The morning’s email reminds me that things are humming along, same as it ever was, in my old home town. Nothing like moving away (not to mention moving to what is likely the closest spiritually antipodal venue to Cambridge: Philadelphia; going from tight-ass village to cloacal flood plain) to get some needed perspective. Like being unknowingly constipated (you can take that literally or metaphorically, but I really only mean it in the latter mode) until suddenly things let loose, once and for all, and everything becomes clear.
My old friend, Henrietta Davis, sent me a message. She’s not really my friend. I’ve only set my baby blues on her once in person in real time, at a gathering of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce years ago when I was serving as house gadfly on the Board of Directors. You can’t really comment properly or accurately about the domestic life of bears, by the way, unless you’re willing to climb into their den with them, come what may, and snuggle up. I did it for 15 years, and don’t regret a moment. Otherwise, I was merely her constituent. Currently she’s Mayor of what’s known with sardonic affection as “Our Fair City.”
In Cambridge though (that’s a phrase I should put on one of those software speed-type apps so I can tap in two characters and the rest will be spelled out), politicians all act like they’re everyone’s asshole buddy. At least some of the time half of that is correct. That attitude pervades any form of communication, but not least the verbal and especially the written. It’s like everyone knows we are the smartest, most liberal, closest to flawless thinkers and doers on the goddam planet, but we don’t let that go to our heads. We’re also just plain folks around here. I suspect there are also more specialists in self-inflicted lesions of the soft palate and tongue. I know I have my fair share and likely to have more before this essay is done.
I liked reminding her (I’m still talking about Henrietta) that I was a constituent, and a cantankerous one at that. I’d write to her, gleefully (withholding the glee, of course, otherwise what’s the fun?) pointing out the latest gaffe she’d committed, usually in an argument for the position she’d taken based on easily refuted, but spurious if not totally inaccurate, if not wholly factitious information. She’d write back sometimes, but rarely. It’s always nice to be ignored by a politician, but what the hell? However, I usually was writing in response to something she sent me, and she was in office; otherwise I wouldn’t bother—why waste precious time corresponding with a candidate on the make, I mean on the run… oh you know what I mean.
Whatever I said, or what I did or didn’t do, I knew she’d be back every two years to cozily and familiarly ask for my vote, and that the flow of stuff in my mailboxes (the real one and the virtual one) would not cease. When she responded, she was never contrite, never apologetic. I was entitled to my opinion after all. Otherwise it was as if a fly had just daubed a bit of some kind of fly shit on the edge of her plate and she would daintily take the edge of her napkin at the corner, wipe it off, and keep on eating.
I wouldn’t say she is uncaring. Indeed, well-meaning is at the core of her being it’s quite clear. And she has served the City and the citizenry in a dedicated and largely effective way for quite a long time. I’ll take a Google break here to see exactly how long (though I won’t go to her website, which I assume she has: a Cambridge City Councillor without a website? I can remember when they couldn’t spell email with alphabet blocks, but that was the old days…).
Needless to say, all the facts are spelled out on her website. First of all, she’s been on the City Council 16 years (can’t argue with that; I was on the Chamber of Commerce board almost as long before they realized I’d served more than the statutory limit twice over). So OK, my point is well taken: she’s a dedicated elected official. I also see she graduated from URochester, back when Rochester was a force to be reckoned with in the humanities. Now I imagine, like everywhere else you do your reckoning with at least a smart phone or you don’t reckon at all. That degree in her background, and her jobs as a journalist, for the Time-Life corporation (that bastion of progressivism and the wisdom of Henry and Clare Booth Luce… uh wait a minute, did I use their names and “progressivism” in the same clause? silly me) makes one item in her email to me that much more delicious.
Here’s a screenshot of the piece in question (notice that she adverts to the “Mayor’s office” while cagily (you want to call it humbly, that’s your business; it’s coy, you have to admit, and full of that savor savoir so characteristic of Cambridge: I know that you know that I know that she knows that I know that SHE’s the mayor!). There’s also that lovable first name familiarity. It’s not Madame Le Maire. Stuff and nonsense. It’s just your old pal, Henrietta:
I hope you love that ‘”…You Take Your’s”‘ in capitalized bold face in the second paragraph as much as I do. This from the Mayor (BA, English Literature, 1967) of Cambridge, home of Harvard University (universally listed as No.1 among the world’s institutions of higher learning) and MIT (whose disdain for unverifiable categorization compels me to leave it at that).
This, to me, is typical Henrietta. She takes one foot out of her mouth, only to delicately place the other one in. There’s that letterhead (yet the street address at the bottom is, presumably, her private residence in Cambridgeport, about a half mile from City Hall; sub-text: I’m your mayor and even though I don’t get a plugged nickel for this largely ceremonial title I am always your mayor, on my bike, on foot, in my living room…) and the tag line, “America’s Most Walkable City,” which aside from the shock that they didn’t make it a global or cosmological claim (or at least, “The Milky Way’s Most Walkable City”) also merely punctuates this small perpetual problem in Cambridge, of many decades standing. There’s not enough on-street parking, for the residents or for the thousands of out-of-town commuters who converge on Our Fair City day and night. Which is undoubtedly why the geniuses at City Hall (everyone who resides or works in Cambridge, OFC, is an honorary if not a bona fide genius, and they needn’t work for Apple, though I think everyone uses a Macintosh computer) decided to have an annual Park(ing) Day in Cambridge, so they can take up one of those precious parking spots for the better part of a business day to draw attention away from the fact by doing something silly with it.
Then there’s the raison d’être for this year’s fête that occupies 120 square feet of pavement: a celebration to the potability and deliciousness of Cambridge water. No excuse but itself. My mind raced when I read this. Is there a problem with dehydration in Cambridge? Are septuagenarians dropping on the sidewalk during their daily 4-mile runs (Cantabrigians are not only brilliant, but hardy, well into their 90s; didn’t you know that?)? Is Somerville being touted for how crystalline and breathtaking its tap water is in its revivifying and palatal superiority (there’s an ancient and inexplicable rivalry, especially since Cambridge has been pricing itself out of the housing market for any but Future Forbes Billionaires and Entrepreneurs, between the two cities; Harvard graduate students can afford only Somerville for sleeping and to keep their cats, but they never frequent any but Cambridge coffee houses, with good Internet connectivity, which explains why the funkiest coffee houses in Cambridge are all generally within a city block of the border; tellingly Starbucks is right smack in Harvard Square, in two locations… Howard Schwartz, perpetual billionaire parvenu).
More likely Henrietta thought it would just be cool to celebrate the most quotidian of necessities as provided by the City. They’ve had fabulous tap water for their entire history (spending a bazillion dollars on processing plants, as they do in the schools per pupil; their track record on the efficacy of how these otherwise unmanageable budgets are spent is far better with water than with the performance of Cambridge public school students, so Park(ing) Day is about tap water, not arithmetic), but we’ll just do this now, in the midst of economic turmoil and a divisive Presidential election campaign because, damn it, we’re Cambridge and we can.
Nothing says living in a bubble better than what issues from Henrietta Davis. But she spent the formative years of her adulthood writing for “Time,” “Life” and “Money” magazines. Enough said.
No one living in Cambridge is unaware of being in a bubble. Every morning you arise and say to yourself, “Thank God I’m waking up again here in the bubble.” What’s the bubble? How about one of the most lopsided votes, within the town’s incorporated limits, in favor of President Obama in the 2008 election? Oh, not as if anyone in Cambridge wouldn’t think of not voting. But you can die in peace on the sidewalk as you WALK to the polls, in case you’re 97 and you suddenly have a major cardiac catastrophe.
I’ll just end with these two personal notes.
Since I’ve moved to the Philadelphia area (my house is six houses from the city line), I’ve had more unsolicited calls from competitive water companies (rivals to the de facto public utility that owns the pipes; you can switch, but it’s the same water and the same pipes) offering me not only better rates, but a free annual water safety check in the confines of my household, because, well, the water is safe, yes, but only up to the test points they use to produce the figures that get published to reassure the public they are not slowly being transformed into oxides of heavy metals.
Second, in Cambridge, my Representative in Congress was a stalwart named Michael Capuano who, like many Cambridge Congressional district representatives, is virtually assured an office for life if he wants it… He’ll be elected whether I’m there or not. My vote, though important to me, wasn’t worth anything at all. Here in Lower Merion Township my representative is a Republican tool. Unlike Mike Capuano, he’s not outspoken about anything, cleaves to the party line, and is relatively safe, unless some critical mass of independent minded voters wells up, more quickly than the smug Republican apparatus here can rise out of its torpor and come up with some outrageous breach of civil liberties (like the current effort to get a Voter ID law passed throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) to stem the tide and keep ciphers like Representative Gerlach of the Pennsylvania 7th Congressional District out of the House, where he can throw in his obstructionist vote (when he feels like it; this clown is apparently smug enough to believe he needn’t show up to vote with any regularity… hmmm sounds like what every Cambridge resident must resist from within… and he has one of the lousiest attendance records in the state). Here, I stand a fair chance of having my puny little vote count for something. At the least I can look at passersby and know that I will be canceling the vote of one of them.
In Cambridge, I’ve got to keep my head up to make sure I’m not struck by a car looking for a parking spot, or a bicyclist hurrying to City Hall for a free refreshing glass of Cambridge Tap with a bright yellow slice of organic lemon floating in it.