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MY MOTHER COULDN'T FIND ME.
I was only a year and a half old, barely a toddler, and there were a very limited number of places I could be. My parents and I lived in a small basement apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it was the dead of winter, and she and I had been playing in the yard out back. She went inside for only a moment. When she came out I was gone. My mother was just starting to panic when she heard cars honking. For a second, she paid no attention; her son was missing, that's all that mattered. I had been born with a collapsed lung and had been given last rites at the hospital when I was two days old. I had survived, and my mother never wanted to risk losing me again. When the honking grew as frantic as she was, she ran up the alley and out onto the street.
There I was, in my snowsuit and cap, standing a foot and a half tall in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue, directing traffic. Cars were stopped. There was a crowd around me. She ran across four lanes and swept me up in her arms.
I don't remember any of this, but family lore has it that that's when they knew I wanted to be a police officer.
My father, Bill, and my mother, June, had been high school sweethearts in the Charlestown projects in Boston. They were married when my father got out of the service after World War II, and I was born on October 6, 1947. My father was Big Bill; I was always Little Billy. He worked as a longshoreman on the Boston docks. Two years after I was born, he used benefits he had coming to him through the G.I. Bill and, with my mother's father, Joe DeViller, bought what was called a three-decker house at 62 Hecla Street in the Dorchester section of Boston.
Three-deckers were a Boston housing phenomenon--entire neighborhoods were made up of them. They were three-story, wood-frame houses, with each story a five-and-a-half-room floor-through apartment, the equivalent of what in New York are called railroad flats. They were inexpensive and functional.
Dorchester was a working-class neighborhood. We didn't think of ourselves as poor, but no one in the neighborhood had a lot of money. My mother, father, my younger sister Pat, and I lived on the second floor. If we wanted hot water, we had to heat it in pans. For years, my mother cooked on a four-legged cast-iron stove, one of those old black monstrosities that today are retro and all the rage but back then were just old-fashioned. I was already a teenager the day they hauled that huge, smelly thing out and put in a hot-water tank and a real gas stove. We didn't get hot running water in our home until the early sixties, and that was a big day for the Brattons.
The house was heated by coal. Once a year, a truck backed up to the side of the building and tilted five tons of it into the chute. At five o'clock every morning, my father had to go down to the basement and temper the flames in the furnace to get it going for the day. He did the same thing as soon as he came home at night and then again at eleven
o'clock before he went to bed. It was quite an art just staying warm.
Wednesday was ash day, when the city came to pick up the ashes that a week of coal had produced. This was different from Ash Wednesday, when Catholics would ponder their mortality. This was Wednesday ash day, when a cloud of soot rose all over the neighborhood. An old truck with wooden slats on the side showed up, and a city employee, the ash man, shoveled us out. That was a job.
Coal ceased being the municipal heating fuel of choice in the 1950s, and at some point its use had dwindled to the point where the city wouldn't pick up ashes anymore; there wasn't enough work to support the ash men. But we had the coal furnace well into the 1960s, and for about ten years the men of the three families in our building--my father, my grandfather, and Mr. McNulty, who lived on the first floor--began spreading the ashes under the back porch. After a couple of years, the whole underside of the porch was packed in solid. We lived near the corner with an empty lot on one side and an alley on the other, and when we filled up our porch, we arranged with other houses on the alley to take them. We shoveled our own soot for a decade.
For extra heat we had a kerosene stove. It was a fire hazard, but it was necessary. Everybody had one, and throughout the neighborhood everybody's back hall smelled of kerosene because when you poured it from the can to the heater, the fuel would spill over and seep into the linoleum.
When you entered our apartment, you came into a hallway that ran the length of the creaky wood house. First door on the right was the bathroom with an old cast-iron claw-foot tub and pull-chain toilet with a wooden seat. Diagonally across from that was my room. It had two entrances: a door from the hall on one side but only a curtain between me and the kitchen. I never understood that.
Everything revolved around the kitchen with its cast-iron stove and black stone sink with the big brass fittings. The washing machine was in there as well, with a wooden hand-operated wringer and the revolving tub that shook wildly and made a thumping racket as it spun. My grandparents lived upstairs, and every morning my grandmother Ann would come down and hang out in the kitchen with my mother. They'd have coffee or tea, and the next-door neighbor, Dot Gorham, would come over and sit. Dinner, supper, all the important moments of the day happened there.
If you went left down the hall, my sister Pat's room was on the right. She is a year younger than I am. From there, you had to pass directly through my parents' bedroom to get to the living room at the front of the house. The living room had three windows facing out on the street; it was the perfect place to keep an eye on what was going on in the neighborhood. That was where I waited for my father.
From the time I can remember, my father worked a couple of blocks from home at a chrome-plating firm on Freeport Street. He would be out the door first thing in the morning for the eight o'clock shift and every afternoon at five past four I would look out that window, see my father walking up the block, and go running out to meet him.
I didn't have much time with my dad. In 1951, he got a full-time job as a mail sorter at the post office and from then on worked two jobs for the rest of his life. This was a much-coveted civil-service position, the kind a working-class family counted on for security, but it also meant I didn't see him a lot. My dad came home for supper, which we ate at four-thirty in the afternoon, and then either went off to work the six-to-two shift at the post office or went to bed so he could wake up at eleven-thirty and head over there at midnight. From the post office, he went directly to the plating plant.
Money was always tight. I don't think my parents to this day have a checking account. My father brought home his pay in cash and gave it to my mother, and she gave him some money back. They worked out of envelopes. My father kept his in the top bureau of their five-drawer dresser; my mother kept hers in the lower. There was an envelope for the egg man, who delivered every week and came up the back stairs on Friday nights to collect. An envelope for the milkman, who came every day. We had accounts at some of the local stores at the Field's Corner shopping area about a half-mile from the house, and a dollar or two a week went into those envelopes.
Like a lot of people in the neighborhood, my parents played the numbers each week, and once in a long while my father's number hit and he came home with three or six hundred extra dollars in his pocket. He was making forty or fifty dollars a week at the time, so you can imagine what that was like. The only reason the old Boston Record-American sold every day was that people all over the city needed it to find out the winning number.
Our neighborhood didn't have a large department store, we had Mr. Brown, who came and sold clothes on Saturday mornings. His appeal was that you could pay him just two dollars a week on account.
Sometimes on Fridays after work, if he had a little extra money, my dad and I would drive to a lounge/restaurant over on Upham's Corner called Haley and McGuire's and order a pizza to bring back home. We would wait in the little lounge and I would have a Coke, and my dad would get a beer. I think my father enjoyed going to Haley and McGuire's. That fifteen minutes was almost like a little night out. My dad didn't eat pizza, he was a meat-and-potatoes man; pizza was a treat for me and my mom and sister, so he would get some French fries for his dinner. Of course, I had to have some, and from then on I was addicted to French fries with my pizza.
One night as we were leaving, I saw my father put fifteen cents on the bar. I took it. "Dad," I said, "you left this money on the counter."
"No, no, no, son," he told me. "That's a tip." Three slices of pizza were sixty cents, the fries were probably twenty, with the beer and Coke, the bill probably came to a dollar five. "For the waitress." He put it back. I had never heard of such a thing.
Sunday was the one day my father had off, and Sunday dinner was the best meal of the week. It was usually turnips and mashed potatoes and meat. (Meat in the Bratton household was done when there was no longer a hint of red in it. I had gray corned beef until I left home.) I ate the leftovers in sandwiches at school until Thursday. Albert du Plain's bakery nearby made bread for restaurants, and on Sundays my mom would send me there on my bicycle for a loaf of French bread, which was a real treat.
After dinner, we would take a drive. We would all pile in my father's car and head off for four or five hours. It was an inexpensive way to spend the day together.
We always had an old car. The first one I remember was a 1951 two-toned Ford black bottom, white roof, standard shift. I loved that car. My dad ran that Ford until the floorboards rotted out. In 1958, we got a silver '56 Chevy Impala with a white roof. We called it the Silver Bullet. My father would drive me, my mother, and my sister all over New England--down the Cape, up to New Hampshire. Fifteen miles outside of Boston was very rural, so driving the Silver Bullet to the suburb of Canton was like going out into the country. That was a big thrill. A lot of kids in my neighborhood never got to do that.
We always made it home in time to watch Walter Cronkite on The Twentieth Century. For Sunday supper, my mom took the mashed potatoes and turnips from dinner and made potato patties and sometimes fried up some baloney with it. At eight, we watched The Ed Sullivan Show, and then it was off to bed.
But no matter what the financial situation, every week my mother put away a dollar for vacation. And every summer we had fifty-two dollars, enough to take a cottage at the beach or go to a lake for a week.
We were a family that loved each other, but we were not outwardly emotional. There was no hugging or kissing. It was just something we didn't do. I don't think I've ever seen my father hug or hold my mother, apart from when they're dancing, but these are two people who are very much in love. Some people are great backslappers, quick with an embrace, a peck on the cheek, or a pat on the butt. I didn't grow up with that.
Dorchester was a lace-curtain Irish neighborhood, but not first- generation right off the boat. Besides the Brattons (we were Scottish and Irish and French-Canadian) you had Walshes and Quinns and McNultys and Devines. When I was growing up, there were still gas lamps in the street, and once in a while a city worker would come down the block with a ladder, climb up, and fiddle with the gas fixtures. Eventually, we got electric streetlights. The rag man was around with his horse-drawn drays, and the fruit vendor with his pushcart, and Charlie the ice-cream man in the Good Humor truck with no top on the cab.
We lived one house off the corner of Hecla and Adams streets, two blocks from the Edward Southworth School, where I went from kindergarten through third grade. Edward Southworth was a twelve-room brick-and-granite public school built at the turn of the century. It looked and felt like a fortress and was located on Meeting House Hill, one of the highest points in the city, which George Washington occupied when Revolutionary troops drove the English out of Boston.
I always did well in school, never had to work very hard, and was kind of a teacher's pet. Whenever a note had to be run over to the Mather School next door, I was the one chosen to run it. When it came time to clap the erasers--don't ask me why we thought that was such a great honor, you'd just get chalk dust all over yourself; maybe it was because you got out of class for a couple of minutes--I got the job. I moved across the courtyard to the Mather School, a much larger building constructed in the 1930s, for grades four through six. The separation of church and state wasn't very wide in those days, and one of my strongest memories is that every Tuesday afternoon at one o'clock, every student was marched out of Mather for two hours of religious instruction. The very few Protestants went right next door to the Universal Church of God in Christ. Almost all the rest of the school went to catechism class at Saint Peter's Church and School down the block. (I don't know if we had any Jews at Mather.) We lined up two by two, flanked by the school traffic monitors and the school crossing guards and the nuns in habits, the whole bit, and off we marched.
Saint Peter's was a gorgeous old church with a high spire and a beautiful interior. It would have been inspiring if I hadn't wanted to get out so bad. I went to church there on Sundays and then had to hang around afterward for Sunday school. I got a good education and a good moral grounding, but I could not wait for eighth grade to come so I could be confirmed and not have to go to Sunday school anymore.
One afternoon when I was about eight years old, a half dozen of us were out playing ball in front of the Edward Southworth School when we caught the attention of a local gang called the Parksmen. Local kids, twelve-year-olds, they were the big neighborhood bullies, and they used to fight with another gang called the Red Raiders all the time. We'd been playing ball, and the Parksmen broke up the game and took us hostage.
They put us on the front steps of the school and wouldn't let us go. They were much bigger than we were, so there was no chance of us fighting our way out. We were stuck. It started getting late.
Four-thirty came and went, and they wouldn't let us go. Finally, they let their guard down and I ran home.
"Where were you?" my father demanded. He and my mother weren't particularly worried about my safety--kids hung out in the streets all the time. What had him riled was that it was five o'clock and I had missed supper. There were rules--the family eats together was one of them--and I had broken one.
"The Parksmen held us hostage," I panted. "They wouldn't let us go.
They've still got some of the kids."
My father hopped up from the table, grabbed my arm, and off we went. He stormed up the hill to Edward Southworth. "We'll see about this," he muttered. I had to run to keep up.
I thought my father was the toughest guy who ever lived. He was a little guy, five foot eight, thin, about 130 pounds, but, boy, you didn't want to see him mad.
My friends were still huddled on the stone steps. They looked very glad to see us. The Parksmen were slouching in front of them, smoking cigarettes, on guard duty, a bunch of tough twelve-year-old boys. My dad walked right through the pack. He never laid a hand on them, he just put the fear of God in those kids.
"Who the hell do you think you are?"
The Parksmen backed off immediately. First, they fanned out in a semicircle, but my father gave them a look that told them he'd rip their heads off. Then they bolted. Our guys were free. That gang never bothered us again.
I don't know if my father has ever had a fight in his life, but he was a scrapper as a kid. His mother died young, and he and his four brothers were split up among the relatives. Somewhere along the line, my father developed the confidence that he could handle whatever came along.
You could tell in the way he carried himself. He never swaggered, but he didn't back down. In my parents' social circle, he was looked up to as the solid one, the good, hard-working, decent guy, the best at what he does, the rock, with a nice way about him. My sister and I were crazy about him.
One weekend afternoon, we were all up in the balcony of the Strand Theater in Upham's Corner watching a movie. The Strand was a beautiful old ornate theater, and on those Sundays when we didn't take a family drive sometimes we went to the movies. Behind us, a bunch of older kids were acting up, talking and laughing during the show. Tough kids. My father asked them once, politely, please to be quiet. That worked for a minute, then they started up again.
My father stood up, gave them the look, and growled, "If you don't shut up, I'm going to throw your ass the hell out of here!" They shut up, of course. And there was something about the toughness of that expression that stayed with me.
Once in a while, Pat and I would get it, too. We fought all the time, over everything, it didn't matter what. Coop two kids in a car on a Sunday afternoon drive and sometimes we got out of hand. Finally, he would have enough. He'd pull over, slam on the emergency brake, throw his right elbow over the front seat, and shout. "Goddamn kids, knock it off!"
The hand would go up, but he never hit us. It was just a threat. His anger would flare up and then be gone.
My mother, who spent more time with us, was the real enforcer. When Pat and I would go crazy, she'd come after us with a belt. Today, we'd all probably be in family court, but then we got a quick whack and were banished to our rooms.
At the same time, I was very protective of my sister. When I was in my teens, Pat got into a fight with Gene Stanley, the kid next door. Gene was about my age. He was one of the neighborhood tough guys, and he pushed her down into a wet puddle of mud. It was a cold March day, and she came running up into the house all scared and screaming. I went storming down the stairs after him.
I didn't think of myself as a tough kid--in fact, I was Caspar Milquetoast. I don't think I've actually had a real fight in my life. But I went after him.
Gene Stanley was still out in the street. He certainly wasn't hiding from me.
I grabbed him by the shirt.
"If you ever do that to her again, I'll kill you!"
It was so unexpected, I think I scared the hell out of him and he surprised the hell out of me. He apologized immediately. He wasn't a bad guy.
What I enjoyed most was staying in the back room at home and making clay figurines. I built whole scenes out of clay. I began with Dr. Seuss; I read his books, loved his characters, and re-created in modeling clay what he depicted on the page. I built a little world.
As I grew older, my figures and settings became more elaborate. I created replicas of entire Civil War battlefields with hundreds of figures, Union and Confederate, detailed down to the straps across their chests and the insignias on their hats. I read everything I could get my hands on about the Revolutionary and Civil wars. When the family visited Fort Ticonderoga, I came home and made a model of what I'd seen, complete with troops. I was fascinated with uniforms and armies. I saw the movie The Fighting 69th, starring James Cagney, on television and built an elaborate diorama, including trenches and four hundred soldiers, and refought World War I in clay miniature.
Our downstairs neighbors, the McNultys, had four kids. Two of them, Bobby and Franny, were my age. They were twins, and Franny was an albino with significantly limited vision. He always had his right arm crooked over his eyes to shade them from the sun. He had white hair, purple eyes, and thick, thick glasses. Because of his condition, Franny couldn't play sports, and because he was kind of an odd duckling, he didn't have a lot of friends. But I liked him, and we used to hang out a lot. When we got to be about eleven years old, Franny and I took Saturdays and went off to ride the trains and buses and explore the city. You could ride all day for a nickel. The McNultys had less money than we did, but Mrs. McNulty was so grateful that I would take Franny with me that she'd slip us both a quarter, and sometime during the day we'd buy Cokes and candy bars.
We'd start the day by walking down Adams Street to the train station at Field's Corner--Fieldsie, we called it--and look around inside the barn that housed the trackless trolleys. Then we'd board the train, get a little paper transfer, and we'd be off. I got out of my neighborhood and really came to learn the entire city.
The trains were old rattlers, olive green, with bare lightbulbs, porcelain strap handles, and a little cab on the right-hand side in front, where the operator sat. We could see him hunched over the control levers through the glass in his door. We watched these men for hours. Franny and I stood in the first car and looked out the glass front windows as we went through the tunnels. Franny always got sunburned because of his pale skin, so when we were riding in sunlight, we had to be careful.
We explored the whole city and the surrounding area for a nickel. Subways and trains and trolleys and buses, we rode them all. I was always fascinated by the old buses, which were much better than the new ones that were coming in. I'd jot down their numbers and keep track of the routes. It was big news when the old green trains were painted red or green or blue according to the lines they were on. When the first new cars came in--the Blue Birds, all sleek and modern but without the beat-up warmth and character of the originals--it felt as if a whole world was ending, as if good friends were moving away.
We'd ride till the end of the line and then get off and roam through the bus yards, go into the barns. A couple of times, the attendants showed us around. That was a thrill.
Over time, new kids began moving into Dorchester. We all hung on the corner, which was right up the block from my house. Every couple of years, a new generation of kids claimed that corner, and sooner or later it was our turn.
As the sixties began, there were two distinct social types in teenage Boston, the collegiates and the rats. The collegiates wore madras shirts and khakis and loafers with no socks; that was the look. That was college. The rats wore leather jackets with buckles and chains and combed their hair in ducktails. Most of our corner was in between. We were twelve or thirteen years old, and we were so benign there was no phrase for us.
Nerds hadn't been invented yet, but that's what we were. We hung on the corner and had weeklong Monopoly games. We built scooters out of roller-skate wheels and milk boxes and two-by-fours. We didn't drink, we didn't disturb anybody, we didn't act up, we'd just be there hour after hour until eleven or twelve o'clock at night. The cops never once asked us to leave.
Our group on the corner was pretty much a democracy, but I did like to be in control. I was always trying to rise above the pack, especially in wartime. There were three or four wooded areas within a couple of blocks of our corner where kids could just go off and disappear; we were in central Boston, but as far as we were concerned we were on Iwo Jima.
These Dorchester jungles were perfect for the kind of World War II fighting we saw in the movies on TV, and we saw a lot of combat. I was Captain Billy--or --Captain Billy Bones,-- as my sister called me because I was so skinny--and I was always in charge.
One Christmas, Franny and Bobby McNulty showed up with new ordnance. We all had new toys, but Franny and Bobby came out with a very realistic .50-caliber machine gun with dual handles and a tripod. We all took turns shooting off a few rounds. When you triggered it, the batteries made the gun go rat-a-tat-tat, and the muzzle flashed with red-and-white firepower. It was only plastic, but this cool new weaponry had the flat green color of Army materiel, and it looked to us like the real thing.
Of course, we had to take it to the --jungle-- and put it to good use. For weeks, and then months afterward, we staged battlefield sieges, and it seemed like I was always the guy manning the machine gun, getting attacked by nine or ten kids and mowing them all down. If we weren't on the corner of Hecla and Adams, we were down the other end of Hecla on Dorchester Avenue, near the plating shop where my father worked. It was a little seedier, a little poorer, a little more adventuresome. It seemed like a mile from one end of Hecla to the other, but in fact it was only a few hundred feet; the distance was cultural. There was a barroom on the corner of Dorchester, and a First National variety store, Johnny's butcher shop, a gas station, and Murray's drug store. Some old Irish guy actually tried to set up a restaurant for a while.
That lasted about six months; nobody in that part of town had any money to eat out with.
If you walked the other way and took a left down Adams, the world was very different. That was on the way to Field's Corner, the commercial center of the neighborhood. The barbershop where I got my hair cut was at Fieldsie, as was the Peerless Market. Meyer's Delicatessen held a special place in my heart. I was a finicky eater and refused to eat
Wonder Bread or Tip-Top or any white bread at all. Meyer's sold bulkie rolls, my favorite. Crusty on the outside, fluffy in the middle, I had my Sunday dinner leftovers on a bulkie roll for lunch almost every day at school, except for Fridays. Back then, Catholics couldn't eat meat on Fridays, so my lunch would consist of Saltines with jam. I think some of the kids thought we were so poor we couldn't afford sandwiches, but I just would not eat white bread.
At the corner of Arcadia Street was a beautiful red brick structure dating back to the turn of the century that held both Boston Police District 11 and a branch of the Boston Public Library. I knew my way to the library like a homing pigeon.
I could get lost in books for hours. I found a series of seven or eight Civil War novels designed for kids, no pictures, and I whipped through them. I was only sorry that there weren't more. When I was about eleven years old, I found one of the most influential books in my life on the shelf.
It was called Your Police, and it was a child's history of the New York Police Department. I couldn't read it often enough. It was a picture book, published in 1956, with photographs of the NYPD motorcycles, police cars, emergency trucks, helicopters, the equipment a police officer carried, the phone boxes, all the details and minutiae that you could want to know about a police department, everything I'd put onto my figurines. I was completely fascinated. I took that book out of the library regularly for years. Sometimes I would just go there and read it over and over.
I always wanted to be a police officer. I didn't know any police officers, no one in the family was a police officer--I just always wanted to be one. The influences were mostly from television and the movies, Badge 714 and Dragnet. I watched Dragnet on TV every week, and when the movie came out, I saw it with my dad. I still remember the opening: A guy gets killed with a shotgun, and the detectives come to the scene to check the body out. Those shows and Your Police captured my imagination.
It also helped that the library shared the building with Police District 11. Sometimes I went outside, stood on the corner, and watched the cops file out for four o'clock roll call. The officers marched out of the station two by two and piled into open-back blue paddy wagons to be delivered to their walking posts. The wagons had no rear doors, and you could see all these uniformed cops packed inside. The few police cars were all two-toned, gray top and blue bottom. The cops had gray shirts. I sat there and watched as they drove away.
But as often as I watched this daily parade, I never got up the nerve to walk inside. Some curious kids wander into firehouses; I think I was too much in awe to do anything but look. Finally, I got my chance. I don't know why my father had to go to the police station--maybe he needed a report for insurance or a claim number--but when he asked if I wanted to come with him I jumped.
We were going in. My father ambled to the big desk on the left-hand side of the room.
"What do you want?" the cop behind it asked. My father told him, and I just stood there and gaped. One of the cops must have noticed my fascination.
"You ever been in here before?" He was looking down at me from some height.
"Like to take a look around?"
He took me downstairs to the basement, to the cell block. Iron bars, cold cement floors, the whole place painted flat gray, the clanging of everything in the room--I was in another world. There were no prisoners down there that day, but the place had its own particular odor.
It smelled of urine.
Cell blocks all smell that way. The waste sits there until someone comes to flush it down. The place smelled of unwashed human funk, deep, unavoidable, foul. It's one of those smells that stays with you. A cop can walk in blindfolded and know, yup, I'm in a cell block.
"You got to stay out of trouble," the uniformed officer told me, "or this is where we'll put you." He didn't seem to be joking.
Then, he took me upstairs to the detective room. I remember cigars and big hats. Detectives in those days were known as the Big Hats because they all wore fedoras. The building had been built in 1890, and seventy years of stale smoke had built up in the room--you felt it in your chest when you came in. The walls were green and peeling. Four men were lounging behind old oak desks. Irish faces. I couldn't place it, but there was something unfriendly about these guys. They didn't react to a kid, and they didn't interact with the uniformed cop. We were out of there pretty quickly.
After my father's business was finished, we walked home. I was thrilled that I had gotten inside. The only exposure we had to police, the only time they arrived at the house, was every few years when they came around to take the census. In Boston in the fifties, hundreds of cops were assigned to go door to door and fill out census cards.
Sometimes, they'd show up to verify and validate voter registration. There just wasn't any crime to speak of in our neighborhood. Maybe now and again something was broken into or vandalized, but I don't remember anyone's car ever being stolen, and my group of kids certainly wasn't the kind to give them any trouble.
When we got to an age where we had begun to earn some money doing odd jobs or were being given our first small allowances, the kids on the corner started playing cards and gambling--seven-card draw and five-card stud poker with our pennies and nickels and dimes, all the time and into the night. Once, we had a card game going, and from working and my allowance and my winnings I amassed the considerable sum of one dollar and sixty cents. My sister's friend Ann Marie Anderson had a penny. She was a tall blonde girl, kind of gangly, and she sat in with a bunch of us. I was going to win that penny.
She won the first pot, and now she had a nickel. She won the next one. And the next. I got in deeper and deeper. Eventually, she won my entire buck-sixty. Taught me a lesson. I lost everything trying to win a penny.
I remember sitting under the new electric light pole on another evening, four or five of us in the game, and I thought I had been treated unfairly, cheated. I stood up and started swearing a blue streak. It was the thing to do at the time, to use rough language, and I was just getting good at it.
Our apartment was on the second floor, and it looked directly over the corner. It was springtime and my mother was sitting by the window, taking in the breeze, looking out at the night. Next thing I knew, she came charging down the stairs, grabbed me by the ear and dragged me into the house.
"I don't ever want to hear you use that language again!" she yelled at me. My friends were all watching. She gave me a few whacks and kicked me upstairs. That nipped it in the bud. I would use certain words for emphasis, but I seldom truly swore from that time on.
While I could be completely happy sitting in my room and reading, I definitely liked getting attention. I was in my glory in sixth grade when they made me school crossing guard and gave me a white strap to wear across my chest (I always kept it spotless) and a shiny silver badge. My post was the corner of East Street and Adams, and I would stand there with my book bag and my metal lunch box--Hopalong Cassidy, Wild Bill Hickok, Zorro, Davy Crockett, whoever was the latest craze--and I would stop traffic and cross the kids from one side of the street to the other. Everybody stayed between the white lines while I was on duty.
Maybe I took it a little too seriously; a gang of girls used to chase me home at the end of the day.
That year, I really started to shine. If there was a center stage, I sought it. When I brought my clay figures into school and talked about my hobbies, the teacher was so impressed she sent me to see the principal, who assigned me to be master of ceremonies for our celebration of Flag Day. I stood in the auditorium in front of the whole school in my Boy Scout shirt (we didn't have enough money to buy the pants) and my good school trousers, which always seemed to be too short.
I graduated with honors and passed the exams to get into the most prestigious public school in the city, Boston Latin. The best part of Boston Latin was getting there. I walked up Meeting House Hill and then down to Kane Square, and every day I passed the same police officer at the same crossing. His car was always parked in exactly the same spot and was one of the first I'd seen with the new-style rotating gumball-machine light, so that fascinated me. Every morning, this red-faced Irish cop with a cigar in his mouth had the police radio running through his loudspeaker so he could hear his calls while he was on his post. I'd hear the crackle as I crossed the street.
I never talked to him.
Kane Square was a turnaround for the trackless trolley. I got on and rode through Upham's Corner and into Roxbury, the all-black neighborhood of Boston, to Dudley Street station, a big hub of trolleys, trains, and buses. At Dudley Street, I fought a thousand other kids to get onto rickety old Mack buses, the oldest and most dilapidated in the fleet.
Those buses were already riding on their rims and were serving their final days jam-packed, creaking, and chugging up and down hills, shuttling schoolkids to Boston Latin and to English High School. English was for rough-and-tumble types, dead-end kids; Boston Latin was for us smart guys, and those rides were filled with hard rivalries.
You had to study hard at Boston Latin. I was used to getting good grades and not putting in much effort, but that didn't work here. I did okay in most classes, but I found I had absolutely no proficiency with foreign languages, particularly Latin, which was a requirement. I just could not pick up the language, and in eighth grade I flunked out.
It was humiliating. I had been the boy wonder, off to conquer the world, and now I was back at Grover Cleveland Junior High School with the rest of the kids from the corner. The only saving grace was that Boston Latin had been all boys but Grover Cleveland was coed. Having girls in class was a big improvement. Not that I was a great success with the girls. I spent one full school year pining for Camille Grasso. Camille was a pretty girl who lived around the corner, and I passed her house every day. I'd see her and never know what to say. I never got up anywhere near the nerve to ask her out.
In ninth grade, I passed the exams and got into Boston Technical High School. Boston Tech was so named because it was a multiple-career-path school. You could graduate with technical engineering and shop skills, or you could take an academic curriculum with machine shop and engineering on the side. I chose academics.
Boston Tech was in Roxbury, and this was my first significant exposure to black people, or Negroes as we called them in those days. I had seen blacks on my train expeditions with Franny McNulty and out the window on the trolley to Boston Latin, but if a black person walked past our corner in Dorchester, all of us really took note. We didn't see black people often because there were no black residents in the neighborhood and little-to-no work for outsiders.
Boston Tech was about 10 percent black, and while there were tensions and a growing awareness of race conflicts--this was 1962 to 1965, a volatile time in race relations--by and large we all got along pretty well.
Race was never really an issue for me. While I was not one of the white kids who hung out with a black crowd, I had enough black friends to the point that it didn't make a difference. A lot of the people I grew up with didn't have the opportunity to interact with blacks, which sometimes led to unfortunate generalizations and misunderstandings. I didn't think of it at the time, but going to high school in the middle of Roxbury turned out to be a positive influence.
On occasion, I walked home from school, about a mile total. It was a distressed area, and I did feel uncomfortable--even in those days Roxbury was a high-crime neighborhood--but I never had an incident. Mostly, I looked forward to passing the Drake's Devil Dog factory and smelling the sweet little chocolate cakes. From there I'd pass the famous Kasonoff Bakery and breathe in the rye bread. It was a tantalizing walk home.
We were Catholics, but not very observant, my father more involved in religion than my mother. I had a brother who died shortly after birth, and although they never discussed it with me, I always had the feeling his death might have distanced them from the church. We went to church for the holidays, but other than that my mother almost never went, except for weddings. At the post office where my father worked, there was a chapel where a fifteen-minute quickie service was performed each Sunday without a sermon, so he tried to get there. After I made my first communion and got confirmed, my parents left the decision whether to continue to go to Sunday school up to me. I had no interest, and I stopped going.
So one day here comes Father Carney up the front stairs. Father Carney was a young priest, kind of a Bing Crosby type, popular with the kids, the sort who was put in charge of the Little League. I answered the door when he knocked. I hadn't seen him in a while.
"Hello, Billy. I'd like to see your father."
My dad was in the living room, reading. He didn't invite Carney in; he left the good father standing in the hall. Not to invite a priest into your home was unusual in our neighborhood. If we went to Mass, we'd hear buzzing in the pews about that one.
"You son's not been attending our Sunday school courses," Father Carney told him.
"Well, Father," said my dad, "I told him once he got confirmed that it would be his choice to go or not, and I guess he's made it."
"You know, it's your obligation as a Catholic father to make sure your son is all right in the eyes of the Lord. Our courses ..."
"There's nothing wrong with my son."
They went at it pretty good. My father had made a commitment to me, I was old enough to make my own decisions, and no matter how the priest invoked the Lord and Scriptures, my dad was never one to bend to unreasonable authority. Father Carney never got his foot in our door, and I never set foot in Sunday school again.
Very early one hot and quiet summer Sunday morning when I was about fifteen, my father took me out in the car to teach me to drive. I didn't have a learner's permit, so I guess he was at some risk on his insurance, but he put me behind the wheel and off we went. There was not much traffic in Dorchester on Sundays.
We drove by the corner of Morrissey Boulevard and Freeport Street with the windows rolled down, and there was a cop at a call box, swearing a blue streak. Every other word out of his mouth was f-ing this and f-ing that, so routinely. It rubbed me the wrong way. For some reason, that stuck with me.
After I got my learner's permit, my father and I routinely spent Sunday mornings driving around Codman Square, a business district of Dorchester. One morning, we stopped behind a cop car at a red light. We were the only two cars at the intersection. The light turned green, and the two cops were busy shooting the breeze. They weren't moving. We waited.
"Toot the horn," my dad said finally.
"Toot the horn, get 'em going."
So I tooted the horn.
Cops being cops, they pulled out, let us pass, and then pulled us over. Both officers got out of the cruiser and sauntered toward us.
"You honk your horn?"
"The light changed, you weren't moving." My father was immediately on his high horse. "Yeah, we honked at you. How'm I supposed to let you know that it turned green?" They straightaway got into a pissing contest.
I was sweating there with just a learner's permit, fearing that any confrontation would end my driving career. One officer was leaning at the window, an arm cocked on the roof, the other at his gun belt, talking over me to my father on the passenger side. My father never let up. I just kept both hands on the wheel and my eyes on my dad.
Fortunately, it was toward the end of the morning. If they'd met up with us in mid-tour, they probably would have busted my father's chops a little, but these guys had been riding around for eight hours and all they were interested in was getting home. My father couldn't have known that. He was interested in not getting pushed around.