Authors: Michael Patrick MacDonald
Ma used to give me a dollar food stamp to buy candy on the way home. I'd stop by the store extra early in the morning to buy something for a nickel so that I'd have the ninety-five cents to show on the way home, when I was with the other kids from school. I didn't want to pull out the food stamp in front of them, even though I'd seen their own mothers shopping with food stamps. Ma was generous with money and sometimes she'd give me two or three dollars in food stamps. But then I'd have to go to two or three stores to buy something for a nickel at each and collect the change. The stores were nice enough about letting kids buy candy or gum, which I don't think was actually allowed by the government. I didn't want to push it, though, by changing three different food stamps in one visit to the same store. Kathy and Kevin would sell theirs on the street for a little less than they were worth, so they could buy some smokes, which was definitely not allowed with food stamps. And one time I brought food stamps to the movie theater on Broadway. I thought no one would see me with them when I tried to buy popcorn, but the popcorn lady got everyone in the lobby laughing as she told the story to whoever came by the counter. “That's the best one yet,” she howled. “These people think they can use food stamps for anything they want!” I had to hide from her the rest of the night. A few days later I saw her using food stamps herself at the supermarket, and she got a pack of cigarettes with them.
We all were on food stamps, but most of the jokes around town were about black people on welfare. The same thing with living in the projects and eating wellie cheeseâthose were black things. So was shoplifting and selling hot goods, although we justified that as long as we didn't steal from businesses within the neighborhood, or from other neighborhood folks. One time when a Southie kid stole another Southie kid's bike, it was called “niggerish.” He should've gone into town to get one from a rich college student if he was going to do it at all. But he was new to the neighborhood and hadn't learned the rules yet.
The Boston Housing Authority came through the apartment on a regular basis, to make sure the house was kept up. The house was looking great since Coley had moved in with us, building furniture and cleaning rugs. But whenever the inspectors were coming over with their pens and notebooks, Ma had to get rid of Coley for the day. Our apartment passed inspections, but the project itself wasn't looking too good. The ancient mailboxes in the hallway were falling apart. Everyone had to greet the mailman on welfare check day, so as not to risk having it stolen from a flimsy mailbox. The trash incinerators had the steel shutters broken off, with open flames coming out of the stack. You had to throw your trash from a distance in order to avoid being set on fire. The front doors to the buildings were hanging off their hinges. And when a hallway window broke, it would stay broken through the winter.
Long after the BHA inspectors were gone, when it got dark, the roaches would come out in droves. They didn't like the light, so if you ever got up in the middle of the night, you'd see them scatter all over the place as soon as you flicked the switch. They'd be covering the kitchen floor, carrying food and hovering around the slightest drop of liquid. They loved tonic, especially Sprite. I'd figured this out one morning after I'd left half a glass of Sprite out overnight and had woken up to find about twenty dead cockroaches floating around in the cup. That's when I realized that they had wings too, just like the huge water bug roaches that came out in the summer. But they never used them until they started to drown in the Sprite. They all floated in the cup with their useless wings spread out. I stared at them for a good long time, wondering if they didn't know how to use their wings, or if they just didn't know they had them, until it was too late to save themselves.
We were keeping the house as clean as we could, and the roaches were still taking over. So at night I started to leave all the lights on so I wouldn't have to deal with them if I woke up to go to the bathroom. I also put glasses of Sprite in all the corners of the house, to kill as many as I could. I'd count them in the morning, and one night I got about a hundred. It became fun. We weren't the only ones with the problem. I started to notice that most of the other apartments in Old Colony were also lit up all night long. What did we care. We weren't paying electric billsâthat came with the rent. We weren't paying heat bills either, and the project didn't mind blasting the heat into our apartments nine months out of the year. Most people in Old Colony had to leave their windows open all winter long. You couldn't really control the levels on any of the radiators, and the heat would kill you if you ever closed the windows.
I was always shocked to go to my cousins' house in the suburbs, where they'd shut off any light that wasn't being used and turn the heat way down at night. I was used to project heat and would freeze if I ever slept anywhere else.
There's no place like Old Colony,
I thought. All the rules we were learning didn't make any sense anywhere else. Not the rules about heat and light, not the rules about what to wear, not the rules about money. In the suburbs the kids were wearing cheap Wrangler corduroys and scruffy sneakers. Our designer clothes had to be spotless so that no one would call us “project rats” or accuse us of being on welfare. There'd been a few times when Ma had brought home sneakers that cost $1.49 at Kmart, thinking we'd wear themâbut no way! Everyone in the neighborhood called the cheap sneakers “bobos.” We made Ma get the very best from Skoochie's shopping bag of designer goods. She was always generous with whatever money she had. When we'd go to the store with our cousins, we'd ask Ma for a few dollars, whether in food stamps or real money. She'd give me a fiver sometimes. My cousins would each get about a quarter from their mother and father.
And they're the rich ones living in the suburbs with a father and all
, I thought.
Even though Ma would give us whatever money we wanted, I started to get in on some of the scams local kids would come up with. It wasn't big stuff. We didn't get a lot of money; it was more for something to do. I'd go out to the main intersection outside the project, along with Kevin and my friend Danny, to hit up the commuters going back to the suburbs from their jobs in downtown. We took a tin can from the trash, covered the sides with white lined paper from a notebook, and wrote
SOUTH BOSTON YOUTH HOCKEY
on it. On the top of the can was a plastic lid with a slit cut into it for dropping money in. We'd approach the drivers, and I couldn't believe how nearly all of them would give us money while they were stopped at the red light.
During rush hour, we'd make about ten bucks each. We started doing it every day, and the only time we were chased away was by one of the drivers who was a local from City Point, who said that he was a coach for South Boston Youth Hockey himself and had never seen us before in his life. Kevin told him we had to save up to buy the hockey sticks and pads and helmets before we could join, and he got out of his car and said he'd better not see us out there again. That's when we changed our labels to
OLD COLONY BASKETBALL.
Kids in the project were more likely to play basketball anyway. It was cheap; all you needed was a ball and a hoop. No one at the intersection would know if we were really in a league or not, and certainly no one in Old Colony would care to investigate it. In Old Colony we stuck together.
It was on one of those days at the intersection in the spring of 1974 that we saw the headlights blinking and heard the honking and loudspeakers screaming something about the communists trying to take over South Boston. Everyone came running out of the project to line the streets. At first it was scary, like the end of the world was being announced. But then it seemed more like a parade. It was even along the same route as the St. Paddy's Day parade. One neighbor said it was what they called a motorcade. The cars in the motorcade never seemed to stop coming. It went on for a good half hour. Irish flags waved out of car windows and one sign on a car read
WELCOME TO MOSCOW AMERICA.
Many more had
written on them. My favorite one was
HELL NO SOUTHIE WON'T GO.
That was a good one, I said. I started clapping with everyone else. But then I had to ask someone, “Where are we not going?” One of the mothers said, “They're trying to send you to Roxbury with the niggers. To get a beatin',” she added. Someone else told her not to say that word to the kids, that they were blacks, not niggers. “Well it's no time to fight over that one,” someone else said. “It's time now to stick together.” When I asked who was trying to send us, someone told me about Judge Garrity; that a bunch of rich people from the suburbs wanted to tell us where we had to send our kids to school; that they wanted us to mix with the blacks, but that their own kids wouldn't have to mix with no one, because there were no blacks in the suburbs.
Everyone waved to Dapper O'Neil when he rode by in the motorcade. They loved him. But they got really excited when they saw Louise Day Hicks, their favorite committee woman. I'd never heard of her before. She looked nice enough, though, like someone's grandmother, a tubby older woman with a flowery old-fashioned dress like Nana wore and a small church hat perched on top of her round Irish face. People said she was from Southie, but she didn't have a face that looked like she'd been through much. Her father was a judge and she lived in a big beachfront house in City Point, but she was okay with us. “She's the only one sticking up for us,” someone said. So I liked her too. Someone on a bullhorn started shouting about the rights of the people, and about not letting the government force this and force that on us. I knew he was right, and I felt myself getting angry along with him. And I also knew that these adults were going to put up a fight for
God, we couldn't have been living in a better neighborhood!
Everyone's sticking together
, I thought.
Everyone's going to fight for us kids.
We all cheered as the motorcade made its way toward City Point.
When the motorcade had passed, everyone lingered on street corners in the project talking about “forced busing.” It was going to begin in the fall, they said. They all seemed to know it was going to happen, but win or lose, everyone believed in going down fighting. I saw neighbors talking, people I knew had grudges against each other before. In the following days, I even saw people who were from different parts of Southie getting over their differences to talk about the busing. Mothers from City Point talking on Broadway to mothers from the projects. I couldn't believe it. The whole feeling in the neighborhood was changing. Before long, we kids could cross any turf line. We were united. Some said it was the communists who were making this happen. Still others said it was rich lawyers, judges, and politicians from the suburbs, and that it had nothing to do with the blacks, that they didn't want to come to Southie any more than we wanted to go to Roxbury. In the end it didn't really matter who we were united against, as long as we kept up our Southie loyalty.
Some of the neighbors raged against “the niggers” more than ever before. But others were starting to talk about how this wasn't about race. That it was about poor people being told that they have to do things that rich people don't have to do. Our mothers couldn't get over people thinking that we had something in our schools that blacks in Roxbury didn't have. “Our kids have just as little,” they said. “Neither side has a pot to piss in and now they want us to fight over who can piss in what alley.” I couldn't believe that there were people who were now willing to admit they were poor. I'd never heard that one before in Southie, especially not in the project. We weren't poor; that was a black thing, being poor. But the ones who talked about us being poor were few and far between, and it wasn't long before the talk became all “niggers this” and “niggers that.”
Toward the end of the school year, we could feel that our lives were about to change. Like most of the mothers in Old Colony and in South Boston, Ma was trying to get us out of the public schools so we wouldn't have to be bused. The first year of busing, Phase One, would only include kids at the high school levels, matching up Roxbury with South Boston. Then the next year, Phase Two, would bring busing to the whole city. But parents were in a race to get their kids into Catholic schools before the seats filled up. The teachers at the John Boyle O'Reilly were talking to each other about how strange it was that the officials had picked the poorest all-black neighborhood and the poorest all-white neighborhood for “their social experiment.” Even the second graders at the O'Reilly talked about getting ready for the bloodbath. Ma got us into St. Augustine's School down the road. The priests were letting people pay according to their incomes, and some of the poorer mothers would now have to work St. Augustine's bingo nights for their cheap tuition. I'd been getting to like the O'Reilly School, but I was glad that I'd be able to stay in the neighborhood, away from the bloodbath.
One day that June, we had to stay in our classroom a couple of hours extra. It was getting warm outside and we all wanted to go home and play and get ready for the motorcades, which had become a weekly protest in the neighborhood. But we weren't allowed to leave. We saw the police and state troopers starting to assemble on the streets outside. The teachers told us that they were afraid there would be riots today and that we couldn't go home until it was safe. Racial fights were breaking out around the city after a white woman had been covered in gasoline and set on fire in Roxbury. A police officer came to all of the homerooms to make it clear that we weren't allowed to leave the school. I was scared and just wanted to be with my family. After a while they let us go, and when I got back to Old Colony, with the police cruisers still speeding up and down streets, all the talk in the neighborhood was about the coming race war.