Putting the dream behind

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Putting the dream behind
by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com Contributor
Wednesday Nov 17, 2010

Recap: Cathy and I found compassion not found elsewhere, but our friends were horrified by the South End.

Twenty-one at last, I shared a Kenmore Square apartment with two other BU students. I had spent the summer of ’66 training for the Peace Corps and my mind was set on going to India, despite having been "deselected" because I was "too quiet in groups." I began spending all my free time at Indian movies, concerts, and restaurants, while keeping up with Peace Corps friends.

My training for India had involved fieldwork on a Wisconsin Native American reservation. If that weren’t absurd enough, my friend Scott, bound for Africa, was training in the South End. He suggested we meet at the Rainbow Lounge on Tremont at West Springfield Street. We sat in a booth and drank beer while drunks and pimps fawned over us. Scott was heavily into "CO" (community organizing) and so cool he knew everyone by name. Scott and I had a good time there that day, but, years later, the Rainbow was one of twenty-eight notorious bars shut down by the South End Bars Task Force.

I missed living in the South End. Around that time, Nick, another Peace Corps buddy also enamored of India, graduated from Harvard but couldn’t find a place to live. We trekked all over the city together looking at hovels. Finally, I thought of the apartment on East Springfield Street and wondered if, by some miracle, it was still available. Mrs. Grant hadn’t rented it since Cathy and I left, and everything was exactly the same, including the $50/month rent. Nick moved in.

Nick was engaged to Karma (not their real names), and the musty old rooms were soon filled with the smells of cumin, coriander, and frying onions. While chickpeas soaked in a pot in the aluminum all-in-one in the living room and puris puffed up on the hotplate in back, Indian movie actresses wailed high-pitched love songs from Nick’s stereo. Karma’s visits were frequent but never without me, the chaperone, at the request of her traditional New Delhi family. If we stayed overnight, Karma and I slept in the sleigh bed in the front room while Nick slept on a cot in the back, the pocket doors closed tight between us.

When Nick applied to graduate schools in the Midwest, I did too, because it seemed a logical step for an English major. One day, however, while shelving books in the Shakespeare section at the library, I became depressed to see how many writers squabbled over one line, even one word, of a play. The call numbers were nearly identical. I didn’t want that kind of academic life, and, although I was accepted to a couple of schools, I turned them down, putting the dream behind, as the late South End poet Francena Roberson once wrote:

Here philosophers, PhD’s and theses writers too,
Can tell you after five drinks just what you ought to do.
You find fellow citizens here who are, likewise,
caught in the same bind, making the most of what they have
and putting the dream behind
in the South End of Boston

When Nick and Karma married and left for Michigan in late ’67, I took the apartment for myself. Never was anyone so happy to be alone. India and the Peace Corps were behind me now, and I was glad to live in a neighborhood where I never ran into anyone I knew from school. I didn’t want to hear, "Hey, didn’t I sit next to you in Contemporary British Lit?" "Mark down Dec. 20 as a day of freedom gained," I wrote in my journal. "A day when a life ends, a life begins, and it’s a beautiful feeling."

My grandfather felt differently. He sent me a letter, in which he said, "Glad you are feeling rested but I am quite concerned that you have returned to the same place in Boston....If you feel that Boston does appeal to you as a place to live in and to work in, why go back to East Springfield Street?...I’m willing to contribute something so that you can live in a better area; say, Brookline or Belmont. I know that you would be happier in the long run to live in an attractive suburban area...."

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

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