Authors: Michael Patrick MacDonald
“Look, that's Ma!” Kevin was proud of Ma and bragged to everyone around us that our mother was on stage. I was a little worried about it, though. I thought all the Irish would talk badly about Ma, as my grandparents said she was a shame to us all with her accordion, and her long hair and short skirts. “And that was how they captured him, the wild colonial boy.” Ma proudly stomped her foot through the last line of the song, and finished like she always did, with a loud “wo-ho!” Then Ma took another musician's guitar away from him and finished up with her all-time favorite by Janis Joplin, putting on her country accent and really belting out “Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, and nothin' ain't nothin' honey if it ain't free.”
Soon enough Kevin's pockets were full and so were mine. We had plenty of quarters to play more games, as well as prizes and Irish flags to wave all the way home out the windows of Joe's shitbox. Before leaving Kevin led Kathy and Frankie into the woods where he'd hid his spoils and gave them their equal share. When we came back into the field, Kevin saw that there was one table he hadn't gotten to yet: the one that sold raffle tickets for the gallons of booze hidden underneath, behind a tablecloth. He had gifts for everyone and didn't want to forget Ma's cousin Nellie. Nellie had come from Ireland when she was sixteen to live with Nana and Grandpa. All our relatives thought she was too wild, but Ma considered her a sister. We called her our aunt. Kevin knew she loved the drink and that she had no money, raising five kids on her own with no father. Besides, she'd be sure to keep us all laughing on the way home with a few drinks in her. Kevin made us watch the rest of the goods while he slipped under the table when no one was looking. He waited for a signal from Frankie and slipped back out again with a whole case of Irish whiskey. And didn't Nellie go home legless that day from the drink, doing her wild imitations of our relatives and keeping us all in stitches the whole ride home! Kevin once again had provided for everyone, an eight-year-old genius of scams.
Jamaica Street was my only experience living with families who had a father going off to work every day. We were probably the only family on welfare. Looking back I realize our Irish neighbors had some American middle-class pretensions that were at odds with the ways of my mother and us kids. And if we ever did anything considered lower classâlike go to the corner store barefootâin front of someone from Ireland, they might call us “fookin' tinkers.” This was the worst you could be, according to Irish immigrants, especially once you'd already made it to the Promised Land.
While we were happy not to be living in the project for once, my family still spent a lot of time visiting the one nearby and hanging out with the other families on welfare. It was a pretty equally mixed project racially, and as a result the tensions weren't as bad as in Columbia Point. This all changed when the Jamaica Plain development shifted toward a black majority and poor whites started to flee. That's when the fights broke out. That's when the chanting started:
Beep beep beep beep,
Walkin' down the street,
Ten times a week.
This is black power,
White boy destroyed.
I said it, I meant it,
I really represent it.
Takes a cool cool whitey from a cool cool town,
It takes a cool cool whitey to knock me down.
Don't shake my apples, don't shake my tree,
I'm a J.P. nigga, don't mess with me.
The white kids started to say the same chant, switching “whitey” and “nigga.” But for a while, my older brothers and sisters hung out with mixed groups. Especially Mary, who by the mid-seventies had adopted a style that my grandfather criticized in a thick Irish brogue as an “African hairdo.” She was dressing too in platform shoes and doing the dances that only the black girls knew. She could do “the robot” like the dancers on “Soul Train.” Later, when Mary had two children “out of wedlock” in her late teens before finally marrying the father, my grandfather traced her alleged downfall back to the African hairdo.
There was never much traffic, so we were able to take over Jamaica Street with games of tag, dodgeball, and red rover. All the kids from the other Irish families would join in. Then they'd disappear, called in to dinner. But we stayed outside because we could eat whenever we wanted to. They'd come out again after dinner, but a couple of hours later we were again on our own, as all the other kids on the street had strict curfews, usually before dark.
The kids from the projects could stay out late too, so it was better to hang out with them. Sometimes we'd stay out really late telling ghost stories on the porch. Stories like the one about the hatchet lady, who carried a shopping bag full of little boys' heads. As her bag was very heavy and she was very old, a polite youngster would offer to carry it for her. Before he got to her door with the heavy bag, he'd get curious and ask what was in it. The hatchet lady would let him look into the bag, and while he was bent over, she'd cut his head off with a hatchet, adding another head to her collection. I believed every word of these stories and was horrified when I saw Frankie or Kevin helping an older woman with groceries to her door. But they always got a quarter for their courtesy and still had their heads.
Kids from all over Jamaica Plain started to hang out with us, because they liked our house and could do what they wanted there. My older brothers and sisters set up a clubhouse in the basement, inviting friends over to smoke cigarettes and play spin the bottle. Friends would stay overnight in the cellar, especially when they weren't getting along with their parents, or were running away from home. Most of them started calling my mother “Ma.”
On hot summer nights, we'd all sleep on mattresses on the front porch. The house was stifling and we didn't have the air conditioners that others on the street had. Most families in the neighborhood seemed perplexed by our ways. Mrs. Schultz, an older woman from Germany who lived upstairs from us, used to wake us all up to send us inside the house. She was bothered by the idea of having to climb over loads of kids in their underwear, all wrapped in sheets like mummies. She seemed mean, speaking in German and shooing us into the house before we'd had a good night's sleep. Our makeshift way of living seemed normal to us, but it opened us to harsh judgment, like gypsies.
Any time any programs about gypsies were on, Ma would call us all to the TV to watch. She had a great fascination with gypsies, and especially with the tinkers in Ireland. When she'd traveled to Ireland as a teenager, she'd run away from her relatives and hung out with caravans of tinkers, playing the accordion for them. Her aunts wrote back to my grandparents telling them that she was shaming them all over Ireland by joining up with “the tribes.” I grew up with a romantic picture of the tinkers from my mother's stories, and always wondered if we had tinker blood in us, blood that my grandparents would never mention.
Looking back, it seems that early on I took over the job of trying to keep things looking whatever way they were supposed to look. I worried both about keeping up with the other families and their ways and about making sure that we looked poor enough for surprise visits by the social workers from welfare.
Ma would get an unexpected call early in the morning saying that the social worker was on her way. She'd wake us all up in a panic about the state of the house. The problem wasn't that the house was a mess, but rather that it looked like we owned too many modern conveniences for our own good. Poor people weren't supposed to have a color TV. We'd all have to get up right away on those days to pull a fast one. I actually loved devising strategies for outwitting the inspectors. In no time flat, we'd be running in all directions, getting rid of anything of any value. Out went the toaster. It didn't work without using a steak knife to pull the bread out, at the risk of electrocution. But a toaster might mean that there's a man living in the house, giving gifts or money to my mother. Welfare wouldn't allow for that; God knows a woman with eight kids shouldn't have a man living in the house! But who needs a man in the home, I always thought, when you have the welfare office? A man would only be abusive, tear at Ma's self worth, and limit her mobility in life. Welfare could do all that
pay for the groceries. No man ever did that in our home. But our interrogators seemed to be obsessed with the notion of some phantom man sneaking in during the night and buying us appliances. So out went the blender too. Really poor people have no time for exotic milkshakes. We thought it would be enough to put things in the cabinets under the sink, but the social workers got keen to that hiding place. They were shameless about going through cabinets and drawers. We had to resort to the crawl space under the front porch.
But the new color TV was too big to hide. It was one of those huge wooden-cased televisions with fancy-looking cabinets on either side. So we pulled down a heavy green velvet drape from one of the windows and threw it over the television, turning it into a lovely table to serve the social worker a cup of tea on. We had to look as if we had
television-watching in a house with so many kids, so we pulled out the contraption we'd been using before we finally entered the modern age of Technicolor. It was two sets actually, one sitting on top of the other. One had only sound, and the other had a black-and-white picture that would get scrambled from time to time. You'd have to get someone to hold a butter knife to the place where the antenna used to be, in order to keep the picture straight. Usually that someone was me; everyone raved that I had some kind of magic power to set that TV straight. Ma said that I was the seventh son, and therefore had special powers that the others didn't have. I was so proud of myself that I would sit for hours holding the butter knife to the back of the TV, forming a human antenna while my family watched its shows: cartoons, “Soul Train,” or stories about gypsies and gangsters. For a while this was all we had, and I often felt helpless when “The Brady Bunch” would proudly advertise “in color” at the beginning of the show, knowing there was no way that that butter knife would help on that score.
By the time the social worker arrived, everyone would've left for school except me, as I wasn't yet school age. I got to walk through the house with her and my mother, proud that we looked like we owned nothing at all. Just a few mattresses and an awkward-looking table with an ugly green velvet tablecloth that reached well beyond the floor. And of course while the social worker had her tea on top of our well-draped color television, I sat holding the butter knife to the back of the other TV contraption, reaching my head around to the front to watch morning cartoons. I used to guess at what colors the characters on the set would be if I were watching the TV that the social worker was sitting at. And I couldn't wait for her to leave so I could find out if I was right.
The interrogation lasted about an hour, and it usually focused on men. The social worker would take time out to ask if we had heard from “the father.” Ma always said she had no idea where he was. Of course she knew exactly where Mac lived, but didn't want to let on, reminded as she was of the days of abuse with no groceries at all.
There had been times when “the father” had tried to come back. I'd always heard the story of the time he came over drunk, smashed the front door window, and started beating on my mother once he got inside. I was less than two years old, standing in a crib. Ma had stored her accordion on a shelf near the crib, and she always loved telling me how I picked it up and smashed it over Mac's head. She said he was knocked for a loop, and quieted down after that. Of course I don't remember any of it, but I was proud of the way Ma told the story of me putting up a fight.
But Ma didn't tell the social worker any of that. There were a few things Ma didn't mention. She never told the social worker that there were men living in our house from time to time. She never had a problem meeting men as she was very beautiful and played it up with her long red hair, spike heels, fishnet stockings, and penciled-on beauty mark on her right cheekbone. Whenever we passed construction sites in town, all the workers would stop everything and come running to the fence to gawk and catcall. Ma ignored them, strutting through the streets singing her country-western songs and holding my hand. She could have got us a father with a job on the construction site, but she didn't, and I thought it was just as well because I was horrified to see them looking at Ma that way, like animals in a cage.
The trouble was, Ma was drawn to men who would end up living off us, rather than providing for us. Ma was always trying to save someone from the gutter, and that's literally where she met some of her boyfriends. They were usually Irish or Irish American and often alcoholic and jobless. But before long she'd have them sober and scrubbed up, with hair slicked back, a clean collared shirt, and shiny shoes from the thrift shop on their feet. Off they'd go to get a day's pay from Casey and Hayes Moving Company or some other job. But by then she'd be fed up with them and would send them off into the world to fend for themselves. Just when they were primed to bring some money into the home as an able-bodied working father figure. Within weeks we'd all wake up to some new scruffy soul off the street, lying on our legless couch watching the color TV that the social worker didn't know we had. The men were always startled to see eight kids climbing out of the woodwork bright and early to inspect their new dad. We just gathered around and stared. And they stared back.