A Boyhood Spent On Park Street Bridge

Am I the only one who knows West Roxbury is the shape of County Roscommon, Ireland? Did someone show me a map or did I imagine it in a dream? Thirty years later, in that self-absorbed frenzy of mid-adulthood, I still hear the voice which told me so, its faded Celtic lilt apparent even after fifty years in America. Those little morsels of questionable wisdom I gleaned from the everyday folks who inhabited that five-block universe at whose center was the Park Street Bridge. And it wasn’t just the Irish. I was at the counter of Steve Slyne’s Deli ordering a Roast Beef sandwich when an old Greek lady told me that chewing gum while cutting onions will keep you from crying. Another time I was in line at East’s Drug Store when a well-dressed man of some Arabic extraction informed me that wearing neckties too tightly could cause a stroke. I may have balked at the time, but I was relieved the following year when told that the school uniform at Don Bosco Tech required only clip-ons.

Yet none of us would ever be taught what we could learn for ourselves. The West Roxbury of my youth was an urban wilderness of wonder, ripe for exploration and never without the opportunity for mischief. Even now as I write this I see myself as a young child—perhaps ten or eleven—hurling snowballs over the wall of Billings Field with friends. The wet smack of the projectile impact is followed by a shriek somewhere below and in an instant we are all running. It must have been a school day—it only ever snowed on schooldays—and the neighborhood swarmed with packs of mittened and down-suited kids who wandered the white streets like wolves out for prey. They were everywhere—in the alleyway behind the YMCA; under the stoop of the Bellevue Street apartments; on top of garages, under cars and inside igloos. By noon I was soaked to the bone and by early afternoon every one of us was numb from the cold. Rather than go home, we would send someone to get cigarettes and for the rest of the day we sat under Park Street Bridge, huddled around a barrel fire and smoking foolishly.

There were a lot of firsts on Park Street Bridge, not the least of which was a first kiss, made nervously beneath a single streetlamp some cold winter night whose year I have since forgotten. The first and only time I ran away from home, I slept on the tracks below and woke up the next morning with more mosquito bites than pimples. Later I saw my first arrest and first accident all at once when a fleeing motorcyclist crashed on the Bridge while being chased by police. If I didn’t have my first fistfight there, I certainly had my bloodiest. It was pouring rain the night a neighborhood kid and I battled each other up Corey Street and down March Avenue for over an hour. With our faces smashed to pulp and our spirits exhausted, we collapsed to the station platform in silence until he turned to me and said, “Wanna split a pizza?”

In those days the railroad was inactive and what was more disappointing to a boy than tracks without trains? But in the end it mattered little because there was no road or rail that could have taken us anywhere else we wanted to be. The layers of debris which had accumulated along the Bridge embankment were as fascinating as the streets of Pompeii and for hours I and a friend might pick through the litter for anything unsavory—an untapped bottle of beer, the end of a joint or the faded pages of a dirty magazine. I once thought I struck it rich after finding a handful of Indian Head Nickels in an ancient jam jar that was half-submerged in the muck. When we spotted a female arm in the bushes, the fact that it was only a mannequin’s made it no less thrilling and for an entire summer we speculated on its origins. Aside from the curiosities there were practical things too, like the discarded street sign and old roadwork barricade we pulled from the overgrowth and used to construct a shanty. We spent many a cold afternoon there and the hideaway would have lasted forever if a nameless accomplice hadn’t dropped a cigarette and burned it to the ground.

Everything changed in March of ’84 when my mother was finally able to scrape together the money for our first apartment. With a few boxes of possessions, we left my grandmother’s house on Park Street, walked over the Bridge and came to our new home on Hastings Street. Few would have been proud to leave the grandeur of Bellevue Hill for the triple-deckers along Centre Street, but being closer to the action was its own form of status for a restless teen. From my bedroom window, I looked out over the Bridge and the station lot and I always knew if someone was on the tracks below because the voices carried. The proximity was my downfall, however, because by May I had logged so many hours there and so few at my desk that I failed out of Boston Latin School.

It has always been for me that the least significant people are the most memorable. And such was the case for the many characters—most now dead—that once frequented those sacred lands around Park Street Bridge. Who could forget Diamond Jack, blind in one eye and blind drunk always, who passed out for so long in the brush beside the tracks that when he finally stumbled to Centre Street for a slice of pizza, he was mowed down by a Pinto? Or Big Jim, the Vietnam vet with the Army jacket and Burt Reynolds mustache, whose nightly reconnaissance mission was to walk from the Bridge to Macy’s Liquors and back. How amazed we all were when, every evening at midnight, this haggard old soul was picked up by a gorgeous blonde in a Lincoln Continental. What intrigue, what wonder? Then there was Dave—lovable Dave—the towering schizophrenic in the brown woolen sport coat, who roamed the streets and stood on corners mumbling things that only he himself understood. There were others too, though the names now escape me, and they live on only in the forgotten mythology of neighborhood lore. Somehow we looked up to those vagrants, oddballs, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells and if they didn’t teach us anything about life, they were at least examples of how not to live it.

The day I hooked school in the autumn of ’86 coincided with the arrival of the land movers, massive mechanical monsters that plowed a neatly-cut path to make way for a new commuter line. With schoolbags slung over our shoulders, we watched through the chain-link fence as they shook the earth and broke are hearts. Now forced to hang around the station platform or on top of the Bridge itself, we nevertheless came to experience the true magic and mystery of the place. The first time it happened, we were gathered on the overpass one night when a tall figure stepped out of the Irish Social Club and approached us. “Tip” O’Neill looked like any of our grandfathers except that after warning, “stay in school and out of trouble!” he joined us for a beer. Another time, Mayor Ray Flynn left the Knights of Columbus after an event, changed into jogging attire in the driveway beside Lou’s Tailor and proceeded to sprint back to Southie. I like to think that the night we watched three drunken nuns run across the Bridge was indeed Halloween, but I can’t be sure. Then there was the homeless Canadian, part-Inuit and part-lunatic, who bathed naked in the snow to increase circulation and was later found frozen stiff. The absurdities were as common as the celebrities and at times Park Street Bridge seemed like a bizarre wonderland known only by us.

I was well into my twenties when Assistant Attorney General Paul McLaughlin was gunned down by gang members at the station on a warm September night. If I had taken the previous train home, as I had intended, I might have heard the shot that ended—at least for me—the innocence of it all. As ambulance sirens flashed in the parking lot, I stood on Park Street Bridge in my overcoat and tie and saw that it was empty for the first time. If the shooting wasn’t a turning point, it was certainly an awakening and I realized then that the things I thought eternal were temporary after all. My generation had grown up and moved on; old families had left and new ones came in; the familiar mom-and-pop shops along Centre Street had given way to bistros, banks and beauty salons. Even the ever-present groups of youths that once filled every city park and street corner had vanished altogether, victims of overprotective parents, video games and a society that no longer distinguished between idleness and delinquency. Maybe the Bridge hadn’t changed, but the neighborhood and the world around it had.

Wherever I have travelled—however far I’ve strayed—Park Street Bridge lingers at the core of my consciousness like a long-deceased relative I knew as a child, but just briefly. I remember it not as a whole, but as a series of scattered incidents and unrelated events, connected only by the tenuous thread of shared experience and by the fact that they all happened there. Perhaps that’s why, in the strangest places and at the most unexpected moments, I have found myself defending the Bridge and my memories of it. Years ago, while living abroad, I passed a sign in some small English town that read ‘Park Street Bridge.’ What came over me, I still don’t know, but I tore the imposter off its mount and tossed it in the canal while stupefied tourists looked on. Similar episodes of sentimental overreaction have occurred throughout my life and could only be explained as a longing for a place that existed but was also gone. Almost a quarter of a century has passed, yet some nights while driving alone down Centre Street I’ll turn suddenly and go by the Bridge, looking deep into the shadows of the tracks below and listening for the sounds of my lost childhood.