Authors: Michael Patrick MacDonald
My mother cherished those words and got everyone at the Donut Chef laughing while she made a few of them feel her biceps and showed her leg muscles. My brothers and sisters laughed too. We were on Ma's side when it came to stories about the no-good bastard. We always felt a rush of pride with Ma's favorite line, “I was always a fighter.” Grandpa had told her that when she was born she'd had to be brought into the world with forceps, and out she came with two black eyes, clenching the two fists in front of her. She bragged that her life was a battle from the start, and she was proud to show that she could take anything. “Feel that muscle,” she'd tell the guys at the Donut Chef.
The free bus came to take them all back to Columbia Point before dark, when it was dangerous to walk even a few blocks. All the other white families from Columbia Point were glad to see Ma and the kids climb onto the bus. They knew she'd be telling stories from one end of the bus to the other, keeping everyone laughing. As the bus approached Columbia Point though, things turned somber, and Ma says that's when the white families would start telling their stories of being attacked and of being scared to be in a black project. If only we could get into Old Colony Project in Southie, they'd say. Many were counting their days on the waiting lists for the white projects. Ma says that a few on the bus would call the blacks that word that we were never allowed to say in our home. Others on the free bus just said they would feel more comfortable around their own, where the kids wouldn't be threatened and attacked for being different.
Before long, we were one of the last white families holding out in Columbia Point. The white neighbors on the free bus were getting few. Many of them had fled to the Southie projects. And my family was beginning to stick out like a sore thumb on those scary walks back to our apartment at nightfall.
At the time, waterfront areas in Boston were still reserved for the ghettos because of the pollution and rodents. But Monticello Ave. is gone now. The streets have been changed around. Today, waterfront properties are some of the most sought-after areas in Boston, and are being developed for people with money. What was once Columbia Point is now a development primarily made up of white urban professionals. The buildings have been renovated, the rats are gone, and the stigma of the past has been erased with a new nameâHarbor Point. But one-third of the neighborhood is still occupied by poor black families paying rent according to their income. And a few of the poorer black families say they're feeling they might eventually be squeezed out by the single white tenants who live such separate lives and don't want to pay high rents to live near poor people with kids and the problems that come with all that.
I don't actually remember anything about our days in Columbia Point; I was only a baby when we finally fled. But those stories from my family, repeated like legend, have always been with me. Ma liked to say there was “no time for feeling sorry for yourself,” but I knew the blows she received must have hurt. Her fractured skull and broken ribs and the everyday threats made her want more for us than to be living in an unsafe project. I knew that even if he was in heaven praying for us, Ma would have given anything to have Patrick back with us. And I knew she never wanted her kids to be called “charity cases” again.
Ma had only one way out of Columbia Pointâto take her parents' offer and move us into their triple-decker in Jamaica Plain, which she did in 1967, less than a year after I was born. The apartment was on a tree-lined street in a neighborhood of working-class Irish families. We'd now have a yard for the first time, much more room, and freedom in more ways than one. My brothers and sisters could go outside whenever they wanted without getting jumped. Plus, it was just us and Ma now. Dave MacDonald was gone from our lives, and this was the greatest freedom of all.
There were only two bedrooms. The six boys slept in one, the two girls in the other, and Ma slept on the couch. We plopped our mattresses onto the hardwood floors and made ourselves at home. The floor of the boys' room was mostly covered by mattresses. The remaining space was reserved for piles of clothes, clean but never folded. We slept side by side, with some lying across the bottoms of the mattresses; usually Kevin preferred this spot. He could fit there best, being the skinny runt we all called him. I always thought it strange at friends' houses to see a high bed, perfectly made, with layers of sheets and blankets for different purposes: one sheet to hug the mattress, another to put over you, a light blanket coming out over the top of a matching quilt. It all seemed like such a big deal to make out of sleeping. I decided my mattress on the floor, covered with a tangled pile of blankets, was better than all that fuss. I felt bad for my mother, though, who had to sleep on the couch and was lucky if she got a blanket at all. Usually she'd cover herself in our winter coats. She said she liked them better than blankets. Even after some religious people came around with loads of army blankets for us, she'd still call out from her bed, asking me to get her a couple of coats to put over her. “Those blankets are scratchy old things I wouldn't give to a dog,” she'd complain. The couches Ma slept on were also close to the floor, with their legs ripped off the bottoms. Once one leg broke, the rest of them had to go. In later years, we started to take the legs off our couches immediately after buying them from the Salvation Army. Why wait for the day when one of the wooden legs would crack and throw the couch lopsided while everyone was squeezed together watching Saturday morning cartoons or “Soul Train”?
Neighborhood kids were thrilled at the amount of freedom in our home. Most of them had couches covered in plastic, and had to eat at the dinner table and answer their parents' questions about school and play. We could walk on top of mattresses and couches with our shoes on. Even jump up and down on them, and have pillow fights. We could take curtain rods down from the windows and have sword fights and scream “on guard.” We could eat food whenever we wanted and wherever we wanted. We never once sat down at a fixed time at the dinner table. There was no dinner table. Besides, there were just too many of us. Ma would make a big pot of somethingâusually an invention, mixing the last three days of leftovers into one big mushâand you'd slop some in a bowl, and find a corner of the house where no one would bother you.
Most of the families on Jamaica Street were Irish American, and some parents were actually from Ireland. My mother and her sisters spent a good part of their childhood years on this street, so we were familiar with many families who had been there for a couple of generations. The Sullivans and the Walshes lived across the street, the Rowans next door, Dick and Bridy Burns down the road, and Mrs. Carrol to the left of us. They were all part of a tight-knit Irish community that spanned Boston. The Irish in Boston all feared each other's gossip, and Ma always said that certain news of her would be “all over Ireland.” As a kid I imagined that she meant this literally, and couldn't believe that a whole country would care about things like the length of Ma's miniskirts, which seemed to be a preoccupation of my grandparents and the other God-fearing Irish parents in the neighborhood.
My mother continued to play the Irish accordion for money at the local barrooms. The welfare office of course didn't know this, and if they ever found out we'd be in worse shape than we'd ever been in before. We'd be out on the streets. But the welfare check certainly couldn't support all of us, and so Ma made some money for the kids doing what she loved to do: entertaining people. She'd get about thirty dollars for groceries at the end of a night. We'd go to McBride's down past the projects at the bottom of our hill, or else to the Galway House on Centre Street. Kevin would show he wasn't such a runt by carrying her antique accordion, which she'd played since she was sixteen, and which was now held together with glue and electrical tape. It never lost its tuning or its booming volume, though, and she preferred it to any newer accordion. Then she started bringing her guitar to do country-western songs, songs like “Your Cheating Heart” by Hank Williams and “My
” by Tammy Wynette. These songs were often dedicated with a cackle of laughter to her “ex-husband, Dave MacDonald,” or “Mac,” as we'd all started to call him now that he was a thing of the past.
I'd listen to my mother from a barstool, along with all the old drinkers who were slouched over mouthing the lyrics between long cigarette drags. I'd wait until one of them would notice me and offer to buy me some chips or a pickled egg from the big jar I was staring at. Meanwhile, Kevin would be off scheming about how to get in on a little of the drinking money placed carefully under the noses of all these drunk people. Sometimes he'd put on a sad pauper's face and pass a hat for our mother, as if she weren't already getting paid by the bar. Kevin often got sympathy, being as bony as he was. The drinkers said he looked half starved and would give him a dollar sometimes. But Kevin wasn't collecting for my mother at all. By the age of seven, he was already finding ways to “get over.” And since he always shared his spoils with me, I kept my mouth shut. A few times Ma found out and made him hand over the money to her. She was thrilled to get more than the thirty bucks the bar paid. In the end, Kevin didn't mind because it would all be spent to stock our refrigerator anyway, and he was proud to show off that he was “a born provider.” Keeping the money from my mother was really just a game to see if he could play the player. Ma always told him that he should've lived during the Depression, that he would've been able to support a whole family back then.
Like my mother, Kevin was outgoing and would use his way with people to make more money. He played the spoons by taping two kitchen spoons together and banging them up and down his legs, arms, and back. He had great rhythm and could keep double-time. He was acrobatic, and could walk on his two hands, his skinny body straight upside-down. The teachers had called Kevin hyperactive, and he bragged about that to friends and strangers alike, as if he'd been given a title of importance. When he wasn't entertaining for money, he was out shining shoes at the bars. He saved up for a shoe-shining box and took special care of it, hiding it in a safe spot every night before he went to bed. He had a sweet look about his face, and people were drawn to him. I spent a lot of time tagging along on Kevin's exploits up and down Centre Street, the main drag in Jamaica Plain. As long as I could keep up with his speedy pace through the store aisles, I'd make out pretty well, getting my fill of candy or toys from Woolworth's. Kevin was generous. Whenever I'd hear the expression “He'd give you the shirt off his back,” I'd picture Kevin. I always thought that the expression was made for him alone. He'd literally give you the shirt off his back, and had done so more than once. It might be a shirt swiped from the back of a truck, but that was beside the point.
Every spring we looked forward to the Irish Field Day, way out in the country, in Dedham. It was a day of Irish entertainment, games, rides, and food to raise money for the African Missions, which worked for some starving children far away in Africaâthose children we always heard about when we weren't hearing about the poor hungry children of Ireland who would walk miles to school with no shoes at all on their callused feet. It's because of those kids so far away that we were never allowed to complain about our lot, and would get down on our knees to thank Christ for America and those orange blocks of government cheese from the welfare office. The Irish community came from all over Boston to support the African Missions. All our relatives would be there: my aunts, cousins, Nana and Grandpa. Our family usually piled into one of the souped-up cars my brother Joe was working on, with doors, hoods, and a roof that were all different colors. Joe was always fixing up big old cars that he could drive around while proudly smoking a cigar and checking out girls. Joe said he looked like a pimp, but my brother Davey called him Jethro and said that we looked more like the Beverly Hillbillies.
One year we barely made it, breaking down on the dirt roads twice. The backfiring and clouds of exhaust let everyone know that we'd arrived. And we made a scene climbing out of the car windows too, since as usual Joe's doors didn't open. Ma hurried through the crowds to the side of the stage, and hollered up to the emcee, pointing to the accordion over her shoulder to let him know she'd be next to entertain. My grandparents had to run and hide for the shame, but the crowds loved Ma. She made everyone feel they were at a real party back home. Some even dropped their American middle-class airs, to toss each other around, doing set dances on the dirt in front of the stage.
In the meantime, Kevin scouted out the scene for ways to leave with more than he'd come with, and I followed looking for my share. He played a game of darts with his only quarter, and in no time he'd won all kinds of stuffed animals. There was a dart table where you had to aim for the stars scattered across the backboard. What they didn't realize was that Kevin had gone to Woolworth's early that morning to snatch a whole box of those same stars to put on the ends of his darts.
Before long Kevin ended up getting a job at one of the game stands. They were probably sick of him winning and figured it would be cheaper to pay him a day's wages. He ran the games with energy and wit that drew customers from all corners of the field, all the while pocketing quarters when no one was looking. The more customers he drew, the better he made out, and the less likely that anyone would notice a shortage of profits. I watched my brother wheel and deal as I heard my mother's voice from across the field belting out “The Wild Colonial Boy.”