The Real South Boston. The One You Will Never Know.
As someone that spent a lot of time in Southie as a kid- I went to South Boston High School. I am constantly irked by the ever changing face of one of Boston’s most notorious neighborhoods.
South Boston has oft had a negative light cast upon it, with it’s racial problems, the gang violence of Whitey Bulger and she is the back drop of a slew of grim, gritty crime movies, that take place in a grim, gritty poorly lit triple decker, where mean dirty people do underhanded things to poor, but virtuous Irish-Catholic, mamma’s boys.
Or you see and hear about the South Boston of today. Lovingly referred to as SoBo by some (barf). Where guys with pedicures and Vineyard Vine belts and women wearing Bean Boots and having the kind of perfectly straight, air dried hair that needs no hairspray. All sip craft beer from red solo cups, while lazing on The Lawn On D, snapping as many group photos as they can upload, making their Tinder profile look like an ad for Crest White Strips.
As with many Bostonians, we are constantly seeing our history, our home, and our accent- all wiped away. The spark that set this article a flame was an ad on Craigslist for a completely beautiful apartment, that used to be a church. A friend of mine posted it and while most of us agreed that we would all love to live there, it was creepy that the place where we became Catholics, where we confessed our deepest darkest sins and where we mourned our dead- was now a 2500 dollar a month luxury loft.
My high school friends and I got to talking that day, there was so much to say. I realized much of what we were so fond of- had disappeared. Our Nana’s favorite hang out, slightly off, yet affable people whose neighborhood nickname was derivative of their strange quirk had all turned into pumpkins and Houdinis- and disappeared. The only way we can revisit, is by talking about it. The diaspora of South Boston leaves behind a rich and interesting pot luck of oral history that is just too good to never be shared. The ladies and I compiled a list of legend and folklore from the tiny piece of coveted landfill… Here are somethings we thought you outta know…
Every city, every town, every neighborhood has their local legends. McKees Rocks,PA can claim Oxy Clean’s Billy Mays as their own, LA has Marylin Monroe and no less than 6 towns claim Paul Bunyan as their native son. Southie has their very own brand of local legends.
Bobby Wants a Quarter is probably the most well known regular to roam the streets of Southie. You may recognize the name, as he is mentioned in Michael Patrick MacDonald’s national bestseller: All Souls. I have to say, even in the shadow of Whitey Bulger, this was the person we were truly afraid of. Always looking out for. If you saw Bobby coming, you ran, you crossed the street, you ducked behind a car and hid until you got the Olly Olly oxen free and knew it was safe to come back. What did he do? He asked you for a quarter. He would come up to you and say: “Bobby wanna quarter.” It wasn’t a request, it was a DEMAND. You had no options at this point, if you were hearing these words, well, safe to say it was too late. You had to give him a quarter. Not two dimes and a nickle, now a fin or a sawbuck. A QUARTER. We used to imagine his house was like that of Scrooge Mc Duck, the glistening gleam of quarters stacked up 20 feet high would blind you as you entered his spacious live-in piggy bank. The penalty for incompliance: My friend Laurie Ronca paid the price once. Not having a quarter, she said “no” and Bobby slammed her head against the brick doorway of the D Street projects. I remember hearing about this, and not knowing if we would ever see her again, or how bad the damage was. She was fine, a nasty bump to the forhead- if I remember correctly. Knowing Laurie’s Dad, Frank, it was probably the last time Bobby ever really wanted a quarter.
Dotty: She was a trip, a sexy, eccentric trip. Dotty’s stroll was West Broadway. We all assumed she was about 80 years old, but that didn’t stop her from waking up every morning and slipping on a tube-top, which she wore as a skirt, an alien ear head band, and carrying about 20 plastic bags.
Dotty used to make the round and then stop into Brigham’s, where she would order 1 Coffee and sip it all damned day. Pontificating on how “All men should be put to sleep like dogs”. I never saw her in the winter, but thinking back now: maybe she was just unrecognizable all covered up and sans alien headwear.
The Lady From The #10 Bus with the Whiskers: Now… This isn’t a nice name, and I by no means wish to make fun of a woman who was dealing with the problem of facial hair. Especially in my advancing years, I know, I too, will someday fight this battle.
With that out of the way… We were afraid of her. We were so afraid of her. Jill Lawler Polisano recalls how the bus would turn from a Spike Lee- Radio Raheem type riot to a gang of little creeps, like statues in some terrible garden, frozen in fear. The thought of her snapping her head back and staring at me still scares me more than the thought of global terrorism.
Eddie Pretzel: This is one I didn’t remember until Christina Rhem O’Keefe- Formerly known as Gucci Rehm, reminded me.
Eddie would show up and all the kids would yell: “Do it! Do it!” and he would get on the ground, put his legs behind his head and turn himself into a pretzel.
Rocky: A man who would stumble out of places like The Quiet Man, or the infamous Triple O’s Lounge and try to fight you. Like he was Rocky. It didn’t matter who you were… Girl, Boy, Man, Woman, Older priest from Gate of Heaven- He only saw Apollo Creed and it was the last round. He was another one that you sort of ran from, not that he would catch you. He was always the version of Rocky that gets wrecked by the Russian. This particular Russian being a 30 rack of Michelobe heavies.
This was why our parents kept us off “Big Broadway” as Heather Ludington remembers it being called. It wasn’t a place for young kids. Though, we all eventually got the guts up to go there, hoping and praying that your mother, or her nosey ass friend didn’t see you.
The one thing that all of the ladies remembered so fondly were the rolling summer power outages, or black outs. I know, in Dorchester, we experienced these too. There would be about 5 or 6 of these every summer as the grid at the Edison company became overloaded from all of the Air Conditioning untis trying to keep us cool, when temperatures soared for days on end.
The TV, Lights and Fan would go out and make that familiar sound of powering down, you would hear some swears and then screams of:”BLACK OUT” from nearly every house and apartment.
The loss of electricity pulled neighbors from their homes in attempts to keep cool and bond over “Can you believe this? This is garbage, why am I making Tom [Edison] richer if I can’t get lights when I need ‘em?”.
The blackouts were like unplanned block parties.
Christina, who’s home I was always in, and who’s Ma kept tabs on her 5 kids and any other kid that need tabs kept, describes Southie as a magical place where kids ran free, went to bingo with their parents and waited for the heart stopping sound of the ice cream man to hit your block:
“On really hot days neighbors would pull out their hoses and turn them on so all the kids could run through their spray. A few times we were even able to play in the “accidentally”opened fire hydrant- until the cops came to turn it off. We couldn’t always go to Castle Island to cool off because my parents were working, So we would play all day in the puddles made by the busted hydrants.
A sign of Spring/Summer was everyone sitting outside on the stoop. Entire families. You would take a nice cool bath, put on clean jammies and sit outside eating popsicles or ice cream right off the truck. No one had a A/C. We all only had those hideous window box fans and the dangerous metal table fans that if you got to close, your hair would get tangled in it. You don’t see ice cream trucks anymore unless you are at the fields watching the kids play little league. If you were gone for a while ma would stick her head out the window and call your name until you surfaced.
We would ride our bikes around Castle Island during the summer, breezing past bags of dog poop unexplainably tied to the fences around the Sugar Bowl.
When Broadway became covered in newly renovated condos: the neighbors would leave out water bowls for the millions of dogs that ran the streets in packs, like little gangs. We randomly kick 1 or 2 bowls over while walking down the street.
On Sunday nights ma would join my aunt and nana at the Boys and Girls club for bingo. My dad would be a little tipsy and we would be running around outside till the street lights came on. We would play tag, hide and seek, or we would go to the empty lots and collect lady bugs and put them in old jelly jars. Today the lots are all built into crazy expensive condos. “
Current residents of Southie: you have some big shoes to fill, but we are depending on you to carry on the traditions and to create new folklore.
Ask for quarters.
Have Blackout parties, and for God’s sake- Someone learn how to turn themselves into a pretzel!