The Tower Journal

   Celia Gilbert


   A Walk in Historic Harvard Square



         The times have changed once more. The square is almost the same. Some banks have moved on. The very cheerful black man still accosts in a high, friendly voice the passerby, hoping to sell his paper, Spare change. Does anyone ever stop any more? Only a seated figure or two with signs.  No one is sitting along the railing of the First Church burial ground in Cambridge.  Earlier I thought that something new was coming something without a name. Now it is here. It has a name, an old one that will do: plutocracy. The rule of the rich has gathered its forces. It is making everyone poor. How to wake up now without a heavy sinking feeling, a feeling ridiculed in cartoons,the robed figure carrying a sign: the end is nigh. Yes nigh, what a relic of a word, near but nigh is nigher. And it is here. Watching one’s country go down the drain. And every mouthful of food tainted with the knowledge that everywhere women, men, children have not enough to eat, nowhere to sleep, the tides that are encroaching on our shores are the tides of desperate people washed up everyday on our unwelcoming streets.

          When I walk in the Square I carry a pocketful of change.  I pass the very over weight young woman who carries a tin cup and a sign. “Can you help me?" she calls out plaintively.  “Can you spare change? Spare change?”  Once, deciding I would give her something, but that I should speak to her, treat her as a person, I asked her why she was there what she needed the money for. “For my medication,” she said.  I wondered if that were true.  Is it possible the State didn’t see that her medication was paid for?  I didn’t feel that I could inquire further. Her eyes went cold and hard as she answered. Who was I to question her? Hers is the face of a child, pug-nosed, curly hair. I can’t remember when she first turned up, but it has been several years now.  Several years of holding the cup calling out “thank yous"“ and “god blesses.”

      We are 16 years into our new century, and I can remember when the first “homeless” began to appear on our streets, decades back after the Vietnam war or was it earlier? They were called bag ladies then and we were scandalized.  Older, destitute, unwilling to go into shelters.  Then, people founded soup kitchens, churches opened their doors. Then, halfway houses tried to take the place of locked wards and mental institutions. Vietnam vets, disturbed, drugged or not drugged enough, looked at us from a thousand miles away in their memories.  It was new, it could shock.

          I pass the Old Cambridge Burying Ground with its oval blue plaque to the” famous men, soldiers, statesmen of Revolutionary times.”  No mention of women.  Is it possible there are none buried here? There is always a man sitting or standing in front of the railing with a tin cup. He smokes. Sometimes he is young and fairly impudent, smiling, cracking jokes; sometimes he is old, hunched over his cup, beaten, tired, sometimes black, sometimes white.

         I don’t think:  all of this poverty and misery facing the world’s most heavily endowed university behind its wrought iron gates, subdued red brick  colonial style student housing   Once I would have, but the thought has worn out.  Harvard Square, where people once slept on grates and now where the police are careful to round them up and take them away. Most of them are on or off medication.

         I feel the weight of history.  The death of the dream of Socialism and Communism, the persistence of a thing we call capitalism tattered now as well.  We have not named the new chimera that has morphed from capitalism, an uber-capitalism waiting for its baptism.

         A few blocks away at the corner of Church street and Brattle where there was for fifty years a grocery store there is now a Sprint store and no place to buy food. At this corner stands a regular, a very elderly black man with a sweetly noble face, a face without rancor.  He holds a paper called Spare Change with writings in it by street people. It costs a dollar. People buy it to support the homeless and contribute money to the cause that presumably goes to pay the hawkers. Why did I remember then that in Victorian London little destitute children made a few pennies by sweeping up dog droppings and selling them to householders for fertilizer?

        Last week I saw a middle-aged woman go up to him.  She smiled as she engaged him in conversation and then, taking off the lovely long dark scarf that she was wearing, she persuaded him to wear it.  He gave her a look of sheer pleasure. 

    Copyright © 2016 Celia Gilbert

Celia Gilbert is the author of four books of poetry in English
Something to Exchange, Blaze VOX[Books]; An Ark of Sorts, 
Alice James Books; Bonfire, Alice James Books; Queen of Darkness, 
Viking, and a bi-lingual edition Polish/English, 
Cos na wymiane,
Czuly Barbarzynca.

She has been published in The New Yorker, Southwest Review,
and Poetry. among other places.

The first Jane Kenyon Chapbook Award for An Ark of Sorts
Discovery Award 92nd St YM-YWHA; Consuelo Ford Award, Emily Dickinson Prize, from the Poetry Society of America; Pushcart Prize IX. 

Gilbert is a printmaker and painter. She has lived abroad in England and France and now lives with her husband in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Her book of short stories Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down is available in kindle or paperback on

The Tower Journal
Winter 2016