Friday, May 22, 2009

At Magnus, All is Possible

I was raised in southern California’s insulated metropolis of Orange County. No matter how glamorous the popular TV shows depict the beachside county, life behind the “Orange Curtain” is bland and ignominious. I immigrated to the US in 1984, when I was five, living most of my childhood in government-subsidized housing in Santa Ana, which was gated due to the neighborhood’s high crime. During the summer that I entered junior high, my family abandoned the highly congested, industrial section of Santa Ana for a tiny two bedroom apartment in the master-planned community to the south – the city of Irvine, the self-proclaimed utopian paradise and one of America’s safest cities.

Fifteen years after settling in the States, my mom and I pitched in our life savings while my father and brother made monthly payments to qualify us to purchase a slice of the American pie – a home in Scripps Ranch, a highly-affluent “pro-GOP” suburb of San Diego. Achieving the American Dream meant becoming part of The Lonely American – the title and subject of a new book that discusses the effects of the social isolation epidemic as the inevitable byproduct of our frenetic contemporary lifestyle.

It did not take too long after moving into our dream home – a 5-bedroom, 2 ½ bath home on a cul-de-sac – to realize that spending my teenage years daydreaming over weekend Real Estate sections had been in vain. In our household, I charted out mortgage calculators and convinced my mother to take us to open houses or model-home tours. This activity set me apart from the other 13-year-olds I knew.  With each model home we visited, my mother would get teary-eyed when my sister and I jumped on the well-cushioned beds.

When we moved into our first home, though, a few weeks before the 2000, my idyllic dream began to evaporate. Our new neighborhood was predominantly right-wing newly weds, but I still made a concerted effort to establish good relations. One neighbor in particular, Danielle Hale, always turned away each time I wanted to say hello. Post 9/11, she convinced the other families, except the Eubanks, not to allow my sister to babysit. Apparently we stood poised to kidnap their children and hold them ransom in Afghanistan. After nearly a decade of living on Elmstone Court, Hale still looks at my family with suspicion.

While my parents and siblings continued to live in that dream home, I moved back and forth to Orange County for school and work. One of the last places in California that I lived on my own was a guard-gated apartment near Newport Coast – another failed endeavor at finding community. In this “garage-door” community, the only chance to see your neighbor was a quick glimpse as they drove in and out of their apartment garages.

After spending most of my life in artificially-made communities with no cultural history but surgically implanted palm trees, well-manicured shrubs, and cookie-cutter homes, I longed to find a holistic community, something like what my parents had growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan back when it was peaceful and self-sufficient.

Kabul pre-1979 was cosmopolitan yet still had a cohesive communal life. The tribal system was alive, and my parents grew up with large social networks, knowing most of the prominent families in the capital. While the typical American has about 200 people in their extended network, a modest Afghan wedding would number twice that, with immediate kin alone.

So, when my parents put me on a guilt trip about how they “lost it all”, I’d tell them to be grateful for the special memories they have. When they reminisce about their glorious times – the caravan trips, the carnival celebrations, running into people they knew everywhere they went – I try to absorb these experiences through their nostalgia.

At 28, I decided that living in California would never bring me happiness. So in January 2008, I sold my 1999 Toyota Corolla, packed two suitcases, and moved to Boston. I found a place to live in east Cambridge where I spent nearly a year in a lifeless unit within a dull neighborhood by the Lechmere T station.

Last September, however, I finally found the home I’d been dreaming of in an unlikely place: the “Dali” neighborhood of Somerville. Of all the places I have lived in this country, Magnus Avenue is the place I feel most comfortable, know my neighbors, and thrive as a person. It’s a residential street within close proximity to Beacon Street, which features food boutiques like the Indian Kebab Factory and Dali Tapas, a gourmet coffee shop called The Biscuit, and The Wine and Cheese Cask. I thought this neighborhood would be another disappointment.

Although the social fabric of this neighborhood is far from the constancy of old-world Kabul, as transient people come and go, mostly for work or school, the architectural layout of the place, as well as the people it attracts, make it possible to establish friendships.

Tucked away behind Inman Square and almost midway between the commercial areas of Harvard Square and Union Square, Magnus Avenue is a cross-cultural fusion. According to the city’s official website, Somerville is hodgepodge of many immigrant and the most densely populated community in New England.

Magnus Avenue is only a few hundred feet long. On the street, several times a week, you can witness the stocky, graying man with facial hair and thin lips collecting recyclables from the blue bins in front of each home and putting them in his white plastic bag. Then there’s the austentacious house of Horacio, probably the most famous in Somerville. The home showcases twin regal lions made of bronze and a red-bricked porch with carved-glass window doors and gaudy Christmas ornament and flamboyant clown juxtaposed with a fixture of Jesus Christ.

Washington Street serves as a feeder road for the 86 bus, large delivery trucks, and a steady stream of cars, taxis and pedestrians. You won’t see flower pots or dandelions perching on the window sills of this street. Most of the buildings, built in 1920, have a dull texture, but their design gives the homes their charming quality. Of the twelve buildings on Magnus, all but three, including ours, boast a front porch, where people frequently socialize. There is very little greenery, except for a simple tree. Its branches extend above the paved road where cars park, and electric wires criss-cross above the street. 

My journey to Magnus Avenue began last September, the busiest move-in time in the Boston area, given the high concentration of students. It took one taxi trip to move all my stuff. I had no furniture of my own, just two oversized suitcases. After remembering all the shabby beds I had always owned, I went online and immediately ordered a memory foam mattress and other furniture to decorate my Magnus bedroom.

In mid-summer, my housemate at the time, an MIT scientist, sent me an email informing me that his brother from Chicago was going to finish his dissertation in Cambridge and needed my room. This turned out to be a blessing. The unit I was living in was infested with rats, and several times I even had to check myself into a hotel at the nearby Marriott in Kendall Square. Most importantly, though, I felt stifled and bothered by the fact that I knew none of my neighbors. The homes on my section of Spring street had garages tucked into the back, and at night, there was very little light on the street, so you could hardly even recognize anyone who lived there. In California, it’s normal to say hello and smile as you pass neighbors on the sidewalk even if it seems insincere.

Towards the end of August, my search began. I started daydreaming over postings on Craig’s List. At first, I wasn’t even considering Somerville, only looking for places in Cambridge along the T’s Red line, but after exhausting my search for an affordable place close to Harvard with a compatible roommate, I looked farther afield.

A little after 8 a.m. on an early September morning, the phone rang. Huffing out of my crackling futon bed, I reached for the phone on my desk. My friends and family knew better than to disturb me this early.
In a heavy Asian accent, a woman said, “Good morning. Is this Nemat?”
“Yes, this is he.”
“I’m calling you about the rooms we have available. We are having an open house today at 11 a.m. We are inviting all the potential housemates at the same time so you can meet each other.”

I jotted down the address. I took the T to Harvard Station then made the approximate 15-minute walk to Magnus Avenue. Walking away from Harvard’s Science Center and onto Kirkland, I walked east towards Beacon Street. Noticing the uneven streets, broken pavement, cracked roads with potholes and pallid buildings, I quickly realized I was in Somerville.

After passing several blocks, I saw the blue street sign labeled “Magnus” and turned right. As a I approached, a blonde woman about five-foot-five and a tall slender man with brown hair walking in front of me were being greeted by an Asian couple. As I got closer, the Asian woman looked at me, “You must be Nemat.”

She took charge, saying, “I’m Misha,” and pointing to her husband, “This is Vincent,” and of the two who had arrived just seconds before me, “This is Austin and Katie.” I said hello to each. Austin Campbell and Katie Merriman were both entering graduate students at Harvard’s Divinity School and had been living in a wretched dump. Campbell, originally from South Carolina, had moved to Boston from Seattle, Washington. Merriman was moving from her hometown in New Jersey.

Misha and Vincent Jung are Chinese-American scientists who both smile when either of them speaks.  They relocated to Boston from New Jersey and, last August, bought the building after an estate sale put the house on the market. After buying it, they wanted to fill it immediately with graduate students or young professional tenants. The lower floors were still under construction, so we quickly made our way upstairs to the third floor.

As we walk into the apartment, I notice the new-apartment smell. We separate and make a quick tour through all four bedrooms. This was where Misha Jung’s marketing campaign began.

“Look at this great view. Oh my God, look,” she said of the back porches. “This is a very professional, very white-collar community.” Pointing her finger, she says, “Look, those neighbors there, many Harvard students living there.” Vincent Jung, more pragmatic, was silent wondering if selling the view and plugging the Harvard affiliations of the neighbors would be part of the home’s exclusive package.

“Well, it’s not a lush greenbelt, but it would be nice to have a barbeque or lounge on the porch and read a book on a nice day,” I said.

Campbell and Merriman smile and nod in approval. Living as I had in an isolated suburb, I was ready to enter the cluster, embrace the invasion of privacy, and allow my prospective neighbors into my personal space.

We found out that, as graduate students, we all disapproved of television, considering it a “wasteland” and refused to have one in the common area. We then selected rooms. Campbell quickly decided he wanted the smallest room and liked that it was $150 dollars cheaper than the three larger rooms.

I told him, “This room is small, but it has a lot of feng shui.”
The Jungs approved of my comment. Mrs. Jung tells how she has bought the house because it exuded feng shui.

Merriman chose the room adjacent to the front door. Next, it was my turn – two rooms left, both about equal in size and price. I chose the one midway down the hall; it had the larger closet and three large windows, providing ample light and ventilation.

In our early interactions, Campbell and Merriman designated me as the House Liaison, suggesting that my communications background qualified me for the role. From that perspective, choosing the room located in the center of the house made good sense. Being chosen as the intermediary was a mixed blessing. It gives me a sense of purpose to have others rely on me, but when it crosses over to having others always depend on me to pay the bills and restock household supplies, it can become a burden.

After signing the credit check application, we returned a few days later to meet potential housemates for the fourth bedroom. When I arrived at the house, the Jung’s teenage daughter, Amanda, opened the front door and let me up the freshly painted stairwell. When I got to the kitchen, I saw three new people, who I later found out would be tenants on the second floor. Minutes later, a lean guy with robin’s egg blue eyes and blonde hair entered the room with his right arm in a cast. In a peculiar French-sounding accent, he introduced himself as Sebastien Valentin. Looking at us, Valentin asked, “Does anyone have television? Where are we going to put the TV?”

Campbell, Merriman, and I chime in, telling Valentin that TV was a no-no. “That’s terrible. No TV is boring,” he said Mr. and Mrs. Jung explained to Valentin that he could get a television for his own room.

Campbell, Merriman, and I went into one of the bedrooms to deliberate about whether Sebastien would be good for the household. They showed no reservations and thought it would be neat to have a European connection. Afterall, Valentin was a Dutch transplant to southern France. I had pragmatic reservations; we would be entrenched in our graduate studies at Harvard, while Valentin would be living the Bostonian life, commuting downtown during the weekdays. We wouldn’t be able to spend time with him around the house.

When we returned to the kitchen, Misha Jung had already handed Valentin a credit-check application, and he was scribbling hastily with his inoperable right hand. I made my spiel. “Before you decide, there are some things I have to tell you.” Before I could finish, Valentin interjected, “Yeah, yeah,” and signed away.

We moved in the day before the first day of classes. Once everyone was in the building, Misha and Vincent Jung, kept open communication with us to make sure the unit was in proper order and that everyone was getting along well. The Jungs tried to forge a communal environment; they even started a Magnus Google group for us.

The day after our move in, Valentin and I wanted to know where our local grocery store was located. Valentin emphasized the need for somewhere cheap. Merriman walked us to the Market Basket, and then Valentin and I walked to Shaw’s and, on the way, stopped for Buffalo wings with waffle fries. Valentin and I had similar eating habits, such as midnight cooking, whereas Merriman and Cambell were vegans who had early-evening dinners. On our return home, I noticed a guy in a deep trance, smoking a cigarette and not even noticing us as we passed by. I said hello and introduced ourselves as the new neighbors next door. The guy was of medium height with brown hair and glasses and said his name was Chris; he had just moved from Harvard Square. He wanted to have a house-warming barbeque in the coming weeks and would invite us. Later, at that barbeque, I found out that Chris was Slovokian but grew up in Philadelphia. I promoted the party at Chris’s house to all the tenants in our building using the listserv that the Jungs had set up for us. After the barbeque, Chris’s house became a natural stop.

On Election Night, I was in a Harvard Extension Class and wanted to watch the historical event on television and be with others, so I texted Chris telling him I was coming over to watch the election coverage with him and his housemate Ryan Wempher. After the win was declared for Barack Obama and after his midnight speech, I went home, but other young neighbors on the block, completely wasted, were yelling, “I love you Obama” and “God Bless Barack Hussein” until nearly 5 o’clock in the morning.

As the winter approached, Valentin suggested hosting a block party and inviting the neighborhood. My excused for not wanting to host the party was my lack of time and my commitment to classes. Last week, though, after President’s Day, I decided it was time to stop putting this off, so I sent an email informing my housemates. On Thursday morning, I made a flyer, printed 40 copies, and went door-to-door, putting the notice into each mailbox on Magnus Avenue. And on Thursday evening, I sent an emailing list to everyone in our building.

An hour before the event, though, I was still stuck in Lamont Library working on an assignment for class. I had completely lost track of time. I jumped on my bike and started pedaling home. I changed my clothes, putting on a tapered forest green Express sweater and my Guess Jeans. At a quarter to 7, I called Upper Crust pizza and ordered two large pizzas. Then I ran to the Wine and Cheese Cask and purchased a few bottles of red and white wine, gourmet crackers, and three types of cheese spread. I had mentioned in the flyer to bring your own drink, so I figured there would be plenty of liquor to last through the night.

I rushed home, set up the appetizer and drink table, and plugged in the stereo but had no CDs – I had left those in my parents garage – except for a recently purchased one by Inkawasi, the upbeat and soulful Peruvian band that performs regularly in Harvard Square. I ran down to the second floor to pick up extra chairs. As Matt Latimer, the tenant living in the room directly underneath me who works as a Landscape Architect was helping me carry chairs up, Valentin made his way downstairs. He was going for dinner but said he would return in about an hour. Merriman was not home, but she had told me earlier that she would be spending time with her boyfriend in Brookline. Campbell was in his room and said he had made plans to go spend the night at his girlfriend’s, a few blocks away. As Campbell left, he said, “Where are they? Wasn’t the event suppose to start at seven?”

“Yes,” I said, wondering where everyone was, “but you figure it’s Friday and people are getting off work, so they might show up a little late.”

When Campbell left, I ran to my room, started the computer, and logged into Facebook. Meandering through the site, I began to wonder. Self-doubt crept in. I stared at the clock; 7:30 became 7:45, 8:00, 8:15, 8:30. By then, I was wondering whether people considered me a friend. Maybe this was my karma. With no one showing up to my party, I would, perhaps, need to learn humility. I was already strategizing about ways I could treat people better when I heard knocking on the door.

It was Matt Latimer with his guest Melissa Alfone, who lived just a few blocks away on Rose Street.

I said, “Welcome! You’re the first guests.” Then, with a straight face, I bluffed. “Others called or texted me, they are on their on their way.”
Latimer says, “Well, we just wanted to stop by, but we can’t stay too long. We have a 9 o’clock movie to catch.”
“Melissa is a realtor, and before I came across the ad for this place, she was showing me homes in this area.”
“Oh, I see. So Melissa, what do you like best about this area?”
Melissa said, “This is one of the best places to live. I love it here.”
We continued our conversation, and Melissa said, “Is that your phone ringing?”
“Yes, excuse me,” I rushed to answer it.
“Hi, we’re your neighbors from across the street. We’re calling you from outside of your door,” a man’s voice said, “We’re here for the party.”
“Okay, I’ll be right down.”
Opening the door, I saw two happy, eager faces with a bottle of wine – Chris Townsend and John Noss. On the way up, they told me they were both Harvard undergraduate alums who had lived in the same unit on 18 Magnus for the past three and half years. I took their coats. I found out Noss was 25 years old, a Technical Analyst at Harvard and that Townsend was a 28-year-old biologist who had recently gotten laid off from his job at Forrester Research. Townsend used to live in Frankfurt. He talked about life in the aftermath of his layoff as well as his long-distance relationship with his girlfriend in New York.
Townsend said, “Now, I have more free time on my hands.”
I asked, “What are you going to do now?”
“I have a job lined up for me in Paris. So I might be moving to France soon.
When I ask Townsend and Noss about their experience living on Magnus, Townsend enthusiastically mentions Horacio’s Christmas display. “Each year, I wait for him to inflate the Santa Claus perched on top of the chimney, and once it makes its loud pop, I know Christmas season is here. You know he also sells used furniture in front porch sales and makes coffins as a side business.”
Noss then complained about Horacio’s son. “In the winter, he gets up at around 4 a.m. turns on his high beams and shovels their driveway.”
I then asked what the mystery was behind the ambulance and fire truck visiting several times a week.
Townsend and Noss completed each other’s thoughts and sentences:
“Maria’s husband, what’s his name, worked for the power company. They are Portuguese.”
“Yes, he was an Electrical Engineer, but now he’s bed-ridden.
“Yes, that’s right. What is the condition he has?
“Yes, he has diabetes and has to go get a dialysis every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.”
My phone rang again. It’s Chris and his housemate Wempher. After they arrived, more people streamed in – Valentin and his colleague from work, John Bognan and Adrian from the first floor, Howe from the second floor, and later, Weng Zhei, who was also from the second floor, but felt out of place as the sole female and so stayed for only a short while.

The pizza never arrived. Just past 10 o’clock, I called Upper Crust and they had mistaken the order as take-out and not delivery. The guests insisted that they were not hungry. I thought that they were just being polite Americans. In Afghan culture, you keep offering until your guests stop refusing and ultimately give in. You never let a guest go hungry in your home. It’s the cardinal rule of dishonor and ultimate rudeness to be an improper host. In Afghanistan, the Pashto word melmastia means that you ensure lavish hospitality without expectations of reward to every guest that enters your home. When I looked at the appetizer platter and see everything almost gone, my cultural pride kicked in.

It was almost midnight, and I noticed that this party was going to go on for a lot longer than anticipated. So I revived the idea of ordering a pizza. Chris suggested Dial-a-Pizza on Beacon Street. I called, and the owner said that he was closing, no more orders. I pleaded with him, telling him that I had hungry guests. He offered one large cheese pizza and told me to have my seven dollars ready. Chris and I walked over there, minutes before they closed and grabbed the pizza and a liter of Coca-Cola. On my way up the stairs, I noticed Latimer returning from the movies and opening the door to the second floor with Weng Zhei, who is holding a basket drainer full of fresh strawberries.

Around 2 a.m., the party started dying down, and by 2:30, it was only me, Valentin, and Chris. I toasted some bread, and we ate it with cream cheese. Chris was still chugging down his bottle of Jack Daniels. We sat down on the couch, reflecting on the night’s party, and then Chris talked about his issues with women. I said to myself, “Here we go again.” The conversation ebbs and flows from dating and relationships to other topics. Several hours passed, and I was so sleepy I could hardly keep myself awake.

Finally, the sun rose again. “What time is it?” I asked. Valentin looked at his cell phone. “Oh my God, it’s almost 7.”

Chris, not hearing our polite hints, just kept talking. He mentioned in passing how we should continue this party at some Armenian diner in Watertown, but we were ready to crash. We walked him to the door.

A month later, Chris told me he had a job offer and was moving to the Washington, D.C. area; a few days later, I ran into Townsend, and he told me he had secured that job offer in France. Both were planning to move out by the end of March. With no plans for spring break and away from family, I decided to celebrate Nowruz (Persian New Year), which is also a holiday observed in Afghanistan, by hosting a going-away block party at my place. I titled the event “Magnus Extravaganza” and created flyers again, this time also sending out evites to more than 100 people in the Boston area. The tagline I settled on was, “Experience Magnus Extravaganza: where your heart’s desire and the longing for the good life come together with other curious adventurers.”

On the night of the party, a Wednesday during spring break, I made a list of what I wanted to cater for the party: a three-course meal with plentiful cheese spreads, baguettes, and hors d’oeuvres for appetizers, chicken and ground beef kabobs and pomegranate and walnut sauce served with saffron basmati rice, with organic strawberry shortcake for dessert. I also had four bottles of Luigi Bosca cabernet sauvignon and had asked the guests to bring their favorites as well. I was good to go.

The word had gotten around from the first party, so three times more times as many people showed up this time even though it was a weekday. Beyond the conversations and eating, the guests danced, laughed, and napped pictures, networking until a little after midnight. The guests were definitely impressed by my melmastia, and everyone commented on my hosting skills, but more important, I was dubbed “community organizer”. Though this party was no grassroots movement, it demonstrates that people who crave a social life have to interact with the neighborhood, and that when the conditions are right, one person’s dream to find a home can forge a sense of community. Although two of the neighbors that I befriended are now gone and others I’ve become acquainted with will probably leave before I move out next summer, the great memories will always be here, and I hope to continue to host parties and meet more of neighbors.


While my challenge to find a place I can call home has been long. I think about my expanding neighborhood network. A common Dari proverb comes to mind: “Qatra, qatra, darya meshawad.” While this encapsulates the shared journey of Afghanistan – sacrifice, patience, hope, and self-sustaining success – it is also a way for me to think about how to live. My move to Magnus Avenue has changed who I am: I’m no longer a disconnected immigrant who had previously felt unable to put down his roots. I’ve found my place.

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