Jun 25, 2011

Six Degrees of Whitey

There are some things that most people who didn’t grow up in Boston will never understand. These include but are not limited to:

--why it’s called a “grinder”

--why it’s called a “bubbler”

--why you don’t move that empty olive oil keg blocking an “open” parking space in the North End

--why there is bread and foil-wrapped butter in your bag of Chinese takeout

--why “detail” cops are paid time-and-a-half to oversee the filling of a pothole

--why there is at least one “detail” cop overseeing the filling of a pothole on every block in Boston

-- why there is at least one Dunkin’ Donuts on every block in Boston

--why asking for a “regulah” will get you six ounces of half-and-half, ten sugars, and a splash of coffee

--the (living) legacy of Whitey Bulger

Of course, most folks have probably heard of Whitey at one point or another. The former leader of the infamous Winter Hill Gang was on the country’s Most Wanted list for sixteen years. But unless you grew up in Boston, you probably don’t know anyone who’s boasted of some kind of ties to the notorious racketeer—and if you did grow up in Boston, you probably do. Michael Patrick MacDonald reflects upon this phenomenon in his memoir, All Souls:

I was always looking for Whitey Bulger. I never saw him, but I’d never admit that to any of my friends. Everyone bragged about how his uncle was tight with him, or his brother had been bailed out of jail by him, or how he’d bought them a new pair of sneakers, or his mother a modern kitchen set. All the neighbors said they went to Whitey when they were in trouble, whether they’d been sent eviction notices from the Boston Housing Authority or the cops were harassing their kid. Whitey was more accessible than the welfare office, the BHA, the courts, or the cops. If your life had been threatened, your mother could always visit Whitey and get him to squash the beef. That is, of course, if your family was playing by the rules of the neighborhood. If you’d received death threats for avoiding the boycotts [protesting the busing of blacks to white neighborhood schools] and sending your kids to school or else for saying the wrong things to the press, you were on your own.

I personally never knew Whitey, nor even caught a glimpse of him in the real world, but his legacy pervaded life in Boston. Even my friend, whose late father was an officer with the Boston Police Department, would fondly reminisce about, as a young boy, riding through Southie in his dad’s patrol car, and routinely passing the New England OG on the street corner.

“Wave hi to Whitey, son,” his father would tell him. And he would.

Former Senator Billy Bulger. Photo via CNET

Alas, I was never a member of this special Boston elite, and thus my closest degree of separation from Whitey was via the Christmas card our family would get each year from his brother, former Senator and ex-President of U Mass William Bulger (who, incidentally, now likely will be using his notoriously huge pension to pay his brother's legal fees). Even though his holiday greeting was nothing more than campaign politics, and we didn’t know Billy Bulger any better than we knew his convict brother, my mom would hang the card on the door, along with the ones we’d receive from real family and friends. That is, until my father would rip it down and toss it in the trash, mumbling about good ol’ boys, racists, and systemic corruption.

When they caught Whitey in California this past Tuesday, I was homesick after a long visit in the Boston area, and happily returning to my own beloved Oakland on a flight out of Logan Airport . Supposedly, he’d been living fairly well in an apartment on the beach in Santa Monica--a far cry from the beachside Old Colony housing projects (aka the Irish Riviera) he’d reigned over for so many years in Boston. I can’t help but think it wasn’t just his fugitive status that lead Whitey to the Golden State, but perhaps also a need for respite from the inclement weather and generally arduous New England existence, a longing for sun and sand and fresh, organically grown local produce.  As I unpack and settle back into my own California routine, I imagine Whitey spending his last years of freedom shunning Maykahhhh’s Mahhhhk whiskey and Bruins games, in favor of ice-cold kombuchas and colon irrigations.

But maybe that’s just me, romanticizing again.

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