Toward the end of my 24 years in jail—my wife’s way of referencing my work at the Billerica House of Correction (BHC) — Tommy approached me in the prison yard. Recently, news of his passing prodded old memories and, following this thread, I found myself in another yard 50 years previous.
In St. Rita’s school yard (Hampshire Street in Lawrence) of the 1950s, boys, on the cusp of adolescence, were preoccupied with their physical being and prowess. We were all aware of the pecking order — not unlike in a prison, where survival depended on this awareness — and Tommy was the undisputed top of the pile. There was an obsession with being tough — who could “take” who was the stuff of school yard taunts and the physical and verbal exchanges that ensued.
As a 12-year-old, I was oblivious to the manner and dress of others, but Tommy distinguished himself not only by his “don’t cross me” leer but also by his scruffiness — a kind of street urchin quality — a hard-edge character reminiscent of the Dead End Kids in a “Bowery Boys” episode. There were rumors that his father was in jail, and I can still see him sitting by himself devouring a breakfast the nuns had given him before class. Time has since fleshed out details and provided a context to understand what then was merely a curiosity—why just Tommy.
Paradoxically, a hierarchy of perceived toughness in both the jail and school yards — perhaps a remnant of an earlier stage of man’s evolution — avoided aggression. With the outcome of a fight with Tommy not in doubt, he was rarely challenged. His reputation strutted well ahead of him. While it may have served him well with classmates, it also invited the constant scrutiny of the nuns, whose task it was to contain an instinctual impulsivity as he roamed about dispensing his version of schoolyard justice. This hypervigilance may have predisposed the nuns to see things that were not always there. My memories, refracted through the prism of a 12 -year-old’s perceptions, may have a revisionist component, but there were times when Tommy got ensnared in situations that were undeserved. While hardly a victim himself, he did not stand by when others were victimized.
For reasons I didn’t understand at the time — perhaps on some primal, gut level that seemed to define him — he saw a vulnerability in me that I was not aware of in myself and seemed to like me as well as a few others. Classmates seemed to sense this and we felt protected. In retrospect, I don’t think this was a conscious decision on his part; there was little about him to suggest he thought much about anything — he always seemed to simply act and react without much intervening thought. It was his way of relating to a world that for him was hostile, and St. Rita’s schoolyard was a microcosm of that world.
It’s not that Tommy was physically imposing. He didn’t stand apart from others in that regard. His intimidating presence emanated largely from an almost total disregard for his own physical well-being. It was this aura of indifference that, in the minds of the emerging adolescents who inhabit 8th-grade schoolyards, kept would-be challengers at a distance.
When I saw him in the BHC prison yard in the late 1990s, Tommy no longer looked tough. Disheveled, unkempt with a scruffy, grizzled beard and a ruddy complexion, he looked smaller and diminished without the swagger I remembered. In his state-issued jumpsuit there was nothing to separate him from the mass of humanity milling about. It was life, not prison, that eroded the aura that surrounded him in the schoolyard. Prison was simply one more kick in the gut. As we talked in the BHC yard, I sensed a quality in him that I could not articulate as a 12-year-old but that I found redeeming, then and now.
Having battled the demons of life as an alcoholic himself, Tommy recognized the same struggle in his cellmate and was enlisting my help to get the man into a treatment program.
Subsequently, I saw Tommy speaking passionately at inmate-led AA meetings. After 24 years in prison, I was not naïve.
Knowing that many inmates attended AA and treatment programs to earn deductions from their sentences or to wave a certificate of completion at a parole or classification board, I was not easily impressed. You develop a sense of who was using time in prison to make changes in their lives and who was simply taking up space counting the days to their release. They declare themselves in many ways. Tommy was doing a mandatory sentence so sentence deductions would do him no good, yet his passion on the issue of treatment clearly shone through the fog of indifference that sometimes gripped AA meetings in the Big House.
Looking back 50 years, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that Tommy and I stood facing one another in a prison yard. It was, if not inevitable, foreseeable. I should also not have been stunned that, in spite of his early life circumstances or, as I later came to believe because of them, he was able to sense a neediness in others taken down by happenstance and the vicissitudes of life and, as in the schoolyard, did not simply walk away.
During that moment in time when Tommy and I stumbled into adolescence together, he just seemed tough.
His reputation preceded him in the schoolyard, like the shadow of 12-year-old walking away from a rising sun.
In the BHC yard, he was walking into the sunset of his life with his shadow and reputation trailing well behind him. But, in the BHC yard, I suspect he had long discarded the school yard toughness — he no longer needed it. He had found a way to connect with the humanity of others and do what was within his power to do in whatever yard he found himself — unclenching his fist and extending a hand.
Jim Cain writes from North Andover. He worked in the prison system as a psychologist/administrator.