Yesterday I spent the day walking around Boston and Cambridge, MA. Chris and I lived in the so-called “People’s Republic of Cambridge” for two and a half years; before that, we lived in Boston’s Beacon Hill for two years. Although it’s been nearly six years since we lived in either place, Boston and Cambridge still feel like “home” to me, primarily because I spent so much time walking (and biking) through both towns.

It’s always weird to return to a place where you used to live: you always notice the way things have changed and the way things have remained the same. Yesterday was particularly strange since I’ll always associate Boston with my PhD studies. We were living in Beacon Hill when I started my studies at Northeastern, so when I defend my dissertation on campus in April, we’ll have to drive down to “the Hub” for that momentous event. So yesterday as I strolled the streets of Cambridge and then Beacon Hill with the latest batch of diss chapter comments nestled in my bag, I had a strange desire to go back to our tiny apartment at the corner of Charles and Revere Streets in Beacon Hill.

The hobbit hole

Here’s where it all began. Our so-called “garden flat” was almost entirely underground: we had to crouch over to crawl through our own door. (Yes, the door is that short; yes, the ground is that sloped. In a sense, we lived under Beacon Hill in a humble little hobbit-hole.) The apartment was euphemistically termed a one bedroom, but really it was a studio apartment with a doorless, closet-less back room that technically couldn’t be counted as a bedroom. Our kitchen was in the front room, as was our shower: the shower was literally a closet that opened right into the living room. The only place in the apartment where you could close a door behind you was in the toilet: everything else was open.

Before we moved in, our landlady had rented to a single (gay) guy. Once while we were living there, an old friend (lover?) stopped by to see “Jay” and was shocked to have me, a woman, answer the door. “Oh, thank God!” he exclaimed after I explained that “Jay” had moved out. “I thought he’d gone straight on me!” Having been designed to house a live-in servant for the townhouse upstairs, that apartment would have been perfect for a single person; for a married couple, though, it was a tight squeeze. Looking back on our years in Beacon Hill, I felt perpetually crowded in an apartment that never had enough light.

When I turned the corner to stand outside that tiny little door yesterday, I half expected to find it open; I guess part of me would have liked to have gone inside. We were living in that apartment when Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and we were living in that apartment when the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. I always associate those two events with that apartment: I remember the precise spot in the front room where I was standing when the radio reported Cobain’s death, and I remember the precise spot in the back room where I sat folding laundry while CNN aired live footage from the Oklahoma City aftermath.

In double-checking the date of Cobain’s death, I discovered a creepy irony. My dissertation defense is scheduled for April 5, 2004: 10 years to the day since Cobain’s death. I’m not sure what (if anything) that coincidence means, but I’d like to think that what goes around doesn’t always come around. Ten years later, I’d like to think I’m a better, different person than I was when I stood there, shocked, staring at the radio in a cramped, too-dark underground apartment. They say the more things change, the more things stay the same: well, I’d like to think the same is true in reverse as well.