Like the Cambridge theater company “that seemed to do only German plays,” the Cambridge City Shelter is generically named for the city of its location. Unlike the theater company, the homeless shelter at least seems to be properly nouned. Late in the novel’s first third, in a section where a few of the Ennet House residents are getting their first real introductions, the Cambridge City Shelter appears in this anecdote:
A long-time-ago former DMV Driver’s License Examiner, Burt F. Smith is forty-five and looks seventy, has almost all-white hair that’s waxy and yellow from close-order smoke, and finally got into Ennet House last month after nine months stuck in the Cambridge City Shelter. Burt F. Smith’s story is he’s making his like fiftieth-odd stab at sobriety in AA. Once devoutly R.C., Burt F.S. has potentially lethal trouble with Faith In A Loving God ever since the R.C. Church apparently granted his wife an annulment in like B.S. ‛99 after fifteen years of marriage.
The only problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any such place with that name, now or formerly. Google returns no likely candidates, though it does find the 1995 New Yorker where this chapter appears as a short story, and Burt F. Smith is named Joe Smith. (A worthy late adjustment, I think.)
When I visited, I found no outward sign of there being a homeless shelter in the Lutheran church at 66 Winthrop, a few blocks south of Harvard Square. But the address seemed to check out, and the church was a far more likely spot for a shelter than the pizza joint next door.
I began snapping photos, albeit self-consciously, unsure that I had the right place, not to mention: what would passersby think? Of course, this was an issue at almost every location I visited. (And the less said about the woman who stopped me in the parking lot at a children’s hospital, the better.) At least here there was no chance anyone inside could actually see me.
Then, on the corner where the first photo above was taken, a woman walked up and asked—simple curiosity, not suspicion this time—about what I was doing. An amateur photographer herself (we made small talk and I pretended I knew what I was doing with a Lumix GH2) she was in fact doing volunteer work at this particular homeless shelter (confirmation!) on a visit from the interior West, Wyoming or Montana, I think. I believe she even said that there were two homeless shelters here, though I wasn’t able afterward to figure out what that meant.
Still, she was a rare, useful (and friendly!) on-site resource. We of course discussed this project, and the shelter’s tiny role in the book. Although she wasn’t familiar with Infinite Jest, she left me with a promise to look this up in a year or so. If she appears in the comments, I’ll be very gratified. And my experience was quite unlike that of poor Burt F. Smith—with her assist, I left here feeling anything but “stuck.”