Friday, March 23, 2007

I Was Born A Poor Black Child

Today if you drove through the neighborhood I grew up in you would think that I was born a poor black child. Unlike Navin Johnson (Steve Martin's character in his timeless, comic masterpiece "The Jerk") I knew I was white. You couldn't help knowing you were white growing up in the Hyde Park section of Boston in the 60's and 70's. Two words: Forced Busing. Not only did you know you were white, you knew you were Irish. Every kid in my neighborhood had an Irish surname, Burke, Whelan, Brady, Hurley, Norton, McGonagle, Flynn, Galvin...Costa (we had one Italian kid nicknamed "the mini-guinea"; as the name implies he was a short guinea). We had one black family and one hispanic family in "the projects". The Fairmount Development was the whitest of the projects in Boston with maybe the exception of those in Southie. Family lore is that my dad's Uncle Jimmy, who had been a Mass. State Rep. pulled some strings to get my mother and father in there soon after I was born. It had the reputation as being one of the cleanest and nicest developments in the city. It borders Milton on one side, so there was this feeling that we were almost in the Suburbs. This proximity to people owning their own houses and cars that weren't two-toned and rusting gave many of those growing up there a sense that the projects weren't the end of the road. It gave others the ample opportunity to hone their skills as car thieves and burglars.

We were the poorest of the poor families living in the projects. My father left when I was seven, after impregnating my mother six times, once with twins, in seven years. After my brother Derek died (two months old) and my father left, my Aunt Rosie moved in to our two bedroom apartment raising the tally to two adult women, three boys and two girls in about 800 square feet. We were the U.S. version of "Angela's Ashes" poverty, dead babies, tea and cigarettes.

My mother, god rest her soul, somehow found a way to send me and my brother Mark to Catholic School which was great for our education, but horrific for our self-esteem. Being the early 70's busing was a boon for the Catholic schools . The parents that did not want to move to the suburbs to avoid having their kids bussed from Hyde Park to Roxbury or elsewhere sent their kids to Catholic Schools. These kids weren't the lower middle-class kids that populated the Catholic schools when my mother went to Mission Grammar School or Mission High School in the 50's and 60's. These were upper middle-class kids who had no problem reminding my brother and I on a daily basis how poor we were either directly by pointing out that our school blazers were not bought at through the school store(Bradlees specials) or bragging about their trips to Florida or Bermuda on school vacation. We had one black girl in our school, a few grades ahead of me, but we were the white equivallent: living in the projects, on welfare with chips on our shoulders.

We moved to Northampton, Massachusetts in February of 1977, but we might have well moved to the moon. You could not find anywhere in the Commonwealth more different than Hyde Park as Northampton. We moved into the projects, but unlike the projects in Boston these were privately owned subsidized apartments called "Hampton Gardens". There were no gardens in sight, but things were a lot rosier. For one we weren't the poorest family in the place (that title could be shared by a number of Puerto Rican families, whose extended families overflowed even the spacious four bedroom apartments). My Aunt stayed in Boston, so we now had four bedrooms for six of us. Another plus is I didn't get in my first fist fight for a week. Living in Hyde Park, two days didn't go by without someone punching me in the head or me punching someone in the head. That was refreshing. There was one huge change, Desegregation. What Judge Garrity couldn't do in Boston, my mother did with a 100 mile move due west. Hampton Gardens was a melting pot. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Whites, Cats, Dogs living relative harmony. There was one scary moment the second day living there when four Puerto Rican kids ambushed me and my brother with snowballs (I was amazed how good they were at making and throwing snowballs being from such a hot climate), but it wasn't driven by a hatred for whitey; we were the new guys and needed to be initiated.

I had never talked to any black kids my age before moving to Northampton. My Grandma Norton had some black co-workers at Peter Bent/Brigham Hospital who would sneak me some desert from the cafeteria where they worked. I thought they were nice, but I always feared the black kids I would see getting on and off the train every time I would take the Orange Line into downtown Boston. The most common sentiment expressed about blacks in my Irish-Catholic en cleave was "Niggers Die". My mother was in the minority as far as her opinion about blacks. She never uttered the N-word and the few times she heard me say it, I got a good, well-deserved whack in the head. I quickly realized that my friends from Hyde Park were wrong, black kids didn't smell different (although their skin does get ashy if they don't lotion up), they weren't all thieves (if anything they stole a whole lot less than my friends in Boston) and you could see them at night, even if they weren't smiling.

My mother passed away in the Summer of 1999. That fall we had a an informal gathering at Saint Joseph's Cemetery in West Roxbury where her ashes are buried with my Aunt Rosie and Grandma Norton as well as thousands of other poor Irish-American Bostonians. After gathering at the cemetery I took my brother Greg and my sisters Deb and Chris back to 26 Woodglen Road in the Fairmount projects. They were amazed that we ever lived there having no recollection of the place. They couldn't believe we crammed seven people into such a small place. On that spectacular fall afternoon we were the only white faces around. The current residents must have thought "Damn Jehovah Witnesses, kids don't answer that door!!!". I watched my sister Deb while she surveyed the abject, color-filled surroundings and pronounced "I was born a poor black child.....".


Suldog said...

You know, David, I was just studying your "about me" photo and that could almost be passed off as a photo of my Dad holding ME - excepting the more modern clothes and your tattoo. Scary.

Suldog said...

And now that I've actually had a chance to read this story, I'll tell you "Good job." I'll tell you more privately.

Anonymous said...

Good story and well written! Actually it was excellent and heads and shoulders above the last entry. Good for you. Opening Day at Fenway brings back many memories. Have a great time, but be careful you don't drink to many beers if you have to drive home.

David Sullivan said...

Thanks for your comments. My wife will be going to the game with me so I'll either take it easy on the drinking because she is a light weight and shouldn't be driving after even one or she won't drink and I'll get loaded!! There will be many stories about sporting events I have attended, including various opening days at Fenway (I had season tix in the bleachers for a number of years)

By the way I would never feed my cat tainted food in order to kill it; I would just bring it down to one of the Chinese restaurants in town in exchange for some Vegetable Lo-Mien (Just kidding, the cat is fine and will probably live another five years to spite me)

Mushy said...

On my favorite movie lines of all time.

Liked the story and I have a similar style. I'll be back.

Thanks for stopping by.

chris said...

Hey david, I laughed so much when I read " I was born a poor black child".I'll conitnue to read on

plez... said...

very nice post. we're probably close in age (i grew up in the 60's and 70's in upstate new york in very similar surroundings). since i grew up in a small town, we didn't have the desegregation issues that plagued larger cities, but there was a definite Black & Puerto Rican part of town and non-minority upper crust part of town. when i was in school, i was always the only Black kid in class. i never had another Black schoolmate until my family moved to Virginia when i was in high school!

as you so deftly articulated in your post, it appears that the issue of race relations was a problem for adults moreso than for the children. i rarely had problems with race while growing up in new york.

i love the title of your post, because by most accounts i was born a middle-class white child! *smile*

Ali Sunderland Perry said...

I grew up on Laval Street, behind Central Ave and the high school. You hit the head on the nail with Hyde Park in the 70's. Thanks! It was a good read. I live on the west coast now and when I visit "home" and drive down Laval Street I am the only white face within a mile. We owned our house for 30 years, as did most everyone else in the neighborhood, and now I don't know anyone. Weird. I guess it's true that you can't go home again. My husband freaked out when we saw a drug deal going down outside my old house. He threatened divorce if I ever brought the kids down during the night again. Dang those wimpy Californians.

Anonymous said...

what a great read . i was born and raised in hyde story would run very much like yours even though i was only 6 when you left .but if i stayed to raise my family there in this day and age they would have a very different tale to tell. filled with gangs drugs crime and viloence, not that we didnt see these thing in our times,we did only it was not so rampant or obvious. also we had roots there some of our families were there for generations and we had our neighbors looking out for us too.not today dave not today. i had a huge family in hyde park on both sides,(burkes byrnes fegans andrews)back then. now only my uncle jim and aunty anne reside there . i miss old hyde park it was a great place even during some trying times. i love the poor black kid refrence too funny.angelas ashes is my fav book too ,if you have sense of humor you can get through anything .

Anonymous said...

btw i recomend reading a book called "A Cops Cop" its about superintendint connoly of BPD. there is a chapter on the forced in boston .Hyde Park High had 100 cops on duty daily .it was even more dangerous than southie for the students coming in from roxbury dorchester mattapan or any place other than hyde park.
this book will give you a new look and maybe even more respect for police . they see things that we cant even imagine. let me know what you think!

Anonymous said...

This is a great read, and I enjoyed it very much. I also know what its like being a white, Irish-Catholic kid growing up in Hyde Park in the 70's and you were spot on, especially about the busing.