What makes a Kennedy
Revisiting the landscapes of his boyhood back in Boston, Jack wades through a flood of memories that take us back to the beginning
By John Armstrong
After our swim I was at a loss for what to do with myself. Bobby was organizing the kids for a touch football game on the front lawn but I’d already had enough exercise for one day. More evidence that I’m not a true Kennedy, I suppose. The genuine article can spend all day waterskiing, riding horses and playing tennis and then climb a mountain just for the hell of it after dinner. I can think of much better ways to get tired and in most cases I prefer to conserve my strength in case I might need it for something important. (I did play hockey and lacrosse at college, because there was no way to get out if it, and both those sports are really just street fights with complicated rules. The brothers thought it developed character. I thought it created practice cases for the interns at the medical college. Unfortunately I was too short for basketball, which at least has a lower incidence of mayhem. We didn’t have a ping pong team or I would have been first in line for it.)
What I did want to do, I discovered, as I got dressed, was to see the old neighborhood. I hadn’t been back since Mom’s funeral.
Bobby said to just take one of the cars – keys are on the peg board. I picked a low-slung Buick with a big engine that ate freeway and in no time at all I was on the North End’s main drag, Hanover Street.
It looked exactly the same, which was unsurprising, really. It’s looked the same for a couple of hundred years, and whenever it does change the past has a way of bleeding back through: up the street I could see the original rough cobbles poking up where the blacktop had been worn away by hard Massachusetts’ winters. The same ancient red brick buildings lined the narrow streets and I had a sudden overpowering need to see the waterfront.
I wheeled the car past Henchman Street and Salutation and onto Commercial, parking it just short of the docks. The smell of salt water was so strong I could taste it and it made me ravenously hungry. I bought a spuckie from one of the corner stores, hot salami on a soft, white spuccadella roll, stuffed with banana peppers and onions and dripping a trail of red wine dressing. I added a tall can of Sam Adams to the paper sack and dropped my change in the Widows and Orphans jar by the till. I knew where I was headed now. Five minutes later I was sitting on a bench in a small park under the watchful eyes of Paul Revere.
Paul wasn’t watching me or anyone else – his eyes were fixed on point above the trees, the high white spire of the Old North Church, waiting patiently decade after decade for the lantern signal from its steeple. Almost two hundred years later, Frank and Joe’s men had used the same steeple to flash signals to their rum-running boats and warn them of government agents on the shore.
In Boston, we’ve made a habit out of fighting against tyrants, home grown and otherwise, and we like to say the Revolution started here, both times. The first with our famous tea party; the second at a rally against the government’s treatment of the men at the Washington Hooverville, where homeless, hungry people built a pathetic city outside the White House from old packing crates and blankets strung up as tents. There wasn’t a window the president could look out of without seeing them. Apparently he didn’t like the view – soldiers kicked their hovels down and ran them off.
There were a half dozen unions and a variety of churchmen up on the flatbed podium at the Prince Street Park baseball diamond that afternoon, preaching to a crowd of the unemployed and those afraid they soon would be. We already had Hoovervilles of our own in Central Park and on Riverside Drive, and everyone knew how close they were to living there themselves. Thousands turned out to hear the speakers, whole families with picnic lunches. The history books all agree on what happened next.
At around 2 p.m. government troops and local cops moved in on the crowd; officers with bullhorns ordered the people to go home while the troops advanced, rifles leveled. Nobody budged – instead, the goons got angry shouts and beer bottles and whatever else was handy for throwing.
Then they opened fire on the crowd.
Some books say it was an accident, that someone in the crowd yelled “Don’t fire” and a nervous soldier only heard half, others say it was an officer’s command. Accident or not, it doesn’t matter; when it was over everyone in uniform was dead and hundreds more civilians with them. But out of all the bodies lying cold on the baseball field that day it was two particular deaths that united the country, Annie McManus and her baby daughter, Margaret. Every schoolchild knows this story by heart before the fifth grade.
Annie was a chambermaid at a downtown hotel, attending the rally on her day off. It was the only day of the week she saw her daughter for more than a few hours; a neighbor lady looked after her while Annie worked long shifts cleaning rooms and doing the hotel’s laundry. No-one knows where her husband was or if she even had one. Whatever became of him is lost in the fog of history.
The newspapers got Extras out with mother and child’s bullet-torn bodies on the front pages, Annie still hopelessly shielding her child. Troops smashed the presses of the papers that ran it but it was too late. Word had spread and most of the town of Boston was in the streets seeking blood vengeance; by dawn politicians, police, bankers, lawyers, soldiers – anyone who smelled of authority was swinging from a lamppost.
It was another case of critical mass; if it had happened anywhere but Boston, there would have been the same disgust and outrage, and maybe smaller outbreaks of revolt, but it didn’t happen somewhere else, it happened here, where people hadn’t forgotten the government lynching of Sacco and Vanzetti only a few years earlier. Their funeral procession started here, in the North End, at a funeral parlor on Hanover, and thousands marched to the cemetery behind their caskets. When the rioting started, the judge who found them guilty and ordered their deaths – the one who later said, “Did you see what I did to those guinea bastards?” – was one of the first to do a jig in the air above the cobblestones, a rope around his neck.
The Boston rebellion touched off the rest of the country like a match to tinder and in weeks tens of thousands were dead, the government was gone and the politicians either dead or in hiding. The country was in a state of anarchy. The mob ruled, or more accurately, failed to. That’s when Luciano, Meyer, and the others stepped in to start relief and rescue operations and establish order again. The Commission were the only ones able to do it, though the Church tried. They had the money but neither the experience nor the physical authority to make people listen. Let’s face it; they can’t even make people follow the Commandments.
Was it sheer altruism? Of course not. How many leaders and governments have been inspired by pure selflessness, with no thought of what’s in it for them? How could you possibly trust someone who had the gall to lie to your face like that? If you read history the men who founded this country saw independence as the freedom to do business and live their lives without interference from a King. The next revolution just freed the country from its government. At least the new rulers were honest about their own ambitions.
I tipped the can high for the last swallow of beer then dumped it in my empty lunch bag. It was nearly five but I wasn’t ready to go back to Hyannis yet. Instead, I threw my garbage in the can and headed the car back to Salem Street, No. 115. I parked across the street and sat there with window down, smoking.
There was no point going up to unit #9. Either it looked the same or it didn’t; either way I remembered it well enough. The dingy lino, the sad carpet, the chipped enamel paint on the kitchen cabinets, and the discolored sink. It wasn’t until I cleaned the place out when Mom died and saw it without any decoration or distraction that I realized what a dump it was.
I looked up at my bedroom window. We lived there almost 20 years. Now somebody else did. Fiorito’s Pizzeria on the ground floor was still there. I remembered stealing pop bottles from the back shed, to get the refund.
I found I was working myself up to a really foul mood and the best antidote to that was to call Vanessa. I’d held off phoning from the compound. While I trusted her not to say anything incriminating if someone were listening in I still had the hunch that keeping her as removed from all this as possible was the way to play it.
I turned the engine off and went into the pizza parlor. I didn’t recognize the counterman or he me, but the pay phone was still on the wall by the washroom. I dug in my pockets and found no change. I bought another beer at the counter and got a dime for the call.
She wasn’t in. The roommate said she’d gone out the door that afternoon with a small suitcase and said she’d be back in a few days. No, she didn’t know where. Did I want to leave a message? I didn’t. There was nowhere she could call me back. I wanted to leave the Hyannis number, thought better of it, and then did it anyway. Shit.
I had another cigarette and drank half the beer, then dumped the butt into the can and went back out to the street.
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, November 9, 2015