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 together....in 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.....".