The City in the Off Season


Down on Memorial Drive, in the parking lot of an abandoned plant store, they're saving souls. Reverend Ezra has set up a tent, and in the heat of the evening he's hard at the work of the Lord. The members of his flock fan themselves with their programs, but he's just warming up. Finishing the call to worship, he launches into his sermon with a great whirling of arms and stamping of feet. It's a story of good men gone bad and bad men gone good, and others who stayed that way. The drug dealer with the flashy clothes, he concludes an hour later. "He don't own that million dollars, it owns him."

Below the pastor, his congregation, spread on row after row of folding chairs, sways and chimes its agreement. But when the time comes for the sinners to step forth and feel the cleansing power, only three walk to the altar. Maybe the pastor has been preaching to the already converted; if Cambridge is any indication, though, there'll be plenty of elbow room in heaven.

The city, especially the parts overrun by Harvard, has always been famed for its godlessness, and, even when the students leave, sad to say, that remains the truth. For Harvard Square, the local icons remain ice cream flavors, and in the rest of Cambridge, the largest congregations gather under the lights to watch beery softball games. But the pace does slow down a little as the weather gets warmer.

For Harvard students, the most obvious change is in the Yard where people one year out of high school are replaced by people with a year still to go. And the difference is proof positive that a year can matter. These kids may be cloning frogs for fun during the afternoon but at night they're all trying to bluff their way into 33 Dunster St. with fake I.D. cards. Either that or chasing members of the opposite sex with a vigor that makes the Freshman Mixer look like a 50th reunion cocktail party.

These high schoolers may be mental giants, but some of their other vital parts are overactive too. A Central Square hooker complained in August of last year that she had been inundated by 16-year-old clients. "I won't take their money: any kid on mine do that, and I'd beat him till he hurt."


Softball joins politics, Cambridge's permanent fixation, as a pastime for the year-round residents. East Cambridge, across from Jefferson Park, in the Fenway-size field off Western Ave. Anywhere you can see lights on top of 50-foot poles the representatives of laundromats and hardware stores and pizzerias and the Sons of Italy gather to do battle. Asked to explain the sport's popularity, one aging centerfielder replied. "It's the only thing fat people can play."

As for politics, the summer ahead should be a hot one, for local elections come early in the fall. A traditional battle repeated more for the enjoyment it provides than for any political advantage is over campaign signs. Certain houses in desirable spots are coveted trophies; it is not unknown for a householder to go to bed one night firmly behind one candidate and wake up in the morning to find that be or at least his second story window, has changed allegiances. All of it makes little difference--the same neighborhood politicians win the same votes every two years and it's only the liberals who for the most part eschew signs, that are forever going in and out of fashion.

Tourists stream in and out of the Square all summer clambering off buses for an obligatory look an John Harvard's statue (and an obligatory snapshot of girlfriend in lap of same). They find a climate that can only be described as oppressive (though geographically the city is in the temperate zone the weather here is tropical for most of the summer). Last year, when record temperatures' plagued the area for weeks, many of the tourists took their pictures through the tinted windows of their air-conditioned Greyhounds. The only relief is water; hence the city hospital daily treats patients who didn't find out until they were wet that a swim in the Charles is best accompanied by a tetanus shot.

If you're staying in Cambridge for the summer, don't be too dismayed. It's easier to find books in Widener, you have plenty of time to walk along the river, and there is a noticeable and general relaxation. People don't rush by you in the streets pushing and shoving irritably, mainly because they're smart enough to stay inside where it's air-conditioned.