In 1969 the French café and bookstore near the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the talk of the town with its new editions of old and modern French classics. New wave French fiction like the works of Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, were especially featured there plus reissues of Genet, Camus and Andre Gide.
The books were special French language editions, in some cases translated into English but not always. They also had a unique smell comparable in some ways to the smell of a new car. I didn’t visit the bookstore often but when I did I liked to look at the titles lined up in rows on the handsomely varnished wooden racks that gave the books the look of specialty Venetian deserts.
A Goddard film, Week-end, was a favorite at the Brattle Theater, Cambridge’s movie theater of note. The Brattle kept recycling Week-end, a film about gorgeous women smoking in bed, multiple automobile accidents and traffic jams. Week-end was recycled as often as the film Casablanca and always drew an intellectual crowd. When something occurred on screen that audiences didn’t like--- usually a remark or a visual interrupted as being anti-woman—people in the audience would hiss.
I soon came to associate the Brattle with the sound of hissing snakes although audiences there never hissed when Casablanca was shown. Old school classic films were not judged as severely as contemporary films. At the Brattle, one saw films, not movies. It was crucial that you got the terminology right. A ‘movie’ was what the dumb pro-Nixon Vietnam War supporters saw. A ‘film’ was what enlightened intelligent people saw. Mixing the two branded you as someone not worthy of watching a film at the Brattle.
Hissing was the sound that defined most Harvard Square audiences. Self assured intellectuals hissed at an Anais Nin lecture I attended and at plays at the Loeb Theater. Generally, Harvard Square was spared the indignity of frivolous mainstream movies and movie theaters. That type of theater was reserved for Central Square, where many of the indigenous Cambridge working class people lived. Central Square was bordered by neighborhoods like Somerville, a hot spot for Vietnam War draftees. Cambridge’s second intellectual neighborhood (where there was more hissing) was near MIT, accessible via the MBTA at Kendall Station.
I lived in a rooming house on Kirkland Street (Kirkland Manor), just across the street from the world famous Fog Museum. Kirkland Manor was populated with students, hippies and young people who had drifted to the Boston-Cambridge area because they had heard it was the “Berkeley of the East Coast.” Julia Child lived in the same neighborhood so it was not uncommon to see her out and about in the local shops.
Walking through Harvard Yard in those days offered many surprises. One day it might be a pop up antiwar protest, a teach-in, or an AWOL solider standing by the James Harvard statue. On most days there were no surprises, just students walking back and forth between classes.
My daily path followed a familiar pattern: on the way home from work I’d check out the bookstores, peek into Hayes Bickford cafeteria (where Susan Sontag sometimes ate during her grad student days). I frequented the Pewter Pot Muffin House, a popular student and hippie hangout where the waitresses dressed as colonial wenches. For less than three dollars you got a mug of refillable coffee, a large muffin and a small pot of Boson Baked Beans.
I soon realized what an insolated bubble Harvard Square was: it was a place divorced from the world’s gritty realities. The people there, nearly all students, didn’t seem like real people at all. Students were not real people but people in formation and transition. After graduation they would leave the academic bubble for real cities and towns and begin their real lives.
On the weekends, one could always attend a weekend Be-in in the Cambridge Common. There one could observe hippies with drums and tambourines, women in long dresses and beads, shirtless men in jeans and headbands, lots of stoned solitary dancing, smoky smells and drugs and occasional small children and babies strapped papoose style to mothers’ backs. (Fathers carrying babies was a feminist innovation that would take many years to develop.)
My friends in Boulder, Colorado would write me letters about the hippie invasion into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This was creating some controversy with the locals. The hippies did not work but lived in groups or communes or in tent settlements in the mountains. In Cambridge and Boston, they lived in old townhouses but nobody lived outdoors.
The morning of April 10 seemed like any other morning to me. I awoke at 4am for my hospital job, then made my way up Kirkland Street past the Fog Museum, following my usual route which meant veering to the left so I could walk through the Yard.
As I approached the Yard on this morning, however, I heard some sort of commotion. Flashing lights flickered between the trees and police sirens wailed and then shut off. The gated entrance to the Yard, open as usual, provided me with an explanation. Police cars and wagons—big white wagons large enough to hold multiple prisoners—were lined up in front of University Hall. I saw police in helmets with clubs and riot gear. Many of them were rushing towards the building. More police were coming into the Yard in wagons. I noticed the smell of tear gas.
I had never smelled tear gas before but I had read about it in The Boston Globe and The Old Mole, Boston’s underground newspaper. I debated turning around and exiting the Yard to take the long way to the MBTA to go into Boston but in the end opted to walk along the margins of the Yard where a few protesters were catching their breath.
Tension at Harvard had been building for weeks with various teach-in talks near University Hall. Days prior to the riot I’d often stop to listen to the speakers in the Yard. One afternoon I listened to George Wald as SDS student activists distributed leaflets. I stood on the sidelines, not being a Harvard Student. The following day there was another teach-in and then another one the day after that.
On April 8, a large contingent of Harvard SDS marched to the university president’s house and nailed a list of demands on his door. The Martin Luther-like proclamation caused a stir in the press.
In Harvard Yard on the morning of April 10 I watched as even more police officers clad in riot gear kept pulling up in white vans. I saw students being dragged out of the building and being put into the vans while the protesters around me shouted “Pigs!” at the police.
Revisiting Harvard Square some years ago, I naturally wanted to revisit some of my old haunts. I looked in vein for the Pewter Pot Muffin House, where a friend of mine pocketed the check and then left the restaurant without paying. While certainly guilty of my fair share of “crimes” in life, it had never occurred to me to walk out of a restaurant without paying. The Hayes Bickford Cafeteria, where I once ate a solitary Thanksgiving dinner and where I often stopped on my way to work for the daily English Muffin poached egg special, was now a Chinese restaurant. The German Restaurant, Wursthaus, with its stunning pewter plates, sauerbraten, schnitzel and imported beers from throughout the world (a favorite eating place of John F. Kennedy, Harvard Class of 1940), was also gone. Walking through Harvard Yard, I re-imagined the SDS riots and approximated where I stood watching it all go down in the wee hours of April 10th.
The statue of John Harvard was of course still there. Students traditionally rub the statue’s toe for good luck in their exams, but for me the statue marks the spot where I met Jimmy, a blond AWOL soldier running from the FBI and who needed a secret place to crash for two or three days. I took Jimmy back to Kirkland Manor and then later, with the help of an older friend from the hospital, we were able to get him on a bus to Vermont where he would meet people who would then take him into Canada.
I walked around Memorial Hall, a foreboding building that always left me feeling depressed, especially in winter. I walked along the same footpath where I had walked nearly a half century before, then past the Fog Museum and finally to where Kirkland Manor used to stand. The two old houses that comprised the rooming house had been demolished some years before although the cast of characters that lived there were still very much on my mind.
1. Lyn S., from California, an avid member of the Socialist Workers Party. I took Lyn to a gay bar in Boston where she told me that all the men there appeared to be “very sad.”
2. Muriel, the French Lit grad student who knew everything about Proust and Gide but who cried copious tears when I told her I was gay.
3. Beth, a student at Brandeis University, who loved jewelry, skinny boys and wire frame eyeglasses.
4. Beto, the defrocked gay Anglican priest from San Francisco, who wanted to shower with everybody in the rooming house.
At the end of my visit, I went around to Julia Child’s house, mumbled a silent bon appetit, then headed back to the Square and to the Brattle Theater, still very much intact but no longer showing Casablanca or Goddard’s Weekend.