Christine, the most excellent gluten-free baker of Mendocino, delivered some bread recently and mentioned she’d just returned from Boston where she attended her niece’s graduation from Harvard. And that reminded me of my Harvard adventure of 1972.
I dropped out of college in 1969 after two years of majoring in Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, though Frisbee, basketball, piano, and writing were my main pursuits whilst enduring academia. For the next two years I lived as a hitchhiking vagabond, and in the late spring of 1971 I found myself in Boston with little money and wondering where I would sleep that night.
Schlepping my guitar and backpack into a café to get some tea, I fell into conversation with a guy who was keen to see my guitar. So I got out the handmade beauty I’d bought for fifteen dollars in the gigantic mercado in Guadalajara, and while the guy noodled on my guitar, I asked if he knew of any communes or hostels where I might stay for a few days.
“Go out to Cambridge,” he said, nodding. “Lots going on out there.”
“You mean Harvard?” I said stupidly.
“Yeah, Harvard,” he said, nodding. “Lots of communes out there. Hippies. College girls. Bookstores. Music. You’ll dig it.”
And then I remembered that two guys I’d gone to high school with had gone to Harvard, Dan and Joe, and if they were still there this would be their senior year. I caught a train over the river to Cambridge, found a phone booth, called Harvard, and sure enough they had a phone number for Dan. So I called him and he invited me to come crash in his dorm.
Now this dorm where I ended up living for a few weeks was not a typical dorm, but a huge brand new co-ed dorm built with millions of dollars given to Harvard and Radcliffe by the parents of a woman who had attended Radcliffe and died young. Everyone in the dorm had a large room outfitted with a comfy bed and a big desk, and on every floor of the massive four-story building there was a luxurious lounge and kitchen, some of these lounges outfitted with pianos.
On the ground floor there was a swank commissary providing excellent food, if one happened to be a resident. On my second day there, Dan presented me with the meal card of a Harvard student who was studying elsewhere for the semester, and the young gal who sat at the entrance to the commissary checking meal cards happily waved me in whenever I went there to dine, so…
The best part was that I was given my own room with a view out over the tennis courts where I played almost every day. Yes, overnight I went from homeless pauper to faux Harvard student living in a luxurious dorm, going to movies and pizza parlors and parties, attending lectures and playing tennis and romancing a young woman whose name I can’t remember.
One night, I and six peeps from the dorm piled into a big old car and went to a double bill of Five Easy Pieces and I Never Sang For My Father, and after the movies, because everyone except Todd was stoned or sans driver’s license, I was entrusted to drive the mob home.
Upon our arrival in the vicinity of the dorm, there were no available parking places, but after much driving around we chanced upon a small car pulling out of a spot just a half-block from the dorm. The consensus was that there was no way our big car would fit into the spot vacated by the small car. And I’m sure if I were confronted by such a challenge today, I would not do what I did then, which was to deftly and in one neat move parallel park our big car in that space with about six inches to spare on either end.
My feat was greeted with applause and huzzahs, and the next morning my parking job was the talk of breakfast and prompted a pilgrimage by several of us to view the miracle in the light of day.
I went to lectures given by famous anthropologists whose books I had read while at UC Santa Cruz, and while I enjoyed listening to these fellows pontificate, I was troubled that they, as had my professors at Santa Cruz, insisted on speaking about defunct and vanished societies in the Present Tense, as if these long-gone cultures were still intact.
At the conclusion of one lecture, having nothing to lose, I raised my hand and asked the esteemed professor if the childrearing practices and coming-of-age rituals he spoke of were still practiced by the Lakota today, given the genocidal demolition of their culture.
He squinted at me and said with obvious irritation, “No, of course not.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding. “I see. Thanks.”
After the lecture, a young man and young woman approached me and said how much they appreciated my asking that question. They, too, had grown disenchanted with the pretenses of academic anthropology.
“I just wish they’d call it historical anthropology,” said the young woman. “Why not tell the truth?”
“It’s curious,” said the young man. “They seem uneasy with the idea that the societies they speak of are no more.”
As the school year drew to a close, Jerry, one of my new friends from the dorm, landed a summer job on Nantucket Island attending to a wealthy Harvard alum who had suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. Jerry would be living in a converted windmill on the island, and he invited me to come visit him. So that’s where I headed after my free digs at Harvard were no longer available.
I hitchhiked to Wood’s Hole and caught the ferry to Nantucket, and after a fine week with Jerry, I took the ferry back to the mainland and hitched up into Maine en route to Canada. But how did I pay for all that before I ran out of money in Maine?
Well, I had a three-day gardening job in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, so that would account for thirty dollars or so, but in thinking back I remember a gathering of people in one of the dorm lounges, and Dan’s father Hugo was there. He must have come out from California for Dan’s graduation. He was concerned about me heading off into the unknown with just a backpack and a funky guitar. I remember assuring him I would be okay, but he was still concerned.
“I know you may not need this,” he said, getting out his wallet, “but I want to give you a little something. Okay?”
I think he gave me fifty dollars, which was a lot of money for the likes of me in those days, and proves the old maxim: if you want to get ahead in this society, go to Harvard.