I grew up in the city of Boston, in an East Boston Italian neighborhood, on Frankfort Street. On one corner stood a bar called The Airways, which was later named Cardinal’s Nest. On the other corner lived a convent of nuns affiliated with the Mount Carmel Church, where I served as an altar boy. The church was also on my street, just two corners down, and the parish had a grammar school diagonally across the road.
In between the church/convent and the bar resided a variety of people and establishments that included a butcher shop, a small grocery store, a men’s social club, and an auto body shop, positioned amidst the row of three-decker dumbbell tenements. My house was in the middle of it all. I should say, our apartment was in the middle of it all, as we lived on the third floor of one of those three-deckers on Frankfort Street.
Frankfort Street, as many other inner-city streets, ran the gamut of possibilities for good and evil on a tiny strip of asphalt. Just about every possible type of person crossed that street daily. The extreme differences among the activities that occurred on an ongoing basis were mind-boggling. The community was praying at one end of the street and boozing at the other. They were shopping for meat on Saturday morning, gambling and playing cards Saturday afternoon, and attending baptisms on Sundays. There were even a couple of murders committed on the street while I lived there.
The funny part was that it all seemed very normal to me. It was not uncommon for priests to be talking to gangsters and for prostitutes to be praying with nuns. Through it all, everyone felt that our neighborhood was safe and comfortable, not only because we had a police officer who lived on the street as well. Let there be no confusion, everyone knew who the other was, and what they did, and still lived together on the same street. I believe that it is because of this background that I see the world as very, very grey – definitely not a cut and dried, black and white existence. There are too many factors in play for things to be determined in a single snapshot.
If you viewed it that way, there would be good at one end of my street and evil at the other. The reality is that the street was full of good and evil throughout, and no one really knew from where or when either would emanate. The nuns would be jailed today for the brutality they dished out on school kids. Slaps, whacks and punches were not uncommon punishments from the women in habits. I, myself, took a firm hand across my ass while attending the school. I witnessed uncharacteristic behaviors from the men and women who pledged their lives to the Lord, as well as incredible acts of kindness from thugs and whores. But while they passed by walking down the street, the whispers from the onlookers focused on the extreme of how they were perceived.
“Father ‘so and so’ is such a wonderful man.” “Did you see the dress she was wearing?” “Sister is so sweet.” “He was the one who put Johnny No-Nose in his place.” The neighborhood, my street, was chock full of good and evil dancing harmoniously together, and at times switching places. People from the outside could just see the labels each person bore, but if you lived in the middle of it all, you knew it was not as clear cut to identify who was helping and who was hurting. The uniform that was worn didn’t always justify the perception. We knew that so-called “bad guys” very often were good, and that “good guys” sometimes did bad things. We lived in a grey world back then; guess what – we live in a grey world still today.
When people point fingers at others, are they, in fact, trying to hide their own inadequacies? Are the people who revel in the misfortunes of others compensating for what they lack? The mob mentality that leads to persecution does not really solve or justify the situations. Be an individual when determining your position and mindset. When moments of uncertainty pop up, don’t let the snapshots derail you from understanding the entire story. The devil (and the goodness) is in the details. No person is completely good or entirely bad, just somewhere in between. Somewhere in the middle of Frankfort Street.