This is not Narnia

We don’t think about it much anymore, but the “urban renewals” of the late fifties and sixties swept aside entire communities. When Boston decided to undo Scully Square and the West End, the adult entertainment industry migrated to Washington Street in a run-down section of Downtown Boston. The people, the West Enders, scattered. Clumps moved across the Lechmere Causeway into East Cambridge, and some migrated to Boston’s North End. 

But lots migrated up to Beacon Hill. On Beacon Hill, they added to the complex variety of life that included one of Boston’s oldest Jewish Temples, an African Methodist Episcopalian church, and the State House. Health care workers, Folkies, near do wells, and people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds all congregated in a neighborhood that couldn’t have been much bigger than a square mile in size. And on the Hill’s front side, facing the Boston Commons, were some of the City’s wealthiest blueblooded residents with illustrious names dating back to the City’s earlier times. The people of the backside and those of the front mixed as well as oil and water.

So far as I could see, Pinckney Street was the dividing line. Head closer to the Common, and you were in elite territory. Head downhill towards the hospital, and you were in the working-class part the Hill, apartment houses, single room boarding houses.

There was little switching back and forth. The income difference was steep. Perhaps the social distinctions were steeper. My friends and I would periodically cross over to the elite side to look at Mount Vernon’s mansions or the neat row houses on Louisberg Square. 

The house I rented in on Pinckney Street had a closet connecting two studios. I had never paid much attention to the back of the closet until one day; a seven-year-old barged into my space. He looked disappointed. Instead of Narnia, he had wound up in the studio/ residence of Beacon Hill’s finest woodcarver ( nobody on the Hill knew it yet). He spent that afternoon watching me carve until his mother, Sarah, came through the closet door and apologized. Sarah was divorcing her husband and was now deep into single mom poverty. She had moved from the front of the Hill to the dividing line on Pinckney Street. Sarah and her seven-year-old son were waiting and hoping for a divorce settlement. Until then, she fell into the same lot as most us, too much owed, not enough coming in. 

Over the next couple of months, my friends and I taught Sarah how to shop in the Haymarket from the pushcarts at closing time. We showed her where to find fresh bread in the North End and the intricacies of cooking a hotplate meal. The most challenging part of this resocialization was teaching her a new social etiquette with people she would never have socialized with before her divorce. 

In the Harvard Gardens on Halloween, you didn’t stare at the men in drag. You didn’t drink alone – always in a group. You weren’t bashful and shy about a direct sexual advance – you made it very clear that you weren’t interested, physically, if needed. There were lots more. Through it, Sarah proved adaptable to all her abusive husband and fortune threw at her. She always wore a single strand of pearls when we all went out socially, which gave her the nickname Pearl.

In the spring, her divorce was final, and she received a settlement. It wasn’t much but enough to allow her to move off the Hill and into a decent Cambridge apartment. She found secretarial work at a Boston law firm and rarely guested at the Folkie Palace. Eventually, she quietly slipped away from us.

Over time we all slipped away. The Hill changed, and most of us moved on. One day I was in line at the Harvard COOP Bookstore. In front of me was a woman wearing a single strand of pearls; her scent was Tea Rose. I automatically thought back to Sarah, who had also worn that scent. Perhaps I breathed in too deeply or sighed too loudly, but the young man standing beside her looked in my direction and stared at me. He quietly commented to the woman something that I missed. She turned to face me. I was afraid that I was coming across as some pervert who went around sniffing random women. Then she smiled. “Wes?” Yes, I was startled. By this time, no one called me Wes anymore, and it took me by surprise. “Sarah?”

We caught up over coffee at the Blue Parrot Coffeehouse. Sean, her son, was starting at Harvard that fall. I was teaching at a college north of Boston while making up my mind to finish my Ph.D., or not. Sarah had completed a law degree and was living in New Jersey. Our final meeting was as much a matter of chance as our first had been.

Sean looked over at us. ” do you remember that first day I wandered into your studio thinking I was going to find Narnia?” Sarh laughed, ” A rather strange sort of Narnia. Shopping at closing time for food that might otherwise be discarded by the pushcart owners. The wall to wall mattresses at the Folkie Palace. The strange Halloween Trick or Treating on Beacon Hill where there were more Tricks than Treats!”

Thinking about that time of our lives, I replied: ” in a lot of ways, it was much more like Through The Looking Glass.” 

Sarah looked at me again and said: “Hell, it was a heck of a lot more fun than Narnia!”

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