FEBRUARY 2, 2012, MIDNIGHT
SPRING HILL, SOMERVILLE
I am no one’s idea of a morning person, but I have still set my bedside alarm clock for an ungodly hour. I’ve been handed an assignment that is half reporting challenge, half endurance test – spending a full day in Kendall Square – and I need to get an early start.
I’m supposed to investigate the theory that Cambridge’s Kendall Square, which has languished as a wind-swept tech corridor for decades, has finally reached some kind of tipping point. Genzyme and other life sciences firms have been here for years, but now Google and Microsoft are expanding, and Amazon recently announced it was moving in, too. Before Mark Zuckerberg stopped by to recruit talent a few months ago, he suggested that if Kendall had looked the way it does now, he would not have fled to Silicon Valley to build Facebook.
So that’s my mission: Find out whether Kendall Square has finally arrived or whether all the buzz is just the same kind of wishful thinking we’ve heard for years. My plan? Catch the first run of the MBTA’s 85 Bus to Kendall and roam all day and night – some things prearranged, some improvised – until I have an answer or I collapse, whichever comes first.
The first bus comes by at 5:45. I gather my pens and my notebooks and set my alarm for 5.
My plan is in place, and it is perfect.
So much for the plan.
I oversleep, missing the first two buses. The next is due in three minutes, according to my Catch the Bus app, and I’m sprinting through my neighborhood, arms pumping, phone clutched like a relay baton.
“Sorry,” the app offers in a pop-up note, “shaking your iPhone won’t make the bus come sooner.”
Almost everyone on board is in their 20s or 30s, and as the bus starts to move, they look down at their smartphones in unison. One older woman in velour sweat pants retrieves a dog-eared crossword book from her handbag.
I’m taking a shortcut. Three businessmen are huddled around a laptop, slipping between German and English.
VOLTAGE COFFEE & ART
Nursing a locally roasted Costa Rican-grown coffee, I watch the line at the register grow longer. I see people coming from the T, by bike, and walking over from the more than 800 apartments in new buildings on this block: a young man in an open-necked dress shirt, a middle-aged woman in sneakers, a bearded guy toting a book on the USS Independence. A little girl dashes to the window in time to catch a miniature dachshund wriggling past in a pink-fleece jacket.
This morning rush is a recent development, says Voltage owner Lucy Valena. She chose Kendall for her shop because she wanted to be part of something emerging. Since opening in 2010, Voltage has become a deal-making spot for venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs. Sometimes Valena will walk through the restaurant, she says, “and hear three people pitching at once.”
Arriving early for a tour, I realize that I know little about the institute – it has something to do with spearheading a new collaborative model of biomedicine under the aegis of MIT and Harvard – though I am familiar with its benefactors, Eli and Edythe Broad, the California couple who started it with a $200 million gift, then followed that up with a $400 million endowment.
A portrait of the Broads hangs on the wall of the so-called DNAtrium, an interactive science museum that grew out of a push by the city of Cambridge for first-floor public amenities. Overhead, an 18-foot-wide mobile diagrams the evolutionary relationship of the 30 mammals that have had their genomes sequenced by the Broad and its partners – “Human” and “Neanderthal” on the far side, lowly “Lab Rat” dangling over my head.
ALAN FEIN’S OFFICE
Fein, the Broad’s deputy director, has led me through a maze of colorfully painted corridors, past a packed conference room – “a balanced attack on our molecular ignorance about schizophrenia,” reads a slide being projected on the screen – and up to his seventh-floor office.
“This is the epicenter,” he says, gesturing to the buildings outside his window, all of which are affiliated with MIT: the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Kendall’s software and Internet companies tend to get the most attention, but life sciences firms are the biggest employers for the estimated 40,000 people who work in this area every day. Out there somewhere are biotech giants Genzyme, Biogen Idec, Novartis, and more.
Over the past decade, Kendall has seen 4 million square feet of new construction, an expansion of 40 percent, with several million more on the way. The ground level of all the offices and apartment buildings is finally starting to fill in – some 16 restaurants have opened in the past two years – but all the pieces of a vibrant neighborhood are not yet put together.
“What we miss right now are amenities, like a pharmacy,” Fein says. Yesterday, a visiting board member needed cold medicine, setting off a scramble. “We couldn’t get it for him without leaving Kendall Square.”
MIT MEDIA LAB
Beyond what could be the most crowded bike rack I’ve ever seen, I find myself in front of the fabled MIT Media Lab. There are 26 research groups in this complex – which looks like the product of a Steve Jobs fever dream – each one centered on an innovative faculty member or senior research scientist and a handful of enterprising grad students.
Greeting me in the lobby, Ellen Hoffman, the Media Lab’s chief spokeswoman, emphasizes that the lab isn’t open to the public. Turns out there’s a downside to being considered a world-class temple of innovation: People can’t help but wander in off the street. And sometimes they steal stuff – valuable, top-secret, mesmerizing stuff.
SOMEWHERE IN THE MEDIA LAB
The lab spaces, which deliberately bleed into one another to encourage collaboration, are passing by in a blur of Technicolor high tech. Near a display of cereal boxes and smartphone price scanners, I get to play with the I/O Brush, a beefy paintbrush equipped with camera and sensors. It lets children brush items in real life – an Elmo doll, say – and then apply their colors, patterns, and textures to a digital canvas.
While I try not to break anything, Hoffman points out a screen that can be used for controlling a computer with gestures that grew out of its creator’s advisory work on the movie Minority Report. Next to it, I see what looks like a foosball table left in the hands of Dr. Frankenstein, re-engineered and encircled by wires and lights.
Down the hall, we come upon a plush teddy bear concealing a sophisticated robot. Nurses have tested it for therapy and data collection. Want to tell whether a kid has a fever? Just ask her to hug the bear. (It’s called the Huggable, of course.)
We reach the lab of Tod Machover, composer of the robot opera Death and the Powers and an inventor whose technology-assisted instruments have been used by Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Gabriel, and Prince. A grad student is putting the final stitches on a side project: a denim skirt with a huge built-in iPod speaker.
Two doors down, Steven Keating, another grad student, is cramming for an afternoon presentation to National Science Foundation grant writers. The Calgary native is as animated talking about the everyday miracles in his Kendall world as in his own work (on 3-D printing), right down to the dorm washing machine that texts him when his load is done. “In Canada, it’s completely different in terms of technology being integrated around us,” Keating says.
“Somerville, too,” I tell him.
I am an unrepentant cafeteria maven, always on the make for guest passes – from friends, friends of friends, complete strangers – to this area’s all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-imagine college dining halls. Still, I have never seen a cafeteria like this: a salad bar as far as the eye can see, pasta with calamari, chicken barbacoa tacos with Mexican street corn, four types of quiche, two kinds of homemade doughnuts. There are two spa-style water coolers, one with watermelon and orange slices, the other with mint; a beverage vending case to rival 7-Eleven’s; and a professional espresso machine that I suspect costs more than my car.
Speaking admiringly as I head through the line, I make the mistake of calling the place a “cafeteria.” A burly chef winces, and not from the heat of the pizza oven. Cafeterias are for hospitals and elementary schools. The other day, he notes, they prepared 600 lobsters, then made the leftovers into a bisque. (Employees can work off the “Google fifteen” in the gym.)
Everyone who works here gets free lunch, plus unlimited snacks at stations positioned so that, as office legend has it, no one is ever more than 150 feet from food. That doesn’t just keep them from wasting time looking for an Au Bon Pain, it also encourages camaraderie. And it seems to be working: On the far end of the buzzing lunchroom, two employees are locked in a serious game of chess near a mural of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; at the next table, four huddle around one of those fantasy role-playing games.
GOOGLE’S GAME ROOM
When then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt toured this office a few years back, he had just one complaint: People in Cambridge don’t seem to be having as much fun as they do at the Google home base in Mountain View, California. “Frankly, New England had a very puritanical history,” says Steve Vinter, site and engineering director of the Kendall office, “so the idea of playing is not built in.”
But they’re working on it. Beneath a vast mural of Fenway Park, there’s foosball, a pool table, and a Ping-Pong table, where Vinter frequently holds court. He’s defeated Deval Patrick, who stopped by to celebrate the company’s expansion, and Salman Rushdie, who came through for a workplace author series.
Of course, serious work goes on here, too, albeit in places like the “Beacon Hill” conference room, where a life-size cutout of John Kerry is adorned with Hawaiian leis. Four years ago, Google employed only a few dozen people in Cambridge. Now, nearly 400 work in this complex and another 400 down the street at ITA, a travel-software firm Google bought for $700 million last year.
The company’s continued expansion is good for the area and vice versa, says Vinter, who is a founding board member of Kendall’s business association, which is dotted with software and tech types. (How things have changed: A 1920s incarnation of the association included the heads of Kendall’s sheet metal, furniture, and engraving factories.)
“I’m not an association kind of guy, but I deeply believed that in order for Google to be as successful as we needed to be here, it wasn’t just hiring people out of college,” Vinter says. Top talent won’t come to Kendall if Google is the only game in town, so the company wants to help foster a vibrant community of tech companies big and small, competitors and not. “If we had enough companies like that,” he says, “then it would be a compelling case for someone to go: ‘I want to come to Google, because even if it doesn’t work out, I can go to five other things.’ ”
CLOVER FOOD LAB
I’ve been joined by Jesse Baerkahn, a lawyer, retail broker, and one-man bundle of energy who has filled many of Kendall’s newest storefronts, luring restaurants such as Area Four, Firebrand Saints, Fuji, and Kika, plus things like a day care, a gym, and a Segway dealership. We have known each other since summer camp; when we were counselors, he nearly talked me into selling him my parents’ car.
On the first stop of our lunch-time tour, Carleton Street’s food-truck row, we run into Clover cofounder Ayr Muir, a 34-year-old with two MIT degrees and an MBA from Harvard, who opened his first food truck here in 2008. Now he has five of them, plus two restaurants, plus an equal number of both in the works.
At Clover, all orders are entered on iPod Touches, but Muir is in analog mode today, standing beside a sandwich board advertising a full-time IT job. He’s trying to engineer an act of serendipity – a word invested with a near-religious significance in these parts – to pluck a new employee from the smart people waiting in line.
Kendall’s industrial history is etched in its place names, starting with the square itself, which takes its name from factory owner Edward Kendall, who was a boiler maker – the steam generator, not the drink; a teetotaler, Kendall had the wealth to finance his failed runs for Congress and governor on the Prohibition ticket. But only a few vestiges remain, like Broad Canal, the stub of a 200-year-old waterway that once saw barges carrying factory goods and is now, on warm days, dotted by canoes and kayaks. On the inner end of the canal sits the Watermark, a shiny tower of some 320 luxury apartments that, when it opened six years ago, represented the largest infusion of new housing here in decades.
If the ongoing story of the American economy is the tough transformation from industry to ideas, the prelude was written here in Kendall. In 1959, Lever Brothers shuttered a plant that churned out Lux and Lifebuoy soaps. MIT and a developer razed that property and others – clearing 15 acres of former factories and tenement homes – to build Technology Square. A few years later, Cambridge used its powers of eminent domain to begin evicting another 100 or so industrial businesses to make room for a nearly 30-acre NASA research campus. Richard Nixon pulled the plug in 1969, however, after only one tower had been built (it’s now home to the Volpe federal transportation center). A reporter at the time called the empty acreage “a blasted heath of barren ground.”
The development that finally took place in Kendall a decade later created the equivalent of suburban office parks in the city, islands that lured science and computer companies but did little to shape a livable neighborhood. “Kendall Square in Cambridge has become the ugliest collection of mismatched buildings this side of downtown Tucson,” Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell wrote in 1987, calling the area “a great opportunity that now has been lost.”
When developer Alex Twining built the Watermark, he helped prove wrong the naysayers who said no one would live in Kendall. But renting the apartments upstairs turned out to be a lot easier than filling the Cambridge-mandated retail on the lower levels. After some false starts with larger brokers, Twining agreed to let Baerkahn take a turn.
Baerkahn began hunting local restaurateurs with a following and a hearty appetite for risk. He made them pitch after pitch. Ignore what’s missing, he said, and consider the potential: a nearby T stop, reasonable parking, tens of thousands of existing knowledge workers, and new residents moving in every day. “How could it not work?” he liked to say.
After a year of cajoling, Baerkahn persuaded Peter McCarthy of EVOO, the Somerville farm-to-table pioneer, to relocate to Watermark in 2010 and pair it with a second outpost of Za, his locavore Arlington pizzeria. After four years with an empty ground floor, Watermark had its first restaurants.
We are wolfing down shumai and spicy tuna when owner Jimmy Liang emerges from the kitchen. Back in 1998, Liang and a childhood friend hatched the idea to open Quincy’s first sushi restaurant. That they were barely out of high school – and Chinese – hardly mattered.
By the time Baerkahn pitched Liang, he owned five eateries, giving him enough experience to be skeptical about opening his sixth in Kendall. When he returned to the neighborhood for the first time in years, he was amazed by the transformation. “I looked around the neighborhood, and I said, ‘Holy moly, this is really growing,’ ’’ Liang says.
Outside Fuji, signs of that growth are everywhere. Alexandria Real Estate is erecting a $500 million, 1.7 million-square-foot complex of office, lab, retail, and residential space, and Skanska USA is building a $70 million, 120,000-square-foot lab facility. At the other end of Kendall, where we’re heading now, MIT is building hundreds of thousands of square feet for Pfizer.
Baerkahn and I watch a pack of two dozen nattily dressed people – an international delegation, we decide – head toward Akamai, a company that literally makes the Internet work. Each day, as much as 30 percent of the world’s Web traffic passes through Akamai servers.
Baerkahn’s mind, however, is on the bricks-and-mortar stuff that the group isn’t seeing on this barren stretch of Broadway. “They just walked two city blocks and they walked by nothing,” he says.
MIT and Cambridge want to change that, too, with ambitious plans to remake the area on and around Main Street, Kendall’s other still-bleak thoroughfare. For now, though, the kinds of shops and restaurants that enliven an area exist only in nodes – one around Third Street, another down by Tech Square.
Before opening Area Four, Lumiere chef Michael Leviton and partner Michael Krupp launched the Achilles Project/Persephone, the eclectic shopping and dining venture in Boston’s Fort Point. It made a splash after opening in 2008, but closed the next year.
“Obviously we learned a lot about location and the idea of an emerging neighborhood [from Persephone],” says Leviton, a six-time James Beard Foundation Award nominee. He says “everyone was promising the moon” in Fort Point, then failing to deliver.
Kendall developers, though, were more realistic – and more eager to find amenities to satisfy all the people now working and living there. So they offered attractive deals. (It didn’t hurt that Kendall’s bread-and-butter fields were thriving in an otherwise disastrous economy.)
“It’s really exciting to see what people have in mind for the area,” says Leviton, even as he wishes more customers would stick around to take advantage of the restaurant’s new late-night liquor license.
CAMBRIDGE INNOVATION CENTER
The 300,000-square-foot One Broadway tower, one of the buildings Campbell, the architecture critic, trained his fire on, is a study in 1960s Brutalism. Yet the uninviting shell conceals a sleek interior and the densest concentration of start-ups in the world, or so claims Tim Rowe, who uses half the space for his Cambridge Innovation Center, or CIC.
“This building is ground zero for the Kendall Square innovation scene,” Baerkahn tells me before checking in on his own office, CityRetail, one of the 450 start-ups here. Part of the team behind Android – the Google operating system that today powers more than 250 million smartphones – worked on the early days of the project here.
Paying by the person, CIC tenants get all-inclusive, hassle-free access to amenities: high-end chairs and high-rise views; phones, Wi-Fi, and color printing; conference rooms with flat-panel displays; unlimited coffee and snacks. In other words, all the stuff that beats building a tech company the old-fashioned way – in your parents’ garage.
I’m registering my name at a computer, contemplating a password. “Pick one that you use regularly,” says the guy helping out. “You’d be amazed how many incredibly bright people can’t remember their passwords.”
I’m here for CIC’s Venture Cafe, a 3-to-8 p.m. get-together that draws entrepreneurs, techies, venture capitalists, and aspirants from across the area each Thursday.
I’m surprised by the size of the crowd: easily 100 people, maybe 200, pressed close and chatting in twos and threes. One investor is holding “office hours,” just sign up at the bar. A menswear stylist has set up shop in an advice booth, a la Lucy in “Peanuts,” counseling engineer types accustomed to oversize oxfords and pleated khakis. Above the bar, someone has scrawled: “Great things happen when smart people bump into each other.”
A FEW MINUTES LATER
AT A TABLE
To my left is Leo von Wendorff, a native of Germany who was lured to Kendall a few weeks ago. His company, Virtual Knowledge Workers Inc., provides outsourced help in tech support, basic research, and clerical tasks. Before I know it, a woman in the Philippines is staring back at me from the screen of his phone. She waves.
To my right is Caitria O’Neill. She was just about to move to Russia when a tornado leveled her hometown of Monson, Massachusetts. Trying to help manage the town’s response, she discovered that disaster relief is about a decade behind in technology. So she stayed here, starting a company called Recovers.org to bring it up to speed.
Across from me, Lindsey Witmer is developing a health app that pairs people with health coaches. This is only her second time at the Venture Cafe. “Randomly meeting people throughout your life is great,” she says, “but you kind of reduce the need for serendipity when you come to a place like this.”
As if on cue, CIC’s Tim Rowe sits down at the table.
“So, we’re supposed to have a drink, but here’s my proposal,” he says to the group of us. “A billion-dollar venture fund is on the 15th floor and they’re having their opening party up there. Will you guys walk with me up there, and then we’ll have a drink?”
IN THE ELEVATOR
Our mini-delegation has been joined by Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development. He says the administration’s role is to make Kendall even more vital in both big ways, such as enacting biotech tax credits, and small, like letting Rowe post markers about Kendall’s innovation history on MBTA property.
Learning about my assignment, Bialecki asks whether I can make it the full 24 hours. “This isn’t quite Vegas yet,” he says. “I think it’s going to get pretty lonely around 2.”
CHARLES RIVER VENTURES
In the past decade, CIC tenants alone have raised more than $1 billion in venture capital. So it only makes sense that the firms handing over all that money would like to be close to the people spending it. In October, Highland Capital Partners – with $3 billion invested and a satellite office in Silicon Valley – relocated its headquarters from Lexington to One Broadway’s penthouse.
Six weeks later, Charles River Ventures – another Route 128 multibillion-dollar VC firm with a branch in Silicon Valley – moved in one floor down. This is their invitation-only housewarming, a chicer version of the Venture Cafe going on below us.
Rowe introduces the entrepreneurs from downstairs to Jon Auerbach, a CRV general partner (and former Globe staffer). “The process is people with the money and insight like Jon meet people like Caitria and Lindsey and they have a conversation,” Rowe explains, “and sometimes – rarely – that clicks and that turns into a business and that creates jobs.”
“And I just stand here and watch it happen,” deadpans Bialecki, the economic development secretary.
IN A CAB
I had planned to be at the Microsoft New England Research and Development (NERD) Center, attending a pep talk for software developers on how to unplug in an always-on business world. Instead, I’m speeding with Rowe to a dinner where delegations from seven countries will discuss, between forkfuls of Chilean sea bass, how to create their own Kendalls back home.
MIT MUSEUM LOBBY
“OK, the man with no name,” the woman checking people in says to me. “I’m sorry, I don’t have a name badge for you.”
Rowe looks at the two remaining badges on the table. One is for Ranch Kimball, who was secretary of housing and economic development when Mitt Romney was governor.
“Looks like Ranch’s baby sitter canceled, so I don’t think he can make it,” Rowe tells her, snatching the tag and handing it to me.
ROBOTS AND BEYOND GALLERY
As we make our way upstairs, I ask Rowe, Kendall’s most tireless booster, how the area compares with Silicon Valley. He doesn’t even stop to turn around. “Silicon Valley is kind of confident that it’s the leader, and Cambridge doesn’t really realize it’s the leader,” he says. “But we actually have higher density and a lot more venture capital.” He’s right if you’re talking on a per capita basis, but not yet when measuring by total dollars. (As I said, he’s a booster.)
That may explain why this international crowd is here tonight, not on the West Coast. I meet Ian Ritchie, a Scotsman who has started 35 companies and whose business card has a self-portrait and the letters CBE, meaning Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Then Selcuk Kiper of Istanbul, vice chair of the MIT Enterprise Forum in Turkey.
“Turkey opened a consulate in Boston. It’s brand-new and the [consul general’s] only job is to make links between Kendall and Turkey,” Rowe says to Kiper. So why in the world is he renting in Back Bay, not Kendall?
That’s when Murat Lutem, the Turkish consul general himself, steps in, looking at once dapper and sheepish.
“I was just giving Selcuk [grief] about your location,” Rowe says.
“Well,” shrugs Lutem, “it’s done.”
While the international set washes down dinner with wine, Joi Ito moves forward to give his talk, drawing a hush followed by an ovation. Ito is a superstar in this world: Raised in Silicon Valley and Tokyo, he dropped out of Tufts, worked for a time as an international DJ, and became a jet-setting venture capitalist with an eye for the next big thing (he got in early on Twitter and Flickr). Last year, he was picked to run the Media Lab, a place he calls “a massive serendipity engine.”
I follow only some of Ito’s message, but this much is clear: Silicon Valley grabbed the low-hanging fruit of software development and consumer Internet sites. But hardware is the next frontier, he continues, and Kendall’s strong footing in math, science, and research will make it “the new hub.”
Talking about how “plans are overrated” and you need to be ready to “throw away your map,” Ito notes that YouTube was conceived as a dating site before it found a brilliant way to reinvent itself.
That makes me think of Campbell’s rebuke of Kendall being a lost cause, aesthetically at least, and I wonder whether there is hope for continued reinvention here, too. “It’s not a sure thing,” Ito says when I catch him at the coat check, “but we have an opportunity to capture.”
THE CORNER OF MAIN AND OSBORNE STREETS
Having left Rowe holding court with a group of Spaniards, I’m now standing before a pair of industrial buildings.
One has a historic marker: On October 9, 1876, this is where Thomas A. Watson telephoned Alexander Graham Bell 2 miles away in Boston, thereby placing the first long-distance call in history. The ancient building has been refurbished by MIT and adjoined to a vast new biotech center.
But its neighboring building is in disrepair: upper windows covered in boards, lower ones that reveal emptiness and peeling paint. It is the first sign of halted progress I have seen all day.
There is no marker on this site, but it is another kind of monument, a cautionary tale. This was where Edwin Land invented instant photography, transforming a humble optics company named Polaroid into one of the most successful businesses in Massachusetts and a household name around the world. But then technology shifted, and Polaroid, caught flat-footed, tumbled into bankruptcy.
My neck is raw, worn from 15 hours of shirt-collar and tie friction. I feel a knifing pain in my lower back. My legs feel like jelly.
At the closest thing Kendall has to a nightclub, there’s a long line of women shivering in tiny skirts and guys stoically sucking cigarettes.
There are 100 tap handles, 50 on each side, enough for everyone at the oval bar to have one, with a few more to spare. Another couple dozen people are sitting at tables.
I text some friends.
My editor calls to say he is going to bed.
“I’m like, who are you to tell me I’m not Russian?!” a woman blurts out down the bar.
Feeling a bit woozy, I approach two guys and a girl, asking them about Kendall. They’re not regulars; they’re just here because it’s near the woman’s hotel.
An hour in, I bump into Scott Cooper, Meadhall’s owner, and tell him about my long day.
“You want to wake up?” he asks, producing a big box of packages printed with “AeroShot.” They’re leftovers from a launch party upstairs by Breathable Foods, a company that grew out of Harvard and created Le Whif, an inhalable chocolate. AeroShots are breathable caffeine.
I tear open a foil packet and find a small cartridge – half shotgun shell, half asthma inhaler – and draw a deep breath. I double over, hacking. It tastes like powdered Gatorade and car exhaust.
Sipping my beer, I study the label. “Do not use with alcohol,” it reads.
I think I’m having heart palpitations.
OUTSIDE THINK TANK
A sandwich board advertising $5 APPS and $3 PBR ALL NITE has blown over.
The line of club kids is gone.
A guy comes out, drops his lighter, struggles to pick it up.
A woman inside dances on a banquette, glow stick wrapped around her arm.
FEBRUARY 3, 2012, 12:03 A.M.
OUTSIDE AREA FOUR
Beneath the AeroShot rush, I’m exhausted. I won’t make 24 hours, or even 20. But I still want to try for 19.
Back at Area Four, I hear the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” coming from outdoor speakers. The lights are on in the bar.
Suddenly the music is off, mid-song. The lights cut out next.
Under the glare of fluorescent lights, the rotating hot dogs gleam.
“Woah,” a man buying cigarettes says to the clerk. “These are expensive, guy.”
I bend down to tie my shoe, and a day’s worth of business cards spills from my shirt pocket.
Scooping them up, I see an unexpected display: cold medicine!
I take a picture. I should send it to the Broad Institute’s Alan Fein, who so badly needed a pharmacy, so he’ll know where to go the next time a board member is feeling under the weather.
OUTSIDE MICROSOFT NERD
Abandoned, save for a security guard staring blankly at his phone. He does not notice me pressing my face to the glass.
I spend another half-hour walking, but find next to nothing. A lonely-looking guy lugging an overstuffed backpack. A few party stragglers weaving their way to the T.
I think it’s time to go home.
KENDALL T STOP
It is that odd hour when the T may or may not still be running, stations and trains shutting down for the night, no employees in sight.
Slipping through a partially closed entrance, I step around a puddle of vomit.
A marked-up plywood board bears the kind of graffiti you get only in Cambridge. “Stupid Vandals” someone has scribbled. Below it, from someone else: “Sacking Rome and everything.”
I walk the length of the platform and back, sit down, walk it again.
The train must not be coming.
And then I remember the app. I try to wake up my phone, but it’s battery is dead. I find an outlet, charge it for a few minutes, and discover I cannot get cell service. Being lost in Kendall without technology makes for a particular kind of loneliness.
I take a self-portrait and rest my pounding head in my hands.
STILL AT KENDALL
The fare gates whoosh.
A woman with a backpack enters, walking stiffly, clutching a laptop, heading for a bench.
“Um, excuse me,” I say. “Do you know if the T is running?”
“Yes,” she says, not looking up. I am dubious.
Sinking onto another bench, I consider reviewing the sheaf of materials in my bag. Some of them are yellowed clips, some are stored on my laptop, all chronicling the evolution of the area.
A 1966 newspaper story is full of hope. With NASA coming, a booster says, Kendall will house the “greatest concentration of scientific brains anywhere, free world or Communist.”
The next, from just seven years later, shows what happened when that potential wasn’t realized. Amid nearly a decade of post-NASA squabbling over what to do with the Kendall wasteland, frustrated residents are calling for the return of blue-collar factories over public-housing towers.
And one is a survey of hundreds of Kendall workers from 2011. Asked to describe the area in a word, most said things like “technology” or “business-oriented” or “up-and-coming.”
There in the sixth spot down the survey, however, is the old complaint about the neighborhood: that it’s “dull” and “boring.” Disheartening to those pulling for Kendall, maybe, but those answers were gathered in September. Back then, Google hadn’t finished its cafeteria; the VC firms were still in the suburbs; Kika, Fuji, and Firebrand Saints were mere ideas; and Amazon, for most New Englanders, was still just a place to shop online. As measured by the ever quickening pace here, six months might as well be a lifetime ago.
In the distance, I hear a rumble.
It turns out the train is coming to Kendall after all, hurtling through 100-year-old tunnels, speeding into the future.