Published in the Best of the Burlington Writers Writer’s Workshop, April 2015.
DORCHESTER DAYS: SMITTY
By Bob Stuhlmann
I’m not sure whether it was the fire Smitty started on the wood floor of the front room, or when he wielded an ax and gouged my favorite oak bureau, that led to the fight, but now he was hanging thirty feet up, halfway out the kitchen window. I knew if I dropped him he’d break his neck. If I let him back in, he’d probably kill me.
Smitty started to hang out on the street outside our three-decker off Dorchester Avenue before I arrived in the summer of 1969. I emigrated from the cloistered seminary in Cambridge with a group of medical students to set up health clinics in the neighborhood. I was the lone seminarian, with a throbbing pulse to change the world.
I’d complete my last year of seminary by commuting on the Red Line to Cambridge for classes and back to Dorchester at night. I’d stay some nights with friends in Cambridge and write my senior thesis on “The Ethics of the Clown,” a journey into the history and theology of the holy fool in literature and culture. I spent nights with a friend at the Brattle Street Theater roaring with laughter as we watched Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, for research. It was not lost on me how Chaplinesque was my arrival in Dorchester. Dorchester would be my home and center of work for most of the next seven years.
Smitty was from South Boston.
He told me, “My father is a Boston cop. He beat up my mother and me until she threw him out.” “After that,” he said, “we moved to the ’D’ Street Projects.”
Smitty didn’t have to tell me much more. The South Boston housing projects were among the most lawless in the city and they were, up until the 90s, all White. If you were Black, and travelled through that neighborhood, you led a dangerous life. We didn’t know too much about it at the time, but only a few years before, the same projects had been the breeding grounds for the soon to be infamous Whitey Bulger and his brother Billy who became State Senate President. Smitty was red-headed, freckled, about five ten, and fit. He had an attraction to larceny, such as B&E and car theft. Like Whitey Bulger, he learned to hot-wire cars at the age of fourteen. I may have been drawn by the wild, impulsive nature of the sixteen–year-old. I was ten years his senior and yet, in the ways of the street, I was a novice. I wanted to understand who this bright, creative and confused kid was. Who knows, maybe we had been put together to work out our destinies. I had my outrage at the condition of the poor, and the working stiffs like my stepdad who, sometimes with great integrity, eked out a living by hard work and long hours. Others resorted to petty crime. He and I were not that different. It was no accident I was attracted to the priesthood; the lure and rush of crime, and what the church calls sin, required powerful restraints.
“Who knows,” I thought, “maybe I can do some good.” And maybe I could do some good for myself.
One hot summer night of our second summer in Dorchester, windows opened to catch the breeze off the harbor, there was a honk outside and a voice I recognized called my name. From the front porch I peered over and below a hearse was parked at an angle, engine running.
“Smitty,” I said already guessing the answer, “where’d you get that?”
“Behind the funeral home up at St Mark’s,” he yelled up to me so all the neighborhood could hear.
“Well, you better take it back,” I said.
Smitty laughed and drove away.
Twice my car was hot-wired and driven to Quincy, where the police found it, seven miles away. The car was undamaged except the ignition switch, and a treasured journal I had kept for two years was lost. The usual petty thefts could be expected in the neighborhood. I lost my sound system. But having very little of value to steal was an advantage.
In fact breaking and entering was a cottage industry among some of the kids in the neighborhood. The “fence” who bought the stolen goods lived only five blocks away. I didn’t know it at the time but some of the older boys—the O’Shea’s—were getting into drugs, using and selling. Bobby O’Shea would later be shot by a competitor whose turf he trespassed. In a few years, he would be a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. His sister Jeanine would be killed in a bar when another girl thought she had stolen her shirt. And Billy Egan who lived next door and spray painted his name on the front of our building, would die of an overdose when he was only fifteen.
Bobby McCambly would spend some time in jail, but when I saw him a few years later with his wife and new baby girl, I felt he was determined stay clean and I thought he might have a chance at a good, if poor, life.
On the first floor of our three-decker house lived an elderly and kind Scottish couple who had lived there for at least a generation. When they went away for two weeks one winter, the kids broke into their apartment. When we heard about it we invited some of our biker contacts over for a chat on the front stoop with the kids. Donacella was our red-haired Italian contact person and mediator with the bikers and the kids. Her influence in the city and her integrity had impressed me when I first met her in her mother’s kitchen a few blocks away. The kids, including Smitty, were encouraged to return the stuff they had taken. Within twenty-four hours, the hot goods were collected and placed outside the door to my apartment.
I couldn’t trust that the Scottish family’s belongings were all there. So I waited until three that morning, dressed in black, and returned the stolen items to the couples’ apartment. But kids had ransacked the place, dresser drawers opened, clothing and other items strewn about. I couldn’t clean up the mess. Even if they lost nothing, they would know that their home had been violated. The old couple had given me a bible when I was ordained as an Episcopal Deacon in November. The day they returned and found the wreckage saddens me still. I felt at least partly responsible for the kids’ easy access to the house. I was devastated when they moved out.
In the summer of 1972, Smitty decided to join the marines.
“I signed up,” he announced, to our horror and shock.
“Why?” we asked.
“The cops are after me and I got to get out of here,” he said.
By then I lived in a kind of collective with Lew and David from Harvard, Peggy from the University of Delaware, Joan, a nurse who once cared for Groucho Marx, and Chuck, a drop out from Roman Catholic seminary. We had come to organize tenants of absentee landlords in the city. We were starting to see improvements to the buildings and movement by the City Council and the mayor toward a rent control ordinance. We knew that, with the improvements, landlords might begin to try to gentrify the still affordable housing stock.
Our household all staunchly opposed the war still raging in Vietnam. Combined South Vietnamese and American troops had partially turned back an assault from the North, but the cost had been extreme for the Vietcong; one hundred thousand killed, at least as many civilians displaced or killed. Three hundred American lives were lost that year, which brought the total to more than 45,000 lives. Nixon renewed his bombing of the North and a sign outside the condos in the West End, along one of the cities most travelled routes, had been changed from “If you lived here you’d be home now” to “If you lived in Hanoi you’d be dead now.” I opposed the draft and the war. I had turned in my draft card in a largely symbolic act because I could not be drafted. As the sole surviving son of a father who was killed in World War II, I was exempt from the draft. Later at the Arlington Street Church during a sanctuary movement, I was arrested and bloodied by the Boston police as we tried to prevent them from dragging away some vets who sought sanctuary there.
But Smitty was determined to join. He would leave in a week for basic training at Camp Lejeune. Our collective had managed to forge together our work and shared common life. We had a strict no-drugs policy. The police watched. White and bearded political radicals, such as us, who now successfully organized low income tenants of absentee landlords, were persons of interest in the White working class neighborhood. No surprise that our relationship with the local kids was a real problem for the wary and watchful neighbors.
The night before Smitty left for basic training we had a dinner party and send-off for him. We invited some of the other neighborhood kids. I bought the beer, a six-pack as I remember, maybe two. As we ate and drank there was a knock on the door. Two Boston police officers appeared at the door.
“You are supplying alcohol to a minor,” they charged.
Stunned, I explained, “This lad,” pointing to Smitty, “is off to basic training in the morning with the Marines. If he can serve his country, he can certainly have a beer.”
We were cited anyway, the beer confiscated and word got out to one of the local Episcopal clergy who gave me a lecture. The Bishop, however, was in my corner and, aside from my embarrassment, I suspect the Bishop wished he could have been there.
Smitty returned from basic training three months later.
“I want out,” he said.
I was relieved. I thought either he’d piss off some sergeant or get killed for taking too many risks in combat. Or maybe “friendly fire” would kill or injure him.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I promised.
I was friends with a woman who was the assistant to the respected Harvard psychologist and professor, Dr. Robert Coles. During a visit to his office she told me he had begun research for a book on the White working class. He and I met briefly in his outer office and we talked about the work in Dorchester. He was interested and it seemed to fit in with his interests at the time. I asked if he would see Smitty, explaining the situation. He agreed to see him the following weekend.
I drove Smitty to Concord, a few miles and a world away from Dorchester.
On the way Smitty asked, “So who is this guy?”
What could I tell Smitty? “He’s one of the best shrinks in the country. If he can’t get you out of the Marines on a Section 8, no one can,” I said.
Coles had gained notoriety, while in the Air Force, when he interviewed the young Ruby Bridges, one of the first African American children to integrate the public schools in New Orleans. Coles’s work with Bridges and her family led him to write for Atlantic Monthly and, with subsequent studies of children in crisis situations, he won the Pulitzer Prize.
Coles’s cherished vintage Porsche was in the driveway. The old restored pearl grey farmhouse was set back on an acre or more of gardens and trees, screened from the road. The doctor’s wife, tall, fit and finely boned, the cream of Boston’s elite, greeted us cordially and offered a drink. The doctor took Smitty into his office and an hour later Smitty held the document we hoped would release him from the Marines.
As we drove back to Dorchester I said, “You know this will be on your record for the rest of your life. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I gotta get out,” he said.
The next Monday we drove to the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut where Navy doctors would examine the documents and determine whether to recommend Smitty for a Section 8 psychiatric discharge. We handed the documents to the young docs. They examined the papers and their eyes widened as they saw the signature.
“Is this ‘The’ Robert Coles,” they asked?
“The one and only,” I responded with a smile on my face.
The young professionals handled the document as if it were a sacred scroll. I bet they all copied it for their personal files. He was diagnosed by one of America’s foremost and respected child psychiatrists as “suicidal and homicidal.”
Smitty was out. Released from the Marines and homeless, we took him in.
From the beginning Smitty was a challenge to the six of us. He returned to the house later and later, usually drunk. He refused to participate in our weekly house meetings. He did not share any responsibilities to cook or clean or contribute to the heat and the rent. He wouldn’t talk with any of us or seek help. One night he arrived home late, probably drunk, and started a fire on the floor of the front room. We awoke with the smell of smoke. After we put out the fire, opened the windows and aired out the building, we confronted him. He brandished an ax and took a chunk out of my oak bureau.
I staggered into the kitchen the next morning. I had slept restlessly, with one ear open, for fear that Smitty might do something else to endanger us during the night. I made coffee. I felt responsible for endangering our lives. Smitty would have to leave.
I was alone in the apartment when Smitty came into the kitchen. I think he left the house after the fire and was only now returning. He was drunk.
“Smitty,” I said, “that fire could have killed us.”
“F*** you,” was his reply.
“F*** you too, you a**hole,” I yelled.
He grabbed me and we wrestled. I was bigger, and still fit from years of high school football and a love of hiking. He was probably still stewed. I pushed him to the window and held him halfway out twenty feet above the alley. I seriously thought of dropping him. We continued to holler at each other. Smitty cursed and screamed. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t actually let him go. I lifted and released him so he was able to get back into the room. He grabbed my throat and, as I began to lose consciousness, David and Lew showed up and pulled him off. He was gone that day.
We heard stories of Smitty after that. Someone honked a horn at him as he was stopped at a light. He got out of the car with a hammer and broke the person’s windshield. We didn’t hear much more.
I hope he made it and that one of the “Smittys” I see on the internet is him. He’d be about sixty now. I hope you’re out there guy.