falling for a plummy accent
In the fall of 1977, I moved from Chicago to Boston at the invitation of M, a young woman I’d dated off and on (mostly on) since the summer of 1972. She’d moved there almost a year earlier at the invitation of her brothers, maniacal twins named J and J.
The twins, masters at finessing their way into things, had discovered Harvard University had an extension program anyone could enroll in and receive a degree from Harvard on the cheap, without paying the exorbitant prices paid by all the rich preppy day students. So, although the degree thus obtained was in ”extension studies,“ it was a Harvard degree.
I was oblivious to or ignored a variety of signs that should have tipped me off that M had invited me to move for what she saw as my own good, not because she wanted me to be closer to her. I had visited M in Cambridge earlier in 1977, and found Boston and Cambridge to be interesting places.
So, for reasons having far more to do with heart than head, I decided to move to Cambridge and enroll in the Harvard Evening Extension.
It wasn’t a difficult decision to make.
I’d been working for several years at the Mystik Tape factory in Northfield, and had gotten increasingly bored with the work and knew I was going nowhere, although I had risen from a stock handler to working with the company chemists as the sole machinery operator in the R&D department. My immediate supervisor and the chemists were a very pleasant, but hard-drinking bunch, and I’d stopped going out for regular beer-drenched lunches with them … and a certain distance had asserted itself between them and me.
So I packed my few belongings into a U-Haul trailer and headed east.
On my way to Boston, I met up with M, her brothers and her parents in the very beautiful little western New York town of Alfred, at the annual North American conference of the Foccolare movement, a Roman Catholic charismatic group with its origins in Italy. Fortunately, I arrived at the conference in the late afternoon of the last day, quite literally just as the leaders were saying their “amens.” M and I headed to Boston the next morning, while her parents and brothers went to Chicago … from whence her brothers returned to Cambridge a week later.
I arrived in Cambridge with no plan, no prospects and precious little money. Funny thing was, within 10 days, I landed a job as a corporate courier.
In retrospect, it has always amused me tremendously I got that job. The essence of being a courier, it seems to me, is getting things delivered quickly, which pre-supposes the courier knows where he’s going. I didn’t — all I had was a street map book and a good sense of direction. The people at the environmental consulting firm who hired me knew I’d been in Cambridge/Boston for only 10 days, and they still hired me. Maybe it was the three-piece suit I wore to the interview.
Actually, I was a pretty good courier and things were delivered in a timely manner. But as the lowest person on the company roster, everyone else in the company were (was?) my bosses. Which I got mightily tired of when I’d have one group demanding I go pick up their lunches, while another group was pushing me out the door toward Logan Airport, with their fingers crossed that a proposal they were sending to Washington would make a 4 p.m. deadline and result in a cascade of federal funding for an environmental impact study. Then the ‘lunch group’ would have the nerve to get miffed at me because I wasn’t at their beck and call.
So in mid-January, I gave my notice and filed hundreds of dollars in daily expense reports, which lined my pockets quite nicely for a time.
I got a job almost immediately as custodian at a cheap, nasty motel that included a Greek nightclub. That job lasted about three weeks, during which I was regularly grossed out when I’d find vomit under or beside tables in the dark back corners of the club. And right in the middle of those three weeks was a record-setting blizzard that paralyzed New England for four days, during which I walked the 3-mile roundtrip to work.
After moping for a couple of weeks (a very bad idea, considering I didn’t have much money and I had a remarkable ability to fritter it away on cheap beer and cheap cigars), I started going to the state employment service and, lo and behold, after another couple of weeks I landed the job I had for the rest of the time I lived in the Boston area: working for a security hardware distributor (read: locks and alarms). I was just a couple of boxes of macaroni-and-cheese away from no food or money when I was hired.
Meanwhile, it finally, finally became plain to me that M’s invitation to move was the result of her desire to see me back in college, and little more. There was no “us” in her figuring — I was an intellectual reclamation project. And I was second or third on her dating roster. So things slowly cooled between us through the fall and winter, and took a final dive when she announced in March that she was leaving Boston in June to enter the combined MS/PhD psychology program at Oklahoma State University in September, 1978.
I saw M off at Logan Airport in early June — on the way home from the airport I bought a six-pack, put the Sex Pistols on at maximum volume, drank the beers and resolved not to mope.
Aaaaaah, but Hahvahd!!! I enrolled in a succession of English and American Lit classes at night —and absolutely loved it. At least one of the professors I had was a tenured, full Hahvahd professor, an acknowledged expert in Augustan literature who loved the idea of the evening extension and taught us part-timers because he loved the opportunity to tweak the exclusivity of the place. Despite how tumultuous the rest of my life was, on two nights a week, I could take refuge in my lit classes.
In the stockroom of the lock company, I found myself working with J M — a red-haired (cut like an early-’70s-era Rod Stewart), thin, nervous, chain-smoking, 100% Boston Irish-American, and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. We weren’t making much money, but that was more than offset by how much time we spent laughing. The office staff could hear us roaring all day and thought we were demented.
So, J was looking to move out of his parents’ place (why he was living there at age 29, I only found out much later), and I was itching to move out of where I was, so we agreed to get a place together. We looked at a few places and finally found a three-bedroom apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in the heart of the student ghetto. The deal we got was: we sublet an apartment of the fifth floor of the building, to keep it’s contents safe for the regular tenant, who spent summers in the Berkshires — then we’d move into the apartment directly downstairs in September, on our own full lease.
J and I very quickly came to love living on Comm Ave., despite the fact that a trolley line rolled by just 40 feet from the front of the building. We were a short walk from Bunratty’s, a very raw rock ’n’ roll bar, and just a few trolley stops from The Rat, one of the seminal North American punk clubs.
Early one Saturday afternoon, I was on my way to the liquor store for some beer and a sandwich before the Red Sox game. I pushed the button for the old wire-cage elevator, just as I heard someone close the cage door on the first floor. I knew from experience that the elevator would answer my call, despite whatever button the person on the elevator had pushed. Sure enough, the elevator arrived and there was a very tan, very petite woman with the biggest brown eyes I’d ever seen, who seemed startled to find herself on the fifth floor.
“Ooooh, bloody hell — this isn’t where I meant to go,” she said, sounding quite British.
“Nah — it’s my fault,” I said. “I pushed the button up here first — that’s what happened.”
We both laughed.
“Hey, you’re English — what are you doing here, of all places?”
“I came over for the summer and i’m visiting with friends just downstairs. My girlfriend and I were supposed to travel cross-country to San Francisco, but she decided at the last minute that she couldn’t live without her wanky boyfriend for the whole summer — so here I am.”
“Oh, really? I’m sorry your plans got so screwed up — but hey, you and your friends are in the apartment my roommate and I are moving into in September.”
"Well, you’re welcome to come down and see the place — but it’s a bloody mess — I’d guess no one’s done any cleaning for years, and I refuse.”
“That’s okay — say, what’s your name?”
“K — KL.”