Memories of Central Square, Cambridge


Susan Kelly

Susan KellyA few days ago, I was driving through Central Square in Cambridge. “Yow,” I remarked to my companion, “This place sure has gotten slicked up.” And it had. Many small businesses had vanished. An entire block of little shops and restaurants had been wiped out by an enormous red brick and plate glass entity of no immediately identifiable function.

It wasn’t always so. Back in the eighties, Central Square was the most urban part of Cambridge. At least it looked more like a city—like a very small Newark, I always thought—than Kendall Square, which, dominated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resembles a sort of high-tech Tomorrowland, or Harvard Square, which remains, despite the intrusion of chain retailers and fast food outlets, the playground of scholar-Bohemians.

Back then, the Cambridge Police Department was housed in one of the most unusual buildings I’d ever seen: a wedge-shaped buff-colored structure occupying a wedge-shaped piece of land at the intersection of Green Street and Western Avenue. It always made me think of an arrow pointed at the heart of Central Square.

Despite the police presence, Central Square was, in the 1980s anyway, Cambridge’s very own open-air drug flea market. Every third person on the street was ready, willing, and able to sell you some kind of illicit pharmaceutical. The phone company eventually ripped out all its booths in the Square because nobody was using them except dealers arranging deals. This was, of course, well before the advent of cell phones and text messaging.

There was a fair amount of street crime as well. Bishop Allen Drive was the scene of constant muggings and purse-snatching. Women got sexually assaulted in the alleys. There were shootings and stabbings. And the Square had a sinister past that wasn’t so far in the past. Local legend held that the body of one of the victims of an early 1970s serial killer reposed beneath the foundations of a high-rise on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Prospect Street. Ira Einhorn, before he became internationally famous as the Unicorn Killer, was said to have lived for a while in an apartment on Massachusetts Avenue. The location pointed out to me was adjacent to a funeral home, which in retrospect seems entirely appropriate.

But Central Square had undeniable charms. There was the original Ken’s Steakhouse, famous nationally now for a line of bottled salad dressings, and the original Bread and Circus whole foods grocery. People came from the hinterlands (Brookline and Newton) to eat Mary Chung’s Chinese cuisine. There were, at one point, seven Indian restaurants within a two-block span, and a falafel palace. (If memory serves, it actually did call itself a palace.) Back when Argentine restaurants weren’t thick on the ground, there was one on Mass. Avenue.

The Central Square Cinema exhibited the movie King of Hearts (the Philippe de Broca flick about the inmates taking over the asylum) uninterrupted for five years, surely its longest sustained run on the planet. A block or so down Mass. Avenue was the Orson Welles Cinema, apparently the only theater in the world named after the director. (Welles visited it in 1977 and gave his imprimatur to the concession stand, which sold Cadbury chocolates before they were widely available in the United States.) The Welles was picketed in 1985 by a group of nuns when, in 1985, it showed a movie that portrayed the Virgin Mary as a pregnant basketball player and her boyfriend Joseph as a cab driver. I happened to be walking by the theater the night the protest took place. I passed a cop I knew, detailed there for crowd control. He grinned at me and tilted his head at the group of nuns. “Gotta protect the penguins,” he said.

The following May the Welles burned down when a popcorn machine caught fire.

The word “dive” might have been coined to describe the Cantab Lounge on Massachusetts Avenue. And in fact that was what everyone called it. Dim and grungy, with a canopied entryway, the Cantab catered to a mixed group of locals, students, and a few thrill-seekers venturing in from the burbs in search of urban grit. Sometimes they got a few more thrills than they anticipated, such as on the night a disturbed patron pulled a double-edged knife and began menacing the clientele. The police arrived and were able to subdue and disarm him before anyone was hurt, including the disturbed person.

But the Cantab was most famous as the venue of Little Joe Cook, The Peanut Man. Born in Philadelphia in 1923, Cook started singing gospel at age five. Thirty years later he switched to rock ‘n’ roll and hit the big time in 1957 with a song called “Peanuts.” In 1977 he began a regular gig at the Cantab. “Hey, all you hamburgers and cheeseburgers,” he’d greet the audience, which would respond with a burst of cheers and applause. Cook, the gold peanut medallion around his neck glittering through the haze of cigarette smoke, would lead everyone in a group prayer before beginning his act.

Up the street was the Massachusetts chapter of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Once when I was walking past there a young man emerged from the building, struck a theatrical pose on the sidewalk, and bellowed: “I fucking hate the fucking rich.” Since there was no one within earshot who could be remotely described as rich, especially me, the message seemed a bit wasted.

I had a semi-alarming experience in broad daylight in Central Square. I was ambling down Prospect Street when a guy popped out from between two parked cars and planted himself on the sidewalk in front of me. He was a scarecrow from hell: ragged and filthy, his hair a greasy snarl of witchlocks. Grime was tattooed into his skin. So rank was the odor he emitted that the waves were nearly visible, like heat shimmer off sun-baked asphalt. His eyes had the flat inhuman shine of reflector plates.

“Gimme some money or I’ll kill ya,” he rasped, and shuffled toward me.

“Get lost,” I snapped, and swerved around him. I broke into a trot, ready to duck into the nearest open shop.

I looked back over my shoulder. The scarecrow was immobile, gazing after me. Then he shrugged. “Nice ass,” he said.

And that was Central Square, back in the day.

Memory Flashes Of A Goodbye

(Although the Hinterland trial is finished and I’m back home, I’ve been asked by our lead attorneys to not write publicly about what occurred.  If anyone has questions about what took place, please send them to me at  I will make a good faith effort to answer every one of them as openly as possible.

As I mentioned in my post of 9/4/11, (LABOR DAY IN THE HINTERLAND–09/04/2011), my work with the law has pretty much ended with this last trial.  As I begin to move on though, thoughts about the early years working with Ron dance through my mind.

My very first case, for example, where an elderly widow sued a uranium enrichment plant for withholding medical information about her husband who died from liver cancer caused by the particularly toxic chemical the plant used on a regular basis.

I’ll never forget the widow on the stand, telling about how she and her husband learned the news of his impending death. Weeks earlier the plant offhandedly suggested he check in with his regular doctor (even though the plant’s hospital and doctors had been his regular doctors throughout the 40 years he’d worked there).  He went to a local doctor that he knew, who sent him to another town to see a liver specialist.  The couple decided to celebrate their wedding anniversary dinner by having dinner in the liver specialist’s town so they could pick up the results.

The widow drove home alone that night.  The moment the specialist saw them, he immediately admitted her husband into the hospital.  They never had that year’s anniversary dinner and damn few others.

When she finished testifying there was complete silence; the depth of emotion echoed silently in the courtroom.  The judge adjourned the case for the day.  My heart was heavy as we walked to our car and then I overhead a defense lawyer burst out laughing about her testimony.  Luckily Ron noticed, grabbed me from behind, and pulled me away.  Though I know it made sense given the trial, I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to slam his fat, laughing face.  Well, we lost that case but rather than face a long, drawn out appeal, the defense offered her an extremely generous settlement.  I still have a thank you letter from that widow pinned to my office wall.

Then there was our campaign get the D.C. Metro to pay for houses and apartments they damaged while building three underground subway stations in a poor, Black neighborhood the city wanted to gentrify.  A lot of footwork tracking down people who lived in the community.  Trudging through a drug house to check on individual apartments that might have been damaged.  Then, after going door-to-door sitting on their stoop while they were getting high trying to elicit names and addresses.  Pretty damn crazy.  But we were able to negotiate fixes for all those we did find, and forced the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to create a pool of money for those we didn’t.  The aftermath has been the continuing friendships we’ve maintained with many of the people we met on that mission.

Early on in my connection to the firm, an F.B.I. agent hired us to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against DC’s government.  His wife, also an F.B.I. agent, was assigned to work with the D.C. Cold Case Squad.  Just like the TV show, this unit tries to solve old murders the police are no longer investigating.  Their headquarters were situated in a multi-purpose government building that also housed, for example, their Department of Motor Vehicles, so the building had people traipsing in and out all day long.  One day a man (wanted for murder) strolled into the building with a rifle, took the elevator up to the seventh floor and walked down the hall looking for the Homicide offices.  He mistakenly ended up in Cold Case, where he proceeded to shoot everyone in sight.  Our client’s wife was able to wound the assailant, but died in the conflict.

Now there’s this thing in the law called Sovereign Immunity, which basically means you can’t sue the government because of governmental policies.  So, for example, if you’re mugged on the street corner, you can’t sue the city for not having a cop on that corner.  Their response would simply be: our policies don’t include having police in that particular location.  However, you can overcome Sovereign Immunity if you can prove the city violated its own policies.  So, in the example above, if it had been the city’s policy to have a policeman on that particular corner at that particular time and the policeman somehow failed to do his duty, i.e. protect you from the mugging, or simply wasn’t there, then a lawsuit against the city is permissible.  (Lawyers out there, feel free to correct me if my explanation is either inadequate or inaccurate.)

The judge refused to hear the case claiming the city was protected by Sovereign Immunity.  After a long arduous appeals process, we finally got the green light.  Turns out that the City had a written policy in place that everyone walking in and out of that building was to be machine-screened or hand-wanded.  A policy that had long been neglected (this was pre-9/1/1) and the day our client’s wife was killed was no different.

And so the trial ensued.  I spent time developing juror profiles—a composite of the type person we most wanted on the jury and also of those who we didn’t want.  I wrote a series of questions (voir dire) designed to elicit information to identify people we were interested in and prepped the plaintiff and other witnesses for their testimony about that day in the Squad.  The trial began and then, from my spectator seat, I noticed a bulge in our client’s suitcoat.  During the next break I asked him about it and was shown the gun that the F.B.I. issues to all their agents.  The last thing in the world I wanted this jury to see was our client was packing—legal or not.  We had an intense argument in the bathroom about his carrying it from the next day on.  He accused me of being an anti-gun phobic, but then finally conceded that the jury probably wouldn’t like it either.  He stopped wearing it to court.

We won the case going away; and although money is never, ever a real compensation for a beloved wife, our client was awarded a substantial amount.  That night in the hotel “war room,” I finally put on my earrings that I’d taken off for the trial.  Our client came over and said, “Never in a million years could I have imagined liking, even being a friend with someone like you.”  My response was just as direct: “Never in a million years could I have imagined liking, even being a friend with someone likeyou.”  And we both broke out laughing.

Years later he sent Sue and me airplane tickets to Chicago, so we could attend his remarriage.  It was a lovely affair attended by lots of men with bulges in their suitcoats.

These have been just a few of the early memories that I have about my time working with Ron.  I have no doubt there will be more posts to come with other memories about different times and cases.  Feeling like you’ve done some good in the world stays with you.  Sixteen years is a long time and saying goodbye is difficult.

The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live~Flora Whittemore