When he tells me that he has a knife strapped to his leg, I feel the first part of fear—shock—fill in behind my temples. The conversation doesn’t go well after that.
He had seemed approachable, standing with his back to the brick wall next to a smoke shop on Dorchester Street. Approachable in the sense that he wasn’t in a hurry, leaning back against that wall. I’d already been shut down by two potential interviewees: one a South Asian cashier in a corner store whose eyes grew suspicious the moment the word interview tumbled from my mouth, the other a man waiting for the bus by some empty Tyvek’ed building frames (“I’m just not sure I’ll have time to give you much of a story before it comes”). I wanted someone who had nowhere to go.
Wearing an old North Face fleece, he is unmoving despite the chill and slight flecks of wet snow falling; he has the caved-in mouth of someone who has lost a few teeth, but his eyes—blue and direct, clear—suggest he has some time to kill and no obvious antagonism toward strangers.
I ask, “Do you mind if I talk to you for a few minutes? It’ll be recorded.”
In his own words: “I’m seventy and I don’t give a fuck.”
So I ask him if he lives around here.
He came, he says, when he was seven. Seven days, that is—my first tip-off that it’s not all exactly right. His speech trails off for a moment. What’s strange, though, is that he catches himself. He apologizes. “Ah, seven, seven”—he struggles with the word ‘years’ and tries to explain—“I have a hard time, because I got hit in the head”—he takes off his hat to show me—“three, four times.”
“He got—a person got pissed off, in my house and… that’s what he did… and I was on the floor, and there was blood that far apart. And now I have a hard time dealing with shit.”
He leans forward as he says it, and I get the first waft of cinnamon-sweet alcohol, not harsh but simply there.
The dimple in the middle of his upper lip starts to look a lot more like scar tissue.
In Good Will Hunting, the violence is cartoonish, unthreatening. Will and friends go to a Little League game and drink, and then they spot Carmine Scarpaglia, an Italian man who used to beat Will up in kindergarten. There’s no fight, though, at least not yet—it’s not until Will sees Carmine harassing a woman on the street that he gets out of his car and attacks him. It’s a cosmically just fight, and it’s also a goofy scene—Morgan comically bemoans the fact that they bought snacks first, and the slow motion action shots combined with feel-good, chill music suggests that, like a cartoon, nothing truly terrible is going to happen. Although Will eventually goes too far, punching Carmine over and over again in the face, the rules of the movie don’t allow him to do irrevocable damage. This is not a place where people die or become brain-damaged out of the blue. The scene demonstrates Will’s emotional instability—it doesn’t try to paint South Boston as a place of death. If anything, it has a glossy, nostalgic view of old-school Southie, where rights and wrongs are settled by fists (but nothing worse). The violence is, in a way, not violence, precisely because it has rules and order and expectations.
But maybe South Boston is getting just as one-sided of a treatment from the man in front of me. Despite “getting fucked up,” he is remarkably clear-headed. More than anything he seems drunk, not out-of-it per se—the difference being that his conversation is on-topic and to the point, although he occasionally slurs or forgets words. I start to wonder how much of the described violence is real—and then immediately get embarrassed at my own doubt.
The conversation shifts to family: the man has three kids, Annie, David, and one whose name he doesn’t remember, although that one “is a fucking dickweed.” Annie’s good to him, he says—they see each other maybe two or three times a year, since she lives nearby, closer to the harbor. She even has three kids of her own. David has no kids, but the man doesn’t seem upset by that.
Two or three visits a year don’t seem like much of a social life, so I ask him if he has close friends around.
“Not so much, not anymore.”
Again, he doesn’t seem upset by it.
“I went to school, and anyone that was around it, if they wanted to fuck with me, I used to kick them in the balls.” He pantomimes it with me. “But I stopped going to school in seventh grade, and started painting houses and shit, and I did that all my life.”
“When did you stop?”
“About, uh, seven years ago. I just couldn’t, couldn’t do it anymore. With my head.”
“What do you do now?”
“I walk, most, all days. Every day. And, uh, a couple of these,” (he shows me a nip of Fireball) “you know, a little help. And uh, that’s what I do. It’s all right.”
He strikes me as so unapologetic—not happy but not unhappy. Most of the meaning that I think about in my own imagined future come from a job, partner, kids, friends; but unlike in the movies, this man’s never been tempted to search out something else, at least not at the moment. When Will loses the girl, he “ha[s] to see” about her. He can’t let that meaning slip out of his life. In this world, the man in front of me stayed.
I ask him if he ever considered moving. He says no, because he liked what he was doing and where he was. I wait for more. There isn’t any more.
So I ask him where he lives now.
“I live right down there.” (He points back toward the Station.) He adds, “I’ll cut them motherfuckers down there.”
Surprised, I ask him who he means.
“Where I live, it’s hard. Some of those people they come and up to you and they say, hey, give me some fucking money. I’ve got a knife this long, the handle’s here, and I’ll put it in here,” (he points to my abdomen) “and I’ll cut you to your fucking ass.” He shows me where he keeps it.
“So do you feel safe most of the time?
“You’re never certain, no, you’re never, you’re never actually totally, no. You gotta keep your ass together.”
I try to think of a way to steer the conversation somewhere else, but this is where it’s going.
“Blacks, blacks, you know, a lot of blacks” (he leans in) “are hard-ass motherfuckers. I’ve only, I’ve only stuck a knife in one of them. And everyone around me now, they know, they know I’ve got a knife. And they say, Johnson, Johnson, he’s fucking crazy.”
That extreme, casual mention of violence is so foreign to me—the shock partly is the word “only,” that the man thinks stabbing only one person is a feat of forbearance. My responses to him get more clipped. Not out of antagonism, though. My brain just isn’t providing me with the associative directions to push the conversation toward.
I end up cutting off the conversation—after getting his name, Michael Edward Johnson—and walking back to the station. Along the way I keep looking back, and once, a runner in Nike nylons skitters across my peripherals, jangling my nerves. Johnson’s not following me, but I imagine him in intricate detail rolling up his pant leg, unbuckling his knife, planning to stick it handle-deep in my abdomen without a pantomime. I imagine the shock. My inability to process—my eyes wide and direct looking into his blue, thin-ringed irises—his unapologetic expression. And, once again, I get embarrassed at my own reaction.
Incongruity is scary. It’s a mental violence. It tears the easy stream of thoughts encasing us. This man on Dorchester Street has stabbed someone and carries a knife even now. I’m stunned partly because, unlike the movies, there is no music or artistic hand to guide the action. In movies there are rules about when and how violence occurs, but in life there are so few. Of course, again, it occurs to me that what he said to me could have been boasting. As he himself said, the reputation and gossip and rumor, what people say about him, that “he’s crazy,” is more of a safety blanket than the actual knife. Still, my gut says that he wasn’t lying. His casual mention of it suggests no intent to impress me. He certainly doesn’t perceive me as a threat.
Over my shoulder, the last thing I heard him say: “So now you’ve got something.”
Yes, I say. I’ve got something. And nowhere to put it.
By Matt Krane ’15