on the VFW post, where the people were waiting for Vellucci. We entered the small room, post awards and citations on the front wall, a bar in the corner, Fred MacMurray on the tube across the room. On a table were cold cuts, cheese, rolls, potato salad and a giant cake with written on it. Vellucci insisted we take his picture beside it. For the rest of the evening he was conscious of our cameras, and whenever we focused on him he sensed it and assumed an appropriate pose.

We sat at an empty table. Vellucci brought us sandwiches (he'd made them himself) and drinks and wandered off to talk with people at the other tables. People in the room had noticed us and our cameras but paid us little attention. The tone of the room was like the light, subdued. Big ladies sat talking over their Tom Collinses. Men sat in front of their beers, smoking, talking quietly, staring into space. There weren't many people in the room and there was little of the rally atmosphere that we had expected.

After a while we decided that if we were to meet the people we could not sit on our asses at our own table; so we got up and walked over to a table with five ladies at it.

They invited us to sit down and then they started talking. They wanted to tell us about themselves and what they did. One is the President of the Don Juan's, the Cambridge drum and bugle corps. She and her friend spend most of their time working for the girls, getting uniforms and instruments, scheduling appearances and at the moment searching for an indoor armory where the corps could drill.

"We took the kids off the streets, taught them music and now they're the best in the state. We've got a woman from the New England Conservatory teaching them and she's doing a real good job. It takes a lot of money to keep going. We have cake bakes and spaghetti dinners. Al has helped us a lot, too. Without him we wouldn't be able to do much at all."

The talk turned to Harvard. Harvard is many things to these people. It is the enemy. It swells the population of Cambridge, forcing them to pay higher rents. It evicts them from their homes. It is a threat and it is feared.

It is also part of the American Dream. These women have sons and their sons want to go to Harvard and these mothers want to see their sons make it into Harvard.

Finally Harvard is an employer. (You know those silly signs in the subway. They're real. Cambridge people really do work here.) Mrs. Draper mentioned that her husband is a cook at Harkness, We didn't quite know what to say. Couldn't crack any jokes about the food. All of a sudden the euphoria wore off and we were confronted by the reality, the separation, the barrier between us and them.

We moved to a table across the room where two old Irish ladies sat talking. They both work at Cambridge City Hospital. Mrs. Archcraft dominated the conversation, however.

"Why, you should come take pictures at the hospital. There's so much there, I'll tell you, things you've never seen. Why sure you'd get a lot of good pictures there. Mrs. McClaughlin here she's the pastry cook; she'd show you a lot. It would be great if you'd come take pictures; you really should."

She went on to politics and life.

"Why yes we always vote for Al: he looks out for us. He takes care of his people, and so we work for him and vote for him. He makes sureeverything works smoothly in the community. You need help, you go ask AI. Whether it's a street needs plowing or a child who's sick and needs special help, you out. He pays attention to us all the time, not just around elections. He comes to our weddings, baptisms, parties, comes around to visit just to see how we're doing. He looks out for us and we look out for him.

"I've seen things that would make your head spin. Yes I have, honey, I could tell you things. . . . People here struggling to make a living, to keep their families going. My daughter has a son, has to take him to Philadelphia for those special treatments, you know what I mean. When he was born he. . . well you know they have that special treatment in Philadelphia, involves round-the-clock care. She has to keep taking him back. Costs a lot of money, but oh that little kid, he's so cute, and he smiles. . . Well life's life, that's all."

The moment approached which would bring the climax of the evening. There was no feverish political air to the room but there was a quiet anticipation of the ultimate purpose of the evening, a speech by Vellucci. After a brief plea for support by a candidate for the school committee. Vellucci stood up.

" People used to take bets who'd get to Central Square first, Harvard or M.I.T. It looks like M.I.T.'s going to win that race, they own mostly everything on the other side of Central Square now. You and I know that's not going to be the end of it, either, Harvard's in there too. Between them and M.I.T. half the land in Cambridge is taken up and you know what that means to everybody here. You're all at the mercy of those two schools. They've brought lots of students here, swelled the population and forced up the rents. Prices are going up, taxes too. It's getting so that one job isn't enough to keep you going these days. You've got to have THREE jobs. "

From the audience, "Yeah AI, that's right Al."

" The people running those schools would like to see Cambridge change, they want to bring all sorts of modern industry into the city, with scientists and technicians and drive you out. Look at the NASA center. You know they're taking up all that land and they're not going to be paying any taxes to the city. No they're not going to pay any taxes, you're going to have to take care of that. You know there have been five tax increases since they announced they were going to build the NASA center here. There are already eight hundred technicians working there and there are going to be five thousand more. Those people are going to be making better salaries than you and they're going to be outbidding you for your own homes, or else they're going to tear down your homes to build high rises that those technicians can live in. "

Again from the audience, "Yeah AI, tell us again Al."

Mrs. Archcraft shouted, "Vote for Al, that's all."

"You all remember who brought NASA to Cambridge?"

"No Al, who Al?"

" Come on now, it hasn't been that long. It was Hayes and Mahoney who went down to Washington and came back to tell you that all your kids in high school now would eventually be working there. That's a joke. You've got to watch out for people who say they have your interests at heart and then push you out. You've got to pay attention to what's going on. You've got to go to the meetings of those experts and you've got to ask them questions; you've got to make them tell you straight. If you don't you'll wake up the next morning and read in the paper that they're going to tear your house down. "

There it was. Everything we'd heard from the steps of Mem Church and University Hall. Everything that PL has been ranting about ad nauseam. Al Vellucci was telling the people. But he wasn't telling them, he wasn't educating them, they knew it all. He was saying it for them. He was putting all their fears and anxieties into words. He is their man because he is the political expression of these people. He fights their battles for them, and all these people were cheering Al on as he denounced their common enemy.

As Vellucci drove us back to the Square, later that night, we asked him if he realized that the radicals were attacking Harvard and M.I.T. for many of the same reasons that he was, and asked why he didn't try to enlist their support.

He brushed off the suggestion, explaining that such an alliance is impossible at the moment because students have very little contact with the people, don't understand them and consequently would not be able to gain their trust. He went on to ask us if we'd had an interesting evening and said he hoped he hadn't kept us away from anything we had planned to do.

"That's all right," I replied, "I was only planning to go to a mixer."

"Mixer?" he asked, "what's a mixer?"