Authors: Michael Patrick MacDonald
Our local priest said that it was terrible to stigmatize Southie children with such findings, labeling them “underclass.” I didn't like the term either, but I thought at least now some of the liberal foundations might begin to offer real support for social service agencies struggling to keep up with the needs of Southie families in crisis. People from Southie nonprofits had told me that they were constantly denied funding because their population was not diverse, and probably also because the name “Southie” automatically brings “racists” to mindâthe same kind of generalizing that makes all black children “gang bangers” in the minds of bigots. One thing growing up in Southie taught me is that the right wing has no monopoly on bigotry. Eventually, I saw, the priest and other local social service agencies started to refer to the article when they looked for funding or other support.
When I first moved back to Southie, I was always looking over my shoulder. I wasn't sure if anyone minded all the stuff I'd been saying to the press. Instead, people I didn't even know started coming up to me, telling me their own stories. It was as if they felt it was safe to come out, and they wanted to take the tape off their mouths. Before this, I would walk through the main streets of Southie and see so many people who had experienced drug- and crime-related catastrophes, but who didn't connect with others who'd suffered in similar ways, the way I'd been doing with people in Roxbury. It seemed that people wanted to talk after years of silence.
I knew we could do it in Southie once I'd seen how a group of families from Charlestown had banded together when their children were murdered, to break that neighborhood's own infamous code of silence. When I was organizing a citywide gun buyback, getting people in Boston to turn in their working firearms to be destroyed, I met Sandy King and Pam Enos. They had founded the Charlestown After Murder Program. Sandy's son Chris had been murdered in 1986 in front of a hundred people who remained silent. Then in 1991, her son Jay was murdered. Pam's son Adam was murdered in 1992 by the same person who'd murdered Jay. The women organized other mothers of the tight-knit one-square-mile Irish American neighborhood, which had experienced up to six public executions a year, to speak out against the gangsters who controlled the town. They assisted in their neighborhood's gun buyback, which brought in the most guns citywide in 1994 and 1995, and they built close bonds with mothers of murdered children in neighborhoods of color. They pressured law enforcement to pay attention to murder in Charlestown, put a media spotlight on “the town,” exposed corruption, and organized an annual vigil to bring neighbors out of isolation and fear. When I went to Charlestown's vigil, I saw mothers' faces that looked so much like Southie faces, pictures of murdered children who looked so much like Southie kids, and I looked around at the symbols of a community so much like our own: shamrocks and claddaghs, symbolizing “friendship, loyalty, and love.” Their vigil took place at St. Catherine's Church, just outside Charlestown's mostly Irish housing projects. By the time I moved back to Southie, I knew what we could do with all the people who at last seemed ready to tell their painful stories.
“My son P.J. was only fifteen years, four months, and twenty-nine days of age.” P.J.'s father stood six-foot-two on the altar, wearing his scally cap and leather jacket. A big guy you could never imagine being beaten down. But he was buckling at the knees now, and trying to read through tears. He was begging for Southie to wake up. For the past ten years, P.J.'s father had been in recovery from heroin addiction. He'd been feeling pretty good, working all hours of the night at a chemical mixing plant to try to get his family out of Old Colony Project. He'd never imagined that the drugs would take his only son before they made it out.
He held himself up, gripping the pulpit at the Gate of Heaven Church. From where I stood on the altar I could see the three hundred or so Southie people who'd come to the vigil to remember their dead kids. They were wide-eyed; they looked as if they didn't know if P.J.'s father would make it through his reading, or if they would. A few in the crowd let out weeping sounds, and I could tell they weren't used to letting go like that. First I'd hear cries and moans that sounded as if they would build into liberated wailings; then I'd hear a gasp, and the sounds of grief were halted, just like that. Some of the mothers who'd buried their own children looked around at anything but P.J.'s father: the crucified Christ, the martyred Saints, their own hands and feet. It was hard to watch a fortress like P.J.'s father cracking.
“On January 19, 1996, our son Paul P.J. Rakauskas, Jr., went into a coma due to a combination of drugs and alcohol. After three days of pain and torture for his loved ones, P.J. died.” P.J.'s friends sat in the back pews of the church, away from the adults in the crowd. The teenage boys looked down. I don't know if they cried; their Fightin' Irish baseball caps were pulled low to cast dark shadows on their eyes. There was a time when people would've told the kids to take off their baseball caps in church, but it was too late to teach the symbolic importance of that rule to these kids tonight. Their friends, brothers and sisters, and some parents were dead. And this was not really a mass anyway, it was more like a takeover. It was bringing the streets into the house of God, and finally giving the building some relevance to our lives in Southie. P.J.'s father was on the altar now, not the priest:
As much as we would like to say drugs and alcohol were the only reasons for his death, we cannot. P.J. was murdered by ambivalence, tolerance, and a general “it doesn't happen here” attitude in Southie.
Ambivalence being the cavalier attitude with which not just a few of us view the use of drugs and alcohol in our neighborhood. Tolerance being the ability to close our eyes to the drug dealers, either because we don't want to get involved, or because “it's so-and-so's son or daughter dealing,” and we don't want to be the snitch. Then some of us figure, “They're only selling to each other, so who cares?” And finally, many of us give up. “What can one person do?” we ask.
Some of the young girls were crying. I was glad to see that, because most of us weren't used to crying over our loved ones, no matter how young and tragic their deaths. Growing up in Southie we were supposed to suck it up and get on with our lives. Besides, the deaths were usually the result of things that brought shame: overdose, murder, suicide. “What do you expect from that family?” was what we heard when some kid died, so we just kept our mouths shut. And Whitey Bulger liked it better that way. Our own shame worked to his advantage.
We had come up with a list of “lives lost too soon,” and I had spent the night before this trying to fit so many names onto just one page for the service. And we were all asking the same question at tonight's vigil.
How could we have lost more than two hundred young people to violence and drugs over the past decade?
P.J.'s father gave some of the answers in words that cracked through his tears but were clear to all of us, because any one of us could have filled in the blanks.
“We knew our son was wild,” he read on. “But we thought it was just youthful abandon, invincibility, and style. We figured he would grow out of it, and indeed he started to. P.J. was in search of a job, was coming home on time, had started to change his attitude, and was becoming a different person. (The fact that he was in love may have had something to do with it.)”
P.J.'s father cracked a smile, and we all relaxed a little bit. The kids in the back pews all looked at P.J.'s girlfriend to see her reaction. She looked frozen.
From what we can gather from the street talk, P.J. was just doing what is considered a “normal teenage thing.” Many others with him that night ingested the same pills and alcohol. They survived and our son did not. To the parents of those kids we say hug, kiss, and tell your kids you love them, for they are miracles we sorely wish we had.
Our son was buried on January 26, 1996. With him goes all of our hopes, plans, and dreams of watching our son become a successful man in the world. With him goes the broken hearts of his mother, four sisters, two nieces, two nephews, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, many cousinsâand an extremely brokenhearted father.
I stood close behind P.J's father on the altar, and didn't know if I should try to help hold him up. He looked as if he might fall to his knees. I didn't know if I could keep him standing anywayâhe was pretty heavy and I wasn't feeling so strong at the moment either. I was thinking about my own brothers. I let him know I was there by moving close to him as he read. Soon more people came to stand next to us: Judy Hartnett, whose daughter had been stabbed seventy-five times and covered in gasoline and set on fire by her own baby's father a few years ago; Cathy Havlin, whose twenty-two-year-old son had been killed a year ago, shot nine times while walking home into the housing project after a scuffle at Aces High tavern; Linda Reid, who just a few months ago had found her seventeen-year-old boy hanging from his belt after complaining that he was fed up with harassment from a local cop. Even though I wasn't sure who would be doing the collapsing and who would be doing the catching, I felt better. Trying to help the others, we had no choice but to be strong and not to focus on our own pain, thank God.
P.J.'s father looked up from the sheet of paper he was reading, stood up straight, cleared his throat, and spoke directly to his neighbors:
When you put your lights out after making sure your children are home, be grateful; when you watch them go out the door for school, be grateful; when you hear the roar of the two-legged belliesâteenagersâplundering your 'fridge at night, be grateful; the next time you argue with your child, be grateful; the list goes on, so please just be grateful.
As far as taking care of our son, all we can do now is watch the grass grow around his headstone, then try to trim it; keep him in our hearts always; and, lastly, all we can do is imagine that we are seeing that wry smile and feeling his tough but gentle touch as we hold his mementos.
My son P.J. was only fifteen years, four months, and twenty-nine days of age.
They stood in a single file that reached from the altar to the street outside, waiting to say the names of their children who'd died in South Boston. It was All Souls' Night and Gate of Heaven Church was packed with all my old neighbors, mostly from the Lower End even though the church was in City Point. I knew that the 250 names on the list I'd put together were just the ones whose families could get up the strength to deal with it. I knew of many others who'd been murdered or had overdosed or killed themselves, but their families hadn't called me to put their kids' names on the list. Still, I couldn't believe how packed the church was on such a cold and wet night in November.
Ave Maria was sung from the altar, and some of the mothers in the long line wept as they inched closer to the microphone. I knew that for some, this was the first time they were dealing with their loss. I hardly recognized Theresa Dooley when she stepped up to the mike. Her long white hair was simply pulled back into a bun, and her high cheekbones and beautiful blue eyes stood out in her sad face. She couldn't have been more than sixty, but she might have seen centuries. Her eyes stared out at something other than what was in front of her.
“Tommy Dooley and Jonathan Anthony Dooley,” she pronounced into the mike.
Tommy Dooley was nineteen when he was beaten to death at Kelly's Cork and Bull. Everyone said the Stokes family did it. They ganged up on him and beat and kicked him over a fight he'd had with his girlfriend, Tisha Stokes. Everyone said his head almost came off him. But no one at the crowded bar saw a thing. No snitches in Southie. A couple years later, Mrs. Dooley's fifteen-year-old son Anthonyâ“Tone, my baby,” she calls himâhung himself. We all knew how much he'd missed his big brother. Mrs. Dooley found him hanging, cut her baby down, and let out screams that many people in Old Harbor Project say they will never forget.
Most people just shake their head and say “poor thing” or something like that when they see Mrs. Dooley walking through the town her kids had once loved, staring at something that's not there. For a few years she wanted justice; she pursued homicide detectives to investigate, but the same people who say “poor thing” wouldn't tell what they knew, what we all knew to be the truth. Plus one of the Stokes brothers had an uncle by marriage who was a Boston homicide detective. She gave up on the courts when homicide detectives told her, “You ain't gonna get anyone to come forward in Southie.”
Mrs. Dooley walked off the stage now, her two candles lit. It was someone else's turn to name their dead.
“Help me, you've got to help me!” screamed Marie the gypsy. “My heart is very bad! I'm gonna die! Help me! My son, they killed him! The police won't give me any answers.” Marie Pozniac was Ma's friend. She worked at Jolly Donuts and used to give us free donuts, and steal from the register. We all thought she was crazy, long before her son died. Ma said she was a real gypsy, and she looked like one with her kerchiefs and gold earrings. I asked her once about her accent, and she screamed at me that she was “an American, a full-blooded American!” She was known for setting houses on fire to collect insurance, a firebug Ma called her. Ma got a kick out of her, though, with all her gypsy scams.
“My sons, Joseph and Dennis O'Reilly,” Nora spoke with a shaky voice. She's the one who told us about the empty apartment before we moved into Old Colony, right across the street from her. Dennis died of AIDS, and Joey was ambushed, shot multiple times in his car.