"Steppin' out I tried to fix it
Pulled a thumb out of that hole
Give me ingredients, I'll mix it
How can you move without a goal?"
- Dinosaur Jr.
The crazy woman outside my hotel room door was talking to the police officer. She’d been riding the elevator for hours and incoherently babbling so the hotel manager became worried and called the cops. They cornered her on the 8th floor next to my room.
“I don’t want to tell you my hotel room number. That’s my business. It’s my right,” she whined distraughtly.
“Ma’am, do you think I want to be here?” the officer asked gruffly. “Now you tell me your hotel room number or we’ll strap you to a stretcher and bring you in for a psychological evaluation.”
The woman, in her 50s with graying dark hair and bony features, protested.
“Sir, I don’t want to tell you my number,” she pleaded, her voice trembling. “It’s my personal business.”
The officer pressed her for her room key. She said she left it downstairs in the computer room. They went to get it, along with the grumbling hotel manager.
Welcome to Cambridge, Massachusetts, a college town full of freaks and characters.
I returned here not to sample the sights, but to experience a place that was instrumental in my development as a writer. In 1993 I spent a summer enrolled in an expository writing class at Harvard. I learned the fine points of essay construction, writing to persuade and reading and analyzing short stories. Back then I stayed with distant relatives in Watertown in a moldering Victorian house that resembled something from H.P. Lovecraft. I chronicled my experiences that summer in a journal. It was a magical time – a young writer nestled in the bosom of America’s academic history, experienced new things far from home. As time passed, I became a working journalist writing for newspapers in New Jersey.
Along the way, my writing grew trite and dull as I went through the motions as a reporter covering petty events and government meetings. Work became skullduggery, a hum-drum process of methodical interviews, obligatory quotes and regurgitating information. Because of this, my writing suffered. Hurriedly-written text lacking depth or imagination filled my daily routine. Stories were listless and drab, just words strung together and sentences arranged automatically, as if assembled in a factory by machines. I switched off the passion and wonder I so ably had in my 20s. Now in my late 30s, balding, alone and jaded, I realize that the greatest writing of my career might have come before my career. How does one deal with that? How do you get back that sense of everything is new and shiny and fresh, of awe at life instead of cynicism? I needed to regain the passion that compelled me to write about what I really wanted to write about. I don’t want to be sluggish or torpid, moving sloth-like through life, jotting down articles just to fill space in the paper. I’d crank out nine stories that were 300 to 500 words but complete drek. When I started out, I was prolific, putting down a 1,300-word story in less than an hour. Life beat me down and I lost the passion and a writer’s passion is his edge. It’s what separates him from mediocrity.
Coming to Cambridge in 2008 was a pilgrimage of sorts. It was returning to a place that had significance and meaning for me. I didn’t come here to recapture old glories the way a burnt-out athlete returns to the stadiums of his past victories. Reliving or recreating the past never works – one can’t duplicate exactly how things were. I guess I’m here to visit the streets and buildings that left an indelible impression on me.
Room 810 of the Holiday Inn in Cambridge is your typical North American hotel suite – king size bed, couch, writing desk, color TV, microwave, coffeemaker, bathroom and nightstand complete with Gideon Bible. From the window you can see Boston in the distance, its glass-covered towers poking above the trees around the Charles River. Below me a collection of buildings – refurbished Victorian houses, sturdy redbrick buildings, church spires and soulless concrete boxes all mingled together.
In the hotel’s restaurant, I met some members of my family who live in Massachusetts. We spent the evening eating Italian food we had delivered to the hotel and talking about our lives. It was a rare relaxing family moment, the kind you see on TV but rarely experience.