Finding a Home in Kenmore Square
Every Boston guidebook will say that the CITGO sign is the symbol for Kenmore Square, which of course is true. Locals, however, see another – a better marker of Kenmore. He’s a little shaggy with stringy brown hair and a full beard, but he has a great big smile, red rosy cheeks and a laugh that is simply contagious.
I sit down with Melvin on his stoop drinking cold iced teas on a hot summer’s day. Beads of condensation roll down the can and hit the pavement with a little splat.
Street vendors start setting up their merchandise on crates to display their witty Boston slogans to Red Sox fans leaving the stadium. Melvin and I knew that the game must be over soon, “and” he says enthusiastically, “I bet you they lost!”
Melvin is a homeless man who has been living on the same stoop in Kenmore Square for over 30 years. He is missing his two front teeth, has dirt under his fingernails and collects change in a 711-slurpee cup. To Boston University students and local Kenmore residents, Melvin is a part of their morning rush to get to class on time, their long lunch hours and even a part of the bar scene at night.
Melvin takes efforts to keep Kenmore looking beautiful. He always sweeps the sidewalks in front of his stoop and all the shops down to the Kenmore T Station. He fixes the Bertucci’s sign when it falls over in the wind and sweeps the back alley for City Convenience. The owners of CityCo give him a free cup of coffee every morning and some of the waiters from Bertucci’s bring him leftover pizza from time to time.
When it rains, he walks around Kenmore until he finds an orange construction cone and places it on the metal plate in front of his stoop. “Everybody slips on that thing,” Melvin says. “It’s funny to watch the people fall, but then I gotta help ‘em up and I just don’t wanna.”
Boston Police officers all know Melvin. Thirty years ago, they actually gave him permission to sleep on that stoop, as long as he is awake and puts his “bed” away by 7:00 a.m. “They come every once in a while,” Melvin says. “You know, make sure I’m still alive.” Melvin doesn’t cause trouble, he keeps the place tidy and now, he is a staple in Kenmore.
“Kenmore Square is great when the Sox play though,” Melvin tells me. “All the people come out and they so excited, I can hear ‘em cheering from the stands.”
The entrance to Fenway, located only two blocks from the heart of Kenmore Square, is a spectacular piece of baseball history. From his stoop in the square, Melvin can see the lights of Fenway, listen to the cheers and the announcer’s loud boom and occasionally, he even hears the crack of a player’s wooden bat splitting under the enormous pressure of the last hit.
Like any good Boston local, Melvin is a Red Sox fan. He shows me a ticket to a Red Sox v. Yankees game that he uses as a bookmark now, keeping it close with him wherever he goes. He never actually saw the game, but was a part of the madness in Kenmore Square. Melvin received the ticket as a present from a little boy and his dad in matching Red Sox caps after the game.
When he’s not sweeping, talking with people, or watching the Red Sox mania, Melvin loves to take a bus down to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square and read. Considering they have over 8 million books to choose from, Melvin always has options and likes sitting outside on their landscaped patio.
Back in Kenmore he sits on his milk crate eating a sandwich someone left for him while he was gone. We sit together and watch the traffic go by. I ask Melvin why he chose Kenmore Square instead of Harvard Square or other places that are more “popular” homeless destinations in Boston.
He thinks about it, grinning slightly and explains, “I like it. To me it’s more safer than other parts, like Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan. All those places are bad news, just filled with drugs and murderers.”
“Yeah, you know like I can go to bed at 10:00 and wake up safe in the morning and I don’t have to keep my eyes open all night. It’s real safe here. You can walk around and nobody will say nothin’ bad to you or nothin’.”
Melvin finds peace in Kenmore Square and manages a happy life despite his unattractive lifestyle and ugly past. I can’t help but notice, however, that he gets sadder in the summer months. “I got five more weeks,” he tells me. “Five more till the students come back!”
All the students at Boston University know Melvin – to them, he is Kenmore Square. “They’re the only ones that got me livin’ you know,” Melvin says, “they’re the only ones that gave me a chance.”
Melvin depends on the students for their friendship and their kindness, but the students also find a friend and mentor in Melvin. “You know, I’m old and I give them advice cuz they’re all young. I tell them do the right thing, follow the right track, don’t end up like me.”
The government might classify him as ‘homeless’ but I prefer to think of him as just houseless. He may not have a white picket fence with a lawn out back and a laundry room in the basement, but he has Boston Public Library for leisurely reading, Fenway Park in his front yard and a gigantic neon CITGO sign telling him he’s home. Melvin may be not have a house, but he has found a home in Kenmore Square.