I usually use my backroom perch at the Bloc 11 Cafe to interview the many poets, writers, artists, and interesting folks who live in the city of Somerville. On this April morning my position on the backroom table was to be reversed. I was to be interviewed by Somerville writer John Thompson. Thompson, who early in our conversation spilled a cup of freshly brewed coffee all over my schoolboy notebook--regained his composure quickly--as any pro would would do. Thompson, back in the 90s, was one of the founders of the Washington Street Art Center --just outside Union Square. He was actively involved in the arts scene, and was on the Somerville Arts Council board, working with the former director of the Council-- Cecily Miller-- who he greatly enjoyed collaborating with. As it turns out Thompson is involved in a project that struck my fancy. It consists of interviews with some stalwarts of Union Square--immigrants, barkeeps, artists, poets, hairdressers, and assorted characters who make this piece of real estate unique and diverse. So-- of course-- I had to turn the table on him and first conduct an interview with Thompson himself.
Thompson is somewhere in middle age, of average height, sports an easy smile, and a nonthreatening and attentive presence. He does not have the standard background. His father's work (he set up law schools in Africa and elsewhere) sent him to far flung places around the globe. As a result the younger Thompson wound up being born in Ethiopia, lived in Zambia, and along the long and winding path he hit the environs of Somerville. Thompson told me he earned a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University. For a number of years he worked as a travel writer, and in other forms of non-fiction.
Thompson was inspired by TV personality Jon Stewart, who once asked his audience, "What makes America great?" So Thompson has interviewed people with that overall question in mind. In my case (and I assume others), Thompson asked me about my earliest memory, weaved through my elementary school years and my adult life--and asked some unexpected existential questions that I haven't thought about deeply in a long time. And I realized that even though I love my country it was hard to articulate exactly why.
Thompson told me that so far he has interviewed Tony and Jerry, the father and son team at the PA Lounge-- the thoughtful and articulate owner of the Back Bar--Sam Treadway, the owner of Groove Records, the poet/artist Julie Anne Otis and others.
Thompson told me wanted to reconnect with the vibrant art scene in the square--and this seemed to be a ticket in. Thompson worries (like a lot of us) that the jaws of gentrification may displace the very kind of people that are his subjects. But like many of us, he seems to be hopeful. So if you are walking in Union Square, and you see an amiable and inquisitive man stop and ask you questions...feel free to add to this ongoing narrative--it is well worth your while.
-A series of Thompson's interviews will appear in The Somerville Times.