Reading Dawn Powell’s “The Locusts Have No King,” specifically the section in which she describes Rubberleg Square, provoked jealousy. So lively. Such a personality this square has, such powerful memories it would compel from its visitors. A roaring, jittering, manic place, a pixilated place, a wisecracking, bitter, passionate nonstop-talker-barfly kind of a place.
And then there’s Cambridge’s Porter Square, which has the personality, perhaps, of a blankly sullen checkout clerk from a third-tier minimart: the kind that can’t afford Hostess products, and even the supply of Little Debbie is erratic.
Porter’s problem is that it is a place, or rather a collection of places, without really being a destination, and you can go from place to place in Porter all day long without feeling as though you’ve been anywhere. It’s the frontier town that never came into its own, a collection of services that sprang up because the train went through, but that train — Massachusetts Avenue — doesn’t stop but long enough for the passengers to stretch their legs, load up on supplies and be on their way again. The T and Commuter Rail stop here, but the riders, too, emerge just to head elsewhere. Somerville Avenue ends and begins here, but the lanes add only traffic. Porter’s rhythm as a byway is constant; it’s rhythm as metropolis stops and starts, all humps and bumps, stretched out erratically by anti-urban outposts of off-street parking. Useable, but unembraceable, like the White Hen Pantries and Taco Bell/KFC combinations the parking serves.
Approaching always gives hope something will come of it. The structures start low and small, one-story shops cursed to fail, and raise themselves optimistically to mirrored office buildings and handsome bricked towers. But they can’t leap those parking lots without effort. They tire themselves out, stagger. The square exists on its knees, mismatched buildings wheezing at each other from across gaps of parking and streets of humming traffic.
Students might syncopate the place, as the Tufts students do Davis or the Harvard students their digs, but the school here is Lesley University, a bland what? a misspelled who? and an only mildly interesting why. The all-night options are fluorescent: the doughnuts, the minimart, the CVS. The entertainment is washed out: There is the townie bar, the chain bar and the small, dark bar blowing it with chipper also-ran bands, the bright blues, the white jazz, the country western. Next door is the cell phone store, the tax preparer, the sporting goods emporium. The eateries are good without being stylish, or what fades into the background in strip malls and main streets across America: the sub shops, the pizza places, the Wok ’n’ Roll greasy Chinese.
Come here to Porter to do your shopping, to clean your clothes, to refill your prescription. This is a square to get the job done, and its pleasures lie in efficiency, convenience, accomplishment that’s only slightly sweaty if utterly inelegant. You can find parking, find a watch shop without the smugness (or the artistry) of Harvard Square’s, find what you paid for roses is half that of the cost one T stop away. Find yourself mildly charmed, perhaps, to learn that the hidden melody of Porter is not that of the train, the frontier or the avant-garde, but of the electric zigzag from Korean Kaya to Kotobukiya, sushi and soba in the Porter Exchange and finally to the Sasuga Japanese bookstore: an Asian chord, an atonal strum, the peace of a rock garden behind, somehow logically, a third-tier minimart with off-street parking.