One of Us
When I was six years old, I was bused to school at John Winthrop Elementary on the Dorchester/Roxbury line. The school was in a mostly black neighborhood, about 3 miles from the South Boston neighborhood where I lived, but even then I understood it as enemy territory.
My mother had made that clear: She was aggressive about her stance against busing, and “those blacks.” By which she didn’t mean us. I was the youngest of six kids, and the darkest, but if you asked my mother, she’d tell you we were Irish. Virginia Roberts was a proud supporter of Jim Kelly and Billy Bulger, hugged them flamboyantly at every St. Paddy’s Day Parade. They would give her a kiss on the cheek. I would cringe. Tall, thin, and attractive, she wore a shamrock brooch on her housecoat. Her kinky hair was usually covered by a kerchief or a wig. Her skin, like mine, was a warm beige in the winter and a deep red-brown in the summer. But we were Irish, she insisted, and nothing else.
Sitting in a neighbor’s kitchen, racial slurs would buzz around like hungry mosquitoes waiting to suck my blood out and leave me cold. Inevitably one would land on my mother. “Why can’t they just stay in their neighborhood? No offense, Ginny,” waving a cigarette at my mother. “You know we don’t mean you!” My mother would swat away their words with indifference; of course they didn’t mean her! She’d scoff right along with them.
When I was a child, the origin of our shared skin tone and hair texture was a mystery. Out on the street, though, kids had theories: “I heard your grandmother was raped by a black man,” they’d say to me, or, “I heard your mother was found on a doorstep and your grandmother took her in.” What was clear to me, even as a little girl, was that my mother wanted no part of our shared racial heritage. The bubble of denial she created for herself was solid Teflon. Everything rolled right off of her and onto me. At home, I was Irish. On the street, I was something different: “jigaboo,” “nigger,” “Oreo,” “Jenny the spook.” These names were spoken to me almost as if they were endearments, nicknames. Nearly everyone in Southie had a nickname.
I was from Southie; I was one of them. I was their black girl.
Gangsters in the Backyard
We lived on the corner of O and Third streets, above the club where the Mullen gang ran their operations. The club was literally an extension of our house, thanks to my mother’s close friendship with club member Pat Nee. I could get into the back of the club through our back hallway. I came and went as I pleased, sometimes hiding out on oppressive summer days in its air-conditioned coolness. I’d go behind the bar and draw myself a Coke from the soda gun. I didn’t fully understand then what took place in that club; even grown men didn’t set foot in there except by invitation, and when they did, they may not have wanted to be there. These were dangerous guys; this was a dangerous street.
As far as I knew, I didn’t have a dad. I knew the father of my siblings wasn’t mine, though this was another thing my mother didn’t talk much about. I didn’t ask her about it. It was almost as if the absence of a father removed the idea of having one from my head.
But I had Pat Nee.
Everyone knew who he was. When Whitey Bulger went to express his opinion of the busing plan by shooting up the offices of the Boston Globe, Pat went with him. Whitey helped Pat round up guns to ship to the IRA. When Whitey killed a police informant, Pat helped bury him.
I read about most of these things in Pat’s autobiography, years later. But back then, I knew nothing of this. To me, Pat was a point of stability. He’d always been close to my mother. Their families had been friendly when he was growing up on Grace Court, back when he was just a skinny, picked-on kid with a thick Irish brogue and a stutter. My mother, 10 years older, pulled him aside one day and told him something he would never forget: “Listen, you can’t let people pick on you. You gotta be tough in this neighborhood.”
As I lazily sipped my Coke in the quiet coolness of Pat’s club, I would trace my finger over the surface of a table carved from the trunk of a tree that had, someone told me, actually grown in Ireland. The counties of Ireland were etched out by hand on the top, and Pat had pointed out where he was born, where my grandmother was from. I was trying to feel a connection, hoping that looking at something from Ireland would make me feel more Irish.
Pat and I had the same coal-black, dead-shark eyes, and his mentoring provided me with the same steady confidence he carried with him. He always spoke to me as if I were an adult—listened to me, asked me questions, and would then tell me, usually in four or five short words, what I should do if I had a problem. “Never let them see you scared,” Pat taught me. “That feeds them.” He didn’t shout, he rarely moved his hands when he spoke, and he looked you directly in the eye. It was odd to me, because I saw the way people feared and respected Pat, and the way they kissed his ass. Men in the neighborhood talked to him in lowered voices, and they would go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with him. Yet he treated me more respectfully than he did those people. I also noticed people never called me a name in his presence.
“Is anyone giving you a hard time?” he’d ask.
“Tell me the truth.”
It was hard enough to think about the names I was called, let alone say them out loud to Pat.
“Listen,” he’d say, looking me right in the eyes. “Listen. You’re one of us.”
From Southie to Eastie
In 1980, when i was in the second grade, I was bused along with the other white kids to the Donald McKay K–8 School, all the way over in East Boston. It felt like going to war. Like soldiers, we were answering to a higher command; our parents, our government. We were all kids from Southie on that bus, and the minute we were on the road we were a squad, a team, a platoon, and we would look out for one another. It was finally something I had in common with everyone else. Kind of.
“You’re on the wrong bus,” said a boy in the back of the bus. It was my first day of school.
He glared at me. It was a kid I didn’t know, but I could tell he was from Old Colony, Southie’s notorious housing project. Kids in my neighborhood, the Point, never ventured there. Most kids from my neighborhood went to parochial school, so here I was, one of the few Point girls on a bus full of kids from OC. A girl sitting next to the boy made eye contact with me. “Come sit with us.” I took it more as a dare than an invite, and confidently walked back to where they were sitting.
“Look at you, tough brown Point girl coming back to sit with OC,” the boy declared. “I like this kid!” I was in. And that was how it was in Southie. You were in if you could stand up for yourself and hold your own.
I don’t remember much about the McKay School, but I remember the bus rides—rides that seemed to last the whole day. The bus turned down to First Street, then hit Summer Street, streaming past the ugly refineries, the Edison Plant, and the shipping terminals. As we passed the Arabian Coffee Company, the warm, nutty scent of coffee covered the smell of fish and low tide. From the elevated expressway, I would stare at the buildings, the rusted green highway, the garbage that was still there from the day before. I’d watch the progress of the parking garage being built in Haymarket. Stare into people’s windows at the Harbor Towers. Wonder where their kids were going to school.
Most of my friends from my immediate neighborhood went to a parochial school directly across from my house. I could have thrown a rock from my front door and hit it. People were always confused when they found out I was bused out of the neighborhood: “Wait, didn’t you go to St. Brigid’s?” I only went to St. Brigid’s for Sunday school. It was eerie to be in the school my friends went to on weekdays; I sat in their classrooms and even shared a teacher with them. I could see the names of kids I knew from my street hanging on the wall of achievement. I would sit in my friend Kerri’s desk, looking at her schoolwork, judging her outside-the-lines drawings and C-graded spelling tests.
Why I was being bused across the city was unclear—adults believed kids did not need to understand, just comply. I heard that every year, a lottery told you where you were going. I knew how lotteries worked—you put your name in to win a prize—but this did not feel like winning. It was as random and meaningless as any of the other decisions that were made regarding us. I was able to piece together scraps from the rhetoric in the neighborhood, the debates and discussions around a smoky kitchen, the images and headlines I saw on the TV news. I knew that everyone hated a judge named Garrity and he was trying to trample our rights. But like all of the puzzling things in my world back then, I didn’t think about it; I just tried to survive it.
There was very little in the way of dialogue to help me understand any of it, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. That was a way of life in Southie: Don’t ask too many questions, just mind your own business. It didn’t matter to me anyway. Like most kids, I was more focused on the immediate problems—who I might have to fight on the bus, who was going to make a joke, who I’d have to worry about right now.
In school, there were rules. You stuck with the kids from your neighborhood. In the instances when we were forced to interact with Eastie kids, especially the black kids, it was confusing for everybody—I know I’m supposed to hate you but I have to pick you for my kickball team. So then we would be friends for that brief period of time, but it was a distant, temporary friendship. I was aware that I couldn’t get too close to them. I figured if I were friends with a black kid, it would confirm to everyone that I was really black. I was managing an already teetering identity in Southie, and I couldn’t afford it. Besides, they didn’t want to be friends with me either. They saw me as a race traitor, a white wannabe, a defector.
Any new kid I met—black, white, or whatever—had just one question for me: “What are you?” Always. I learned quickly that my mother’s answer didn’t work. “I’m Irish” was met with skepticism, laughter, or confusion: “And what else?” Even adults would give me a fake smile, and I knew they didn’t believe me. Black kids would say, “Oh, you think you’re white, bitch?” Spanish kids just spoke Spanish to me—“¿Cómo se llama?”—and when I stood there in silence, they called me “puta,” sucked their teeth, and walked away.
The relentless questions inevitably led me to many fights and helped me become an accomplished street fighter. It wasn’t something I had set out to become; it just happened. I firmly believed that I was an accelerant of violence. The mere sight of me could ignite it, fuel it, and blow it up. I used violence as a means of survival, an effective one—and I was tactical enough to understand that there could be no relenting. There could be no backing down, ever. Every insult, name, threat, or attempt at humiliation had to be met with consequences. It was the one language people from Southie understood.
One day, coming back from a trip to the bathroom, I was alone in the hall when two black girls cornered me. I recognized one of them from gym class, where they’d have us whip balls at one another “playfully” in dodge ball. She saw me and curled her lip.
“Look at this bitch. She thinks she’s better than us, trying to be a white girl from Southie. You tough, bitch? How tough are you now?”
I dropped my books. “Let’s go,” I said. “I offer you out!”
They both looked at each other like I was crazy, and I realized they had no idea what I was talking about. “I offer you out” was the Southie way of saying, “I want to fight you”—an oddly polite declaration of the beating you were about to receive. There was a civility to it.
“Let’s go!” I said again, standing in a fighting stance (another Southie fighting rule was to never blindside someone—you always “square off,” a nod to the strong boxing tradition in the neighborhood). The two girls sucked their teeth and laughed at me.
“Fucking crazy white wannabe,” the first one said. “You’re lucky I’m wearing my good shirt today or else I’d kick your ass.”
They just walked away. I stood there, fists still up, waiting.
The House on Third Street
There was a rhythm to everything in a neighborhood like mine. You’re so insulated that patterns become repetitious, and you notice when they’re off. The way a car drove down the street, the way somebody walked, talked, asked you a question—if it was out of order, it was dangerous. This wasn’t a place you played games. You’d better know where you were and what you were doing there. If you weren’t from the neighborhood, we knew.
State Senate President William Bulger lived down the street, and every year he sent an updated version of the same Christmas card—a picture of him and his wife and a growing gaggle of well-dressed children in matching blazers, arranged in front of the house. My mother beamed with pride when the card came. It was handwritten to “Virginia and family.” She hung it on our mantel.
Federal agent John Connolly came and went on O Street: FBI good guy in a three-piece suit, a white carnation and a huge coif, waving to all the old ladies on the front stairs, kissing Mrs. Cassidy who sat snuffing tobacco off the back of her hand in a lounge chair in front of her house. The FBI making house calls for meatballs at lunch.
On Third Street there was a large, weed-ridden, empty field, as if some finite tornado cut a crooked swath through a city block and the world had abandoned it. We built forts in that field. Wading through city brush that was surely teaming with mice (if not rats), collecting wood from the neighborhood and building shelters in the depths of an urban jungle. Life skipped on, eerily, in the summer heat, as I waited for that moment when something was out of order—a car driving too fast, or too slow.
There was a house in the middle of that street, arguably the cutest, sweetest-looking house you could find on any of the city blocks that surrounded it. That small little house on Third Street was where I imagined laundry was folded quietly, cookies were baked, dinner was eaten at the same time every night. There was an urban tale around the neighborhood that the house had been owned by an old lady who had left it to a local kid who always shoveled her walkway in the winter. But really, the house was owned by Pat’s brother.
Later I found out what really went on in that house; it was Whitey’s killing ground. It was perfect for disappearing people: The basement was unfinished, so according to testimony during his trial, Whitey would kill his victims and have his associates pull their teeth and bury them in the dirt floor. They murdered people in that house while I was playing fort across the street in the field. I wondered how many of them I had eyeballed on the way to their deaths.
I didn’t really make myself think about it until I was researching this story. As I read about these murders, I felt estranged and disaffected from the world I thought I had known. How could someone be strangled to death as I rode my bike outside? Later, when Pat’s brother sold the house, Whitey had to find another place for his victims; he had them dug up and moved on Halloween in 1985. How could that have been going on as I was bobbing for apples and flirting with boys at the neighborhood Halloween party?
In a way, the house was of a piece with the rest of my experience. Everything in my life had two vastly different yet equally true sides: the one everyone could see and the one that was hidden. I was black but we were Irish; Pat was a loving father figure but a dangerous gangster; Southie loved me but tormented me. Everything, including me, was contradictory, two entirely separate things at once.
Only years later, when I was in my thirties and working on this memoir, did my relatives finally begin to tell me of the Cape Verdean sailor who may have been my grandfather. I still don’t know the nature of his relationship with my grandmother, whether it was an assault or an illicit affair that produced my mother. Even after they admitted his existence, my family was cagey with details: “He was good looking,” my Aunt Honey confided, then took it back: “Oh, but I wouldn’t know.” Then she gave me five dollars.
By that time, I had moved out of Southie for good. In some ways, I now think that my difference from others in the neighborhood was the reason I was able to leave, when so many others stayed. When I was 19, I was able to get a job with a student-loan guarantor that paid my way through Suffolk University. Later, in the early 2000s, I found the quiet town of Brookline was a respite from the chaos in Southie, then in the grip of an opiate epidemic. I acquired a new group of friends from work, most of whom had grown up in the suburbs. To them, I took on yet another identity: I was their street-smart townie friend. They didn’t care much about my race. In Southie, people I had grown up with were dying of overdoses, going to jail for stealing. My friends were planning trips to the Cape in the summer, Killington in the winter.
I still carried some of that Southie edge in the office, though. One of my supervisors once asked my fellow employees if I’d ever threatened them; they were incredulous. I wanted to slap her, but I’d found other ways to cope besides fighting.
I felt survivor’s guilt. There were times when I felt like a traitor to my roots, a phony. But there were other times when Southie still claimed me as its own.
Once, when I was about 31, I went shopping at Filene’s Basement for a stylish, affordable ski coat to wear on the next ski weekend we’d planned. I picked out a white Ralph Lauren at a decent price and took it up to the register. I didn’t recognize the white woman working there. But she greeted me like an old friend.
“Hey, how are ya,” she said. “You’re from Southie, right?” She admired the jacket: “Oh, this is nice.” Then she gave me a raised eyebrow and a wink, sliding the jacket into the bag without scanning it. “Don’t worry about it,” she whispered as she rang up my smaller items. She gave me a look that meant we both knew the rule: paying was for suckers.
I knew I had lost my Southie edge when I started to feel panic that we were both going to get caught. But I walked out of Filene’s Basement with that white jacket, unpaid for, burning a hole in the bag.
A Girl from the Point
Jennifer Roberts’s mother only acknowledged the Irish side of their heritage. Jennifer marched in St. Patrick’s Day parades, took First Communion, and was bused out of Southie with kids from the City Point neighborhood. Still, she says, “At home I was Irish. On the street, I was something different.”