The guardian of the North Cut
This finals season, we’re all looking for shortcuts to get to where we want to be. The Justice spoke to a steward of one of them.
The desire path cutting across the front lawn at the end of Villa Street — Richard’s lawn — isn’t obvious until you’re actually walking along it, at which point you can see the divot in the grass at your feet. It marks the finish line of the steep forested hill above Nipper Maher Park that dozens of Brandeis students hike up every day to get to class. The route, colloquially known as the North Cut, is a way for Brandeis students walking to school from Waltham to get to classes located at or above the Rabb Steps while avoiding the slog up the entirety of campus from the main entrance at the bottom.
“Getting to use the North Cut is a lifesaver for being able to get to class,” said Sheindl Spitzer-Tilchin ’23 in a Dec. 3 text correspondence. “It’s kind of a long haul to get to school if you live near the Walgreens or the 99 area [South Street area]. It’s a privilege, especially if you’re in a hurry.”
When I think about shortcuts, I think about the Donner Party, which for some reason merited an entire month-long unit of my fifth-grade education and was taught with the kind of weight given to World War II rather than that of a hyper-specific, cannibalistic California tragedy in 1846. Maybe it’s because of the Donner Party that I’m generally skeptical of shortcuts. They feel inherently like a bad idea: a risk that ends with undesired consequences. I never took the North Cut until this year, when my roommate convinced me to do it, to wild success. Within ten minutes of leaving the house, I’m in Richard’s yard, as opposed to the twenty it takes to walk down South Street to the main entrance of campus.
Richard didn’t want to give his last name for this piece for privacy reasons but was so enigmatic that it didn’t feel like it mattered — Cher is Cher, Richard is Richard. He’s 65, a retired construction worker with a penchant for guitars and collecting rainwater, and has lived in Waltham his entire life. He loves tea: a personal favorite cup consists of a mix of green and mint, with a spoon or two of honey.
During our hour-long Dec. 1 interview at his kitchen table, four people trudged across his front yard. He didn’t bat an eye. “It’s like watching TV, watching them walk by,” he said.
Richard’s house, or “bachelor pad,” as he called it, is warm and lived-in, with lawn chairs scattered around the front and a flag waving gently by his front door. He grew up in it, and fondly remembered moving through the woods as a kid to press his face against the fence on the upper section of campus to watch Brandeis students. “You’d see the Beatniks,” he said of the student population in the 60s. “It was a certain time. They were a little counterculture. But why does it have to be counterculture if it’s their culture? Why can’t we just be who we are?”
Decades later, Richard still has an affinity for students. “I got no bad vibes about it,” he said, pointing out the window over his sink in the direction of the school. “Brandeis isn’t perfect. In any institute or any institution, you can’t please everybody all the time. But I think we need to embrace them [students and the school]. It was here before and it’s going to be here long after I’m gone.”
In the past, Richard has gravitated towards shortcuts: He skipped college because he wanted to jump into a well-paying salary. “Once that fiddle starts playing, you have to dance,” he said. He considered being a cook at one point and worked in the restaurant business in Cape Cod, but eventually realized it wasn’t for him: “You have to be insane to become a chef. You have to be a little bit cuckoo.”
Richard’s career in construction was long and tedious, and he said that his 60-hour work weeks partially rendered him a “black sheep” in his family. Notably, in 1988, he helped to renovate Fenway Park, working seven days a week and 12 hours a day for three months straight. “One thing about construction is it’s almost like being in the military,” he said. “Not everyone can just walk on. If you take that route, you gotta be ready for it. You’re a servant, not a citizen.”
I asked him about his takes on Waltham politics in regard to issues that affect students — housing, for example, and rising rents. “Everyone’s a politician,” he said. “You wake up in the morning and you open your eyes and your cat is looking at you. Politics! It’s started already.” To my knowledge, Richard does not have a cat.
As a retiree, Richard takes care of everything that has to do with plumbing and maintenance himself. But Richard’s upkeep goes beyond his own house. He frequently thinks about the people who pass through his yard to and from the park below.
“There were a couple of trees that were leaned over precariously,” he described of the forested way down from his lawn to Nipper Maher Park. “It’s like spaghetti, the longer you let it wait, the more tangled up it gets. It was a bit of an obstacle course; there were obstructions to the trail. I interviewed a few people going by who said it wasn’t really a part of the workout, so I took care of it … You gotta grab a few shortcuts. You only get certain legs up in life.”
Decades ago, Richard saved the life of a football player named Crunch, who ended up pinned between an empty car and the outside of a building. Richard got in the car and reversed it to get it off. Later, he saved another life, which got him a short feature in New England Carpenter Magazine in 2014. The article details how Richard pulled a live wire — grabbing the shielded section — out of a man’s hands as he was being electrocuted on a construction site, saving his life. “We don’t like to think about how dangerous our work can be,” he’s quoted in the piece.
I asked him if he’d saved any more lives than Crunch’s and the worker’s. He smiled. “That’s just the way it goes,” he said mildly, avoiding the question.
There are many differences between Donner Pass and the North Cut, but an important one might be that the Donner Party was missing a steward — and the North Cut has one. “I’m no angel,” Richard kept repeating emphatically throughout our interview, in between offering me more honey for my tea. But whether he is or isn’t doesn’t matter: His care for the trail and the people who walk through it is clear. It’s nice to know that there’s someone else thinking about the path and what we — dozens of students — experience when we walk it. It's nice to know there's someone else thinking about us.