Stealing tips; Boston, 1973

I was still some white guy underperforming my way through life and he was a black kid carrying more weight than I ever would. And I still had the advantage.


I found myself in Boston in 1973, having turned my English degree into a job flipping burgers at Brigham’s ice cream shop.

Boston was a city in transition that year. The Hub of the Universe, so-dubbed by writer Oliver Wendall Holmes, was not the city seen today where waterfront towers seem capable of tipping the city into Boston Harbor (or Baston Haa-ba, for the uninitiated).

Tourists walked the Freedom Trail and marveled at the Old North Church, looking for the lamps that launched the American Revolution, and rode the Swan Boats in The Public Garden.

But those who visited Griffin’s Wharf, the site of the Boston Tea Party, had they glanced beyond the replicas of the Eleanor and the Beaver, might have noticed that the harbor, except for the New England Aquarium, was an expanse of roped-off and dilapidated wharfs, the remnants of the great sailing days, darkened and dangerous, neither romantic enough to charm, nor worthy yet of development cash.

Boston in 1973 was still a city where grandparents dressed their grandchildren in their Sunday best, as their grandparents had done, and lunched at the eighth-floor restaurant at Filene’s Department Store where string quartets and magicians performed, while a few blocks away in the Combat Zone teen-aged dancers stripped for gamblers and drunks along lower Washington Street and performed tricks in the alleys.

But Boston in 1973 was in the middle of a monumental social change: The desegregation of the city’s schools. Under an order by federal judge Arthur Garrity, Boston had to racially balance the city schools, meaning for example, white kids from South Boston swapped schools with black kids from Roxbury.

Boston, like other Northeast cities, had been divided for years along racial and economic lines.

The Brigham’s I worked at was on the corner of Boylston and Tremont street. Boston Common was across the street, the Theater District ran in two directions and touched the edge of the Combat Zone.

The daytime crowd was workers, shoppers and tourists.

At night, the theater crowd, dressed for an evening out and buying tuna sandwiches to sneak into the theater where no food was allowed, mixed with a few guys trying sober up with coffee, and a collection of street kids.

One of my jobs on the busy nights was to bus the counter more often than necessary because the kids would steal tips.

The servers knew the kids on sight. It was an elaborate dance: I’d stand at the end of the counter for a minute or two until the kids left and they’d return the crowd thickened.

The night this happened, the restaurant was crowded as usual. Francis and Don, the beat cops in for their evening pick-me-up, where chatting about the Red Sox, when there was a little scuffle at the front of the counter. One of the servers had chased a couple of kids away after they tried to take a couple of bucks; she had nodded to me so I was heading out to patrol the counter.

Then it happened.

One of our regulars, a drunk scion of a prominent Boston family, was drinking off his hangover, when he looked up from his paperback and loudly said, “why don’t you go back to Africa.”

One kid, maybe fourteen had already moved to the door. In an instant he turned and in two steps crossed the space to the drunk, fist raised and hit the man four times in the face. Blood spurted all over from his broken nose.

I leaped over the counter to get between the kid and the drunk but Francis and Don had already secured his arms and were getting ready to lead him out of the building.

The kid and I stared silently at each other for a moment.

His face simmered with pain and defiance. Look at what I have to do. A couple of bucks. Bad housing, bad schools, no one will hire me because I’m from Roxbury and no white man can trust no kid from the projects. You all gave me a choice and this is the one I took. Fuck you, whitey.

A little kid, maybe ten, who was with the other kid stood in the doorway while his friend was being interviewed by the cops, looked up at me and said, “Man, you don’t know shit, do you?”

And he was right.

I had been on my own since I was about that kid’s age.

I had been offered different choices, and at that moment I wondered how my circumstances had been so different.

About a month later we were riding in a crowded Green Line trolley. I had my arm around my companion and my hand on her shoulder bag.

The crowd shifted as we entered a station, and in that opening break I saw that kid again.

We locked eyes for an instant. His were still hard and defiant.

Nothing had changed in that month, as if that was possible.

I was still some white guy underperforming my way through life and he was a black kid carrying more weight than I ever would. And I still had the advantage.

The two bucks on that counter meant little to the couple who left them, but a little more to the high school kid working a night job to maybe pay for college. And to the black kid? Maybe was just part of the game, but maybe it was all part of survival, a way to scream “I am.”

When we got home that night we were on the trolley, I noticed the straps to the shoulder bag had been unfastened.

Did the kid do it?

Hard to say. When I saw him he was three or four bodies away.

But he could have.

When I saw the loose straps, I smiled. That ten-year-old was right.

I didn’t know shit.

And as we watch our streets fill with protests and cities burn again, I wonder how much any of us know.

Nothing had changed in that month in 1973; and little has changed in the 47 years since.


About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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