Prospect St. and Mass. Ave., Central Square (Cambridge)

Monday, November 8th. 8:35 pm

Let me start with a confession: I am not on a street corner in Boston. Tonight the Red Line has brought me across the river into Cambridge, a city with plenty of its own fascinating urban spaces. I am sure you will forgive me for this expansion of my definition. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not exactly on a street corner in Cambridge either. On this cool, rainy November night, I seek refuge from the wet wind driving us inexorably toward winter. Spurning the now-deeper surrounding darkness of daylight savings time, I enter Starbucks and target the stool in the corner for an optimal, sheltered vantage point on the intersection.

So close to the danger despite being safely indoors

As I settle in, satisfied with my choice of indoor location, I am quickly un-settled by a car that catapults around the corner from River Street, straight through Central Square, and whizzes by my seat onto Prospect Street. Before I can even turn back, another car shoots by just as fast. Glad not to have been any closer than I already was as these vehicles flew by, I quickly jot down a note to myself: “cars own this intersection.” When I consider that five roads come together at this unusual junction, I am hardly surprised by my own comment.

Yet, after observing for a few minutes more, I soon realize that the cars do not tell nearly the whole story of Central Square, where at least five different modes of transportation co-exist within a delicate balance of power.

Just after the cars clear the intersection, a helmet-less bicyclist uses the Mass. Ave. bike lane to overtake several stopped cars waiting for the light to change. Coming to a rolling stop at best, he glances each way and quickly shoots across to continue along his route. Straight ahead, across the intersection, commuters pile onto the #91 bus that has pulled up in the specialized bus stop lane along Magazine Street and soon rumbles through the intersection to make its way toward Union Square. At each corner, umbrellaed pedestrians wait patiently, content in their knowledge that the bright white of the walk signal will appear in mere seconds, as it always does. Others descend the stairs into the multiple Red Line entrances on every corner along Mass. Ave.

The light but steady rhythm of the square is like the cool November mist – never fully letting up, but sometimes intensifying enough to wreak some small havoc. A bicyclist turning right onto Prospect St. skids to a halt as a pedestrian steps suddenly out into the crosswalk at the change of the signal. Across Mass. Ave., a group of four umbrellas has just surfaced from the Red Line. Helplessly huddled together, disoriented from being underground, chastened (as I was) by the traffic speeding around them, they stare out bleakly while multiple walk cycles pass before they venture across the multiple bus, bike, and car lanes. In the meantime, a braver soul hops across a puddle and scurries across the same crosswalk as the signal is counting down to zero. With the rain picking up, a shuttle bus coming from the Longwood Medical Area transports a more hesitant soul (like me), whose bicycle is hitched to the rack on the bus’s front fender. Just outside the window before me, a gust of wind flips a young woman’s umbrella inside out as she tries to maintain her cell phone conversation while crossing the street.

Police lights shine across the street, as I wait for the dark bus

Interrupting the gentle jazz of the intersection, a barista comes by to let me know they are closing. I gather my things and notice the #83 pulling up to the stop across the street. Timing my exit with the walk cycle, I rush across to catch the bus only to arrive as the driver shuts off the lights. I wait under the shelter of the bus stop as a small crowd slowly gathers around me. The splashing of the fast cars, the beeping of the walk signs, the sirens of a police car roaring through the intersection to stop one of the aforementioned speeders, all add new layers to the sometimes hectic scene I have watched unfold over the previous half hour.

After a time, the lights blink on, the “83 Rindge Ave.” sign is illuminated, and the bus door opens with the hydraulic sound of air being released. In the bright, warm bus, we roll out onto Prospect St., our wipers waving goodbye to the upturned stools on the counters of empty Starbucks.