Let's all belly up to the bar for a rousing chorus of the State Song of Massachusetts:


Welcome to Cambridge, asshole.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the streets are very clean, but there's a hideous cost: From April to October, each side of each street in the city is cleaned once a month. That means there can't be any cars parked on it. Every street has signs at intervals on each side, telling you on which morning that side of the street will be cleaned. One side of Waterhouse Street (just for a purely arbitrary goddamn example) is cleaned on the third Friday of every month; the other, on the fourth Wednesday.

On each of those grim mornings, the cops drive around with megaphones around 7:00 AM, saying "PLRMPH RRMPH ULRLR MPH RMPHL NRMPH! PLRMPH RRMPH ULRLR MPH RMPHL NRMPH!" This means "Move your goddamn car before we tow it". They're not kidding: A fleet of tow trucks1 and flatbeds comes and whisks away the stragglers. Each car gets a parking ticket2, too. They stick it to the window by one end, and the adhesive clings like a limpet.

If the megaphone wakes you up, or if you're one of those lunatics who wakes up early anyway, you can pull some clothes on and stagger outside to move your car. You see others doing the same, stumbling groggily along with their hair sticking up and car keys in their hands. You see them driving around looking for another place to park, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.

Sometimes you forget about the whole deal and park in a death zone on the wrong night. Sometimes you park your car on Thursday night, look up at the sign that says "Friday morning", and it doesn't quite register. Sometimes you sleep through the megaphone routine. Sometimes you walk out of your building to the street where you parked your car last night, and the whole street is empty. It's very surreal: Your car is no longer there. It's just gone, and so are all the others. Once I got to my car just as they were winching up the one ahead of it; mine and that poor bastard were the last two cars on the street. I waved to the cop and popped the clutch.

The towing is done by private operators. If they tow your car, you call the Cambridge police and ask them who has it. You'll need to remember your license plate number, or else you'll spend ten miserable minutes calling one tow lot after another and describing the car. When you locate it, you find an ATM, because the tow business deals only in cash. You take a cab to East Cambridge, because that's where all the tow lots seem to be. You pay up and drive to work. When they ask you why you're so late, you bug your eyes out and say,


In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace borrows our street cleaning ritual and turns it into a genuine nightmare: In his Boston of the future, only one side of each street is legal to park on at any given moment, and the legal side switches every midnight. There's a window of only a few minutes when it's legal to be on either side, so you can't move the car ahead of time. I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Wallace has spent at least one groggy morning in Cambridge moving his car.

I assume that the rest of Metro Boston does the same, and I may have the start and end dates wrong. Corrections are welcome on both points.

1 The state bird of Massachusetts.

2 US$15.00 as of July, 2001.