CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Hanging around in Cambridge has its drawbacks. You may stub your toe or splinter a heel on the uneven sidewalks. You may discover that John Harvard smells funny. You may be arrested for obstreperousness inside your own lodging (see Gates, Henry Louis Jr.). And if you spend enough time among these big, old buildings and bright, young students, you may begin to feel old, or undereducated, or both.
But spend the time anyway.
Whether or not you have a prospective freshman in your family, this country's first college town is full of far more American history, smart shops, cool museums, inviting restaurants and all-around entertainment than your average city of 95,000.
Harvard University sprawls on about 380 acres at one edge of Cambridge. Massachusetts Institute of Technology sits on 168 acres at another edge. The Charles River bends around both campuses, and the tree-lined streets should be exploding with red and gold leaves any day now.
An out-of-towner could easily ignore Boston, just across the river, and spend days just digesting Cambridge. So I did, for three days in September, as thousands of students were settling in for the new term -- about 1,700 freshmen at Harvard, 1,100 or so at MIT, plus legions more at Lesley (also in Cambridge), Tufts (in Somerville, next door) and Boston University (just across the Charles). All told, greater Boston boasts about 50 college campuses.
But today's short course is more specific than that. This is Cambridge 101, tuition-free. Your instructor today is a Fresno State alum whose grandfather went to MIT and whose mother went to Radcliffe when it was Harvard's little sister. In other words, I'm still working out whether I should be biased against the place or in favor of it. Class is now in session.
1. Everyone has an opinion in Harvard Square, and everyone has an opinion on Harvard Square. This is where town and gown tangle. Old-timers bemoan the real estate boom that banished much of the neighborhood's Bohemian feel, but newcomers love bumping into big shots who were on CNN the night before. If you don't spot a human statue in a blue leotard striking poses for tips or a PETA activist in a chicken suit, you're looking too hard for Wolf Blitzer.
Harvard Book Store (since 1932) is a great independent bookshop. Leavitt & Peirce (since 1885) still furnishes tobacco and "gentlemen's accessories" (chess sets, for instance). And Out of Town News (1955), the magazine stand and paper peddler in the middle of it all, survived a closure scare in January and continues under new management.
You get folk music at Club Passim, jazz at Regattabar or Ryles Jazz Club, rock at the Middle East Restaurant & Nightclub near Central Square. On Wednesday, a wall notice announces, there's a Queer Town Hall meeting. On Thursday, a Korean martial arts class. On Saturday, choral auditions.
2. If you can't get out on the Charles, you should at least get over it. At the least hint of decent weather, the rowers and sailors of Cambridge take to the water. You can rent a vessel (Charles River Canoe & Kayak, www.paddleboston.com) and join them. Or walk or run or bike along the water's edge. Or stand above the water on the Harvard-adjacent Weeks Foot Bridge and watch the world go by.
3. No matter how much fun it is to say, it's unwise to pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd. Leave your vehicle far away and dodge the congestion around Harvard Square by exploring Cambridge by foot, bike, bus or subway train. Also, don't say Massachusetts Avenue. (The shorthand is Mass Ave.) And don't call that student store the co-op. (The preferred pronunciation is "coop," as in chicken dwelling.) The proper term for Cambridge residents, if you can say it with a straight face, is Cantabrigians.
4. You can do Harvard for free, with or without snark. Founded in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S. The sticker price for undergrads is about $49,000 a year for tuition, room, board and incidentals, and the alumni list includes seven presidents. You'll hear more along these lines on the official student-led Harvard tour. It's free, lasts about an hour, and I liked mine. But there's competition.
Since 2006, Unofficial Tours has been offering unofficial "Hahvahd" tours, also led by students, who dish out more attitude and less reverence. (It was an Unofficial guide who reminded me that the Unabomber studied here.) Unofficial tours are nominally free, but guides suggest a tip of $10 per person.
5. Even if all the other tourists are touching the John Harvard statue's toe, you shouldn't. The 19th century statue sits in the Old Yard, above an inscription that incorrectly credits John Harvard with founding the college in 1638. But generations of freshmen (whose dorms neighbor the yard) have made a tradition of mistreating the sculpture, often in, shall we say, the wee hours.
"I would advise against touching it," said Gary Pelissier, a 21-year-old junior who leads official Harvard tours.