May 5th, 2021, and I’m remembering — a long moment, a long time ago.
The beginning of a change, a big one.
The moment. Jersey Turnpike, Labor Day Weekend, 1979. My adventure advancing, uncertainly. I had pulled into a Pike rest area; was parked before one of those standardized turnpike restaurants. I’d probably just fueled up, then gotten a bite to eat, having been on the road a good four hours or so. I don’t recall massive crowds in the rest, despite it being a holiday weekend. Perhaps it was Saturday, the quietest of the travel days. But I recall feeling lost — even though I knew exactly where I was going. Lost. Uprooted. Wondering what lay ahead.
I was on the first leg of my estimated three-day journey to Florida and, at 32, would be getting a relatively belated start on a commercial TV career. I was moving away from the Boston area for the first time. I was headed to a job in Fort Myers on Florida’s west coast.
A young, well-dressed African-American couple parked beside me in their big, old model Chrysler were having car trouble. I was thinking they might be coming from church, or headed from wedding. It was well into the afternoon, so the wedding or church would be over. That would be a small saving grace. There was nothing I could do to help them, because it was serious enough that the man had lifted the hood and taken off the distributor cap. This might wind up a tow job. I felt bad; I wass worried myself that my ’74 Dodge Dart might fail under the weight of the U-Haul it was pulling. So, I commiserated with these folks. They’d called for help so — at some point, their life would resume. I’m sure I gave them a look of sympathy. No, nothing I could do. And I was beginning to feel very lonely — and cut off — out there on the turnpike. They must have been feeling the same way, though, from the evidence, they were closer to home, perhaps a coupe of exits away — and were not, like me, in transit to a new home in a strange place a thousand miles away.
I had gotten a late start from my apartment on Martin Street in Cambridge. I had parked on the diagonal street (Avon Street) and slowly loaded the U-Haul — and knew I should have been on the road by then. There was probably a little reluctance and apprehension tugging at me. (Flashing forward, decades, I would, every time I worked around Boston and found myself driving on the Mass Turnpike Extension through Newton, think of how it felt, back in ’79, on that stretch before the hotel overpass at Newton Corner, feeling the weight of what I was pulling — my whole life in that U-Haul — and knowing I would have to make it all the way to Woodbridge, Virginia, my first scheduled stop, as soon after nightfall as possible. I’m certain I was hoping I was on the road to a life-altering enrichment to last me the rest of my thirties; to adventure, professional success and advancement, a bright new future, romance, even marriage….
I had ended nearly six years in that roughly 400 square feet on Martin Street, Cambridge. I even had a little party for myself upon my leaving; my own little bon voyage soiree –crowding maybe ten people in that little box. Ken Botwright, a Boston Globe colleague from my days as an editorial assistant and now a Cambridge neighbor, was among the attendees. Short, bald, lively, I see him laughingly hoisting himself onto my bed, which was one of my only seating arrangements. (I saw one couple recently down here in Florida — George and Susan Foote — who came that night. Good friends, old friends. I masked from them and so many old friends much of the turmoil and sense stultified personal, professional and creative progress and spiritual and moral struggle that characterizes my waning days. God and I are working on that.)
I do upon occasion miss that box of an apartment– it having been a kind of place where I could be alone, reconstitute my life daily — or, exercising that God-given power of choice, drink and fornicate my young life away. (How much or little did I pray in those days? Upon occasion, I had family members visit, invited a police officer friend to stop by, an old neighborhood mentor as well — and my ultimate mentor, Rev. J.L. Donovan. They must have been a bit scandalized at the “college dorm room” habitancy in which a grown man was dwelling. Joe Andrus, who with his wife May sheltered me in California during the summer of ’68, had, before departing after a Cambridge visit, climbed the three flights of stairs to my lair, just to inspect it, much in the manner of a loving uncle. Chuckling, he announced he was taking a mental picture of the mess: ” so, you got boots on top of the bed, you’ve got a path to the bathroom for when you go to take a leak….”
I sometimes think about being back there, in times not uncomplicated but with so much life still ahead of me. (I would ultimately, four years later, live back in back in that neighborhood, just around the corner from that apartment, in a similar building that had been converted to condominiums, on Bowdoin Street, which is another tree-lined, aesthetically desirable street of rising real estate values, but less and less street parking. And my professional fortunes, or misfortunes, would force me to give up that condominium one day — and even to this day, I dearly wish I’d found a way to hold onto it, if for no other reason than that it was a potentially lucrative investment. I bought it, if memory serves me, for $87,000 in 1983, sold it for about $130,000 around 1989 — and its 600 square feet, sans thermostate or parking, shot up to over $300,000 during the 90s.)
But back to Labor Day Weekend, 1979, I was eager to slip the bonds of Boston where I’d gone as far as I could in broadcast news (at a little cable TV operation in Somerville which, recently, one of my old colleagues raised up in memory on Facebook). I knew I couldn’t advance without moving out of town — and I planned to work my way back to Boston. But first, I wanted a change, a new world, new opportunities. ( I’d eaten at a Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square only a while before and the little fortune in my fortune cookie — I’ve saved it to this day, with its smudge of soy sauce — read, “YOU ARE HEADED TO A LAND OF SUNSHINE.
I recall I was seeing off my good Korean friend Young Hoon-Kwak at the old Eastern Airlines Terminal at Logan and talking with him about the uncertainty of my future at the moment my future employer was reaching out to me, unknown to me, by phone — there were no cell phones then. Hoon and I used to have heartfelt, loving chats. I’d known him since doing a story about Korean students for the Globe back in the early 70s. I would see him again over the years but, for now, have, sadly, lost touch and track of him. )
So, I was bound for WINK-TV, Ft. Myers. I was somewhat excited, somewhat anxious with happy anticipation. That’s actually a good feeling — I might like to have it again. Especially the “anxious with happy anticipation” part.
But, would any of us really want to go back? Of course not — not really. Live it all again? No. We had our shot. What’s done is done. We live with the benefits or consequences. We know, in our seventies (thinking back to the 1970s), many of our friends and colleagues already dead and gone or out of mind, that we must make the very best of what’s left….We know it ( I know it), but often forget it. We remain, as a 29-year-old Scott Fitzgerald has his protagonist/narrator Nick Carroway brood at the conclusion of The Great Gatsby, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
But they had been happy years, more or less, in that Cambridge apartment. As I was packing up, leaving it empty and echoing and sad, a rent increase had been slipped under the door. At the time, it reinforced the feeling that I was leaving at a good time. Rents would keep climbing. But it was a rent-controlled apartment and the rent had never been high. As I sit here, I couldn’t tell you what I’d been paying — maybe $160 (imagine that? In Cambridge! Peanuts even in 1979! But rent control was a crazy and artificial ceiling that left landlords little to work with and “young professionals” like me living far better than we deserved. It was destined to unravel. But it also assured — artificially and quixotically — an interesting mix of people in the polyglot, diverse, infinitely peculiar place that was Cambridge. (It is, I’m sure, far less diverse and colorful now — outrageously expensive, ultra-“progressive” and woke land of the incipient liberal para-fascists. Sad, so sad, but inevitable.
But, I have to be grateful for the accident of that little piece of social engineering that allowed me to dwell in that dream-like miasma. ( The jazz exalted jazz composer and professor George Russell lived in a basement apartment in the building. When we were still allowed to go up on the roof to sunbathe, he sometimes was at one end of the room, I at the other.) I had lived a protracted post-adolescence there, permitting myself a morally slovenly existence much of the time and tolerating a measure of physical squalor, never truly cleaning the place, never once removing and cleaning the curtains that were hanging there when I moved in, October of ’74. I’d painted the wooden cabinets white and the indented middle rectangle orange. I had a western exposure and the afternoon sun would brightly illuminate those patches of orange. ( I had made trouble from time to time for poor Barry Savenor, the superintendent and son of the building’s owners. Years later, while on the job for New England Cable News, I spotted him walking down Church Street in Harvard Square (as it happened, right across from the Chinese restaurant where I’d “learned my fortune” years before). We chatted. He was happy to see me and I him. He’d phoned me out of the blue down in Florida one night before going out for a night on the town in Boston. We’d never been real close friends. And he took the trouble to phone me, again in Florida, upon the death by stroke of my beloved across-the-all elderly Cambridge neighbor Adelaide Schneider. Barry was a character, whose telephone answering machine always contained antic content and impersonations and music. His family was famous for owning the meat market where Julia Child bought her meats. He was undeniably eccentric, also, to his misfortune, afflicted with a very pale complexion and a scalp condition that caused his hair to grow in odd patches. He was a photographer, a good one. He smoked, and I had a phone conversation with him in which he told me he was being treated for lung cancer. I only learned of his death when somewhere, at my work desk, I read of a memorial exhibit of one Barry Savenor’s photographs in Provincetown. I don’t know how old he was — not old.
Barry’s mother, Betty, as noted, the building’s owner, had to deal with those of us who, though we were enjoying the benefits of a cheap rent-controlled apartment, were given to banding together and complaining about maintenance. Yet when I was in graduate school at B.U. and otherwise not working, she gave me a break on the rent. I called her when Barry died. I know she’d moved to a very nice community of town houses in Sarasota. I’ve lost track of her now, living or dead. God bless the Savenors — Barry and mom Betty. People from “the old days” that I wish I’d always treated better.
Back to that Jersey Turnpike rest area….that Labor Day Weekend moment, 1979….
Ultimately, sad to see that neighboring African-American couple stuck, knowing I had to push on, again, hoping I would have not have car trouble of my own( I would-and, as feared, run into a hurricane in Georgia two days later), I set out in order to make my destination, if not before nightfall, not too far into the night….the massive Deleware toll bridge lay ahead…and the Chesepeake Tunnel and the Washington Beltway…pulling that U-Haul, tired, anxious (in a bad way), eager for that Woodbridge Scottish Inn that would, as night fell, seem farther and farther away.
(One other New Jersey memory up to that point in my life would have been Army basic training at Fort Dix. I would learn many years hence that a decorated Vietnam veteran-member of the training cadre with whom I had memorably harsh and chastening encounters during those rough weeks in the Pine Barrens — had become a New Jersey State Trooper and, in that very year of 1979, been named Trooper of the Year. What would an encounter with him have been like, had it happened? What a “remember me?” that would have been!)
It was in these moments that I knew I was breaking the tether that had bound me to Boston. I would be back, leave again, return, leave, return, leave….My broadcast career would go up and down and up again. My personal life would twist and turn, but never end in marriage. But there would be a son who would one day live at a point halfway down the coast I was then traversing on i-95 (he lives now in Charleston, and I’m so glad for his life, for I have so little else to show for the years that lay ahead that day as I pulled back out on the Turnpike.
And somehow, on this May day, 2021, I just thought of that moment today….on or about September 1 to 3, 1979.