MacDonald - Ghetto Heaven

MacDonald - Ghetto Heaven - CHAPTERS GHETTO HEAVEN IN THE...

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Unformatted text preview: CHAPTERS GHETTO HEAVEN IN THE SUMMER Ol‘1973, MY GRANDFATHER DECIDED TO sell the house on Jamaica Street. He was having problems with us as tenants. Joe had car parts on the back porch, the cellar was looking like a teen clubhouse with mattresses and couches thrown about and glow—in—the-dark paint on the walls, and we were always using some pancake griddle invention ofJoe‘s that Grandpa said was a fire hazard. He took everything he didn't like out to the backyard and stomped on it, making a statement obvious to all of us. We were out. Ma didn’t know what we‘d do. We had no place to go that we could afford, and she was sure we'd end up once again in 9; place like Columbia Point. One day after a trip to the beach in South Boston, Ma walked through the Old Colony Housing Project in Southie and talked to some old friends who'd moved there from Columbia Point. She spotted an empty apartment at 8 Patterson Way and went right into the office of Dapper O‘Neil. a local city counselor, who has since acquired a reputation in Boston as a bigot. often making public state- ments about blacks and whites staying separate. But he also has a strong record for Constituent services. for doing anvthing he can for GHETTO HEAVEN families in trouble, regardless of their race. Dapper saw that Ma was in an emergency situation with eight kids and no money and no- where to live, and pulled a few strings for us to get the apartment at 8 Patterson \Vay. Ma was thrilled, as if she’d died and gone to heaven by getting a Place in the all-white South Boston housing projects. She yelled up to all the neighbors on Jamaica Street that wed struck a great bit of luck, six rooms for eighty dollars a month, heat, light. and gas included. and it’s all white~we wouldn‘t have to go back to the black projects! I didn't know why the white thing was so important. While I ”d become familiar with the nightmarish stories from Co— lumbia Point. my own experience had been that we got along much better with the black kids in Jamaica Plain. who seemed to have more in common with us than the other kids with Irish parents. We drove into Old Colony in one of Joe's shitboxes, with a few mattresses tied to the top of the roof. and each ofus carrying a gar— bage bag full of clothes and canned goods. We rolled slowly through the maze of red bricks. checking out the neighborhood. with its groups of young mothers sitting on the stoops. rocking their baby carriages back and forth. Kids splashed in wading pools on the hot summer day. while gangs of teenage boys huddled on street corners. shirtless and with rolled-up bellbottoms, no socks. and expensive sneakers. An occasional man would stroll down the street. more than one with a bottle in a brown paper bag. I knew what was in the bag because that was how my Aunt Nellie kept her booze hidden when she wanted to drink outside. They all stopped whatever they were doing to watch us coming down the street. Tough -looking teenagers approached the car. stand- ing apart from the crowd as if to challenge anyone willing to take them on. My mother just kept smiling and waving at all our new neighbors. She pointed to all the shamrock graffiti and JRA and IRISH POWER spray painted everywhere. and said it looked just like Belfast and that we were in the best place in the world. She Walked up to people and talked to them, trying to get in on their {s1}- MICIIAEL PATRICK MACDONALD conversations. The other mothers couldn‘t help answering her ques- tions, but they remained standoflish, not wanting anyone to think they'd be welcoming outsiders into the private world of Old Col- ony. Neighbors watched our every move from windowsills and doorstcps, and I was scared. I‘d Seen tough-looking people before. But these were white, like us. There were a couple of young people in wheelchairs, people with deformities, and one teenager with recent stab wounds in his stom- ach. While we carried bags and mattresses up to our third—floor apartment, larger groups of teenagers began to gather. A group of girls about Mary’s age stared her down and muttered something about her being a “nigger lover" (Mary still had her Afro). She stepped up to them and told them to speak up and say it to her face. They all kept quiet. The local boys laughed and tried to instigate a fight. My mother inst kept smiling and waving at everyone in the midst of the tense atmosphere. Calling “Hey, how ya doin‘f’" up to people in windows. as if she’d known them her whole life long. She figured that they were all Irish, all in the same boat as she and her kids, and besides. she had to make this work. She carried up her accordion and warned everyone that she'd be playing a few tunes tonight on the front steps. VVC went into the apartment and started to paint the walls with the paint the maintenance office had left for us. It was the same color that all of the walls already were: that glaring greet) that I 'd seen at Mass Mental. We brought out the rollers and brushes, and I got busy painting the bathroom as soon as possible, before my mother could take on the job and do her usual scheme of painting every inch of the bathroom the same Color, including the ceilings. floor. toilet, sink, and bathtub. She always did this, and within weeks we'd have big white spots on our tub and sink, where the paint had started to chip and peel. I painted the four walls and left signs up for nobody to touch the wet paint, and for nobody to paint the toilet. Ma came out of one of the rooms carrying a pointy brown bug with a coat ofarmor and antennas waving in all directions. Ma said {<2} GHETTO IIL‘AV’I‘N it was a cockroach, that we‘d had them in Columbia Point, and that I'd better get used to them because the place was loaded with them, She wanted to get to know some of the neighbors and she figured that the cockroach might be a good conversation piece to bond ovcr. She knocked on the neighboring apartment door and asked the woman who answered if the bug she was holding in her palm was really a cockroach. The woman looked disgusted and wouldn't open her door more than a crack. saying she wouldn't know what it was, or what a cockroach looked like, that she'd never seen one in her life. Then she slammed the door. Ma came back laughing, saying the wotnan was a phony bitch, “And how could someone live in the project and not know what a cockroach looked like 7“ I was worried that the neighbors would start blaming us for bringing all the cock— roaches into Old Colony. for loads of them had started staggering out of the walls and cabinets. dazed by the smell of paint. Ma said that the new paint would chase them out of our house for a couple of weeks. loading up the woman next door with them. "And that'll show her what a cockroach is!" The kid on the first floor was friendly and offered to carry some bags up for us. He was my age, and my mother dragged him upstairs to show me my new friend. We both went downstairs and sat on the front stoop of 8 Patterson, and he laid out the rules of the neighbor- hood. He told me I'd have to get in a few fistfights before I became part of the neighborhood. that I'd better not be thinking about bringing triggers or spies over from Jamaica Plain. and to never ever rat on anyone to the cops. Danny was a good kid and was trying to look out for me. I wondered if I‘d have to fight the teenage boys whose teeth were already knocked out. and who were now staring up at our windows. He assured me that they wouldn't bother me. They'd be waiting to jump my older brothers. “They’d never mess With anyone smaller than them.“ Those were the rules. lust then. Danny's mother came out of her apartment screaming and calling him a "cocksucker" because there was no Pepsi in the house, and why hadn‘t he gone out to the store earlier. when she told i€3i MICHAEL PATRICK MACDONALD him to. She was carrying a butcher knife. “I’ll cut the fucking dick right ofiofya," she shouted loud enough for the whole street to hear. He ran from the front stoop, disappearing down one of the tunnels that cut through the maze of brick buildings, and soon returned with a bottle of Pepsi. When he came outside again. he had his four- year—old brother with him, and his mother screamed for the two of them to go fuck themselves and slammed her door. Danny forced a chuckle and shrugged his shoulders, and asked me if I wanted to go to the park with him and his little brother, Robbie. I went upstairs to tell Ma where I was going, and found her on her hands and knees painting the toilet and sink, including the pipes that carried water into them. I gave up on explaining why we couldn‘t paint certain parts of the bathroom, and went off with Danny and Robbie. He showed me Carson Beach, and drew a line in the sand right about where we weren‘t supposed to cross over into “Niggerville.” lust across that line was the black beach, and Colum- bia Point Housing Project about fifty yards away. He told me all about Columbia Point, and how there were all these blacks living there with no teeth, bottles of booze in paper bags. and guns and knives. I didn't dare tell him that I was born there. When we went home, we bought a can of tonic to share and put it in a brown paper bag. laughing and pretending it was booze, just like the blacks. and the guys in Old Colony, and my own Aunt Nellie. We hung out in front of I.I.'s Liquors drinking our fake booze until a group of kids our age came walking by. They said hi to Danny. but one of them bumped into me with his shoulder, backed up, and threw his two arms up in the air saying. “I offer you out.” I had no idea what this meant, but it sounded too polite to be coming from a kid with a black eye and a scowl on his face. Danny told me this meant the kid wanted to fight me. I put up my two fists the way my brother Frankie’d taught me, one for defense and one for offense. and stood in the boxer pose with one loot Forward. He kicked me in the balls and when I was bent over he pulled my T—shirt over my head and started beating me with anything he could pick up: sticks. {Ml GHETTO HEAVEN rocks, and the beer cans that littered the street. ' he Other kids formed a circle around us. and Danny and Robbie were the only ones cheering me on. Some adults came out of the liquor store to take sides as well. When they saw a cop car pull up. the adults chased us all back into the project across the street. calling us little bastards. We ran in all different directions. My older brothers were pissed oPt that I'd lost a fight, and Frankie started to schedule daily boxing lessons for me. I‘d have to meet him every day after school to start punching the bag. Frankie told me I'd soon be able to beat the hell out of Brian Noonan. the kid in front of the liquor store. There came a time when I believed I could beat him. and wanted to prove it in a street fight. but by then I didnt know how to "offer out" someone I had, by then, nothing against. Brian and I had become friends. the day after our fight. which was nothing more than my initiation into Southie‘s housing projects. My brothers and sisters had their own initiations to face. One day. Mary and her friends from Iamaica Plain were taking me to the park. We began to pass through one of the tunnels that cut through the courtyards of Old Colony. and we saw a gang of girls lined up against both sides of the tunnel wall. When Mary and the two girls from J.I’. passed them. the Old Colony girls jumped them from behind. Mary grabbed two of the girls by the hair and banged their heads against the brick wal l. Then, holding on only to another girl’s hair, Mary flung her body against the wall. This was the leader of the group, Sally Dlik gan, a neighbor. Alter this. word spread not to mess wrth Mary. and she became accepted among the tough crowd. But we still had a hard time from the boys in the neighborhood. Within the lirst week of moving into Old Colony. a bottle came through the open window of one of our bedrooms and smashed against the wall. When we looked out we saw a group running through the back courtyard laughing and slapping each other five. Later in the day. the same group was outsrde in front oiour building, leaning against cars and pointing up to our windows. They were {fit MICHAEL PATRICK MACDONALD drinking beer, and in the sweltering heat they'd taken their shirts off and tucked them into the back pockets of their rolled—tip dungarees, Johnnie, loe, and Frank decided to go downstairs to face them. They walked slowly otit of our building with their own shirts off. My brothers were built~they‘d been bodybuildingfiand each of them carried a machete at his side. They walked right up to the crowd of scrawny toughs and asked which one had something to say. Ma was up in the third—floor window and pointed otit which one had thrown the bottle, and he tore down the street yelling back at my brothers, threatening them with names of gangsters that meant nothing to us yet. My brothers came back upstairs once it was clear that no one else had anything more to say to them. The next day, a neighbor tipped us off that the boys from Old Colony had called their friend Freddy Callaghan, a known street thug and a murderer, about us. \Ve’d heard that he‘d recently walked into a bar in Andrew Square and shot up the place in retalia- tion for his own brother‘s murder, which had never been solved. Freddy Callaghan was planning to come over that night, a neighbor told us, to give us a lesson in real Southie street justice. Freddy was known to carry a gun, and someone said he‘d definitely shoot all our windows out. Ma went to his older brother, who said there was nothing he could do about him. Freddy was gone in the head, he said. 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 Lip 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 l<ids"—me, Kevin. and Kathy——out 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 lgél GHETTO HEAVEN 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 Nina and Grandpa, and one of them called Ma to find out what was going on. Ma told them. and they all began pacmg the floor: and looking otit 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 andusheld said that Freddy Callaghan had come and gone. altcr 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 oversi7ed underwear and chicken legs, jumped out of bed and grabbed a long pipe that was by his bedside. ready to march down- stairs and defend his family. Leena, Sally, and Nana begged him not to go, pulling on his undershirt to hold him back. Davey jumped out ofbed, 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. lg 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 or Nana boiling tealand setting the table, When we went downstairs we saw loe 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 ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ‘ ' r 1ck in. that he d been out drinking and hit a damn construction 1' t — l t;/,‘ MICHAEI PATRICK MACDONALD 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. "i le'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. Be- ing 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 projects~0ld Colony, D Street, and Old Harbor—and 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. \V hen 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 \Vest Broadway where things were a little more normal, He said we’d be 158] “HILTTO HEAVEN bettcr off sticking to \X/t-qt Broadway, which passed through the Lower End. We 53“” 1330?}6 w“ knew from Old Colony strolling down West Broadway, a parade mostly of young women With baby carriages. I started [0 “OtiCE that Southie people had a similar look about their faces. There was a toughness to Everything but the eyes. Everyone had those humotOus sparkly eyes that l knew were Irish, having seen thEm in lamaicu Plain and at the lrish Field Day in Dedham and in the COUntCnL‘lHCeg of my own relatives. But these lrish eyes were set in faces that looked as if they‘d spent much of their time defying WhfltffVi‘l' Shit had come their way. It was a proud look. though. and only the eyes betrayed the hearts behind the hard~as- arrock faces they'd learned to project. When folks from Southie smiled or laughed. They looked like completely dilierent people. Groups of teenagers from different territories of the Lower End passed each other withom saying a word. They were on neutral ground 011 West Bmadwav There was also what Danny Called "the wall," a long red»brit-]; partition alongside Southie Savings Bank. lined With dozing WiHUS Who sometimes stirred to fight each other. The wall was the perfect place to watch t...
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