Authors: Michael Patrick MacDonald
Like us, most of the kids in Old Colony had no set time to go into their apartment to eat. So around what would have been suppertime, someone would pull out the illegal firemen's wrench and open a hydrant, spilling more water into the gutter, making floods of polio water at the bottom of the street. The news traveled all over the project in minutes, with kids calling up to their friends' windows that the hydrant was open. We lined up at the mouth of the hydrant to jump into the blast of water and were pushed across the pavement on our backs all the way to the other side of the street. If we touched the polio lakes forming on the downslopes of the pavement, we could wash it right off with the rush of hydrant water. When cars came down the street, we all stopped what we were doing and played innocent. There'd be some stop and go, as the driver inched toward the water stream and we pretended to be ready to blast him. When the driver felt it was safe and that we were just faking, that's when one of us would put two hands at the bottom of the gush of water, sending a spray through the windows of the car. Usually the driver would get out and chase us, unless he wasn't from the neighborhood, in which case he'd rather speed off than get into trouble in Old Colony. Most people from the neighborhood knew better, and simply kept their windows closed, getting a free car wash. Unlike outsiders, they thought nothing of showing us kids that they didn't trust us, rolling up all windows before going forward.
The hydrant provided about a half hour of entertainment until the cops came to chase everyone away and to shut the hydrant off. Usually someone's mother would yell from the window to warn us that the cops were coming. Everyone ran in all directions. When the coast was clear, after there'd been about two minutes of silence on the street and the police officers had paced in circles around the hydrant to make their presence known, everyone came running out again, one kid carrying the firemen's wrench to turn the hydrant back on. This went on for hours, between the cops chasing us away and shutting off the hydrant, and us turning it back on again. If they ever got hold of the wrench we used, that would be the end of it all, until we found someone else with connections at the fire department to steal a wrench.
There was always something to do in Old Colony, and it seemed a much bigger place than the six or so blocks it actually was. In fact, it seemed bigger than the whole outside world, bigger than Broadway, the beach, downtown, and Jamaica Plain all put together. When you walked into the maze of red bricks and tunnels after being on the outside, it was like walking into another world. We had our own beachesâplastic wading pools and lawn chairs on the cement in front of the buildings. And we had our own friendships and fights. At the edge of the project, Old Colony even had its own corner stores that would cash welfare checks, and liquor stores for anyone who needed a drink. The liquor stores even delivered to some of the older people who didn't come out of their houses much. We had a church on the corner that would fill on Sundays, mostly with second graders preparing for First Communion and elderly women. Carson Beach was right down the street, but most people didn't bother with that. Many of the teenagers and young women lay their beach chairs out on the roofs of the project, and you could smell the tanning oil and hear groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire blasting from radios all tuned to the same station. Old Colony was all ours, and we never wanted to leave.
The kids in the neighborhood created every bit of fun that we had. Mothers never had to find something for us to do. Sometimes we'd get bored, but that's when we'd go up to the rooftops and throw splashes of pebbles down onto the heads of outsiders passing by the outskirts of the project. We'd duck then, and they wouldn't dare come after us, unless a car window broke and we'd have to run before the cops came.
On summer nights, after the hydrants were abandoned, it was time to set the dumpsters on fire. We knew that this would bring the big red fire trucks out from Engine 6. As the trucks came roaring down Patterson Way, sirens and lights and all, you could feel the excitement like electricity. Kids appeared from hallways and tunnels, chasing after the fire trucks. The firemen clambered out to extinguish the dumpster fire, with flames that reached as high as the second-floor windows, while we climbed on top of their trucks, hanging from the ladders and ringing the bells.
There was usually one fireman still left to mind the truck, and he'd help us up and place us in the rear ladder seat that had a steering wheel of its own. Engine 6 had gotten used to us. It seemed they were in on our fun. I figured they'd be bored to tears if it weren't for us kids inviting them into our private world. Many a time the firemen actually stayed on Patterson Way a good half hour after putting out the dumpster, talking to us kids and answering our questions about being a fireman. We didn't know too many guys with jobs, let alone a fun job with all the effects: the lights, the sirens, the fire, and gushers of water. We even liked the black firemen, who must have been aware of their unusual status in being welcomed into Old Colony. They were the most friendly to us, and always seemed happy to see us. We got to know most of the firemen, and we knew we'd see them again soon, same time, same place, unless there was a real fire going on somewhere else.
The teenagers in the neighborhood made their own fun too. The firemen thought they were punks, though. Sometimes the older kids brought Engine 6 down Patterson Way by tying someone they didn't like to the firebox in his underwear and pulling the alarm. This was occasionally a lesson to outsiders not to hang out in Old Colony. The firemen would come out and untie the poor captive from the firebox, but afterward they usually weren't in the same mood as when the little kids brought them out with an innocent dumpster fire.
By about ten o'clock we'd all go into our apartments, and on the hottest nights we wondered what fights would break out that we could watch from our windowsills. Ma always said that the heat brought out the craziness in the neighborhood, just like it brought out the craziness in the hordes of cockroaches that would take over our kitchen in the middle of the night. Mothers hung out on stoops gossiping and chain-smoking and watching every move on the street. If a car came down Patterson Way, everyone would stop talking to watch the car drive past. It seemed as if we were all hoping for some action, all the time.
Groups of teenagers would gather around the same spot in the middle of the street, leaning against parked cars on both sides of Patterson Way. They usually told war stories of fights they'd been in, or had seen. They gave blow-by-blow reenactments, throwing heroic punches and kicks, and acting out in slow motion how the victim reacted to the blows. They would stop what they were doing to talk to someone in a car that pulled up, popping their whole upper body through the open window for a few seconds. Then they'd pop out again, and the car would speed off. Other times a local would walk up to them and be escorted into a dark hallway, again for just a few seconds. Then they would be off in a flash as well. I knew the teenagers were selling pot but I never said a word about it, just kept my mouth shut. In Southie the worst thing you could be was a snitch. Those were the rules. Kevin was only eleven, but he sat by the teenagers who were running the show, and it wasn't long at all before he became the one popping his upper body into a car window or taking someone's mother into a dark hallway.
One night as I sat in the window watching and waiting for something to explode, I saw a giant cockroach appear out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was a rat it was so big, and I completely forgot about the tension building outside on one of the hottest nights of the year. It was about four inches long and more than an inch thick. I'd never before seen a cockroach the size of that one, and I yelled as loud as I could. The mothers all looked up from the stoop, Kevin and his friends in the street barreled upstairs, and my mother and sisters came out of their rooms. This was great, I thought. My whole family and a good portion of the neighborhood were sticking together to gang up on the giant cockroach. Kevin laughed when he saw what it was, but he led everyone else on a chase through the house after it. The mothers didn't budge from the stoop, but they wanted to know what was going on and waited for updates from our window. Just when Kevin had cornered the roach, and it knew its moments were numbered, it suddenly discovered it had a means of escape. It spread its huge wings and attempted to fly, but could only make long leaps. You could hear it landing with a small thump from wall to ceiling. We threw shoes and it finally leapt into the bathtub and down the drain. Ma turned on the water, as the gang of neighborhood kids looked on, crowded into our small bathroom. One of the teenagers said it was a “water bug” brand of cockroach and that we'd see plenty more of them this summer, especially on muggy nights. “Did you fuckin' kill it yet or what?” one of the mothers yelled up with a laugh. We weren't sure, so I kept the water running down the drain all night. The episode had broken that night's tension on Patterson Way. It was good to be part of the neighborhood.
On some days I sat for hours in the window, watching the comings and goings on Patterson Way. In no time at all my own family had become part of the moving picture of the street.
There was Joe with his head in the engine of someone's car, with a line of neighbors ready to barter with him. Joe was the neighborhood mechanic, always out front fixing cars for everyone in the project, and he could fix anything for less than they would charge at the garages. Sometimes customers would offer him a “nickel bag” of pot if they didn't have the cash.
Across the street I'd see Kathy, all dolled up in her bellbottoms and tube top, one of the best-looking girls in the neighborhood, smoking her cigarettes with some of the tougher twelve-year-olds. She was known to be able to beat up any boy her age, even the roughnecks she dated.
Frankie would come and go. He'd stop to hang out with Joe under the hood of a car before heading off to the local gym to box. He never sat still for long, though. He worked out constantly, boxing, running, or lifting weights in the house.
Then there was Kevin; he'd follow Frankie off to go running or to work out. He was good at almost any sport, but he was always pulled back to the distractions of the street, the wheeling and dealing on Patterson Way. The neighborhood started calling him “Mini Mac” because he was so much smaller than the rest of us.
Even Davey, on his weekend visits home from Mass Mental, had become a character in the brick landscape. He paced up and down the street, with a peculiar high bounce to every step. Some would imitate his bouncy walk, but no one bothered him. Little kids in the neighborhood would call him over to do his famous imitations of the Burger King from the commercials. He'd break away from his intense thinking and walk over to them with a smile. After he did his imitations, back he'd go into his own world, pacing up and down Patterson Way.
Mary's new boyfriend, who we called Jimmy the Greek, would come down the street to pick her up in his long white Lincoln Continental. We'd all stop what we were doing when we heard his horn blast a trumpet charge to announce his arrival. The teenagers all admired his “pimpin' wheels.” “What in the hell kind of a horn is that?” Ma would say. Mary said it was a Greek horn. Ma didn't like Jimmy and she just called him “the Greek.” She thought he was too old for Mary, since she was sixteen and he was twenty-three. But Mary'd rather date an outsider than the limited pool of project guys who were usually at the center of girl fights.
I noticed that even our new dog, Sarge, having faced his own initiations, now roamed Old Colony forming his own alliances with certain packs of dogs. He'd go to the door to be let out for the day, and in the streets he'd only acknowledge you briefly, as if appearing too attached to us, his family, might make him less of a dog's dog.
Ma was part of the picture outside too, but only momentarily, clacking by in her spike heels and talking to everyone in their windows on her way up to Broadway for a day of grocery shopping and telling stories in the coffee shops. Ma never sat on the stoops, though; she was too worried about her figure. She couldn't get over the amount of sitting the mothers did. “And they're still in their nightgowns no less,” she said. “By Christ, that's how they get the wide and flat-as-a-pancake asses.” Ma didn't want one of them.
I was in the second grade at the John Boyle O'Reilly public school. When I came home from school every day, there was Coley sitting on the floor watching cartoons. I'd join him. You couldn't distract him when he was watching cartoons. He wouldn't hear a word you said. He'd just laugh away, and wait with anticipation for Bugs Bunny's next move. Sometimes he'd duck his head, or throw a punch at the air, according to whatever was going on in the story. We all liked Coley. He was Ma's best boyfriend. He'd gone sober in those days, and he was always keeping us laughing. Being from Connemara in Ireland, his first language was Gaelic. And he sat there chewing on seaweed while he watched TV. He said they all ate it where he came from. He fixed the house up, building new cabinets, shelves, and even a wooden-box couch that I thought looked like a coffin. He cooked dinner every night for us, before watching his other favorite program, boxing. He was a boxer himself, and he'd throw blocks and punches while he watched the matches too. He actually thought he was in the ring, and you couldn't break his concentration. He never tried to act like he was our father, and he never told us what to do. He was like one of the kids, and I think he knew Ma was the boss.
The second grade was when I started to lie about where I lived. The kids at the O'Reilly were mostly from the housing projects, but we all said we lived in a house. The funny thing was that we all knew who was lying. Sometimes we'd accuse each other of being on welfare and eating “wellie cheese.” And we'd tell jokes about each other, about what someone couldn't afford, the “You're so poor” jokes. “You're so poor you can't afford to wipe your ass!” Whatever that meant. Then there were the “Your mother's so poor” jokes, which were always enough to start a brawl.