I’m guessing we’ve all done it. It seems a fairly common rite of passage, at least in my time and place. Perhaps it’s an American thing—a kind of moody, inherent yearning for relocation and reinvention. Maybe it’s a universal teenage sensation—the feeling that you have been born in the most forsaken and paralyzing spot on the planet. Inevitably, the anxiety manifests externally in a sneer—pointed at the cosmos or the nearest parent—and an accompanying vow to flee this nowhere town one day and shake its dirt from your feet.
I cringe a little now, thinking back on all those nights in the mid-’70s, sitting with “the boys” on Mr. Sullivan’s stone wall, a little woozy from our first taste of Born to Run. Dressed like teenage Robert Blake wannabes, bored to tears, talking again about the same muscle cars and Eastwood movies, praying that some girl, any girl, might walk by.
Hope perpetually gave way, long before midnight, to a maudlin and laughable self-pity and the defiant promise that as soon as possible—as soon as one scared up a car, or some money or a long-shot chance—our hometown of Worcester would be nothing but a stifling memory. Because, as Neil Young had taught us, everybody knows this is nowhere.
Most evenings, I nodded along to the sentiment. Grunted my approval. Some nights, I added my own declarations of imminent self-exile. And then, the wise guy comments exhausted, we all said goodnight with a head bob and loped back to our parents’ houses.
And now it’s time to confess that on that walk home, I always felt like an adolescent Judas to my hometown. Because the fact was that, while I shared some sense of suffocation and teen angst, I knew, even at the time, that the feeling had everything to do with me and nothing to do with Worcester. In fact, alone in the dark before sleep, my friends’ escape plans still buzzing around my overheated skull, I knew that the most interesting thing about me—maybe the only interesting thing about me—was the city about which we whined and moaned. I’d known it from the start. I couldn’t take a step outside without being overwhelmed by a kind of deafening resonance that flew up in waves from the cracked sidewalks, out of the red-brick factory walls.
Sometime during that same era of adolescent angst, the “Worcester” issue of the Holy Cross Quarterly arrived in the mailbox. The Quarterly was an ambitious, wide-ranging magazine published by the College between 1967 and 1975. (Some readers might remember its “Berrigan Brothers” issue— which went on to win a national magazine prize and publication as a paperback book.)
The “Worcester, U.S.A.” issue of HCQ sits on my desk as I type these words. It is my personal copy—liberated from my grandfather shortly after it arrived in his mailbox back in 1973, the mailing label bearing his name and class year still affixed to the rear cover. The issue is as intriguing to me today as it was three decades ago when I first encountered it. Maybe even more intriguing all these years later.
I think the reason I fastened on to that issue of HCQ was that it hinted that there were others who felt the same way about the city that I did. Felt that there was something large and serious about Worcester, something—dare I even use the word?—“mythic” in its character. And that this mythic quality was hidden, for some reason, inside the centuries of factory ash.
Four years after the Worcester issue of the Quarterly was published, I arrived on Mount St. James as a first-year student. And quickly learned that my sense of the city’s grandeur and gravitas was something best kept to myself. Because, like so many local kids who landed on the Hill over the years, I discovered that being of Worcester and Holy Cross could be something of a schizophrenic experience. That there were times when one felt the need to define oneself as belonging to one or the other.
These days, that sense of conflicting allegiance is long gone. I’m not sure why this is. But, at some point, my experiences of my hometown and my alma mater simply integrated. Out my office window, through what I hope—but doubt—will be the last snow of winter, I can see both Fenwick Tower and the Worcester Knitting Mill. Smith Hall and the Chess King Factory on Hammond St. They all seem utterly rooted in the same unique landscape. And they all still feel freighted with meaning regarding how our surroundings help to determine who we become.
For this issue’s look at Worcester, we asked alumnus, former mayor of the city and professor emeritus of history at Holy Cross, John B. Anderson ’57, to reread the “Worcester, U.S.A.” issue of HCQ and share some of his reflections on the past, present and future of the College’s hometown.