Friday, May 24, 2024

A visitor to Central Square passes through some homeless people Nov. 9. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Last weekend we took my Babe Ruth baseball team of 13- to 16-year-olds to Tasty Burger to close out a great fall ball season. We gathered downstairs in the Harvard Square location, one of my favorite hidden gems. (As kids, the owner of Tasty and and I once had a lot of fun in the basement of Paco’s Tacos on JFK and other backrooms with video games. We were both from single-parent homes and worked, selling newspapers in the square among other odd jobs we picked up. The square was everything.)

As my team began to eat, I noticed an adult hanging around and I kept an eye. After about 20 minutes, I went upstairs for a player check and noticed one of my veteran players sitting and playing chess with the man I had seen downstairs. When I was growing up, chess was huge in the square. So was punk rock, Hare Krishnas and every kind of protest imaginable. Chaos was all part of the fabric.

After clearing up a white lie the man had been told that my guy went to Harvard, I told him, “If you beat him, we get you lunch.” He was homeless, and I will call him Mr. Chess to avoid using his real name. Obviously we bought him lunch.

Later Mr. Chess came down to talk to me. He was very proud to know former mayors, mentioning E. Denise Simmons and Ken Reeves, and told me he could teach me chess. I tried to explain I might be okay on the political aspect, but when it comes to attention span it would probably be a tough road. It’s just six pieces, he said – like a true coach, making it easy to understand.

Mr. Chess then asked me if I knew a certain former district attorney, because he had testified in a matter up in Lowell Superior Court: He had seen and stopped a child abduction, and became a key witness. He felt such pride that he helped identify someone hurting kids, and also when they called him to the stand and said he was “from Cambridge.” Mr. Chess was originally from Ohio, but now lives in a room in Central Square and goes to the Salvation Army.

He asked if I could check to see how the case ended. I gave him my number.

The whole interaction got me thinking going into Thanksgiving. First about how awesome it was my player was so interested in this man – then about how much folks like this shaped our childhood and city. I remember when I was about 11 leaving the YMCA for a swim meet. It was cold, and from the window I saw a person who was obviously living outside. I cried to myself and never spoke of it.

Now I have an office in Central Square and have seen how “lawless” things have become at times. The unhoused come in many shapes and sizes, and it seems that lately a new population has emerged who are not as familiar with, or respectful of, Cambridge. I have had friends who have been victims of crime as a result, and I know this culture can be hard on small businesses.

That said, I interviewed many homeless folks when I was on the City Council and chaired its Housing committee. There are brilliant, caring and super-interesting unhoused folks out there, and I recognize what city councillor and social worker Marc McGovern knows, which is that mental health problems and addiction are no one’s fault, but takes the lives of so many brilliant, amazing souls.

All this makes me think about Cambridge’s identity and its role with homelessness: The annual effort by McGovern and others to buy winter warming gear for the unhoused; the churches, many of which open their doors; the many shelters and street workers; the Harvard Square Business Association and Central Square Business Improvement District, which treat the unhoused as neighbors; and the work I have seen done by Cambridge Police. (A shout out to police former commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. for helping start new long-term shelter at Spaulding Hospital in 2020.)

We have to make sure that our streets are safe and we are not encouraging street life, and I recognize we cannot solve the world’s problems – but is it really a black mark that we are known as a compassionate city? As we figure out the middle ground, I want to point out that many of these unhoused folks are part of Cambridge. They see it as their home as much as you or I. If we can from time to time lift people up, we should, with gratitude to all who do this every day.

I have been thinking of Mr. Chess a lot this week. God puts people in our path for a reason, and that picture of my player and Mr. Chess playing will stay with me as a lasting memory of my Cambridge.

Anthony D. Galluccio is a Cambridge resident and partner at Galluccio & Watson LLP, and a former state senator, mayor and chair of the Cambridge School Committee. He is a longtime board member of the Hildebrand Family Self-Help Center in Cambridge.