Authors: Michael Patrick MacDonald
When Davey came home from Ireland, he seemed different, shaking and edgy. He started to fight a lot with Ma. One morning I awoke to my mother's screams. She was lying face up on the floor, crying and pleading, with a look of pain. Davey was on top of her, beating her up, and all of the other kids were trying to drag him off. Very soon afterward Davey went to Massachusetts Mental Institution for observation.
At first the doctors said Davey would be out after the weekend. In fact, he didn't get out for another three years. They later told Ma that he was in bad shape, that he'd had a nervous breakdown. The doctors at Mass Mental convinced Ma and Grandpa that what Davey needed was shock treatment, to eliminate his aggressive and potentially criminal tendencies. At age fourteen Davey received shock treatment, and he was never the same again.
I went with Ma every day to Mass Mental. She again had no one to babysit me, and I never wanted to leave her side anyway. The first time I went was terrifying. We walked into the big brick institution on Fenwood Road in Mission Hill, and immediately I was overtaken by an unnatural smell that I would forevermore associate as “institution smell.” Hospital, juvenile corrections facility, prison, or morgueâall would smell the same to me from here on. It wasn't a putrid smell. It was almost hygienic but nonetheless sickening. It smelled like
This is not where you want to be, and you'll never go out the way you came in; that's one thing we'll make sure of.
The steel elevator doors slammed behind us, and up we went to the ward. I looked up at the others on the elevator and started my newly invented game of trying to figure out which ones were the inmates and which ones the attendants. I was usually wrong. I'd have my answer once the patient became fixated on me and went out of control with laughter, sadness, or rage. I seemed to trigger emotions for the patients, and Ma said it was because I was a kid and that they were being brought back to whatever happened to them in their own childhoods. I thought it was because I was the seventh son and had special powers that only they could read. Most responded to me with a sad fondness, and often one would seem to be pleading with me from across the elevator.
We got off, and the hygienic institutional smell was now mixed with the stink of piss; the heat blasted from radiators under barred windows that were locked down; and a layer of cigarette smoke hovered just above my head. I held onto my mother's hand as howls, shrieks, and fits of laughter echoed down empty corridors. This was like the haunted house at the carnival, but it was far worse because all of the lights were on, we could see the spring sun shining brightly outside, and there was no doubt that the suffering in this place was real.
We walked into the TV room where the air was blue with cigarette smoke, blowing in all directions. Everyone we saw there had a favorite body motion that they would repeat over and over again while muttering some monologue. We saw Davey, who let out a big happy “Ma!” when we walked into the room. One or two of the people in the room continued their movements oblivious to our presence, but most of them acknowledged us with only a short pause. Then they all went back to whatever the hell it was that they were doing: pacing, rocking, jerking, and chain-smoking. It was almost as if they were disappointed when they realized it was only us, and that things would be just the same as they ever were, with or without me and Ma.
It was always a relief to see Amen. He was a baldheaded black boy who jumped up and down, clapping like a Hare Krishna, overjoyed by Davey's excitement to see Ma. He'd memorized all my family's names, and after doing his happy dance, he always greeted us with, “And how is John MacDonald?” We'd say, “John MacDonald's fine, Amen.” “And how is Joseph MacDonald?” “He's good, Amen.” “And Mary MacDonald, how's she?” He'd ask about every one of us, all the way down the line to Michael MacDonald, even though I was right there in front of him. When he was finished, off he'd go, back to his daily business of clapping. I looked forward to seeing Amen every time we entered Mass Mental. Even if only for a moment, he took my mind off the heavy doors slamming behind us.
We soon became family to many of the inmates. Ma, her social self even in Mass Mental, was intrigued by the minds of the mentally ill. She would point to her own head and tell me that she liked to see what made people tick. So I always thought that was what patients were doing when they rocked, paced, jerked, and smoked: they were ticking. We brought Davey a carton of cigarettes every other day. He didn't smoke that many in two days, but when all the patients saw his smokes, of course they all wanted one. We got to know Anna, who didn't tick much. She just looked at me helplessly with tears running down her face, crouched forward with arms folded. I knew she wanted something from me, and there was nothing I could do to heal her or to save her from this place. I felt like telling her I wasn't really the seventh son, that I would've had to have been the seventh son in a row from the same father, and I didn't even have a father. I started stealing a few cigarettes from Davey's carton so that at least I had something to offer when the patients' pleading eyes overcame me with guilt. I would give them a smoke and they'd be delighted with me.
One morning we got to visit with Davey in our own private room, away from the TV and the ticking. An attendant who was so nice I thought he was a patient invited us in, telling us the room would be more “homey.” It had bare walls, painted a glaring institutional green. That combined with the smell of piss and ammonia made for anything but homey. There was no kidding ourselvesâwe were all exactly where none of us wanted to be, no homey about it. This was the haunted house, with the fluorescent lights and radiators on full blast, and the sun shining outside on a beautiful spring day. But it was nice of him anyway.
Davey and Ma talked. I stared out of the room's doorway at an elderly woman lying in what looked like a crib, with iron bars going up the side of her bed. She rattled the bars and lifted her head, gasping in terror, as if it might be her last breath and she didn't want it to be. There was something she still had to do before leaving us all. Like the rest of them, she looked at me like she was begging something of me. I reached in my pocket for a smoke to give to her, but was too scared to go near her. I felt helpless and wanted to cry, but I couldn't because who knows what that would set off in this place.
I turned away from the old woman, looked outside beyond the barred windows, and saw birds gathered in a tree, chirping away. But I couldn't hear a thing they were chirping. Just then “Joan the Hooker” ran into our room. She was wearing her blonde curly wig that day, and was decked out in a red miniskirt and white platform shoes. She screamed “rape” and started to barricade herselfâand usâinto the homey room. She blocked the doorway with couches and bureaus that seemed to have no other purpose than for times like this. Joan had been through this before: “Black Willey” was after her again. He started to bang down the door and push through the barricade of furniture, which was buttressed by Joan and Ma. Davey roared with laughter, but I was so nervous I shit my pants. Ma started to talk to Willey from behind the furniture. It worked. She got him to calm down, sit on the couch, and talk to us, while Joan sat on Ma's other side and cried. Willey told Joan that he was sorry, that he was in love with her, that's all. He apologized to me too.
Once everything seemed calm, the attendants finally showed up out of nowhere and tackled Willey to the ground. Willey fought them off and started to get the best of them, saying he would beat their white boy asses black and blue. Some of the other inmates took a break from the ticking and gathered around to cheer Willey on. It took six attendants to restrain Willey and take him off to “the quiet room.” We knew then that we wouldn't see or hear from Willey for a good long time. Joan screamed as they took him away, Davey laughed and told Willey to keep fighting, and I could still feel my legs shaking as I looked out the window again, thinking visiting hour was almost over.
At least I could leave every day. Davey couldn't, whether we wanted him to or not. The doctors said he was a danger to himself and to others. His imprisonment was made painfully clear to me one day when it was time for us to go, and he begged Ma not to leave him. “This is the fucking nuthouse,” he said, and he was starting not to feel so good, with all the medication they were forcing on him. There was no more laughing at the nuts. He didn't belong in here. “These people are fucking nuts, and the fucking attendants are even nuttier.” He'd stopped swallowing his medication and was able to blow the pills up his nose, to hide them when they made patients drink a cup of water and show their tonsils to make sure the pills went down. Then he'd spit them out when no one was looking. He wanted to come home with us. He wasn't crazy and didn't want to get crazy from this hellhole. The attendants made us leave when they saw Davey getting worked up. As we went toward the steel elevator doors, Davey bellowed “Ma” and tackled my mother from behind, knocking her to the ground. About four attendants were on top of the two of them, pulling Davey off Ma. I hated every one of them and started pounding on their heads. One of them restrained me, and the rest dragged Davey down the long corridor toward the quiet room.
When we went to the offices downstairs, the doctors assured us that no one was going to hurt Davey, that what he was going through was a normal phase that many patients go through after deciding that they're different from the rest and don't belong there. They insisted that Davey was a danger to himself and to others. They'd diagnosed him as schizophrenic.
The next time we went to visit Davey, he was locked in the quiet room. We looked through the small glass window in the heavy door. The room had no other windows at all, and everything was paddedâwalls, ceiling, floor. And there was Davey restrained in the middle of the floor, pleading something we couldn't hear through the thick glass. Ma pushed me away from the door, saying I shouldn't see this. Sometimes Ma got this voice, and you could tell that she wanted to cry but she wouldn't. That's what she sounded like now. We found out that we wouldn't be able to meet with Davey for a few days. So we gave out his carton of cigarettes and left. All the way home, Ma tried to reassure me, and probably herself, that Davey was okay, that the doctors were just getting him to calm down, and that he would be out of the quiet room and Mass Mental in no time. I thought that maybe all he needed was a cigarette, and he couldn't even have one, and that not being able to smoke would make him worse.
I'd come to hate Mass Mental. It didn't seem right. I knew the inmates weren't bad people; and whatever was wrong with them, it seemed as if they'd been put away so that the outside world wouldn't have to deal with their pain. I knew Davey'd been through bad things, growing up with a father like Mac and finding his baby brother dead. And to me, it seemed he was being punished for having gone through bad things. Ma said that Davey felt things more than othersâthe bad things in the worldâbecause he was so smart, and I thought she was right.
Even at the age of six, I had to wonder what good it might do anyone to be at Mass Mental on a beautiful spring day, so cut off from anything that's good about the world. I knew it wasn't good for Davey, no matter what the psychiatrists said. For my family, freedom had become the rule above all others. But now I knew, having felt the locked-up pain of the people in Mass Mental, that for Davey, those days were gone.
C H A P T E RÂ Â 3
N THE SUMMER OF 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 of Joe'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 a 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 statements about blacks and whites staying separate. But he also has a strong record for constituent services, for doing anything he can for families in trouble, regardless of their race. Dapper saw that Ma was in an emergency situation with eight kids and no money and nowhere to live, and pulled a few strings for us to get the apartment at 8 Patterson Way.
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 we'd struck a great bit of luck, six rooms for eighty dollars a month, heat, light, and gas included, and it's all whiteâwe 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 Columbia 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 of us carrying a garbage 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, standing 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 IRA and
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 conversations. The other mothers couldn't help answering her questions, but they remained standoffish, not wanting anyone to think they'd be welcoming outsiders into the private world of Old Colony. Neighbors watched our every move from windowsills and doorsteps, 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 stomach. 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 just kept smiling and waving at everyone in the midst of the tense atmosphere. Calling “Hey, how ya doin'?” 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.
We 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 green 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 of armor and antennas waving in all directions. Ma said 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 over. 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 woman was a phony bitch, “And how could someone live in the project and not know what a cockroach looked like?” I was worried that the neighbors would start blaming us for bringing all the cockroaches 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 neighborhood. 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 niggers 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.
Just 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 him to. She was carrying a butcher knife. “I'll cut the fucking dick right off of ya,” 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.” Just across that line was the black beach, and Columbia 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 J.J.'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 foot 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, rocks, and the beer cans that littered the street. The 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 off 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 didn't 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 Jamaica 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.P. 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 wall. Then, holding on only to another girl's hair, Mary flung her body against the wall. This was the leader of the group, Sally Duggan, a neighbor. After this, word spread not to mess with Mary, and she became accepted among the tough crowd.
But we still had a hard time from the boys in the neighborhood. Within the first 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 outside in front of our building, leaning against cars and pointing up to our windows. They were drinking beer, and in the sweltering heat they'd taken their shirts off and tucked them into the back pockets of their rolled-up dungarees. Johnnie, Joe, and Frank decided to go downstairs to face them. They walked slowly out of our building with their own shirts off. My brothers were builtâthey'd been bodybuildingâand 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 out 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. We'd heard that he'd recently walked into a bar in Andrew Square and shot up the place in retaliation 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.