Crossing one off the Cambridge bucket list

Near the top of my long list of things to do and see in Cambridge before we return home was to spend an afternoon touring the neighborhood of  longtime Cantabrigian Jan Gardner, who helps edit Nieman Reports. A former Boston Glober who still writes the paper’s Sunday Shelf Life books column (and did a fabulous interview last week with recent Pulitzer winner Paul Harding, whose “Tinkers” I’m dying to read), Jan took me on a two-hour walking tour of a community that turned out to be much more interesting that its name: Area 4.

Somewhere betwixt Central and Inman squares, Jan’s house is located around the corner from The Lost Sock Laundromat. It also sits smack-dab between a former VFW Hall that’s been refashioned into a mosque and a Jewish synagogue, and — get this — the two disparate congregations collaborate to feed the needy.

Arriving on foot at Central Square, we began by checking out some of the city’s colorful murals, including this one, painted on the side of Harvest Co-op Markets. A few blocks away Jan told me the story of Keezer’s (alas, it was closed), a longstanding used-clothing store specializing in suits. Presidents JFK and FDR were said to have consigned some of their formal wear at the end of the Harvard school year to score some summer-break cash. Had they been in the Nieman program, they’d have been trading them in for suits of a bigger size.

I’ve written before about Cantabrigians’ tendency to load their sidewalks on Sundays with freebie giveaways (in anticipation of Monday trash day), and here Area 4 did not disappoint. We soon ran into an old writer buddy of Jan’s named Bruce, who was found looking through an assortment of old suits and menswear. (Don’t know why the original owners didn’t take them to Keezer’s instead.) I’m not into suits, but I did manage to nab the very cool houseplant that Jan’s holding for me in the above photo.

We spent the rest of our walk nudging into cozy garden spaces, including this gloriously small Franklin Street Park with its Zenlike granite entranceway shaped in the sign of pi, with a wonderful glider for a bench.

Down the street we admired a hand-forged wrought-iron gate adorning a front-garden fence, with peek holes for the nosy gardener in me. We wandered into a nearby Open House for the heck of it (gorgeous, but a 2,000 square feet condo — for sale at $800,000!) and, yes, the realtor informed us, an offer had already been accepted.

After an arm-length spinach-mozzarella dosa at The Dosa Factory in Central Square, we capped things off with a short drive to MIT so Jan could show me the $283 million Stata Center, a Frank Gehry-designed Seuss-ism that makes Roanoke’s new $66 million Taubman Museum look like my four-square house in comparison. Architecturally, modern MIT feels a world away from the rest of Cambridge, with its buckled brick sidewalks and cozy crannies and signs proclaiming that In 1649 Something Very Special Happened Here.

There are so many irresistible places to explore here, I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface. But I know this: I’ll miss it like crazy. And I haven’t even made my way yet to the new Lord Hobo, the mecca of craft beer, with 40 different kinds on tap.

Separate and unequal

An interesting Q and A in today’s Boston Globe traced social decay in the United States to the widening gap between the poorest and the richest. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, authors of “The Spirit Level,” posit that economic inequality is the root cause of problems like teen pregnancy, obesity, mental illness and crime — all of it fostered by divisive prejudice and rampant tension between the classes.

Wilkinson told the interviewer: “The quality of social relations seems to deteriorate in more unequal societies. People trust each other much less….In Sweden, people don’t bother to check your tickets on the train or bus. And it just feels so much nicer.”

People have asked what I’ve found most striking about the privileged enclave of Cambridge compared to my Roanoke, Va., hometown, a culturally and environmentally interesting place that also happens to be one of the most segregated places in the South, with 68 percent of the city schools’ children qualifying for free or reduced lunch (compared to the stage average of 29 percent).

The Globe piece made me zero in on an intangible difference that’s been gnawing at me these past several months. I’ve noticed a surprisingly greater level of trust among strangers here in Yankeeland (with the huge exception of Boston-area drivers, who you can never, ever trust to stop for a red light or stop sign; note that I’m talking about trust, not necessarily manners). Maybe it’s because we’re in insulated Cambridge, the intellectual capital of the East Coast . There’s a great deal of diversity here, yes, but the diversity is more ethnically and more economically diverse.

The lack of bureaucracy at Cambridge public schools is comparably stunning. For instance, when you check your kid out early from school, they don’t make you sign out at a computer. In fact, Donna — most of the secretaries are named Donna, for some reason — doesn’t even ask you to sign out. She just calls your kid down and waves you along.

At my son’s elementary in Roanoke, you sign your child out on a computer, which actually takes your picture — at the least-flattering angle possible, typically resulting in several chins beyond my normal two. You feel like your photo just might turn up on a Most Wanted poster. (And don’t get me started on the local pediatrician factory, where the surliest front-desk clerks in history treat all who walk in the door as if they’re trying to pull something over on them or, worse, they’re uninsured.)

The high schools offer startling contrasts, too. Students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin may leave campus to eat at nearby restaurants (sorry to say, it’s my teenager’s favorite thing about school this year). Whereas when the new Patrick Henry High School opened a few years back, administrators decided to literally lock the students inside the cafeteria, known by staff and students alike as “the cage.”

Comparing Roanoke to Cambridge schools isn’t fair, I know, especially considering that wealthy Cambridge spends almost twice as much per pupil as Roanoke does. That gap is about to widen, with the potential layoff of 200 teachers because of state budget cuts proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. (Here’s a thoughtful column by my colleague, Dan Casey, on the topic.)

A friend and civic leader predicted recently that we’ll be surprised by the uptick in cultural happenings in the ‘Noke. There’s so much interesting stuff going on now, it’s impossible to get to it all, he said, noting expanding offerings in theater, music, film and more. He also praised The Big Read, the valley’s collective effort to encourage reading, soon to kick off with a discussion of Ernest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying.”

I loved that book, and I love that Roanoke’s undercurrent of groovyness seems to be widening by the minute. I just wish we could harness the same kind of excitement around improving our schools. Perhaps the No. 2 book on Roanoke’s Big Read list could be “The Spirit Level,” a book that could foster dialogue about the complex social inequities and poor educational opportunities that lie at the heart of our region’s slow growth and high dropout rate.

Because the Roanoke I know and love is surely two cities, a place where the twain rarely meet — except on the inside of a cafeteria cage.

Only in “The People’s Republic of Cambridge”

The grandmother riding the Razer scooter — going the wrong way — down Brattle Avenue.

The sign in the women’s restroom at Darwin’s Café: “The toilet’s a bit wonky when you sit down. Ladies (or whoever you are), please sit carefully.”

The Cardullo’s Red Sox Chair Club in full swing — gathered on the sidewalk in front of the cafe, watching the game through the window on the large-screen TV.

Rastafarian school crossing guards.

Two Bob Slater’s Stationer stores within the span of six blocks. (School- and art-supply store nerds unite!)

Buskers who play the accordion.

Sunday nights when people put their trash out, including boxes upon boxes of books — textbooks, travel books, Michener books, Pulitzer-prize winning books, Spanish/English dictionaries.

Halloween with first-timers from South Africa, Venezuela and England who were “keen” to check out our traditions and wondered, when a friend of a neighbor came into our apartment and grabbed a beer from the Fridge, “Is that supposed to be part of it too?”

Yard sale tables with eight (or fewer) items to sell.

Do they call themselves Cambridgians? Cambridgites? Cambridgers? No. . . . They are Cantabrigians. From the Olde English. Of course.

Restaurants that don’t take debit cards. Huh?

Middle-aged dads with infants in backpacks flying down the street on bicycles with no helmets — and listening to i-pods. Also: Oncoming cars that turn right in front of you who are ALWAYS talking on their cellphones.

Self-serve (honor system) sidewalk book sales.

Free talks by Noam Chomsky, Orhan Pamuk and Laurie Moore — all on the same night.

Amazing Vietnamese spring rolls at the Porter Square books café, chocolate croissants from Russo’s and cool, cheap movie theatres that serve IPA on tap.

Invitation to a Wednesday night supper club that has met weekly for 35 years — and they all still like each other.

Accents that have absolutely no use for the letter R.

Time to talk, read and think and — damn — only seven months of this left.

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