Authors: Michael Patrick MacDonald
I started to get to know who Kathy was while she was in the coma. I felt guilty because I knew it was a little late. One day when she went back on the critical list, I was sure she'd finally die. She was only nineteen, and she'd have to be buried in the extra spot we had next to Davey. I went into her bedroom to prepare. Kathy had never wanted me snooping in her room, so I thought I'd probably find drugs or maybe even evidence of witchcraft from her friendship with Julie Meaney. I was looking for any explanation for what had happened to her life. But instead I found out all the things Kathy felt about herself, all the photos and letters she'd saved through her teenage years, all the insecurities of a girl in poems that played up how “K-O-O-L” she was. She'd kept every one of her school pictures, even the ones of her as a chubby fourth grader with hand-me-down clothes, photographs over which she'd scrawled
, or else scribbled out the face completely. In her teenage years, Kathy had become thinner, prettier, and she wore sexy stolen designer clothes and put on faces that looked like she was the baddest. “K is for Kool,” Kathy wrote in a jingle that spelled out the meaning of the letters of her name. Her other poems were about her friends and how cool her whole crew was. In letters to herself, Kathy wrote about how worried she was about girlfriends like Julie Meaney and Doreen Riordan, and how much she loved Southie. Her doodles on paper said all the stuff we saw written on the walls of the neighborhood:
SOUTHIE FOREVER, IRISH POWER, HELL NO WE WON'T GO, RESIST, NEVER
Then there was the scrawl
. I wasn't sure if Kathy was talking about white people being the best, or about Whitey himself, who some said was bringing up the finest cocaine from Florida these days. I already felt myself missing Kathy, but I didn't want to think about that. I gathered up all her secret belongings and got ready for another funeral.
The next day Grandpa met me at the City Hospital. He said he had some holy water from Fatima, where the Blessed Mother was said to have appeared before three children in 1917. He said I'd have to help him throw the water onto Kathy when the nurses weren't looking. Kathy was on the danger list again. Infections were taking over her body, and she had pneumoniaâthere was no way the nurses would let us dump water on her. But this was holy water Ifigured, so I went along with him. I was willing to try anything at this point.
The nurses caught Grandpa after he'd managed to pull the jug from out of his baggy trousers and pour it all over Kathy's head, hands, and feet. Grandpa was shaking and in tears, and he told one nurse to go fuck herself when she came in screaming and trying to pull the old-fashioned jug from his hands. More nurses came running in when they heard the fighting. They started to gang up on him, but Grandpa was too strong for them. He kept on reciting the Rosary and telling the nurses in his Irish brogue to shut their fucking mouths. The hospital johnny that they made him wear over his clothes into Kathy's sanitized room was hanging now from his two wrists, and he kept pulling it up over his shoulders, in between throwing more holy water and fighting nurses. The shower cap they'd made him put on over his hair was now barely hanging onto the back of his head. “Kathy, if you can hear me now, move your arm!” Grandpa yelled. And she did. We both looked at each other. After that he just took a deep breath and relaxed. “Now,” he said, “are ye right so?” That's what he said when he meant, “Are you ready?” I said I was, and we left the nurses still screaming.
We walked out into the first signs of spring after one of the coldest winters I remember, and the whole way home Grandpa had tears in his eyes, but the brightest smile. He said he had “a good feeling” now that Kathy would be coming out of it. He asked me if I had a good feeling too, and I said I did. But I think I had a good feeling mostly because for the first time in my life I saw how much Grandpa really did care about us, and how much pain he felt for Ma. Even though he could never tell her that.
All winter long, we'd been yelling into Kathy's ears, asking her to move a foot or an arm if she could hear us. Sometimes she twitched, but the day Grandpa threw the holy water on her was the first time she'd clearly heard us, and she'd slowly lifted her limp arm and held it there. The following week, on Easter Sunday morning, Ma got the call. “Kathy woke up!” she screamed, banging on the door to the bedroom where I was sleeping. When we all went in to see Kathy, she was lying there looking at us with her two eyes open, and she smiled. She tried to say “Ma.” Her lips said it but she still couldn't talk. It just sounded like air.
Kathy had to start all over again, they told us. The doctors didn't know if she would ever walk again; she had extensive nerve damage that couldn't be repaired. Half her body was almost useless, the right side, which they said was controlled by the left side of her brain, which had hit the sidewalk. When she came home to Old Colony, a crowd had gathered to cheer her arrival out of a handicapped van. Kathy was in a wheelchair. Her mind seemed to be all there, though. She was having speech therapy, and getting a little bit of her voice back. She had chewed off a good bit of her tongue in the coma, so it was hard to make out what she was saying. But she could keep up a conversation and knew who everyone was.
Within a year Kathy took her first steps, at first with a walker, then with a cane. She dragged her right side when she walked. Before long she was dragging her right side around Old Colony, to all of her old haunts. But more and more her walks were up toward Jackie O'Brien's to attend her friends' wakes. More and more often I found myself sitting at the window, noticing how clean-cut all the teenagers in the neighborhood looked, with ties on and wet hair slicked back like Catholic school kids, gathering out on Patterson Way for the three-block journey up Dorchester Street to the funeral parlor. You wouldn't even recognize some of the roughest ones among them. Kathy, Kevin, and Frankie put on their best clothes too. Kathy usually followed at the back of the crowd, with a few others who walked with canes or were wheeled in chairs. It was becoming another one of our Southie traditions, these groups of spiffed-up kids gathering to see their friends in a casket; and Ma found herself wondering which one would be next.
C H A P T E RÂ Â 8
UNDEFEATED FRANK MACDONALD
Hard hitting Frank MacDonald of South Boston met and defeated a very comparable Jose Miguel from Cranston, Rhode Island. Frank totally devastated his opponent with a series of crippling punches to the body which succeeded in incapacitating Miguel, who was of great courage but unable to fathom Frank's awesome body attackâcongratulations Frank, and corner men Paul “Pole Cat” Moore and Tommy “Stove Man” Cronin.
RANKIE WAS ONE OF THE FEW YOUNG PEOPLE IN THE
neighborhood not being dragged down by drugs and crime in 1980. His boxing career was one of the only things that brought good news to the streets of Old Colony in those days. Frankie was fast becoming a neighborhood hero, not only in Old Colony, but all over Southie. Everyone knew who he was, and he had a nickname now, “Frank the Tank,” for his “hard hitting” style that was bringing him championship titles, from Junior Olympics bouts at Free-port Hall in Dorchester to the New England Golden Gloves tournament in Lowell.
Mary and Kathy said all their girlfriends talked about Frankie's looks, and the guys who hadn't yet got caught up in the world of drugs talked about getting a ripped body like Frank's. He was working out seven days a week, running from Old Colony, through the Point, around Castle Island, and back to the project, always in his combat boots from his days in the Marinesâand sometimes he ran backwards. Frank was welcome all over Southie. The little kids in the neighborhood would run after him, asking him questions about his bouts and begging him to show how he knocked out his opponents. That's why Frankie was so intent on being what they called “a stand-up guy” in Southie. That's what they called anyone who would never snitch, even if it meant doing a life bid because of it. But in Frankie's case, it just meant he was clean-cut. Sure, he knew all the top gangsters in the neighborhood; anyone with Frankie's status in the Southie boxing world would. But he never got involved in their rackets, stayed away from the dust and coke they were pumping into the streets, and refused to work for Whitey, telling Ma that he never wanted to be “owned.”
But still Frankie had “the boys,” as we called Whitey's troops, working in his corner as he fought his way through four years of New England Golden Gloves championships, starting out as a two-time middleweight champ in the novice class, and ending up a light heavyweight champ for the whole region in 1982 and 1983.
South Boston Tribune
articles always pointed out the sound advice and leadership “the boys” were giving Frank in the ring:
Following closely the instructions of trainer Paul “Pole Cat” Moore and manager Tommy Cronin, Frank pursued his opponent most aggressively with a savage body attack which â¦ wore down O'Han to the point of becoming a bit careless and somewhat frustrated â¦ at being unable to figure out MacDonald's technique. Frank, once again following the instructions for his corner, succeeded in landing a barrage of lefts and rights to the jaw and head of his adversary. This will prove to have been a most excellent victory for Frankie in the upcoming bouts he is to have.
In Southie having the gangsters in your corner, in the ring or on the streets, meant that you had the ultimate protection and power. Grandpa didn't believe that, though. He had warnings for all of us, from his own days as a longshoreman on the Southie docks, where he said he'd worked alongside some men who ended up in the Brinks robbery of 1950, “the big one.” Grandpa always told us how the rule on the docks was to keep your mouth shut about the rackets you saw. He said many a time the longshoremen were lined up by the cops and asked to step forward and speak about crimes. That's how a waitress from the local diner got killed, after she stepped forward among the silent longshoremen. She was found murdered the next day, her blood scrawled into the letters
all over her cold-water flat. Grandpa had another rule of his own for the underworld: “Watch out whose hand you shake,” he told us. He said there was no such thing as a gangster giving something without wanting more in return. “They'll give you a quarter for a dollar any day,” he said. Grandpa had been trying to get closer to us since Kathy's coma and had even bought a condo in City Point. He got a closer look at the neighborhood, and he kept coming around the house cursing “that fuckin' Whitey Bulger, a no-good bum if there ever was one,” and wondering if the Bulgers were even Irish at all, with Senate President Billy Bulger's insulting Irish brogue imitations at drunken St. Paddy's Day festivities. “They're a shame to the Irish altogether,” he said, “and what respectable Irish person would name their kid William?” he asked. “That would be like a Jew naming a kid Adolf.”
We got a kick out of Grandpa's ranting, but Frankie started to avoid him when he came knocking at his door to give more speeches. Frankie had as many admiring eyes on him now as any of the gangsters did, and he didn't have to hijack trucks or sell poison in the streets to get that respect. He knew how to keep himself out of trouble. He was obsessed with the whole role model thing besides. One time Joe cracked open a can of beer while the two of them were walking down the street, and Frankie lashed out at him to “put that fuckin' shit away. There are kids around,” he said. Frank called the booze “fuckin' shit,” the same thing Whitey had called the pot Kevin was waving out the car window years earlier. But Frank meant it, not because it was illegal to be drinking in public, but because he knew that kids in Old Colony were watching his every move.
Kevin wasn't selling drugs anymore; he'd gotten into the bigger stuff. By the time Kevin was sixteen, he hardly ever slept at our apartment, so I didn't really know what exactly he was into, but I picked up a few clues. He was still very generous, so whatever scores he was making, it seemed the whole project would get some of the spoils. Like the time Kevin knew Ma needed money, and he gave her a few twenties. Ma was glad to get anything she could in those days, as the lines for welfare food seemed to be getting longer. But the guy at “Dirty John's” Sub Shop told Ma her twenty was a fake, counterfeit. He let her use it anyway. “What the hell,” he said, “they're all over the neighborhood.” Ma played dumb and off she went with her sandwiches, but she cursed Kevin all the way home. Not long after, when Kevin got locked up for driving a stolen carâhe wasn't getting caught for the big stuffâMa got a call from him at Charles Street Jail. I heard Ma tell him, “Jesus Christ, then you better keep your mouth shut.” When Ma hung up the phone, she told Frankie that Whitey had sent someone into the jail to visit Kevin, to give him a warning to keep quiet about where he was getting the counterfeit money if it should come up. Whitey knew that any Southie kids arrested for anything were likely to be worked on for information about his operations. And he made sure kids like Kevin, who were in and out of jail, understood that silence was the only way to stay alive in Southie.
After beating his stolen car rap, Kevin was back out on the streets, sharing more winnings with the neighborhood. One night there was a block party on Patterson Way, after Kevin gave out cases of beer and bottles of whiskey and vodka. I knew sometimes Whitey's boys hijacked trucks out on suburban highways, and I figured that was where Kevin had gotten all the booze. All Ma knew was that everyone out front was shitfaced and having a ball, and that we hadn't even seen the delivery man from J.J.'s Liquors making his usual Friday night rounds that hot summer night.
Then there were the clothes. That's when I got in line to get my share of Kevin's generosity. Kevin had what looked like a truckload of Calvin Klein jeans. I picked up four pairs for myself. I ripped the Calvin Klein label off the back pocket, though. Unlike everyone else in the neighborhood, I was going to punk rock clubs, where it wasn't cool to have designer clothes. My punk friends and I were rebelling against the fashion industry. So was Kevin, you could say, but I didn't want to explain to my friends from outside Southie the ideology behind my brother's robbing a truck.
It's when we started seeing the guns that Ma got pissed off. Seamus and Steven were six and seven years old, playing in the abandoned second kitchen in our breakthrough apartment, and found a pistol. When Ma saw the gun they were playing with, she screamed at them to drop it. She told Kevin to keep shit like that out of this house, and he just took his gun and left.
Another time I found a .357 Magnum in the hall closet, underneath a pile of clothes Ma had heaped on the floor. That same night Kevin came to the house after everyone was asleep but me, and started ranting about cops and snitches, and telling me I should do something with my life rather than just going out to see bands at the Rathskeller looking like a nut. He wasn't making a lot of sense. I knew he was high and by the way he paced the floors, I knew it was coke he was on. Then he went into the back hall where the gun was and disappeared into the room where he used to sleep when he was a kid. I heard one shot. I didn't know if Kevin was still alive, and I felt so tired of it all right then that I didn't have the energy to go look. Ma, Kathy, and the little kids never even woke up. Then Kevin came out, looking calmer. He said he felt better and thanked me for talking to him that night, even though I was thinking I'd hardly been able to get a word in. He left the house without the gun. I went into the back room to find the top half of the window open. He'd only fired a shot into the Old Colony sky. When I checked the closet, I felt the gun under the pile of clothes. And it was warm.
“Ma! Can I have fifty cents to go to the Irish Mafia store?” Seamus yelled up to the window, as loud as loud could be.
Jesus, that kid has a worse Irish whisper than I ever did,
I thought. Seamus was talking about the liquor store at the end of Patterson Way that Whitey had taken over, the one that had candy for little kids like Seamus, as well as being the drug headquarters for all of Southie. Whitey didn't live in our part of town. No one was exactly sure where he slept at night. Some people said he had houses all over the South Shore, but that he often came to dinner at his girlfriend Theresa Stanley's house on Silver Street, near City Point. Wherever he lived, I thought it was pretty smart of him to position his liquor and drug business right on the edge of our project, where more and more kids were doing whatever they could to get drug money. Everyone knew that no illegal activity in Southie took place without a stamp of approval from the back rooms of that store, Whitey Bulger's office. George Grogan ran the other office for the boys at another liquor store across the street from the D Street Project. Georgie stood on the corner in front of the store through all seasons, waving to the cops who rode by, and wearing his Notre Dame cap pulled over what Ma called his “killer blue eyes.” I always thought it was funny how he stood in front of a red stop sign poster in the store window that said
SAY NOPE TO DOPE.
We all knew everything about who was running what, but we didn't yell things like that up to windows on Patterson Way.
The Irish Mafia store was originally owned by one of the Stokes, but the news around town was that Whitey made him sell it to his associates, since Whitey couldn't have all the things he owned in town under his own name, with no job and the feds keeping an eye on him. Everyone said the booze was cheaper before Whitey took the store over. Now all the liquor stores and bars in town were buying their booze from Whitey's hijacking operations. They had to. No one was more powerful than Whitey, not the cops, not the politicians. “They work for him,” Ma would repeat. The liquor stores around town were charging way too much money, since they were forced to pay Whitey's high prices. “But what can I do?” asked Ma's friend Al, the one who partied until morning in his apartment next door. “Stop drinking?” Ma let out a howl of laughter at that one.
Frankie got closer to Kevin in those days, to keep an eye on him. Kevin went to all of Frank's bouts, hanging out near the gangsters he knew, who were the biggest boxing fans. Frank did what he could to talk Kevin out of the business he was in, but more often protecting his little brother meant helping him get away from the cops. Kevin was staying at Frankie's when David Reeves, a sixteen-year-old neighbor, yelled up to Frank's window that the cops were planning to raid the apartment. David's uncle, a detective with the Boston Police and I guess a boxing fan as well, had told him to go warn Frankie. Frankie figured there was nothing to raid, so he paid no mind. “Let them,” he laughed. When ten plain-clothed agents banged on Frankie's door, he opened it looking groggy and scratching his head, as if the cops had woken him from a deep sleep. They pushed Frank aside and raided the house. They came up with nothing. What they didn't know was that while they were knocking, Kevin was scrambling around the house in all of his hiding places, pulling out shotguns and revolvers. Frankie had no time to fight with Kevin. He could only help him climb out the back window to the rooftop, and pass him the duffel bag full of guns.