|Photo by Laura Black|
The students had returned, so Harvard Square was particularly crowded. I was walking down the sidewalks with Sam, my 9-year-old son, and together we navigated gawking parents, wide-eyed freshman, and the panhandlers out in full force, who were eagerly hoping for less jaded and more sympathetic newcomers. Full-time Cambridge residents learned long ago to differentiate between the truly hard-luck cases and those spare-changers just looking to score for a drink or a drug. A little anxious about the new faces, I kept my hand tight around Sam’s. He doesn’t know it, but it feels a little like my home has been overrun by locusts in chinos and knee-length A-line skirts. We turned a corner and came upon what is affectionately known by locals as “the Pit,” populated, as usual, by young punks and other assorted teenage freaks with leather jackets, pierced noses and lips, and multicolored hair. I felt a wave of ease and nostalgia. Here is the Harvard Square I know and love.
Almost thirty years ago I first came into the city on my own, taking the bus and leaving my parents and their suburbs behind for the day. After buying my first clutch of punk 45s and a few stickers I headed back to the subway to catch a train to the bus terminal. That’s when I first spotted them: a group of young misfits with crew cuts and Mohawks, leather jackets, and combat boots. After a few consecutive weekends I worked up the nerve to sit with them, my hair newly spiked, my red Converse high tops gleaming. A tall, restless skinhead who called himself Flea put his hand out, asked me for a cigarette, and for the first time in my life I no longer felt like a misfit. I finally belonged.
Flea introduced me to the other Pit kids: Ruth, Sue, Tobie, Colin, Claudia, Sean, among others. We were all punks, our musical loyalty leaning sharply toward the loud, fast, and short songs of hardcore. Ours was a movement that kept its friends close and its enemies –headbangers, hippies, Mom and Dad – very far away. To find other kids that understood me marked the beginning of instant, unspoken friendships. In the Pit, I’d found a home away from home. I came here every weekend and at the age of fifteen learned about community, loyalty, the way of the street, and how to entertain yourself with a few joints, a six pack and a bottle of apple wine shared among eight kids, and maybe, just maybe, a small square of LSD. Despite our youth, we felt at once old beyond our years and immortal.
Three decades on, the kids in the Pit don’t look much like me and my friends did. Mohawks have given way to piercings; suspenders and flannel shirts have been replaced with tattoos. But the stoner affect and boisterous voices are the same. The patches on their leather jackets and thrift-store messenger bags still announce obscure and angry rock ‘n’ roll that probably drives their parents up the walls. Yet there was something I noticed that day that I’d never seen before in the Pit.
Sam started to climb up a slanted wall that ends in a window overlooking the subway, and I watch his fearless ascent. He wants to be noticed by the Pit kids who must seem to possess a staggering amount of cool. He might even come here after high school one day, his hair short and spiked, a leather bracelet around his skinny wrist. Some of the kids here are not much older than Sam. He watched as they lovingly jostle each other, make angry eyes at the incoming students. To Sam they are rare and dangerous animals, free to roam as they choose.
Looking at them, there with my own too quickly growing son, made me uneasy as I remember how fiercely my friends and I had lived. As young teens we felt desperate for something beyond the shallowness of pop culture, the hypocrisy of our churches and synagogues, and the emptiness of our public educations. We drank and got stoned with abandon, fumbled our way through sex with a dangerous naiveté. Our days were reckless. No matter how passionate and authentic we imagined ourselves to be, we were merely children.
Sam ran joyously and precariously down the bricks. The kids took no notice, but some other thing between them caused them to burst into laughter. My anxiousness faded into their merriment. Of those kids who were my companions decades ago, some have disappeared, others died, but most of us turned out okay. I eventually even found my way into the hallowed halls of that school across the street from the Pit. As a graduate student strolling to class through Harvard Square, I would take glances to see what the new recruits were doing, and if they still listened to the same bands, still smoked the same awful clove cigarettes.
I gripped my son’s hand even tighter as we walk past, feeling a strange tug to sit with the kids and talk, to tell them what to look out for, how to stay safe, but Sam is pulled me away. He has his own life to live, ahead of where we all are.