Forty-Five Seconds at an Intersection in Harvard Square


The signal light at the confluence of Massachusetts Avenue, JFK Street, and Mount Auburn Street that faced the foaming currents of traffic coming in from Mass Ave turned amber. Sure, all the other lights turned amber, too, but this was the only one with a smiley face painted onto it.

Outside Au Bon Pain, a queen was under threat from a staggered gang of pawns and a rook behind enemy lines. The chess master slapped his button on the game clock and noted his own sense of contentment—not the triumphant joy of a sportsman defeating an opponent; rather, it more closely resembled the satisfaction of a craftsman inspecting a well-fitted joist. Standing on the nearby subway grating, a large man selling Spare Change said, “Hello, lovely ladies, would you like to buy a copy of Spare Change?” and, “Have a nice day,” in a stentorian basso profundo to a pair of women who passed without looking up. “Hello, sir,” he started again, inviolable.

A lone motorist, enraged by the caravan of merging drivers that had cut him off and cleared the light, tried to blast through the intersection but was forced to a jerking stop in the middle of the brick crosswalk as the traffic light went red and the crossing signal exhorted the pedestrians—mostly homebound workaday white collars with a sprinkle of ivied undergrads—to WALK. They surged into the street to the chirping call of the crossing signal, stranding the car in a flash flood of people. The driver’s face briefly contracted in a lupine grimace as he slapped uselessly at the steering column. None of the pedestrians looked or cared. An LED timer appended to the crossing signal started counting down from forty seconds.

Punk kids lounging in the Pit outside the T stop arranged carpools for a grindcore show in Northampton. The homeless bivouacked amongst the punks like a rag-tag battalion between land wars.

A young woman in a peasant skirt asked the busker playing an adenoidal jinghu next to the Harvard Coop if she could take a picture of him for her photography class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. He agreed, and she pulled out her dad’s old Nikon FG from a courier bag around her shoulder. After taking a light reading and focusing the lens, she looked up. “Don’t pay any attention to the camera. Just act natural. Pretend like I’m not here,” she said and began to shoot. He stared at her army boots and tried not to smile. When she was done, she dropped a five dollar bill in the empty tissue paper box at the busker’s feet, nodded, and walked away, wondering if maybe she lacked the subtlety to subcutaneously enter and capture a scene without bumping into its compositional elements. Was that the kind of thing you could learn?

On the third floor of the Coop, a man sat in the window seat overlooking the intersection and reading a copy of LSD: My Problem Child, by Albert Hofmann. Occasionally, he would jot down a quotation into a spiral notebook propped up on his knees. He put the book down to stare out the window. He considered this nook, where he would sometimes spend hours reading books he did not want to buy, to be his own little secret corner. He was not familiar with the local libraries. A perfect sniper’s nest, he thought to himself, and pretended to pick off various pedestrians.

Overhead, the cloud that looked like a duck transmogrified into a submarine extending a periscope and then just a funny-shaped cloud that didn’t really look like anything. Dusk sunlight surged up Brattle Street, cutting sharp shadows and gilding Out of Town News. The glossies in the racks lit up like Kliegs. In front of the newsstand, a woman saw, for the first time in months, an ex-boyfriend scanning covers and smoking a cigarette. He looked the same. His right hand was working in his pants pocket, trying to separate loose coins from the lighter, pack of Camels, pens, tissue paper, and anything else he might have grabbed off the dresser before leaving the apartment. She crossed the street toward him on her way to the bus stop.

Was he nervous around crowds and compensated by tuning out the world, or was his default public self a genuinely oblivious fog? Either way, he hadn’t seen her, and she could have continued on her way. But the last time they spoke, he had gotten the best of the exchange, and she’d left his apartment crying. As she passed behind him, she fired an epigrammatic “Those’ll kill you,” and continued on with a slight lift in her step. His head twitched up and followed her as she walked north, into the shadow of the Coop. Who drops an exit line like that and then bolts stage right? He scrunched his nose, stubbed out the cigarette, and hoofed it up JFK after her. There was a place a few blocks away that served pancakes and amazing coffee. Maybe she was hungry.

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