Those not from Boston, those who’ve not lived in Boston for decades, and those too young for it to have registered must wonder why we are so caught up in Whitey Bulger’s arrest after 16 years on the run. It’s a rare thing when discussion with my morning coffee buddies settles on a single topic for more than ten minutes. Rarer still is when there is one inclusive conversation rather than two, three, or four small-group conversations. Today nine of us talked about Whitey for more than a half hour.
I first heard of Whitey Bulger in 1973 or 1974. I’d dropped out of college and found work in Spalding Printing Company, running an Ozalid blueprint machine (it was surrounded by a miasma of the ammonia used to fix images) and working the bindery. Richie, the delivery guy, was my age, from South Boston., and a natural story-teller whose material all related to his hometown: growing up in Southie, dating in Southie, hanging out with friends in Southie, fighting outsiders who strayed into Southie, going on his only trip outside Massachusetts with Southie friends and fighting people they met who were not from Southie. From Richie I learned both the official lyrics to Southie is My Home Town–
I was born down on “A” Street, Raised up on “B Street, Southie is my hometown;
There is something about it, Permit me to shout it, It is tops for miles around;
We have doctors and flappers, Preachers and scrappers, Men from the Old County down;
They will take you & break you, But they’ll never forsake you; For Southie is my hometown
And his twist on the final stanza:
If you want to stay healthy, stay the hell out of Southie, because Southie is my hometown.
Whitey Bulger was one of the colorful, outsized characters in Richie’s stories–a legendary tough guy, brother of one of Boston’s most adept politicians (brother Billy did not become president of the Massachusetts Senate until 1978), a fiercely loyal Irish Robin Hood who Took Care of His Own, a fierce defender off Southie from all outsiders. Richie told stories of Bulger’s financial generosity and contempt for outsiders.
With this vivid portrait lodged firmly in my consciousness in early 1975 I started doing paralegal work in MCI-Walpole, the state’s maximum security prison. (Years later at the behest of Walpole’s image handlers the state changed it’s name to MCI-Cedar Junction, but to me it will always be MCI-Walpole.) There I met many Irish mob guys and learned more of the culture. They were loyal to their crime partners, murderous to their enemies, and abhorred rats. I heard more whispered tales of Whitey. His portrait became more ominous and shadowy.
With this background every story about Whitey compelled my attention. His co-purchase of a winning Mass Lottery ticket and his strong-armed takeover of a South Boston liquor store show different his different faces: the irreverent maverick and the stone gangster. (The first story provides some flavor of the ambiguity of Bulger’s reputation in late 1980’s, although its author misses the sarcasm in the Mike Barnicle column he quotes.) The idealized gloss of Richie’s portrait faded. Bulger was a plain hood, not Robin Hood. But I was still shocked by the claimed extent of Bulger’s murders, and then by revelation of his long-time cooperation with the Boston F.B.I. An informant? Bulger? In the code of honor (such as it was) that I learned from my old Walpole clients, nothing is more despicable than a rat. Murdering 19 people, according to the government indictment, is bone-chilling. Murdering 19 people while cooperating with the F.B.I. requires incomprehensible, cold-blooded, calculating duplicity. How does a person live a lie of that magnitude? Boston is hanging on this story’s latest chapter.