I may be nearing my thirties, but that has not stopped me from reading many a young adult, dystopian, futuristic novel.
That really shouldn’t be shocking. I mean, have you seen my Instagram feed?
But why is that? Why is it that I am so incredibly addicted to these stories about worlds laid to waste by natural occurrences or dominated by dysfunctional organizations where survival isn’t just something that happens in war-torn third-world countries but is a daily fact for upper- and middle-class individuals just like you or me?
I don’t know. It could be because I am a millennial growing up in an increasingly digital age where information about anything and everything, including the dark side, is just a few clicks away. It could be because I am living in the global warming era, where the effects of carbon dioxide emissions have been drilled into my head since I was a child, making the idea of an imminent, global catastrophe that completely alters life as we know it not so fantastical but an inevitable reality. It could just be that the quick flow and adrenaline rushes of such simple stories have made me an addict and I just can’t help myself.
Whatever the reasons for my interest in such books, I never really expected to get such a dystopian vibe during one of my latest travels.
Where? you ask. Why Cambridge, of course.
Cambridge? As in, Harvard University? That Cambridge?
Yes, that Cambridge. It all started the moment I got off the subway…
Now, I will admit. When I decided to check out Harvard University, I developed expectations, and that’s never a good idea when I’m involved. My expectations are often a little impossible to meet, and they always lead to disappointment. Despite this knowledge though, I was unable to help myself, and I had big thoughts on what my visit was going to be like. I mean, I was thinking along the lines of Oxford and Harry Potter. Crimson banners, manicured lawns, posh intellectuals, and warm, mahogany wood.
What I got was a long line of homeless people and sleep deprived students with tattered backpacks, tense shoulders, and backs bent over from what I imagined was the crushing student loan debt that they accepted the moment they decided to attend Harvard.
No one smiled. The atmosphere of dissatisfaction and denial was so incredibly thick that I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would want to attend such a school in the first place. I recalled the first time I visited my alma mater, St. Edward’s University, and the vibe I had received then from the campus was a thousand times more welcoming, exciting, and scholarly than what I eventually experienced in Cambridge.
But that wasn’t the only issue. Judgement was everywhere. From the campus grounds to the esteemed Harvard Bookstore to the highly-rated Harvard Art Museum, I felt constantly watched and picked apart by people I had only just met. My friendly hellos froze mid-air when met with the icy cold, judgmental stares of everyone around me.
And sadly this permeated the atmosphere in the local coffee shop. Crema Cafe, which is very close to Harvard Square, receives great reviews online, and my coffee and bagel sandwich was delicious, I must admit. Upon ordering my food and drink though, I felt an odd sensation as I gazed into the blank face of the cashier. She wasn’t unfriendly. She might have even been smiling (maybe), but I felt as if I needed to apologize to her for assuming I had the right to make an order. It was like she could smell the lack of Ivy League on me, and I had to fight against a small voice in the back of my head that I didn’t belong and that I should have known better than to come.
I tried to shake off the discomfort of our interaction as I consumed my purchases, but I eventually decided to test my initial feelings by asking for the bathroom key before I left. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just being extra sensitive because I hadn’t had any coffee before my arrival, but I was only further convinced of my feelings upon grabbing and returning the key. The blank look of judgement (this time on the face of another worker behind the counter), the lack of welcome, it was all still there.
Anyway, after seeing some of the sights around campus, I booked my way out of town and back to Boston where a couple of beers at a local pub helped wipe away the discomfort that Harvard had inspired within me.
I wish the excursion had felt different, and I really wish I could have actually enjoyed the coffee shop there. In my opinion, every campus needs a cozy and welcoming coffee shop in which all of their stressed out students can relax, but that was not the vibe that I got from Crema Cafe. That’s not the vibe that I got anywhere in Cambridge.
It’s possible that Cambridge is just beyond my comprehension, but I do have to wonder how many of the students and residents there actually feel free to be themselves and how many of them are stifled by the vague expectations of the university and surrounding shops. I can’t help but feel that if the people there were actually free to act as they saw fit, then the homelessness that filled the streets surrounding campus would be less.
I’m currently reading 1984 again, and a similar dichotomy is described in the books. The Proles and the Party Members. Those who live freely (and in poverty) and those who live as dictated by a totalitarian government (and with the illusion of weath). Regardless of which party the characters are a part, everyone suffers and no one benefits. The more I think about it, the more scarily reflective it is of what I saw in Cambridge.
I’m curious if anyone has visited and had similar thoughts? Different thoughts? I’d love to hear what your experiences have been in the comment section below.
Reporting from the more comfortable and accepting, Stellar Cafe,
The one and the only Pookachino
P.S. Quick update: Crema Cafe is closing in a week. A new shop will be taking it’s place, so coffee will continue to flow, but I thought this was interesting.