Revisiting Southie's culture of death

ATTENDING "The Departed," I made sure to sit on the periphery of the theater, far from the titillated gasps and chuckles of any gangster noir voyeurs that I assumed filled the theater. I made sure I was close to the emergency exit, should I have to escape another Southie criminal story meant to entertain people in their plush reclining seats and the climate-controlled safety of the megaplex theater. As the movie opened, I thought of the Sex Pistols ' line about cheap holidays in other people's miseries and stayed focused on the red-lit exit sign. I wasn't as eager as my fellow movie goers to visit the culture of death that destroyed so many neighbors and siblings in Southie over the years.

From the first scene to the last, refusing to recline in the midst of the corrupt, strangulating, and deadly culture depicted, I sat on the edge of my seat, ready to flee. And so did everyone else in the theater. Which means that director Martin Scorsese got it exactly right. I was brought right back to my childhood home, reminded of everything that did make me flee as often as I could from the streets that took two of my brothers, at the ages of 21 and 23, as well as leaving a sister severely brain damaged and partially paralyzed at 18.

Whitey Bulger and the Irish mafia did not directly kill and maim my siblings and neighbors who died in the '80s, when South Boston held the country's highest concentration of white poverty, Boston's highest death rates from drugs, and the city's fastest growing homicide rate. But a culture was created by him -- a culture of death -- in league with FBI agents, and with the implicit approval of our own politicians at all levels, from Southie through the highest reaches of the state. It is said that we all knew what was going on in the streets, where the neighborhood code of silence was brilliantly maintained by the drug lord/informant. And we did. But what matters more is that everyone knew, at all levels of city, state, and federal government.

And kids died.

Scorsese doesn't get into the action in Southie, the lives of kids (many from the first generation that dropped out after the busing riots) who were sucked into the culture of lies, lost their friends, and numbed themselves out with the cocaine Whitey flooded the streets with. What Scorsese does instead , in a brilliant departure from the murder-as-entertainment genre, is recreate the same suffocation that I felt as a kid growing up in a blood-soaked neighborhood, controlled by lies, deceit, and betrayal emanating as much from the halls of power as from Whitey Bulger.

Watching the ``The Departed," my mind's eye still focused on the exit sign, I relived the panic attacks of my youth, in the aftermath of my brothers ' deaths, at a time when we all knew that no one was allowed to talk. We all had to suck it up and move on. Pretend it never happened, as if it never happens here in Southie, as if only those neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan are rife with crime and drugs. I was lucky -- I followed the exit signs, walked over the Broadway Bridge, and found the bigger world, at first through the underground punk music scene that encouraged individuality and allowed kids to re imagine who they might be. But I always had to straddle two worlds: the bigger world and the closed cult of Southie. And every time I walked over that bridge back home, I felt the same panic Scorsese induced in "The Departed."

In the late '90s, the nation's media descended upon South Boston in the midst of a suicide epidemic that spread far beyond the rates we were already familiar with in Southie. Everyone wanted to know, ``Why?" At the time, even though Whitey Bulger had fled the neighborhood, tipped off by his friends in higher places than the painkiller-addicted streets his victims were stuck in after years of traumatic deaths, many in the neighborhood still felt unable to talk about what we'd experienced. But when young people grow up in a world where they know they're being lied to, and where no one knows who to trust, where to turn, there is a sense of smothering like that which made me flee over the Broadway Bridge as often as I could, and like that which made me want to cut out on ``The Departed." It's that culture of closedness, maintained for years by gangsters and politicians who were not as trapped as us residents, which, I believe, led to Southie's suicide epidemics, heroin epidemics, and Oxycontin epidemics, all of which still plague the neighborhood even through recent years of widespread gentrification of the now trendy South Boston.

In the movie's most poignant scene, the cop-posing-as-criminal ( Leonardo DiCaprio) and the criminal-posing-as-cop ( Matt Damon) almost connect via cell phone call. The two come breath to breath, but not a word is spoken. The silence is painful. And, for so many Southie kids over the years, that same silence -- propagated by adults from the depths of the gangster underworld to the highest offices in government -- was deadly.