A 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.