Eulogies for the Ferrin Street Outlaws
(Header note: Some slight inaccuracies may occur here about Charlestown, MA of 1935 as I had to depend at times on other people's memories and hazy postulations of dinner-table stories and off-handed remarks thrown as parting dictates by well-intentioned folks, yet their otherwise stable contributions are the basis of facts posted herein, with the added explanation that those same dictates came to me many years ago and have, as often as they survive, been touched by age, forgetfulness, accuracy and possibility.)
It has come upon me, one, as a survivor of the group that was formed by a bond in our Charlestown youth, and, two, as one who dwells daily in mustering words to present to the reading public whose tendencies favor words of their language to come to them in suitable presentations, or, as one of them might have said, "in understandable clutches being enough for me, and at separate attempts," meaning, I suppose that he liked to read as little as possible but liked what he chose to read ... and that's being selective from the git-go.
Seven of us were in it from the start, and stayed at six of us when Joey Riley first knew, with due certainty, that he wanted to be a priest, that it rode in his mother's heart and mind from the moment he was born in the third tenement building, left side of Ferrin Street heading to where the sun sets on good days. Joey first saw light from a third floor window on "an alley only as wide as a kitchen table top." His father had said that at the very beginning, wondering how he was going to feed another mouth at their long, thin kitchen table squeezed against one window, mere hours of sunshine coming downward on a tough slant on early afternoons. Such babes, boys, men come "tagged" with eternal promise of one sort or another, whether it is at the call of the good Lord or the call of the street, two starts at the head of things in good old Charlestown, beside the Navy Yard, City Square, the "El" that's bound for everywhere else, and Ferrin Street where once a part of a cellar held a secret meeting room which, most likely now, is gone with the ages, rebuilding, re-construction, new looks of these times.
Joey, once released from his first vows of faithfulness to the other Outlaws, knew a sudden spurt of joy as realization set its grips on him by letting him go free of the devil's fear of being caught stealing, theft at great odds but quick riches, burying his mother before her time, allowing his father to cough up all the earlier stories of his growth, the sudden and apparent stuffing of his wallet, his deep pockets, that were seen all over by many others in that squat neighborhood running from City Square to Chelsea on the other side of the bridge with the high arch over the Mystic River, where movement over that arch might often mean escape, new digs, a fresh collection of neighbors whose hands and fingers touched upon labors without question.
The rules binding the Outlaws were simple, direct, came of group discussion without a word of dissent: sworn for life, no signs or symbols or traceability of any kind (meaning no signs or tattoos or single or minor letters on the fingernails, under the armpits, in the crotch, "no idle talk unless we're all here at meeting," no gathering as a group at the Kent School but mixing with other Townies at their lessons, play, recess, routes to and from home, and with our own identities locked herein forever, meaning "be sworn or be cursed." That thought, that covenant of the ages, for the ages, was born within us, so we are blessed and honored by these weights we carry like backpacks being moved away from any starting line.
The Outlaws, in spite of appearances, goals, purposes, came with our own beginning, our own Big Bang. Every penny found, lifted, "scotched off some counter or someone's tabletop, was delivered in later darkness to our mothers' kitchen tables, each one like a shrine of emptiness for the long stretch of some days upon days. "Pennies," as we spoke of them, was a way of including other gifts that shone with coin's brilliance, a bunch of bananas, a loaf of bread from the Bond Bread bakery plant, a can of soup off a store shelf, a single apple or a dozen, a watermelon almost as big as the least of us, but "pennies" to a taste said it best, with an easy finality that our mothers could muster. Our mothers were appreciative but blind to our methods, to the last of them, for they had in all cases a clutch of kids at their often barren table waiting for the first gift of the day .... stovetop toast, cereal without milk, oatmeal in saucers, cups, small bowls as it was mixed with water heated on a black stovetop.
Billy K. brought that slogan, "be sworn or be cursed," from deeper in his reading than most of us, as he recounted its beginning when it was first used, applied, accepted for life by our small collection of Ferrin Street boys, adolescent, wise for our age, enough seen of elders of the street to form the "illicit corporation" as one elderly neighbor put it from his rocking chair oftentimes placed in sunlight on the brick sidewalk heading east towards the Navy Yard, the road to the Mystic River Bridge, to Chelsea, to points north. It is supposed that that neighbor, most likely in his very early prime, was enlisted, joined, stood in the ranks of a similar organization, that he too swore an allegiance to the group which may have lasted through some of the earliest tough times long enough for his neighbors to point accusative fingers at them, at him, though he apparently has outlasted most all his appositive finger-pointers. Off a ship in the harbor, met by a cousin, dropped into the Charlestown funnel on his first day in the new land, the new opportunity, the new version of poverty and hunger as the daily grind of life.
The Rileys luckily moved away from Charlestown, and the Kent School, when Joey was 9 years old, so he could get a different start on his priestly endeavors. Some of us, maybe two or three of us, if gathered again, might be able to say we saw him one time when he came back to visit, to bless an aunt who lay on her death bed and who had summoned him for the blessing. We were standing in the window of The Townies Publican on Bunker Hill Avenue, at attention at 3:30 in the sunlight of a June afternoon, when we spotted our one-time mobster leaving the three-decker where his aunt died that same night, and we had to lift a glass or two to Joey and his aunt in the unsuccessful administration of a prayerful "amen" by and for the pair of aunt and nephew of the Av. We figured they still belonged to Charlestown, though they had moved away, for good for her, though we never saw Joey again. He ended up in a parish in Pittsfield on the other side of the Berkshires, about as far away as you can get from Charlestown in the whole state.
Ricky "Rags" Johnson was shot by a cop when he broke away from the back door of the City Square Bank, the bag of bills clutched in his hand. Dean "Zack" Weathers fell off a crane and was impaled on an iron fence. Al "Nugs" Boatwright, early into two unions, one being marriage and the other being the Iron Workers Union, Local No. 7, and moved across the bridge to a house on a hill in Chelsea, had seven kids of his own, all boys, all great athletes, all winning scholarships to Boston College, Notre Dame or, the youngest, to Harvard College. and who now is a sports agent for several Patriot teammates. (We don't see him anymore even though we've gone to all the Patriots games at Fenway Park, Harvard Stadium, and their final home at the Gillette Stadium at Foxboro.
Jon "Stash" Podgurski, after a few abortive attempts when he didn't know what the hell he was doing, opened a bar in City Square that became a fast favorite of the locals and was now and then visited by members of the Celtics, the Bruins, the Red Sox and the Patriots, which signifies a kind of chain connection between professional athletes looking for a good time, at a place where a hard-nut boss says what's what in the joint, and keeps the peace and order in line for comrades and big league teammates at leisure.
Peter "Dutch" Barry, who loved numbers and any activity that dwelt in or on or around their manipulations, became an accountant, got into hot water with a couple of clients, left town, and hasn't been seen since, probably changed his name to accompany the many dollars he carried off with him.
Our mothers didn't complain about the small gifts of pennies nickels, dimes, bananas, bread loaves, soup cans, now and then some bag of groceries swiped from a door stoop, a front hall
during difficult ascension, from the back seat of an old Ford visiting from the hinterlands where "someone local" might have migrated to Lynnfield, Wakefield, Melrose, those "way out" localities promising a better life at least for the time being.
"Glory be to god," one mother of the lot might say, last night's hunger crossing her table once more, the empty table lingering with its deep voice, its shallow identity. "There's this clutch of bananas on the kitchen table this morning, not a sound reaching my ear during the whole of darkness, and himself still on a late shift at the Navy Yard, or gone for a week or more on one sort of train or another, and out past Pittsfield or Wilbraham or some other country on the other side of the mountains this state wears and wears and wears, and the pitiful few dollars he earns per the day of his labors.
And then, at last there's me, the last of the lot. I was the lucky one, food not begrudged, but fed another way, by another meal, the words rich, full of founding and reason and images so great they burst within me; my grandfather told me all his stories over the years, repeating every one until they burned against my heart, spilled themselves for me, and I caught the tremble from them, the burst of ideas they carried, the hours of joy they delivered, never knowing they kept me in place often for hours, even whole evenings at a time, thus off the streets, away from the others, until they all had paid their dues one way or another, or escaped to the hills, the woods, across rivers, bridges, connections of any kind, including the freedom of choice that littered every path.
As it is, the city has many births of the same body, the same crucial first breath that might be loaded with dust, gun smoke, disdain for anybody beyond the family circle. So, in his deepest wishes, upon the wings of words, the magic unleashed upon my hungry brain, the sense of collection began with sounds, alliterations, drama, wonder, adventure of others with the same desires that floated in me, the reach of words at the greatest distances coming to my attention, observation, awareness, from others who surely must have gone through the same episodes in life that I had, listeners all of us, as well as story tellers, characters in and of the telling, leaping outward for touch, memory, continuance, the long trail of words in blossom all the time.
One morning my mother found a loaf of bread, Bond Bread, on the kitchen table, all us kids asleep, my father working a train someplace or at the Navy Yard, three days gone this shift or trip, we never truly knew though he always came home muttering up the stairs of the three decker, his mouth full of taste and terror and talk of sleep until doomsday. Neither parent knew what offspring had brought the bread into the house, how it was "earned" in the first place, as my mother would annunciate, or who else might be seeking its return at that very moment so that we were forced to eat it before it was taken back by true owners; the lot marked, the single-board passport from the window of the next-door building, the board or plank drawn back into its coming for the time being, waiting for the next robbery of fresh bread for the mother's table of any of us Outlaws of Ferrin Street, that said route on a plank between two buildings would crush or panic our mothers to a final end, for sure. But between the slices of such a loaf bread a sandwich might be born to be the heartiest meal of many of our days, bologna at its best.
Miss Finn, the first grade teacher also read stories to us, the magic of other minds, the magic of other lands, characters that came on wings of thought to be, thus proven to this day, the real people of this world but just removed from us by a narrow space in our minds, as narrow as the plank of entry between two buildings crammed together as bodies seeking warmth, love,
companionship, or "another night where magic tightens its grasp on small minds."
It happened so fast, we were stunned: Billy Hounshell, from over on Medford Street and not one of our regulars but who sat in the same first grade classroom as did me and my sister at the Kent school, fell off one of those "entry planks," plunging down three levels of side-by-side buildings trying to get into Schrafft's Candy Company, his sweet tooth driving him up there in the first place rather than a partial meal for his family. He took all of them, the Hounshells, and all of us, on that quick dive to death and oblivion and "a sure place in Hell if you was to ask me," soon as light came to us and the sad news of his death ... and damnation.
It must have become window-pane apparent to my grandmother, the bookbinder, that we were doomed for such extinction, for such place of doom, because of a sudden, as quick as Billy had fallen, a truck was at our door to move us, lock, stock and barrel clear out of Charlestown to a little town a few miles up the coast, our kind of doomed forever left behind in the empty flat, the cold sidewalk, the littered alley that bound our tenement buildings as thoroughly as a strip of a small dump of waste, small souls, hungry mouths, sad promises to anyone with half a brain ... and there were lots of such folk in the immediate area.
I figured, en route, that I might be writing my last eulogy, my own, the new name "Saugus" tossed at us as if some wild-eyed Injun was waiting on us for the next terror to be won over, slain, done with, or dropped off, as it might prove, from the end of the world.
But the greenness of it was superb, splendid, overpowering, the leaps and bounds for it almost visible from every corner, field, lot, sudden space on our sudden entry, in a single truck loaded with family, furniture, future.
© Tom Sheehan
Bio: Sheehan has published 30 books and multiple works in Literally Stories, Rosebud, LinnetŐs Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, In Other Words-Merida, Literary Yard, Rope & Wire Western Magazine, Green Silk Journal, etc. Has received 32 Pushcart nominations and 5 Best of Net nominations with one winner, and other awards. Newer books are Swan River Daisy, Jehrico, The Cowboys, and Vigilantes East, with 3 books being considered, and one accepted by Pocol Press last month, Beside the Broken Trail.