Cambridge is a fine, fine place to live; its shortcomings barely worth mentioning. We have efficient and clean government and excellent municipal services, even if there are a few odd positions like a Ranger and a Peace Commissioner that seem indulgent. Our tax rate is lower than all of our neighboring cities, yet gleaming civic buildings sprout everywhere, including an immense teen center in my neighborhood, where adolescents are scarce. We have bustling urban centers, though Harvard Square has forfeited quirkiness for high rent chain stores. We have two remarkable universities that elevate our civic discourse, though provincial forces discourage their development so much that the city denied Harvard’s proposal to build a Renzo Piano museum along the river and built a (very fancy) housing project instead. When I ride to work, underwear dries in the huge glass windows where perhaps something more uplifting might have been displayed. Most famously, Cambridge has a reputation for left leaning politics that earned it the moniker ’The People’s Republic’. Unfortunately we suffer the same political dizziness that affects any far left point on the political compass when the peoples’ voice grows so shrill it becomes fascist
The guardians of our left leaning reputation who are most likely to adopt police state tactics are not Cambridge’s men and women in blue; they are uniformly cordial. The watchdogs are the Cambridge Ladies, a distinct breed of women. Mostly single, mostly greying, mostly energetic and fit in sensible shoes and scant make-up, Cambridge Ladies patrol our fair city enforcing their strict vision of what is allowed in paradise. These women won their liberation and weathered its backlash, they got what they wanted by being aggressive and smart and they refuse to accept the intolerable result of their effort- that we are privileged enough to leave each other alone.
There is a saying that academic arguments are so virulent because so little is at stake, and Cambridge Ladies pick their battles the same way. My house mate Paul’s lovable, chubby chocolate Lab, Silas, is friendly to every creature along the path around Fresh Pond. Most people ignore his heft, a few call him a bear or a koala, but this fat and happy canine gets under the Cambridge Ladies skins. “Your dog is fat,” the least articulate will say. “Your dog is too fat.” is the more common scold, implying they have the authority to monitor how hefty Silas should be. Some comments ooze superiority. “That is the Botero of dogs,” one woman proclaimed, obviously proud of her knowledge of both art and obese pets.
I received a memorable Cambridge Lady lashing last weekend, riding my bicycle along Brattle Street en route to yoga on a brilliant Sunday morning. Nothing could detract from the splendor of the moment as I approached the intersection of Brattle and Fayerweather. There is a light here, but no traffic on Sunday morning. The light was red for Brattle but the pedestrian walk sign was green. I slowed, looked both ways and headed across. No cyclist worth his salt will stand at an intersection with no one moving in any direction. “You have to wait for the light!” A sharp voice called from the brown Volvo station wagon idling on my left. I smiled at the cliché of a Cambridge Lady in a brown Volvo station wagon. The light changed, she pulled aside me, and as I anticipated, slowed her vehicle to continue the rant. “You are supposed to stop for the light!” I did not respond or even look her way. She accelerated and then cut me off with a right turn onto Channing Street. I continued down Brattle, laughing out loud at the ridiculous woman. She was right of course; I am supposed to stop at the light. Cambridge Ladies are always right, right to the point of being miserable. I am not a reckless cyclist; I stop at lights when there is oncoming traffic or any question as to right of way. But I refuse to stop just because it is the rule. Rules are necessary to guide our behavior and make things run smooth, but they are also made to be broken.
I saw a wonderful production of The Mikado recently; I love that operetta, in particular the Mikado’s ‘object all sublime…to make the punishment fit the crime.’ I thought of my law break and my Cambridge Lady and decided that each of us got a punishment well fit to our crimes. I disobeyed a law; a law barely relevant on a quiet Sunday morning. I got scolded but ultimately found a great laugh in the whole thing. The Cambridge Lady did not violate any crime scripted into law, though I consider being a sanctimonious prig in a hulking gas guzzler on a beautiful day a crime of sorts. Her punishment is self-evident; she is sentenced to being a Cambridge Lady, petty and frustrated.
My punishment vanished the moment her car turned the corner. Her sentence, I fear, is for life, though the optimist in me would be generous on parole. I hope that one day she might loosen up and realize that her unsolicited direction is unwelcome and unkind; it brings no positive energy to her or the object of her rebuke. The beauty of life in a liberal city does not come from telling others we are wrong; it comes from a generous allowance that so long as we do not harm others, we have the privilege to do what feels right.