Part three of the Great Experiment originally involved living raw on the street for the duration of the long, hot summer of ’04, sleeping in our launch-like Toyota station-wagon, crashing with friends for a few days here and there, copping the occasional shower on the fly, or at the free MDC swimming pool on Memorial Drive, and war-blogging our way around the greater Boston area, searching out public or at least unprotected wireless networks in order to leech internet access from everyman’s ether.
The idea was to look at our cultural milieu from the bottom side up, while saving money by avoiding until the last possible minute the insidious net of contracts, commitments and bills which we felt were dragging us down, financially and spiritually, sucking the life from our lungs, and which to a large degree inspired the Great Experiment in the first place. We were, perhaps, trying to recapture the footloose foolishness of the summers of ’76 and ’77, the last time we flirted with homelessness on the mean streets of Cambridge.
In 1976, recently graduated from college with a largely useless degree in cultural anthropology, we opened and operated a small store, more of an enclosed kiosk actually, in a hippy dippy walk-in mall called Grand Central Station, decades ahead of its time and place in funky Central Square, the funky underbelly of the sleek and glistening city cerebral epitomized by Harvard Square a mile down Massachusetts Avenue.
The short and ill-fated trajectory of this business venture eerily foretold the shuckterish saga of the Internet boom and bust of the late 90’s, albeit on a much smaller and seedier stage. We had somehow conned $15,000 off of a bright young self-made entrepreneur employed at that time by the Harvard Janitorial Services, and who somehow became tragically convinced that the Dowbrigade represented a viable investment option and a reliable business partner.
We had obtained that level of trust via a remarkable photo album purchased from an obscure tribe in the Paraguayan jungle, carved from hard, gleaming ivory-colored bone, bone of a large but unidentified mammal, cleverly crafted and polished to an alluring shine, featuring mythological animals, impossible plants and indecipherable symbols. Inside this album was a photographic record of all of the most interesting and potentially profitable handmade artisan treasures snatched from the most famous Indian markets up and down the spine of the South American Andes, from Colombia down to Paraguay.
The idea had hatched over a year earlier. As forcible expulsion for the ivy sanctuary drew near, we managed to convince a midlevel employee of the PR department of multi-national Polaroid Corporation, soon to see its flagship product super ceded by the digital revolution and unable to evolve fast enough to survive, that as a young Harvard anthropologist we were interested in creating an ethnographic study of the textile industry of the central Andes, using as our medium Polaroid instant snapshots.
Although we were unable to shake any actual cash loose from the corporate money-tree, we were given a top-of-the-line camera and120 packs of 10 Polaroid exposures each. Of course, we had no intention of doing an ethnographic and photographic profile of the textile industry.
Instead, we developed the following MO. We visited each of the major and noteworthy native American markets up and down the Gringo Trail. We would try to arrive the day before the main market day, and to be up in the cold mountain dark before dawn, watching the quiet columns of Indians drifting into the market square and setting up their tables, hanging cords, laying out their blankets and ponchos, the busy hustle of impending capitalism gradually overcoming the fading hush of the mountain morning.
As soon as the ambient light permitted, we started picking out items we felt were beautiful, original or otherwise marketable back in Cambridge and asking the owner of the corresponding stand or stall for permission to shoot it. We would take a few good shots, attaching to the back of each one a white paper sticker on which we would write the name of the product, the name of the artist, the prices for units and dozens, and how to contact the producer. The collected results of these “Greatest Hits of the Andean Market” filled our carved bone album, over 800 of them.
The greatest rush of the process was when, after shooting the first shots of the morning, and nonchalantly waving the resulting Polaroid back and forth as though bored, the Indians, who had obviously never even heard rumors of instant photography, would gather around to watch, slack jawed, as the image mysteriously emerged from the murky gray background.
As an added bonus, a number of the Indians would immediately begin to request instant photos of themselves or their families. The Dowbrigade would only accede to these requests if the requesting party had some decent artesania, a sweater or onyx chess set, which he or she was willing to exchange for a photo.
At any rate, the photographic record of this trip, documenting the handicraft traditions of vestigial Indian cultures hanging on in the rotting remains of the Inca Empire allowed us to raise 15K (worth a lot more almost 30 years ago than it does today) and head south again, this time to buy and ship north the best of the best of the collected richness of native American arts and crafts.
The result of THAT trip stocked the aforementioned store in Central Square
By the following summer, ’77, we had reached a whole new level. The store had crashed and burned, our erstwhile partner was crying bloody murder, convinced he had also been crashed and burned, and the Dowbrigade was left homeless, with almost nothing to his name but a thousand beautiful Ecuadorian produced authentic Panama Hats (only true aficionados know that the real Panama Hats hail from Ecuador).
Every day we would hit the Square around noon, and lay out a royal blue super-grande shawl on the sidewalk in front of Center. On the shawl we would artfully position 8 or 10 stacks of hats, various colors, styles and sizes, priced from $6 to $15. If the cops asked us for a permit or told us to move along, the entire operation was sucked into a big woven basket in seconds as though it had never been there. On a good day, we would sell 2 or 3 hats before being rousted.
Many days we arrived at the Square without a dime in our pockets, rumpled from a night on some crash pad couch or MIT frat floor space. Often a single sale would send us scurrying for the shade, lunch, a cold beer, and the limitless possibilities of the Square in the summer when one was young, reckless and up for almost anything. It was a mind-expanding adventure, further romanticized over the years by a Dowbrigade increasingly addicted to stability, career and creature comforts.
So our current flirtation with homelessness is probably more midlife longing than practical reality. Reality, in fact, has bumped up, hard, against romantic images and the difficulty of getting online, living out of a car, continuing to depend on a 12-inch laptop for out window on the world, simple longing for peace and privacy with the lovely Norma Yvonne, our inability to rescue our cats from their miraculous purgatory without a place to take them, the difficulty to reach our office in an acceptable state of consciousness and hygiene without a physical home base, and a strong desire to cook in a decent kitchen have all conspired to provide us with a new, overpowering motivation.
We need a place to live! Right away! Now that our kids are definitively ensconced in the Peruvian highlands, we can get away with a one OR a two bedroom unit. Cambridge is our first choice, after five years of exile caused by runaway real estate prices and other economic factors, but we are also looking in Somerville, Arlington, Belmont and Brookline. Anywhere, basically, reasonably near our BU, to keep the commute below half an hour, if possible. We have two cats.
Any readers in the Boston area with knowledge of such a place could please leave a note in the comments area of this posting. Eternal gratitude and a hallowed spot in the Dowbrigade Hall of Saints await anyone who can help. We’re too old for this rugged hobo shit.
Within a couple of days, and as soon as we get settled, these long rambling screeds should give way to more of the event-driven analysis and punditry which was our signature style prior to the Great Experiment. Stay tuned…..
Michael: I wrote you an email to your bu.edu address a few days ago detailing some housing stuff. Did you get it? If not, is there a better email address?
Almost makes me want to cry. Almost, but not quite. If only I had not read so many countless versions of that posting before. Your loving Mother.
I’ve referred this to a friend of mine in Boston.
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