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.

Why We Write about Crime

By Susan Kelly

Susan KellyI’m going to take a bold leap here, and speak for Zach as well as myself, and a host of hard-working people who pour their guts into their writing. Somehow, I don’t think Zach and the others will mind. But if I’ve presumed too much, I ask everyone’s pardon.

So…why do we write about crime? Well, there are two practical considerations. Publishers, traditionally, have always liked books that can be labeled: mystery, science fiction, romance, fantasy, historical, or western. The categories can be sub-divided; under the rubric of “mystery” you will find novels in which the detective protagonist is a cop, a private eye, a forensics expert, or an amateur. There are novels featuring major historical figures–Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln come to mind-as the chief investigator. Hard-boiled. Soft-boiled. The descriptor is a marketing tool, and is, for booksellers as well as writers, publishers, and readers, a useful one.

The second pragmatic reason for writing about crime-particularly in novel form-is that the writer starts out knowing what he or she has to accomplish. The basic storyline exists before the writer has set pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. Someone has to commit a crime, and someone else has to solve it, or attempt to solve it. It’s a huge relief knowing what you have to do. The beginning and ending are more or less ordained, freeing you to concentrate on character, dialogue, setting, and theme.

But the larger question remains: Why do people write about crime? And, for that matter, why do people like to read about it? As individuals we know that our lives will, sometimes, be very hard. We’ll lose our loved ones, sometimes before their time, sometimes in terrible ways. As a group, we understand that the world could end tomorrow if some kook decides to start a nuclear war. We live with the intellectual and visceral awareness of loss: personal and communal, past, present, and future. So why should we add to those fears and sorrows by reading fiction and non-fiction about the darkest side of human nature? What’s fun or relaxing or entertaining or instructive about a narrative involving a homicidal child rapist? Or a fanatic impelled by ideology and inner demons to commit genocide? Or someone who arranges to have his or her spouse killed in order to collect on an insurance policy? Or a serial killer?

Simple answer: Because it’s cosmic. It’s more cosmic than anything, even sex. It’s about life cut short by a death that was a violation of the natural order. Murder affronts us all. We witness injustice; we look for someone to redress the injustice. Jews would call this tikkun olam, to heal or repair the world. Or restore the balance of the universe, if you want to look at it in medieval or Renaissance terms.

Speaking of which, I’ve always believed that the true ancestor of the crime novel is the medieval romance itself. All the elements are there. The twenty-first century fictional detective functions exactly as the fourteenth-century fictional knight did. A wrong is committed, evil threatens good, and the knight or detective sets forth to right the wrong, to vanquish the evil. And protect and defend the innocent.

The knight, like the detective, is a flawed human being. But, most importantly, both adhere to a code of honor.       As humans, we have always been obsessed with the need to put things right. The urge cuts across time, culture, nationality, and religion. It has never not been with us, any time, anywhere. The fact that sometimes we succeed in putting things right encourages us to go on trying to do so. The fact that very often we don’t succeed in putting things right may spur our efforts even further.

So what crime writers do, I suppose, is take that urge and make of it a story. Create characters to act it out, and set up a stage for them to do so. Provide a backdrop for the action.

Mostly-although perhaps I should speak only for myself here–we don’t do it nearly as well as we’d like.

But we keep on doing it.

And we hope you’ll keep on reading it.

There’s No Business Like Show Business

by Susan Kelly

In 1995, my non-fiction book about the Boston Strangler case was published and, as a result, I got invited onto a lot of television shows to discuss the premise of the book. The premise was that Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to the series of murders that took place in eastern Massachusetts between June 1962 and January 1964, didn’t actually commit any of them.

One of the first things I learned about television was that you can run from it, but you can’t hide from it. If a producer wants to find you, the producer will find you. It doesn’t matter if you’re ice-fishing in Baffin Bay without a cell phone. Somebody will dispatch a carrier pigeon from a rooftop on West 57th Street.

In the early summer of 1999, Good Morning America tracked me down at a seafood restaurant in Salem, New Hampshire, where I’d gone with my parents and my brother and his daughter. The waiter had just deposited a plateful of fried oysters before me when the hostess hustled up to the table and said, “Is there a Susan Kelly here?”

I acknowledged that there was.

“You have a phone call.” She pointed at the front desk. “You can take it there.”

I took the call. When I returned to the table, everyone looked at me with raised eyebrows, except for my ten-year-old niece Marie, who had embarked on the demolition of a fried clam platter bigger then she was. I sat down and blinked at them.

“That was Good Morning America,” I said. “They want me to be on their show tomorrow morning.”

My mother looked bemused. “How are you going to get to New York?”

“Well, they’re sending a car to your house and picking me up there tonight. The car will take me to Logan, and there will be a ticket waiting for me at the airline desk.”

“Suppose you told them you didn’t want to do it,” my brother said.

“I don’t think they take no for an answer,” I said.

“No business like show business,” my father said. “Shall I sing it?”

“No,” my brother, mother, and I screamed.

“May I please have some more tartar sauce?” Marie asked.

Later that evening, a uniformed guy driving a dark-blue Lincoln solid as a tank picked me up in Andover and drove me to Logan Airport. I flew to New York, got a cab at La Guardia, and took a ride into Manhattan that lasted longer than the flight because of some unspecified but dire mess on Queens Boulevard. The hotel where I was booked was apparently where GMA lodged all its guests, or at least those who didn’t demand and get the Plaza or the St. Regis. I was given a suite and a key to the V.I.P lounge, which I was too tired to use.

The next morning a guy in casual clothes driving a nondescript Chevy picked me up and drove me to West 57th Street. I entered the studio through a side door that looked like the emergency exit to a paint factory. Someone swooped down on me and grabbed my handbag and suitcase and strolled off with them. Another person appeared and hauled me off to hair and make-up.

The coiffing got done first. A gum-snapping brunette plopped me in a chair, surveyed me narrowly, and said, “This the way ya always weah ya haih, hon?”

I admitted that it was.

She pushed at my hair and nodded judiciously. “Great bounce, hon.” Bristling with combs and brushes, she set to work. It took her about two minutes to give me side wings, flips, curls, and bangs that defied gravity. Then she sprayed the whole sculpture into rigidity.

I moved to another chair so the make-up woman could weave her magic spell. The first thing she did was trowel pancake onto my face and throat. I wondered if I’d be able to move my facial muscles. Barely. Having created the background on the canvas, the woman set about painting the foreground. I stared at the mirror, fascinated by the change my face was undergoing. Suddenly I had the cheekbones of Katharine Hepburn. A moment later, I had the cut-glass jawbone of Vanessa Redgrave. My eyes and lips enlarged. I still looked like me…but a really good me.

“Can I hire you to do this to me every morning for the rest of my life?” I said.

The make-up woman laughed and dismissed me to take on her next customer.

Someone appeared and led me to the green room. On the way in, I passed civil rights icon James Farmer being escorted to do his segment on the show. (Sadly, he would die on July 9 of that year.) The green room was about the size of my bedroom in my house in Cambridge: not large. Against the far wall was a table set up with a coffee urn, jugs of fruit juice, and platters of pastries. No one went near it, including me. The other walls had chairs lined up against them. I found an empty chair and took it. Two very casually dressed young guys, apparently too fidgety to sit, hovered by my chair. We exchanged pleasantries. Afterward I found out they were the writer/directors of The Blair Witch Project. A moment later a short dark-haired man appeared in the doorway. He glanced around at the occupants. As he entered the room, he gave me a brilliant smile. (Perhaps he mistook me for someone cool.) It was George Stephanopoulos, one-time press secretary to Bill Clinton and now an ABC commentator. He sat on the arm of my chair, back to me, and chatted with the person sitting next to me. His left buttock nudged my left breast. I was tempted to pinch him but resisted the urge. I stared at his behind till someone (there were endless someones) came to fetch me for the show.

When I was a young teenager my father had worked in the financial end of a company that produced and distributed theatrical movies and television programs, so I was well aware at an early age how literally shabby showbiz was behind all the glitz. And of how the tawdry and commonplace could be made magical by the right lighting and the proper camerawork. (And make-up: Witness my transfigured face.) Still, it was interesting to see first-hand how jury-rigged the infrastructure of a top-rated morning news show could be. We walked through a maze of shaky partitions, on scuffed and worn floors, over piles of cable duct-taped in place, past a set that was supposed to look like a living room and furnished totally in simulated wood, and onto the GMA set. There was a commercial break. Diane Sawyer looked up from her desk and gave me a vague, harried smile. She was lovely, but a bit less dewy and radiant than she appeared through a camera lens. A make-up person darted from the wings and applied a brush to Sawyer’s face. I got put into a chair facing Charles Gibson.

I did my five-minute segment, most of which entailed arguing with F. Lee Bailey, who was being satellited in from Rhode Island. Bailey had always maintained that DeSalvo, whom he represented, was guilty of the Strangler murders. The high moment of the debate occurred when Bailey insisted that DeSalvo knew that one of the victims had been wearing a tampon, and this knowledge proved DeSalvo’s guilt. I pointed out that the murdered woman had in fact been wearing a sanitary napkin, and stolidly recited the dimensions of the stain on it as given in the autopsy protocol. Afterward I found it difficult to believe that I’d gotten involved in a dispute about feminine hygiene and menstrual discharge on national television. Oy.

My segment ended. Gibson shook my hand and thanked me. Someone led me from the set, returned to me my handbag and suitcase, and put me in a car to the airport. When I landed in Boston, I got a car back to my parents’ place.

When the hired car pulled into the driveway, Marie was waiting.

“Hi, sweetie,” I said, emerging from the car and tipping the driver.

“ I didn’t see you on tv,” she said. “I was sleeping. But Daddy taped it on Grandpa’s VCR.”

“Oh, good. I guess.”

She inspected me. “Your face looks different.”

I drew the index finger of my right hand down the side of my face. Beneath the nail collected a gob of make-up the size of a wad of well-chewed gum. I flicked it into the juniper hedge bordering the driveway.

Marie followed the movement with her eyes. “Eeeuuu,” she said.

“You do have a way with words.”


Susan KellyAnd for what I hope will be a good long time.

I am thrilled to announce that Susan Kelly will be alternating with me on Monday’s “Just sayin'” columns. Her first post will appear on the 18th.

I can’t begin to tell you how much pleasure this gives me. Susan and I go way back to the days when Kate’s Mystery Bookstore in Cambridge, MA, (sadly no longer there) was the place to hang if you loved mysteries. Virtually every New England mystery writer consistently stopped by and, once a year, we all would invade Kate’s and showcase our books together. If you wanted to meet Robert Parker, he’d be there. Bill Tapply? Yep. Jeremiah Healy, a regular. Katherine Hall Page—for sure. Susan Kelly? Always.

When I say “go back,” I mean we became friends. We enjoyed each other’s work and respected each other’s abilities. (Actually, I’ve always been somewhat jealous since her range of writing–detective fiction, interviews, non-fiction–is far greater than my own.) We’d lost track of each other for a long time for a variety of reasons (not the least of which was my disappearance as a writer) but over the past year we’ve reconnected. Those of you who are steady readers of this column will recognize the title Beach Bitch as hers, a guest column she wrote a while ago.

The breadth of Susan’s work is pretty amazing. Her fictional LIZ CONNER SERIES focuses on a crime writer who investigates crimes and writes about them. Her non-fiction work is impeccably researched with a curiosity and demand for truth. Just read THE BOSTON STRANGLERS and you will see what I mean. One look at her website says it all. Well, perhaps not all; Susan writes with style and grace but is too modest to say so.

She’s also damn funny and irreverent and will have you, at times, smiling and laughing. I’m looking forward to a new and better “Just sayin'” column and believe that you’re all gonna love Susan’s work as much as I do.

Besides the pleasure of our collaboration, I have another reason to write every two weeks. Frankly, I want the time to really dig in and research issues I care about. Plus, I also want to get back to my INTERVIEWS WITH THE DEAD series and, to do them well, takes more time than a week gives me.

So, while I might be a bit biased, I think those of you who read her columns and pick up her books will land in the same place as I am. Lucky to have her on board.

Beach Bitch

(Zach: Susan Kelly, an old friend and author of great detective fiction and true crime graciously offered to write this week’s column while I worked on the final revisions of TIES THAT BLIND. I’ve known Susan since the early nineties when the two of us hung out at Kate’s Mystery Bookstore. So thanks Susan for pinch-hitting. Very much appreciated.)

by Susan Kelly

 I hate the beach. I can’t tell you how much I hate the beach.

It feels so good to say that.

Yes, yes, I know. All red-blooded Americans are supposed to love going to the beach. And being at the beach. It’s part of our heritage. (The Pilgrim fathers and mothers landed on the beach, right? Whatever.) We even have an expression to describe a chore or duty that was unexpectedly easy to perform: “That was a day at the beach!” Conversely, when we suffer through an unpleasant experience—a tax audit, rush hour on Route 128, a visit to the DMV, any degree of exposure to Justin Bieber—we say: “That was no day at the beach!”

Not I.

I cannot see the appeal of lying on sand for hours at a stretch basting in your own body fat. It’s unhealthy. Worse—it’s boring. Insanely, terminally, unspeakably boring.

I’m not complaining just about the kind of beach where you can’t distinguish the sand from the spread towels, where you have to keep your arms tight to your side because if you scratch your nose you’ll poke the stranger lying six inches away from you in the eye with your elbow. Nor am I complaining just about the kind of beach with pristine white sand, azure sea, and scantily-clad beautiful people running hand in hand through the surf, where every fifteen minutes some grotesquely underpaid employee of the resort or club brings you a drink with a teeny paper umbrella and a skewer of fruit whether you want it or not.

Far Tortuga or Far Rockaway, it makes no difference to me. I hate it when there’s nothing to do but lie and fry.

I should note that I’m writing this from Florida, where, because of a series of events too stupid to explain, I’m spending a week at the beach. But not really; the nearest beach is about ten miles away. There is an allegedly alligator-infested canal just behind the house where I’m staying. The house is in a residential neighborhood, only there don’t seem to be any residents. Every morning around 7:30 I go for a walk, and I’m the only person on the street. No one’s taking the dog for a stroll. No one’s jogging. No one’s running. No one’s riding a bike. No one in a bathrobe is scampering out to the driveway to retrieve a newspaper. In four days, the only animate beings I’ve encountered are a few geckos, plus some buzzards that have an unsettling tendency to gather in my wake and then circle overhead. Where the hell is everyone? Were all the people in the neighborhood victims of a mass alien abduction? It’s the Twilight Zone with palm trees.

Then again, maybe everybody’s…at the beach. Maybe they never leave…the beach. In which case, why do they bother to have houses here, if they stay at the beach?

What I think is that I’m not alone in hating the beach. There are more like me out there. (You know who you are.) It’s just that they’ve been brainwashed into believing that going to the beach is the ne plus ultra of human experience. And they’re afraid to say, “Aw, you know, I’m not all that crazy about the beach.” Because if they did, everyone would accuse them of being nuts. Or un-American.

(In fairness, I should note that Europeans are even goofier about the beach than are Americans. Just try and pry a Scandinavian off a sand spit. Just try it. And these are people who live in the Land of the Midnight Sun. How much more of it do they need?)

You’ve seen the bumper stickers, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and, for all I know, condoms with “Life’s a beach” printed on them. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “Hell is other people.” He was probably at the beach when he wrote it.