Recently I read a newspaper account about several of my boyhood friends who were
sentenced to life in prison on charges that include murder and armed robbery. Anyone else
reading the story might have thought about it a bit then perhaps moved on to the sports
pages. But I put the paper down, closed my eyes and drifted back to a simpler time 30
years ago, when all my friends and I could think about was how to best spend a lazy
Looking back I see a group of young teenagers playing cards on the cold, dirty, concrete
housing project steps. In the background, that quintessential 60’s song “ Light My Fire”
blasts from a transistor radio. As our interest in the card game wanes, our thoughts turn
toward whether to play baseball, ride our bikes or head to the nearby Mystic River for a
swim. In many ways we were no different from kids beyond the project walls, yet at the
same time we were worlds apart.
I see a group of kids dependent upon welfare: living in homes without love, fathers or role
models: with visible and not-so-visible alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Children who
went to bed each night never knowing what they would wake up to the next morning and
praying that the next day would be better than the last. I wonder about my old friends,
about what they have been up to for the past 30 years and whether they are truly guilty of
the crimes they have been charged with. I’m flooded with emotions about our childhood,
growing up in the projects and the tragedy of living day to day in an environment that
offered little hope of fulfilling dreams and goals.
Project kids often do not have access to employment and educational opportunities, family
vacations or a night out at a first class restaurant. Nor do they have lush green lawns
enclosed by little white picket fences, fine clothes, privacy or even a cellar for saving
cherished memorabilia. the often forgotten and misunderstood project kids sometimes
have to step over drunks and addicts and human and animal waste to get into their
These kids must learn how to endure the sneers and taunts of nonresidents, and how to
smile while silently seething when someone calls them a “project rat” and tells their
children to stay away from “them”. Kids from the projects must learn to distinguish the
echo made when a 38 is fired from the sound of fireworks and to look the other way when
they see something they shouldn’t have seen. Above all project kids must strive to never,
ever lower their eyes and stare at the ground in shame when asked where they live.
I can’t help but wonder about what effect the individual, personal challenges each of my
friends faced as kids may have had on their ability to “make it” and prosper within society.
Each of us knew what the others were going through we just chose to remain silent about
it, hoping that by maintaining our “code” things would get better but they never did. many
of these kids did indeed live lives of quiet desperation.
Normally, I am cynical toward those who seek to blame an individual’s antisocial behavior
on his socioeconomic background, parents, self-esteem or environment. However, deep
within me I know that a number of my friends would not have been murdered or
incarcerated, and wouldn’t have committed crimes if they had been exposed to a bit more
compassion, hope or opportunity as youngsters.
A lack of opportunity or hope is by no means an excuse to commit a crime or to hurt
another, but I suppose it is possible that those without either may fall victim to external
influences at a greater rate. Returning to the present, opening my eyes, I thought, “there
but for the grace of God, go I” before I turned my attention to the sports pages.
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