Confessions of a pâté girl

Ah, growing up in Cambridge
By CAROLINE KNAPP  |  August 8, 2010

This story was originally published in the May 20, 1988, issue of the Boston Phoenix.

Ah, growing up in Cambridge.

A New Yorker subscription to go along with your birth certificate. A special set of bumper stickers for your first red wagon: BORN TO BE IN THERAPY and I BRAKE FOR LIBERALS. And, along the privileged path that eases you from one higher-than-average student/teacher ration to the next (private kindergarten, private elementary school, private prep school, and thank God-Dad-paid-for-this private college), a procession of strange contradictions. You eat tofu with your turkey at Christmas, which explains the tendency among some of your childhood friends to rebel by becoming Republicans. You are introduced to pâté and public television before you learn about Coke or cartoons, which explains your affection in later life for things junky (Dynasty, Cheeze Curls). And, like people from hometowns everywhere, you end up, oh, a little screwed-up.

But frankly, no more so than anyone else. It just has a Cambridge spin on it. And, depending on which neighborhood you hail from, a particular spin. If you're from Brattle Street, you can pretty much forget it. You're from Ultra Cambridge. You're too rich, too privileged, too aware of it. Tourists drive past your house pointing, and you either feel freakish (if you're nice) or terminally superior (if you're not). You can also forget it if you grow up beyond the one-mile radius around Harvard Square that constitutes Real Cambridge. You're from Just-Barely Cambridge. You don't exist. Other Cambridge natives sneer at you in thinly veiled ways. "You have to take a bus to the Square? How brave."

I grew up in the Avon Hill section of Cambridge — less snooty than Brattle Street but pretty hard-core. An 02140 zip code. An eight-minute walk to Harvard Square. A lot of expensive-but-not-ostentatious homes inhabited by a lot of wealthy-but-not-showy families, most of them well-educated liberal Democrats who dressed their kids in natural fibers and adorned their cars with the usual correct messages about nukes and whales and such.

The primary neighborhood gripe on Avon Hill? Poor water pressure in the showers.

It was Deep Cambridge.

My family was pretty Deep Cambridge, too, which intensified things. Mom: a Vassar girl from Brookline, now a painter (oils and collages, highly abstract). Dad: originally from Syracuse, later Harvard College and Medical School, now a psychoanalyst (also highly abstract). Evidence of their success as Cambridge parents: my older brother is now a postdoctoral fellow in neurobiology at Harvard; my sister is a medical student leaning toward child psychiatry. Heavy Cambridge, very deep. Thick with ivy and introspection.

But that all came later.

Growing up in Cambridge is in fact pretty benign, although it can be hard to convince people of that later in life. It's when you leave Cambridge and tell people where you're from that the trouble starts. It sounds much more exotic than it really is and you find yourself embarrassed by it. And a little paranoid. Will people think you've picked up all kinds of things — highly developed cultural sensibilities? A passion for crimson clothing? If you're shy, will they assume you're a snob? You become evasive about your origins. You're from Boston. A town outside of Boston. It begins with a "C."

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