Authors: Michael Patrick MacDonald
Ma went into nearby D Street Housing Project that day with her new boyfriend, Coley, and bought a double-barreled shotgun from an apartment there. Things were heating up around our place in Old Colony, and Ma walked right up the steps to our building, shotgun in plain view, so all the sightseers would know that she and her kids weren't to be fucked with. At sundown she called a taxi to get “the three little kids”âme, Kevin, and Kathyâout of town. We'd have to spend the night at Grandpa and Nana's in West Roxbury, where they'd moved from Jamaica Plain. Davey, who was now making weekend visits home from Mass Mental, would come with us. A crowd had gathered outside 8 Patterson Way by the time the taxi pulled up. The three of us little kids and Davey walked out of the building while Ma sat up in the window, keeping us covered with the shotgun. As we drove through Old Colony, we noticed that some of the local toughs were following our taxi, taking shortcuts from courtyard to courtyard. Davey yelled for us all to hit the floor, and we did.
Our grandparents were confused by our arrival out of the blue. My aunts Leena and Sally were still single and living at home with Nana and Grandpa, and one of them called Ma to find out what was going on. Ma told them, and they all began pacing the floors and looking out the window to see if the “gangsters from Southie” had followed us there. Davey kept retelling the story, expanding each time, until my aunts' shrieking questions made us feel as if we'd all die tonight for sure.
Things calmed down a bit as the evening wore on. We'd called Ma and she'd said that Freddy Callaghan had come and gone, after circling our building a few times. We all finally got to sleep. At about three in the morning, we awoke to the screams of Sally and Nana. They were crying, saying that we'd been followed, that there was someone banging at the front door downstairs. Grandpa, with his oversized underwear and chicken legs, jumped out of bed and grabbed a long pipe that was by his bedside, ready to march downstairs and defend his family. Leena, Sally, and Nana begged him not to go, pulling on his undershirt to hold him back. Davey jumped out of bed, grabbed a curtain rod, and urged Grandpa onward. They went downstairs, Sally still crying and calling us little bastards for bringing those gangsters over here to kill us all. I thought for sure I'd never see Grandpa or Davey ever again, but after a few minutes we heard friendly voices talking in the kitchen, and the sound of Nana boiling tea and setting the table. When we went downstairs we saw Joe Malone, a friend of the family's from Ireland, nursing a bloody wound on his head with a towel soaked in hot water, and telling Grandpa and Davey about the terrible car accident he'd been in, that he'd been out drinking and hit a damn construction truck that was parked in front of him on his way home. Instead of going to a hospital, he'd come to be taken care of at Nana's. They all laughed at what a good thing it was that Grandpa had recognized him through all the blood on his face. “He'd have had the head knocked off of him otherwise,” Davey said.
We went back to Old Colony in the morning, and found Coley asleep at the windowsill with the shotgun as his pillow. When we said his name, he was startled and pretended he'd been awake all along. He aimed out the window with one eye closed still awaiting a gunfight with Freddy Callaghan, muttering in his Connemara Gaelic what sounded like fighting words.
From here on in, the whole neighborhood was friendly to us. Being the youngest in a family with a rep for being crazy, I'd never have to fight again in Old Colony, or in any of the areas immediately surrounding the project.
One day not long after we moved there, my friend Danny and I left Old Colony to walk Southie's main streets. Our first challenge was not to pass through anyone else's territories in the Lower End, which I'd quickly learned was the more run-down section of South Boston, with its three huge housing projectsâOld Colony, D Street, and Old Harborâand mazes of three-deckers lining alleyways and small lanes watched over by mothers in lawn chairs and tough-looking teenagers milling about on the corners. When I looked down the side streets of connected houses and concrete, I saw more groups of teenagers and kids hanging out in front of corner stores, keeping guard, popping up their heads to inspect us and to make sure that we knew better than to come down their street.
At the top of Dorchester Street we came to Broadway, grocery stores, toy stores, donut shops, liquor stores, and barrooms crowding every block. Danny told me that if we walked up the hill to the right we'd be on East Broadway, heading toward City Point and the rich people in Southie, and that if we went left we'd be going down West Broadway where things were a little more normal. He said we'd be better off sticking to West Broadway, which passed through the Lower End.
We saw people we knew from Old Colony strolling down West Broadway, a parade mostly of young women with baby carriages. I started to notice that Southie people had a similar look about their faces. There was a toughness to everything but the eyes. Everyone had those humorous sparkly eyes that I knew were Irish, having seen them in Jamaica Plain and at the Irish Field Day in Dedham and in the countenances of my own relatives. But these Irish eyes were set in faces that looked as if they'd spent much of their time defying whatever shit had come their way. It was a proud look, though, and only the eyes betrayed the hearts behind the hard-as-a-rock faces they'd learned to project. When folks from Southie smiled or laughed, they looked like completely different people. Groups of teenagers from different territories of the Lower End passed each other without saying a word. They were on neutral ground on West Broadway. There was also what Danny called “the wall,” a long red-brick partition alongside Southie Savings Bank, lined with dozing winos who sometimes stirred to fight each other. The wall was the perfect place to watch the coming and going on Broadway, but few people ever wanted to sit there, for fear of being seen with the winos.
A young balding man with an unsteady head made a beeline for us with his hand stretched out. He didn't look at me directly; his head was wobbling too much. He peered at me out of the corners of his eyes and asked, “Gotta quarter?” I dodged him, ducking under his hand, and he spun around repeating, “Gotta quarter?” and chasing after me. When he spotted someone else in his path, he immediately switched to them for a donation. Danny caught up with me laughing, and told me I'd met “Bobby Got-a-Quarter.” Everyone in Southie knew Bobby and was used to him. While most adults automatically paid the obligatory toll, the kids walking down Broadway played with him. They knew he especially liked girls, so they would send him after one of the young girls with his hand stretched out. But he was part of the neighborhood, and I noticed that no one really bothered him.
At the bottom of West Broadway was D Street Project. Danny said we could only walk around the border of it, because we were from Old Colony, and the kids in D Street wouldn't allow us even to pass through. I was curious then, and wanted to see what the people looked like and if D Street was anything like Old Colony. A few people came walking out of D Street and Danny pointed out to me that they were dirtier than Old Colony people, that's why they were called “D Street dirtballs.” People in Old Colony usually sported designer labelsâsometimes stolen, as I'd learned, off the backs of trucks or from the department stores in town. But the D Street kids looked hopeless. Danny told me that the people who ended up in D Street were “white niggers.” I'd never heard the term before; and I ran it around in my head over and over again, trying to picture what it might mean, and wondering whether white niggers were friendly with the black niggers over in Columbia Point, where we were also never to cross through.
I didn't hear the term “white nigger” again until I passed through City Point and found out that I was one myself. City Point was on the other end of Southie from us, with houses that usually had some distance from each otherâif only about five feetâand where most kids had a father. What looked rich to us actually meant working class. The fathers mostly had jobs with the city or the Mass Bay Transit Authority, or in construction. One day Danny tried to take me to see Castle Island, a peninsula that juts out from the South Boston neighborhood, and that has a colonial fort that looks like a castle. To get to Castle Island we had to pass through “the Heights,” or Dorchester Heights, where a sign said something about George Washington taking control of the hill and forcing the British to evacuate Boston. I was more impressed by all the trees, and the nicely painted houses that lined the streets leading to the bay. Further along, in “the Point,” I noticed the people looked different. They still had the Irish faces, and many had a tough look. But they wore turtlenecks and chino pants, pressed and cuffed just right. Some had Irish knit sweaters, but these were draped over their shoulders the way rich people did. They also wore lots of green, I guess to prove that they were still Irish. I found out in City Point that we were “project rats” and “white niggers.” The Point kids chased us back down the hills to the Lower End, “where you belong!” they yelled from the Heights, standing ground at the invisible line they too didn't dare cross.
I spent hours in our apartment in Old Colony trying to grasp this hierarchy of niggers that I'd discovered. I wanted to know exactly where I fit into the scheme. Of course, no one considered himself a nigger. It was always something you called someone who could be considered anything less than you. I soon found out that there were a few black families living in Old Colony. They'd lived there for years and everyone said that they were okay, that they weren't niggers but just black. It felt good to all of us to not be as bad as the hopeless people in D Street or, God forbid, the ones in Columbia Point, who were both black and niggers. But now I was jealous of the kids in Old Harbor Project down the road, which seemed like a step up from Old Colony, having many families left over from when housing projects were for war veterans, and where some of the kids had fathers. Of course, we were all niggers if we went to City Point, so forget going there again to see the beautiful beaches and Castle Island. I wondered if the Point kids might be niggers to people who'd really made it, like out in tidy West Roxbury or the suburbs that everyone talked about moving to when they won the lottery.
In Old Colony, we had all the right gear, but we didn't match as well as the Point kids. We weren't able to get
in green; we had to take what we could get from Skoochie. She was the local klepto, who went into town daily to steal what she could from Filene's and Jordan Marsh. She went door-to-door in the project, with huge shopping bags filled with designer labels. I thought Skoochie looked important, earning a hard living for her kids and never taking a day of rest. She walked more proud and straight-shouldered than the other young mothers, and was always dressed to kill: tight Gloria Vanderbilt jeans tucked into spike boots and a red leather jacket with a fur collar. But she had the face of a rat. She became friendly with Ma, and started to come by weekly, as we had so many kids to clothe. She'd lay everything out on the couches and tables, and show the Ralph Lauren label and the attached price tag. The standard price for hot goods was always one-third the ticket price, but my mother usually got her down to about one-fourth. Skoochie sold us everything, from sneakers to fur coats for my sisters. Joe and Frankie would light up when they saw the leather coats she had. Kevin got excited too, calling the brown leather coats with the wide pointy collars “pimpin'.”
People in Southie had a unique “Southie look” that crossed all turf lines, the only difference being that the kids “up the Point” were a little more polished, and the kids in D Street were just plain dirty, their clothes not as new. In the summer, we rolled up our bell-bottoms to about midcalf, and flipped our collars up. Hospital pants and shirts were popularâand sometimes a surgical mask around the neck!âand everyone had a “Southie cut,” the trademark hairstyle that proved you were from the neighborhood. I had to get a Southie cut once I noticed everyone had something to say about the bushy mess of curls I'd inherited from Nana's people in the hills of Donegal. The Southie cut consisted of hair severely parted down the middle in a perfectly straight line, cut very short, and blow-dried back to form wings. People walked with a stiff neck to keep all their hairs in place. The toughest guys in Southie looked as if they'd spent hours getting their hair just right for a day of milling about on the corner.
All the boys had homemade tattoos, done with a sewing needle and green ink. Some had a shamrock outline and “Irish Power” on their arm. On some afternoons you'd see teenagers sitting on curbs tattooing a cross onto each other's middle fingers, and a dot onto their wrists. The “Southie dot” identified you as okay within the neighborhood but would get you into trouble if you ever ventured into downtown Boston, where everyone said there were loads of blacks looking for fights, and liberals who branded Southie kids as thieves, punks, or racists. Most people in my neighborhood didn't have any reason to go downtown anyway, except to steal bikes from college students or to shoplift, none of which ever was to be done within the neighborhood. Those were the rules. And if you ever ended up in jail, your Southie dot would make you a target among the black inmates. But everyone went ahead and did the Southie dot anyway, to prove their loyalty to the neighborhood, regardless of the consequences in the outside world.
If South Boston was its own world, Old Colony was a world within a world. Aside from the strolls up Broadway, we mostly spent our entire day in the project, especially in the summer when school was out. There was plenty of excitement. Every stoop had its own group of mothers and babies sitting all day, next to wading pools and a hose that spilled water onto the sidewalk and into the gutter. The water in the gutter was called polio water, because it stank so bad from mixing with mud and garbage, and if you ever stepped into it you were branded for a whole day as the one with polio on your sneaker. Skoochie and a few other shoplifters went door-to-door, with people excitedly calling them from windowsills to come up and show them the hot goods. Dizzo came down our street with his ice cream truck about five times a day, blasting the warbling recorded melody to “Three Blind Mice.” Dizzo knew everyone in the neighborhood and got out of his truck to share all the latest news with the women up in their windows or on the stoops, while kids poured out of the woodwork to buy their third or fourth ice cream for the day. If the little kids couldn't get the ice cream money from their mothers, there was always some neighbor who had an extra quarter, and Dizzo was known to give a free ice cream if you looked really desperate or put on a “left out” face at the truck's window.