A Short Distance from Southie, but a World Away

Tara Wanda Merrigan recalls navigating between the very different realms of Harvard and home.

Tara Wanda Merrigan | Longreads | September 2017 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)

 

South Boston, my first world, extends out on the Boston Harbor like an oversized jetty. Winds that whip off the brisk, slate-colored ocean often make the neighborhood feel 10 degrees colder than the weather report, a great advantage in the summer. The grid of streets mapped onto its slopes — lettered verticals and enumerated laterals — offers relieving certainty in a haphazardly planned city known for its confusing road designations. The three-decker, a multi-family home with three individual apartments stacked on top of one another, reigns supreme here. Before gentrification swept across the peninsula and housing prices skyrocketed, entire extended families could live together in the blissful discord of tight quarters. South Boston was, and still is to some extent, the kind of place where residents nod to the people they pass on the street, because if they don’t know the passerby personally, he’s likely the best friend of one of their uncle’s drinking buddies. It is a small town in an urban metropolis. For all these reasons, and many others, some residents insist it’s the best place in the world.

My parents spent the first years of their marriage in South Boston — commonly called “Southie” by residents — living in a waterfront multi-family on Columbia Road. It was there I learned how to crawl and to push buttons on the television remote, and, when presented with my first birthday cake, to smear chocolate frosting all over my face. But a few months before my sister was born, my nuclear family moved to Milton, a “white flight” suburb south of Boston. But the house stayed in the family, and the rest of my mother’s family — my grandparents, uncles, cousins — stayed in South Boston. So it was in South Boston that I celebrated holidays. It was in South Boston that I spent my childhood summer vacations, sitting in front of the air conditioner in my grandparents’ tiny three-room apartment on East Eighth Street.

And Columbia Road once again became my home, after my parents’ divorce seven years ago and the subsequent selling of the house in the suburbs. (It’s as if the suburban experiment was just some dream gone awry.) So Columbia Road was the place I sought refuge when I left my first post-graduate job at a magazine in New York. I lived with my Aunt Jola and Uncle Jack in the first-floor apartment. They tended to me well. They offered me coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. My aunt learned my favorite foods — avocados, blue corn tortilla chips, kale — and made sure to buy them when she went to the market. She saved the Sunday Globe for me. From my bedroom window I could see the small waves of the Boston Harbor splash against the beach across the street.

But after a few months I realized I had to leave Southie. After you’ve lived in a place so different from your home and become of that place, you can never really go home again.

***

Upward mobility is more about leaving something behind than it is about achieving something new. It is a willingly assumed alienation. It means that even after you’re able to pass as that to which you aspire, you will never fully belong to any one world again. The American Dream, that foremost example of the desire to move on up, is an ungratefulness: that to which you were born is simply not good enough. In my family, the upwardly mobile mentality has been passed down from generation to generation like some kind of genetic disease. For my grandparents, upward mobility meant leaving behind Poland when Communist rule limited their financial opportunities. For my mother, it meant leaving behind her culture and changing her name from Miroslawa Wieckowska to Mary Merrigan. For me, it has meant leaving behind a neighborhood. A small thing in comparison to what has come before, but it is these small departures that, like stress fractures, hurt those left behind most. Neither enough to incapacitate you nor a clean break, but a nagging pain that murmurs constantly.

***

I remember the first time I felt truly out of place in South Boston. I can recall the moment with a stinging clarity — the feelings of that episode rush back and break my heart all over again. I am sitting in my Aunt Jola’s kitchen in that waterfront house on Columbia Road. It is Christmas Eve, and I am on winter break from Harvard, where my aspirations of upward mobility have led me. I have had a blissful first semester. I have made friends with my roommates. I have spent Sunday mornings reading as the sun filtered through the windows and splashed onto the wood floor of my suite’s living room. I have even learned how to say hello to passersby; I have pushed past the perverse anxiety that seizes me every time I see a familiar face on the street, and trained myself to simply say, “Hello.” It was a departure from the way I was in high school, where I would put my head down and rush past the other person, unable to figure out what to do in my heightened state. That, coupled with my maniacal drive for As, gave me the reputation for being a cold bitch.

Upward mobility is more about leaving something behind than it is about achieving something new. It is a willingly assumed alienation.

So I am sitting at my aunt’s kitchen table with my cousins and sister. We have been talking for a while. We are waiting for sundown, when we will gorge ourselves on anything but meat, since Polish custom prohibits the consumption of flesh on Christmas Eve. I have regaled them with stories of parties and late-night adventures. I leave out my rewarding coursework since I know my audience is less interested in that. And it is somewhere in the middle of this my cousin looks at me and says, “Y’know, you’re talking differently. Real proper.”

Blood rushes to my face. I am speechless. I hadn’t realized I was speaking differently, but I promise myself that I won’t make this mistake again.

***

The afternoon in March I found out I had been accepted to Harvard two emotions washed over me. First came the disbelief that such an elite institution would select me. (I recall checking my email on my friend’s BlackBerry — this was before smartphones were ubiquitous — and stamping my feet in joy after skimming the first line of the acceptance note.) But the next feeling that came was disappointment. I had wanted to leave the Boston area and experience another part of America, but I knew I couldn’t say no to Harvard; my family, and the generous aid package I received, wouldn’t permit me. I talked this problem over with my friends and family — to my teenage self, being accepted by Harvard seemed like a problem. One day I took out a yellow legal pad and made two columns. In one I listed reasons to go to Harvard, and in the other, reasons to attend my second-choice school. I was heartbroken when, by the end of this process, Harvard’s list of merits was three times as long as the other school’s. Going to Harvard seemed inevitable. My Aunt Jola offered the best solace anyone could give me. “Tara,” she said, pronouncing my name with short, nasal a sounds rather than the softer long a I use. “Harvard may be in Boston, but it’s a whole other world.”

She was right. Harvard is a completely different world from Southie. It lives by rules I barely knew when, on that very first day of freshman year, my father drove his gold Ford Explorer through the grand Johnston Gate to unload my things at Holworthy Hall, which claims Charles Sumner, the U.S. senator whose 1856 speech against slavery caused a fellow Congressman to attack him with a cane, as a past resident. As a 17-year-old raised in South Boston and a middle-class suburb, I didn’t know the names of New York prep schools or designer jeans. While I did go to a private school for high school, it wasn’t particularly elite. I didn’t understand why you had to try out for extracurriculars, which is a common requirement for Harvard activity clubs. Most of all, I didn’t understand why my classmates were still working so hard. Didn’t they know we had made it? I did not yet know that Harvard was not the finish line of the race for success, but rather a checkpoint near its beginning.

There were more things I would leave behind in order to move up and fit in better with my peers. There was the familial language; I made sure to clearly enunciate my r’s, always say the g at the end of “ing,” and, most importantly, use the subjunctive mood in casual conversation. I learned words like “honorific.” I left behind my conservative dresses and learned to wear the bohemian but clearly bourgeois fashion favored by some of my classmates. I traded the local news for the New York Times on Sunday mornings and the New Yorker on Thursday afternoons. (The new issue would not arrive in my Adams House mailbox until a few days after its release.) I cut all my hair off to look more sophisticated and androgynous, though I don’t think I quite achieved the former quality. And in perhaps the largest departure from my family, I began favoring, and arguing, my friends’ liberal philosophies over my family’s deeply conservative ones. I became a blue vote in a family that otherwise voted red. By the end of my four years at Harvard, I would win the “Biggest Transformation” superlative, as judged by my peers on the Harvard Crimson.

After you’ve lived in a place so different from your home and become of that place, you can never really go home again.

But the transition from Bostonian to Harvardian was not seamless. For a few years I tried to do both. I remember walking through Harvard Yard one night during my second or third year. It is dark out. I have only the dim orange light of the Yard’s street lamps to show me my way. It is also late. Not I’ve-just-watched-the-sunrise-out-the-library’s-window late, but the deep, blurry, middle-of-the-night kind of late. I walk through the regal Morgan Gate — red bricks and flourishing wrought iron — and toward a group of security guards idling at the back entrance of Widener Library, the university’s grand neoclassical flagship. Guards tend to congregate there. It is not cold out — it was either fall or spring, because in my memory the guards are wearing only the thin gray jackets issued to Securitas officers. And then I see Sean, a guard I’ve recently befriended through my reporting for the Harvard Crimson. A bolt of anxiety flashes through my body. Every nerve stands at attention. I approach him, and offer an ambiguous greeting. Neither the clearly enunciated “Hey, how are you?” I would use with my classmates, nor the “Hi, how’ah ya?” of South Boston, the greeting he often offered me. We talk for a bit, and I feel the pull of his Southie accent weighing on mine. Slowly my speech gravitates toward his. My r’s disappear, as do my g’s. I feel like a fraud. I hope he doesn’t think I’m mocking him.


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It was always like this with Sean, an Irish-American guy with an auburn buzz cut who hails from South Boston’s “Lower End.” The Lower End likely takes its name as much from its socioeconomic makeup as its topographical height. I recall once talking to Sean about gentrification in South Boston. I told him how different Columbia Road, a boulevard near the much-desired “Point,” looked now. Developers had arrived and revamped the street. “And the Lower End is really nice now too,” he eagerly added. Indignation faintly tinged his voice. But though Sean was kind in his earnest South Boston manner, I disliked bumping into him. Sean disrupted the clearly defined behavior protocol that gave order to my life at that point: casual, accented English with my family in South Boston; clean newscaster English at Harvard. It is difficult to live in two worlds, but even more difficult when those two worlds collide.

***

By senior year I decided to stop playing two roles. I decided that I could speak and act how I wanted, even if that meant exacerbating the chasm widening between my family and me. I would, instead, just live. I would argue for Democrats and keep my hair short and date whomever I wanted to date, regardless of race, sex, or creed. And, for the most part, it was a great relief. The tension I had felt throughout my time at Harvard — the constant pull between what I wanted for myself and what I was leaving behind — faded away.

But the relief was short-lived, because often I would be reminded of that tension. In the final days of my senior year, my father joined me for the Crimson’s senior parents’ reception. Parents had flown in from all over the country to witness their children graduate under the leafy canopy of Tercentenary Theatre, a fancy designation for the stretch of Harvard Yard that runs from the steps of Widener Library up to Memorial Church. The reception was held in the Crimson’s oldest and grandest room, the Sanctum. It has dark wood bookshelves with bound copies, two grand fireplaces, medieval-looking wooden tables, and maroon leather chairs and sofas. A marble bust memorializes a young man who died while at Harvard.

In my memory the reception is crowded. There are mothers wearing sundresses and fathers wearing navy blue jackets and khakis with loafers. My own father wears charcoal flannel dress pants and a white short-sleeve dress shirt. He is probably wearing the less-beat-up pair of black sneakers he owns. I introduce him to my friends and their parents. Sometimes the interactions are comical: many of my friends are shorter in stature, and my 6-foot-3 Irish father towers over their parents. But I feel his awkwardness — or is it mine? — when he answers questions about what he does for work. He runs computer programs for the HR department of a financial services company; my friends’ parents are the curator of a major museum, a partner at law firm, a computer programmer, diplomats, and business executives. One of my friends pulls me aside as our parents talk. “Your father has such a thick accent!” “Really?” I ask. “I hadn’t noticed.”

Harvard is a completely different world from Southie. It lives by rules I barely knew when, on that very first day of freshman year.

After several conversations, we sit down in chairs near the buffet. My father is sweating. I see him rub his moist palms against his thighs, his hallmark sign of anxiety. I offer to take him out onto the Crimson’s roof deck. There we encounter another friend and his father, who is a professor at Salem State. The father has a working-class edge, and my father begins to act more naturally. A success. The day would be a success.

After a few minutes of conversation we break apart. And then my father says the awful thing that blows apart the whole day. Thinking we are the only people on the deck, he turns to me and, with his booming voice, says, “I feel like I could beat up most of the fathers here.” The Salem State professor is still within earshot, and I see him turn around and shoot my father a look of disgust. I say I am hungry and insist we leave the reception and go to a restaurant as quickly as possible.

***

Harvard Square is a mere seven stops on the Red Line from South Boston, but the transition from one place to the next is jarring. It’s quaint and flooded with life of every sort: tourists, students, street performers, the homeless, hipsters. There are cafes and restaurants and independent bookstores. The sidewalks are cobblestone, not pavement. You feel like, apart from the tourists, most everyone believes that existence precedes essence. How you live determines who you are here. You make what you are, and what exactly that is doesn’t matter so much, so if you find yourself on Massachusetts Avenue holding hands with a member of the same sex or of a different race, you’ll likely get a small smile of approval. Love for one another, across difference, is the only natural law here.

But you leave Harvard to the sound of street music and get on a train that shoots through the Red Line tunnel. You find yourself 23 minutes later in the cavernous Broadway station where there are no musicians and no one knows who Sartre is. You emerge from the dank depths of that station and in front of you are a Dunkin’ Donuts and an old Irish pub called the Cornerstone. For years it was like that. Now there is a yuppie yoga studio and a Starbucks, but I’m not convinced that their patrons know who Sartre is either.

Today, walking east on South Boston’s West Broadway toward Castle Island, you will pass a public housing complex, an Urban Foodies market, a gourmet cookie shop, and a Formaggio before you hit Dorchester Street, which divides Southie into its western and eastern halves. On Dorchester Street you will find a little bar called the Junction, a neighborhood place with $5 drinks. It’s one of my family’s favorite watering holes.

On a recent Friday night, nearly two years after I graduated from Harvard, and about seven months after I moved out of my aunt and uncle’s apartment in Southie, I split my time between these two worlds. My Harvard friends were hosting a dinner party in Cambridge, and my sister was coming home from college and wanted the South Boston contingent to congregate at the Junction. The first half of the evening was lovely: pasta and red wine and good conversation. We rehashed old reporting adventures from our Crimson days and talked about the latest gossip in the news industry. Some told stories of a class they took with a former editor of the New York Times — with courses like this, nothing feels out of a Harvard student’s reach. But then my sister texts to tell me to come to South Boston. The group is going out. I order an Uber and tell my friends I have to go. Family obligations. I arrive about 15 minutes later at the Junction. My cousin Lukasz and his friend Marty, along with a few others, are there to celebrate my sister’s return. I order a vodka tonic but, as usual, it is too strong. (The group is comprised of some of the bar’s best patrons; the bartenders in turn take care of them, and me, when I am there.) I chat with Marty about HBO shows and music and his tattoos. My accent doesn’t shift, as it once did.

By senior year I decided to stop playing two roles. I decided that I could speak and act how I wanted, even if that meant exacerbating the chasm widening between my family and me.

Soon after my arrival the Friday night band plays Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” at my party’s request. We always put in that request. “She’s a good girl, loves her mama,” the guitarist croons, strumming the simple D D4 D A progression. “Loves Jesus and America too / She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis / Loves horses and her boyfriend too.” My sister and her friends sing along. I do too, but I start to feel a pounding sensation in my head. Tom Petty’s earnest down-home lyrics are too much for me. A few more songs go by. The vodka has put a glaze over everything. I feel life draining out of me, as if I’m going into hibernation. I give my drink to my sister. I go outside with Marty for a cigarette, though I’m just keeping him company because I refuse to smoke his Newport menthols. We come back inside and I make conversation for a few more minutes, but then I tell my sister I’m leaving.

Alone, I walk 20 minutes to the Columbia Road house. I slide the wrong key into the front door. When I finally let myself in, I find that my aunt is still up. I chat with her for a few moments in the living room, which is lit only by the faintly blue glow of the television. I tell her I have had a long day and I left the group early in order to get some rest. I tell her I had a wonderful time at the dinner party earlier. I do not tell her how miserable I was at the Junction.

I then stumble to her apartment’s smallest bedroom, my old bedroom, my former refuge, which I will share with my sister tonight. I fall asleep quickly. Tomorrow I will return to my chosen world, an apartment near Harvard, and all of this will once again be left behind.

 

* * *

Tara Wanda Merrigan is a writer and editor based in Hudson, NY. Her work has appeared on the websites of Allure, The Millions, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and The Daily Beast.

Editor: Sari Botton