1990: A series life-changing events brought us here, like refugees from our own respective storms. My mom transitioned to a new career at Boston Children’s after a divorce. To say my first three semesters at UMass Amherst were turbulent would be an understatement. When my mom found an apartment in Somerville, she suggested I transfer to the UMass Boston campus. No dorms meant less chance of getting swept up in the chaotic high drama that was devouring any sense of well-being I had. In an amazing coincidence, my best friend from childhood was moving to Somerville the same weekend.
Our first walk into Davis Square felt alien. We had spent lots of time in Cambridge and Downtown Boston, and at the time, Somerville felt kind of desolate. Not many people were around. Pockets of old guys hung around dive bars and smoked. On that first night, we found ourselves the only customers in an Indian restaurant. The apartment we shared was small and didn’t get a lot of light. Our hyper Labrador, Tessie, was all the more anxious now that she away from the bucolic, slightly run-down farmhouse she knew as a pup.
Tender from our respective personal ordeals, we were eager to explore the Boston area as residents rather than remote suburbanites who visited often. A Wiccan shop in Porter Square called Arsenic and Old Lace quickly became one of my favorite havens. My new space was redolent in incense and cluttered with stones, amulets, and books on mythology and witchcraft as viewed by many cultures. Countless nights were spent making mix tapes. Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, and many others were my musical solace.
In the UMass Boston café, where I consumed vast amounts of orange-flavored coffee, people joked about living in “Slummerville.” Though the Somerville Theater was a hidden gem, there was little draw to the city other than cheap rent.
The move to Waterhouse Street had been hasty, going to the first vacant place we could find. A friendly elderly gentleman with a salty sense of humor sat on the porch of the nursing home at the end of the street each day. He always greeted me as I turned onto Broadway to head to the subway, and on occasion, I’d go sit with him for a while. His family shuttled him off to the home because they didn’t want to deal with having him around, even though he was sharp as a tack and got around well. So well, in fact, that “the hookers in Davis Square give it to me for free,” he announced with a happy smile one day. Indeed, they clustered around a brick wall outside of Papa Gino’s—their business as open as any store next to them.
My mom and I eventually settled into a bigger place on Sycamore Street near Winter Hill. With my 21st birthday came an ideal college job: beer brewing. The owner of the homebrew shop wanted all staff to know the craft well, so all supplies and ingredients were free to everyone who worked there. Soon, I stacked cases of every type of beer imaginable in my basement. I specialized in mead, and had a carefully tended witch’s garden to grow lemon verbena, rosemary, and other fragrant herbs for my infused concoctions.
My best friend worked at Rounder Records down the road from the homebrew shop. There was a lot of social cross-over and in five years, and my friend and I even traded jobs. She became a beer brewer and I became the assistant international sales rep. Together, we drank more free beer and attended more free concerts than we can reasonably tally.
Meanwhile, the nascent hipster culture began to arrive in Somerville. The Burren was new, and my boss at the homebrew shop worked out a short-time deal with Someday Café—free beer in exchange for free coffee for employees of each establishment. (The closing of the Someday Café was much-mourned. Many refused to enter Mr. Crepe on principle.)
My first post-college apartment that I shared with my best friend on Broadway was $600 a month. Not each—total. We lived on Ramen noodles, watched Ren and Stimpy, and were ridiculously happy. It was an artist’s life. We were delighted to see the evolving hipness of Somerville, Davis Square in particular. ArtBeat and the flourishing arts culture made us feel like it was really becoming home.
The wheel of fate turned. My friend got married. My brother died unexpectedly, and a ravaging depression sent me back home to mom. She had bought a home on Alewife Brook Parkway, and my grandmother moved in with us because she needed our help. Troubles at Rounder led me to find a “real office job” outside of my artists’ realm, and I eventually made my way to Harvard, where I picked up a career in publishing and two graduate degrees. I began writing my novels and short stories in earnest. My own first marriage brought me to a money pit on Lowell Street—a large two-family that went for $249,000 in 1998. Neither the house nor the marriage lasted long. Both were naïve decisions, but I recovered quickly and in 2003 found a lovely little condo that became a perfect writer’s garret. I knew it wouldn’t be forever, but it didn’t last as long as I thought it would.
In 2009, a fateful message on Facebook changed it all: “Do you remember me?”
Indeed I did. We had mutual crushes on each other in high school, but I was too shy to date him. After finding me more than 20 years later, he invited me to visit him to celebrate our birthdays, which fall on the same day. The rest, as they say, is history. He relocated to live with me in my once-perfect condo. It was now far too small. When we began looking for a place of our own, the real estate prices in Somerville skyrocketed. What were once multifamilies selling for $249,000 were now million-dollar homes. Single family homes like we wanted were equally out of sight.
Malden, Revere, Lynn, and surrounding areas felt like frontier territory, but were our only options for commute and pricing for the space and style we wanted. We found a home we loved and well—yet it seems strange to say goodbye to a city where I’ve spent 25 years. Of course, yes, I can still visit, and will. But as I walk down the streets now, I’m haunted by what once was. Each store front that has been more than one venue…I alternately forget its past or present name…and each apartment where a friend lived (or, in another amazing coincidence, multiple, as when aforementioned best friend moved into the apartment my grandmother lived in when she was first married, cheerfully telling me and my friend about passing out on the floor from drinking too many boilermakers. Having indulged in occasional boozy fun in the same space, we giggled.) Ah, the circle of life.
Getting off the subway at Davis during rush hour was nothing like the crushing zombie horde you experience now. However, my sentimentality is hardly steeped in flowery nostalgia. Davis Square had its creeps back then. There’s a ton of cool stuff happening in Somerville today. Though I won’t miss the bureaucracy of the City with a capital C—it’s as challenging as it ever was. But in that past lies so much of my own evolution, as well as the city’s. Reading the diaries of Anais Nin years later as a writing instructor and teaching assistant at Harvard Extension reminded me of the divorce that brought us to Somerville. She too struggled with an unavailable father. My career at Harvard was amazing, but I lost a bit of my artist’s soul there. This latest turn of fate’s wheel has given me back some of what I lost and taken some of who I have been. My family is a lot smaller, but a lot happier. I am free to embrace my artist’s soul to the fullest now. Many new novels and stories are underway. I’ll miss being near the last vestiges of what I knew in 1990—like McKinnon’s, and the many places I’ve grown to love, like Five Horses Tavern and the Painted Burro.
When my old high school flame and I got married, he called ahead to the Painted Burro and arranged to have a rose delivered to the table with each course and drink, and a rose garnished the tres leches dessert that served as out wedding cake. It’s a fine memory to say farewell to, because it leads us forward into the future.
So farewell, Somerville. It’s been real. Time to watch another “frontier” town change and evolve.
March 22, 2105