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A People-Watcher's Field Guide

Harvard Square

By Adam K. Goodheart

It is just another day in Harvard Square.

Dizzy Gillespie, the legendary jazz trumpeter with the bullfrog cheeks, passes through on his way to the Harvard Coop for a book-signing.

A woman with a nosering sits outside Au Bon Pain and lectures a shaggy homeless man: "I mean, if you look at it the way the yogis or the Zen Buddhists do..."

A world-famous biologist stops at Cambridge Trust Co. to get cash from the automated teller.

A fat kid with his arm in a cast loses at chess.

Go ahead, stare at them. Everybody does it here. In fact, it's one of the best activities Cambridge has to offer. If, like most of us, you have a healthy curiosity about the behavior of your fellow human beings, you'll find Harvard Square a people-watcher's paradise, a sort of wildlife preserve of our own species.

One of the best things about the science of people-watching is that it requires no previous expertise. There are certain types you'll learn to recognize almost immediately.

Easiest of all, perhaps, are the tourists. No matter what their age or nationality, they all walk three times more slowly than everyone else. And they all carry shopping bags from the Coop.

They are retirees, some of them, queueing politely at the information kiosk by the escalator to the T, the husbands and wives in identical plaid pants and name tags that say "Elderhostel." The highlight of their visit will be a tour of Cambridge in the Old Town Trolley, which is actually a bus.

Some of the tourists are here with a more serious mission: they are teenagers with their parents on the ritual trip to visit colleges. Yesterday they stopped at Wesleyan and Yale; tomorrow, there are interviews scheduled at Amherst and Williams. The parents always look nervous; the kids either look nervous or bored.

Japanese sightseers, on the other hand, greet Harvard's scenic attractions with unrepressed delight. On a campus tour, they point excitedly at almost everything that catches their attention: At the buildings in the Yard. At the trees in the Yard. At the squirrels in the Yard. At you. This flurry of outstretched fingers is accompanied by the busy clicking of camera shutters.

A tourist will be gone the day after tomorrow. But many of the people you see in the Square will seem as permanent a part of it as the University itself.

The typical graduate student, for instance.

It's a hot day in mid-September, but he's wearing the same woolen sweater that he had on last February. The garment has gotten shabbier since then, but its owner has gotten no closer to finishing his dissertation.

You'll often see such would-be Ph.Ds crouched over books with titles like Proust and the Politics of Body, their facial muscules taut with what seems to be intense intellectual eagerness. Don't let that lean and hungry look fool you, though--it's due as much to physical as to metaphysical causes. In other words, most grad students don't get enough to eat.

Graduate students aren't the only people you'll overhear discussing astrophysics or Assyrian art at Out of Town News. Harvard Square harbors a ragtag community of itinerant intellectuals, secret geniuses, closet poets and conspiracy theorists who have no official connection to the University ("I'm not enrolled at Harvard, I just go there").

It can even be hard to tell a genuine Harvard faculty member.

Look closely at the old man in ratty tweed, the one who's gazing intently at the pigeons as they peck at crusts on the sidewalk. Is he a brilliant professor emeritus on the verge of a breakthrough in animal biology? A vagrant hoping for a free snack? Or both?

In fact, if there's anything that unites many of the different groups in the Square, it's the academic air they possess. The book-filled backpack (the embodiment of "intellectual baggage," perhaps?) is the closest thing to a uniform Cambridge has to offer.

But despite the diversity of dress, personal appearance is very important here--particularly as a medium for political expression. For some of the graying couples you'll see, his ponytail and her braid--or vice versa--are an affirmation of the ideals of another decade.

Indeed, even though Harvard has provided President Bush with some of his top advisers, the principles of personal freedom and social tolerance have stayed strong in Cambridge. Harvard Square is still one of the few places in this country where you'll see two men holding hands in public, or a Black woman and a white man.

On weekend nights, when teenagers crowd the sidewalks, the left and the right, the hippies and the preppies and the punks, negotiate a peaceful coexistence. Often the snub-nosed Groton girls stand alongside the skate rats from Somerville High, all of them listening to the soulful entreaty of a street musician.

A few of the scruffier young free spirits spent their whole summer hanging aroundAu Bon Pain and the "T Pit." Barefoot, clad in thecastoffs of many cultures, these modern-day HuckFinns have made Mass Ave their Mississippi.

The green regularity of the Yard seems fardistant from the vague human traffic just beyondits gates. Yet the life of the Square, you willfind, centers ultimately here.

For it is on the University that all purposesconverge--to study there, to photograph it, tosell to it, to beg from it. Harvard, seen from theSquare, is like the court of a great king in theMiddle Ages, where beggars and wizards, sages andcharlatans, all find their place

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