If first-hand experience were a qualification for writing crime fiction, Richard Marinick's curriculum vitae would push him to the forefront of that genre. A former Massachusetts State Trooper and a convicted armored car robber, a “sand hog,” and a night club bouncer, his first novel, Boyos, is a story rooted in the fabled area of Boston known as Southie (South Boston), where he moved after high school graduation and where he still lives (Telegraph Hill). Marinick received his formal college education—both bachelor’s and master’s degrees—from Boston University during his incarceration at various state prisons: MCI Concord, MCI Cedar Junction, and MCI Norfolk. He is at work on his second novel.
Boyos gives us Jack “Whacko” Curran and his drugged-out younger brother, Kevin, big earners for the South Boston Irish mob and looking to strike out on their own from the tentacles of boss Marty Fallon (Whitey Bulger anyone?) as well as eluding the well-documented corrupt machinations of the local FBI office. It is a violent story and, as you would expect, realistically detailed and clearly and well written—and as polished as the novels of the better-known Boston crime story authors. As you will see in the talk that follows below, Richard Marinick’s own story is riveting and resonant—another powerful story from the naked city.
Robert Birnbaum: When I saw the film version of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight I entertained the idea of the attractiveness of criminal life [both laugh]. Do you know the movie—George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and Don Cheadle and Ving Rhames?
Richard Marinick: I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve heard of it.
RB: Clooney’s character makes being a bank robber seem attractive—he never uses a gun—he uses his guile and charm. It’s a very funny movie. So here’s the thing. Your CV is a curious one. You were a MA State trooper. And then you became a robber. What do you call what you did?
RM: I did everything. I was involved in everything. That’s what I was convicted of [bank robbery]. I was in South Boston. I was involved with a crew. We were doing everything.
RB: What did you call yourself, an everything guy?
RM: Well rounded [both laugh].
RB: And then you did some time.
RM: A little bit over ten years.
RB: And now you are a writer. If you hadn’t been caught, what do you think might have happened?
RM: It’s funny, at the time of my apprehension, 1986, I think my criminal career was winding down. In 1984 I was involved in a Wells Fargo armored car holdup and there was a bad shootout and a very good friend of mine was shot to death. I was on cocaine and alcohol at the time—I wasn’t working so I didn’t have to get up for work, so it was like party central. You’d be out three nights, four nights a week. And after he died I just went off the deep end. The crew that I was affiliated with basically cut me loose because I was a heatwave. The feds were watching my apartment on “O” Street, in South Boston, from the rooftops with binoculars. My place was bugged. They couldn’t tap my phone because I never had a phone; I refused to have a phone in my house for seven, eight years. We didn’t have cell phones back there. Everything was payphones and what have you. But I was out of control—and was on my way to killing somebody or getting killed myself or possibly killing myself. Who the hell knows? I was in a bad way.
RB: So you had a substantial criminal career and had never killed anyone up until then?
RM: No, I never killed anybody. I’d never kill anybody.
RB: I shouldn’t have asked. It puts you in touchy place.
RM: No, I never killed anybody. It’s amazing, but I haven’t.
RB: So that seems to have been a benchmark. That was a conscious thing that you never wanted to kill someone.
RM: When you are operating in that business, you plan things. If you are talking specifically armored cars—you plan things to the max. You just don’t see an armored car pull up outside a bank and say we’ll hit that next week with a couple of handguns.
RB: It’s clear from Boyos that it’s intricately planned.
RM: There are a lot . . . it requires months of planning. You go in with the intention of hopefully not hurting anybody but also you go in with the idea that you are not going to take a bullet in the head by some over eager guy.
RB: You go in well armed.
RM: You go in very well armed. With plenty of firepower. You have to be ready to do what you gotta do. It isn’t a game. There is no, what you call it, rehearsals. It’s a one-shot deal when you go in.
RB: I ask about killing because you made reference to being a well-rounded criminal. That puts you in lots of situations where you could be involved in homicide.
RB: But let’s not dwell on that. So, you got to a point where it was all changing for you and then you got busted. Were you a part of the Whitey Bulger network of crews?
RM: I never worked for Jimmy Bulger. We called him Jimmy. Nobody in Southie ever called Whitey “Whitey.” He’d punched you in the mouth if you called him “Whitey.” In South Boston, the Irish mob, my perception of the Irish mob, is that it is made up of a loose assemblage of crews. One crew might specialize in armored cars and banks and serious stickups. And other crews might specialize in hijacking. One crew might specialize in drug dealing. I moved through a few different crews ‘til I settled and found my niche, basically.
RB: If your book represents some kind of reality, you had to pay some kind of tribute.
RM: A lot of crews did. It’s not so much of a tribute thing. There were guys who worked directly—like the characters such as “Wacko” Curran and Kevin, his brother their crew—[they] had to pay tribute to Marty Fallon, the gang boss. There were indeed crews who did that. Specifically, when I was involved—say we hijacked a truck full of leather coats or Reebok sneakers or Gillette razor blades—we’d go to Jimmy Bulger or one of his lieutenants like Kevin Weeks and some others I can’t mention because they weren’t convicted—we’d go to them and say, “Give us a price.” If the price was fair—and generally the offer was less than we would get somewhere else, but that was the form of the tribute—then we gave it to him for less. As far as armored car holdups, anything serious, we never gave him a dime. Nothing. I’m not going take money from somebody at the point of a machine gun and then turn it over and give it to somebody else—it’s not going to happen. And that’s a fact—that’s the way it was.
RB: What do you think of Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neil, Black Mass?
RM: Great book.
RB: But horrifying. The revelations that the FBI was clearly monitoring Jimmy Bulger’s criminal activities, including murder, and not doing anything. That’s as a good a story as any fiction.
RM: Absolutely. Jimmy was 007. He had a license to kill, obviously. It’s a mixed blessing. Back then if I had that, what would I have done? I am not a rat or stoolpigeon I couldn’t have done that. I don’t believe I could have done that‚ what he did. That’s totally against everything I was brought up to believe in. And there is a code. Or there was a code in those days. About rats and what have you. But given that type of power, what would you do? You have to ask yourself. A chance to make thirty, forty, fifty million dollars.
RB: In the ten years in jail, how did you come to wanting to write fiction?
RM: I think I was born a writer. I was writing ever since I was a kid. I loved to write stories. I was involved in it all my life. I just never had, I guess, the right encouragement, direction or whatever. And I took a very convoluted path to eventually becoming a writer. In between scores, and now when I do book signings and readings and what have you, I’d be down, in the summertime and warmer months at the “M” Street beach under this tree. I have witnesses, a lot of witnesses, and I’d be sitting there writing, and I was writing children’s stories. That was my thing. I have some good children’s stuff. Hopefully some day it’s going to be published. Anyway, I’d be down there writing and my friends and associates would pull up in their cars, walk over saying, “What are you doin?” “I’m writing, take a hike.” This was my down time.
RM: “Whadda you writing?” “Children’s stories.” “What the hell you writing children’s stories? Why don’t you write a about crime?” I said, “So I can put us all in jail? I can’t write about crime. Take a hike.” I’d take the stuff home and read it to my mom—“What do you think about this Mom?” She’d love it. I just knew I was meant to be a writer. And when I got to prison, within a few weeks, after our arrest at a roadblock in North Adams, MA, I decided, having heard about the Boston University Prison Education Program, I said to myself, “I’m going to learn to formally write; I am going to train myself. This is my chance.” I knew the state was going to give me a chance. I didn’t know how long at the time. They gave us an eighteen- to twenty-year sentence, but I figured I would take whatever time—I didn’t need that much time to be a writer, but I was going to use the time the best way possible to become a writer.
RB: Usually—I don’t know if there is a usually—but it seems to me that people come to writing because of a love of reading. Were you big reader when you were a kid?
RM: Absolutely. Voracious. I mean from the time I was—from my earliest days. Second grade, third grade—from the time I could pick up a book, I read. I read right up until I was twenty-one or twenty-two. Everything I could get my hands on.
RB: And then what—you decided to go into law enforcement?
RM: No. I got out of high school and I was working in a body shop. My dad’s shop. I was a painter. A lousy job. It was a going-nowhere job. I was bouncing at night in Boston. And the D.A. in Norfolk County asked me—he was a friend of the family—he offered me a job. I went to work for the district attorney’s office.
RB: As an investigator?
RM: As a . . . my official title was as an administrative assistant. I had a suit and tie and I made more money than I made as an automobile painter. They gave me a little badge. It was pretty cool. I liked it. I was off the streets. And while I was there I saw t—I went to the criminal court everyday, watching the procedures, and I saw how these various police departments handled themselves. The people who most impressed me were the Mass State Police, which, at the time, they were an elite organization—they are no longer an elite organization.
RB: Why not?
RM: The standards have been lowered, lowered, lowered.
RM: Here’s one example. At one time you had to be a minimum of 5 feet, 9 inches tall. And with a minimum weight of 155 pounds. You could be a maximum of 6 feet, 7 inches and 300 pounds. You had to be able to get in the cruiser wearing the Smokey the Bear hat. And the qualification—you had to be able to run a mile in under seven minutes. Thirty pull-ups, and be able to climb a thirty-foot rope hand over hand without using your legs, all the way up and all the way down. Stuff like that. When I finally did get in—I had to wait four years, took the test, background investigations, and then all this stuff. And when I did get in, we started with 124 bodies and we graduated 82. Started with fifteen women and graduated with one. And the very next class they started with seventeen women and graduated like fifteen. It was a twenty-two week course, if you broke your patella from running at week 20, you were washed out. Very, very hard. Very demanding. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. Now it’s different. It just is.
RB: I guess all the Massachusetts state law enforcement agencies were combined.
RM: Yeah, the Registry and the MDC (The Metropolitan District Commission Police) and they melded them together. I talked to my classmates who are still on the job, and they tell me, “Ricky, you wouldn’t even recognize it.” It was an elite force at one time. We were civilian marines. Now they have the same uniform, but—
RB: Do you think about the thin line between criminals and cops?
RM: It’s very thin. Thinner than you might imagine. We see it now with Jimmy Bulger. He’s just a glaring example with the FBI collusion with the Irish mob. But it goes on everywhere. I don’t see things in black and white. Everything is a big gray mass to me.
RB: I’m reminded of Lincoln Stephens, a patriarch of muckraking who was famous for his book the Shame of the Cities, and in his memoirs he made much of appreciating honest thieves. As opposed to hypocrites and such. Anyway, so now you are involved in crime as entertainment. Why do you think people find crime so fascinating and entertaining?
RM: A lot of people have a secret desire to be on that dark side—to get out there.
RB: How dark is it?
RM: It can get pretty dark. It’s a very different life style. There are chances to make huge amounts of money within a relatively short period of time. There is a chance, being on the edge, you might get killed. Or you might have to kill someone. You get up in the morning and you don’t know what you are going to face. And that’s what it was. You are on the edge all the time. And I was an adrenaline junkie as kid, and I liked that and what was normal to me looking back, I lived in a totally insane world. People were dying around me. Being killed, disappearing. Jimmy Bulger would just kill you on a whim. If he didn’t like it, it was the same—dig a hole.
RB: Does the attraction have much to do with—I think the current popular phrase is “living off the grid”?
RM: I’m not familiar with that.
RB: I hear it on TV crime stories. Essentially you have no credit cards or utilities or an address—there is no trail for you. You’re untraceable.
RM: There’s no way of tracking you. Looking at my social security and the years I paid in and there is a fifteen-year gap.
RB: You mean you didn’t pay taxes on your criminal proceeds [laughs]?
RM: The thing is, when I started paying taxes in 1997 I hadn’t paid for years, and no one ever questioned me or asked.
RB: So you have published a novel that ostensibly covers a lot of the Jimmy Bulger story in South Boston.
RM: A Southie story, yeah.
RB: Do you read the kind of books that you are writing?
RM: No, I don’t read crime books. I did at one time, I went through that crime stage. I read about John Gotti and Joe Bonano and things like that, When I was writing Boyos, I took me almost two and a half years to write that, and I was working full time and writing that, and I didn’t read one book. I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone. I had enough subliminal influences from all the other authors that I had read over the course of my life. And I wanted my own story, the way I saw it. I didn’t want to be influenced by getting ideas and subconsciously slipping them in. That’s an accurate representation of the way it was—my life in the streets over there. That’s what I saw. Anything I held back—I pulled the reins back a few times because I was afraid I wouldn’t get it published if I really, really wrote everything.
RM: Absolutely! Are you kidding me!
RB: Justin Charles published Boyos.
RM: The editorial changes in that book—it won’t be this way with the book I am writing now; I’m doing something a little different. This book [Boyos] maybe a total of a page and a half—except for a few commas and semicolons, they left it alone.
RB: The shape and feel of the story—
RM: Nothing. That’s the way it came out, and that’s the way it is. It’s funny: after that book came out I started reading Dennis Lehane, and I have talked to Dennis a few times. He’s a good guy. And the violence in his books—you have people chopping people’s heads off and duct taping them on the wrong way. The stuff that I saw that I knew about, I could have put stuff like that in that was real.
RB: Funny, you lived the authentic criminal life and you shy away from writing it, and a guy, a writing-school guy, writes crime novels and he throws the kitchen sink in. I did notice there was a Boston Globe Magazine piece on you and Lehane and Robert Parker and Jerome Healy. Of course I was irked by it because it ignored a local guy, Chuck Hogan, who I think belongs in your august company.
RM: I’ve heard of him.
RB: His recent book, Prince of Thieves, is a really good Charlestown novel. I would bookend it with your novel for a very good picture of Boston’s criminal underbelly.
RM: I was included, I think, because of my background.
RB: You said what you are working on now is a little different.
RM: I figured I wanted to try a serious approach. So I was going to write a P.I. novel—so I started reading Raymond Chandler, Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane, and Dashiell Hammett to try to get the feel for it. I wrote two hundred pages. It was a South Boston based private eye. I wrote in first person. I thought some of it was great, and some I went, “Uhh.” So I started rewriting it in third person and then I realized I don’t want to write a P.I., he commits a crime, gets out. He didn’t commit a crime; he gets framed does three years in a state prison, comes out and is working at a bar in Southie. Do you remember Have Gun Will Travel, Paladin? Richard Boone?
RB: Yeah. It was great.
RM: He’s like a hired gun. He’s no private detective. And a crime occurs in South Boston when a p.i. was hired to help solve. She wasn’t moving quickly enough on the case so they pull her off and it gets dropped in this guy’s lap. [The thinking being,] we need a rough guy and this guy is from the streets. And he used to chase some of the characters in Boyos, some of whom are pulled into this [new story]. He gets offered this case and then basically he has to take it.
RB: I have given up on series.
RM: I don’t read them either, for the most part.
RB: Some writers are clearly better than what is suggested when they are labeled genre writers. I wonder why there isn’t a broader acceptance of the notion that good writing is good writing, wherever you find it?
RM: I think that is starting to change though. From what I have been told. I don’t know much about this business.
RB: How do you view yourself?
RM: I am just a storyteller. That’s all. Just a storyteller. I get something in my head and put it together cohesively and make it interesting, make it funny and slightly thrilling here and there. It’s a story, that’s all. Remember, “there are ten million stories in the Naked City.” And there are. There are tons of them. I have people telling me stuff all the time. I am still friend with guys on the state police. I went to my twenty-fifth reunion. I was invited and I attended the twenty-fifth reunion of State Police graduating class.
RB: You’re not disqualified?
RM: I thought it was an ambush.
RM: My mother called me up and said the state cops are looking for you. I said, “What for?” I called up this number, “What’s up?”
RB: Is anyone pissed off at you because you became a criminal?
RM: Yeah, one guy was, one of my classmates pulled me over and gave me a ticket.
RM: A captain called me up, one of my classmates, he said, “Rick, we want you there.” And he put a major on the phone who said, “We really want you there.” I said, “What’s the consensus?” He said, “The consensus is that the guys want you there, and for the guys who don’t want you there, we’re telling everyone and anyone, whoever doesn’t want you there, [that] when you are there, they [can] come up and tell you they don’t want you there. And you know sure as hell they are not going to.” It was two years ago, on [my] fifty-first birthday, and I had the most wonderful night. It was down at Lombardo’s. Eighty state troopers. Captains, majors, lieutenants—these guys, hardcore, the fugitive apprehension squad. And I have pictures with all these guys.
RB: So you are not stigmatized.
RM: Not at all. These are friends.
RB: Do you think of yourself as an ex-con?
RM: Yes, I do. You spend ten years in prison, you’re an ex-con. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about it. It puts a dent—
RB: Was it hard?
RM: It’s very hard. Prison is an extremely predatory environment. Mentally you are on seven days a week—you are entertaining homicidal thoughts—this is what you are dealing with. And if you do act out you face serious consequences. Not just from the authorities. But if a clique goes to war and you are with a clique, you have to go to war. You don’t have choices.
RB: Are you planning on writing about prison?
RM: Eventually I think I will. I am weaving things in. I am far enough away from it now. In fact, I am writing about this—this book I am writing now has a few chapters that take place in Bridgewater State Hospital, which is the state hospital for the criminally insane. I was in there for a year for the early part of my sentence. I was ducking and dodging, playing games. I was convicted of two armored car holdups and they were looking to load me up with—
RB: —looking to load you up to get you to turn?
RM: No, they couldn’t turn me. They knew that. They were looking to put me away forever. That’s what the game was. And was convicted in 1986 for one armored car holdup and I was convicted in 1987 for another holdup, and they tried to get me for a few banks and other things that I can’t really go into. The people are coming out of the woodwork now from behind bars: now we can get him. They are grabbed off the street and they can trade me off, but nothing stuck.
RB: Do think there is a criminal personality or type?
RM: Ah, I would say probably, yes. I don’t think I necessarily am. I wasn’t the criminal type. I was an excitement junkie; that’s what I was. But I think there probably is, genetically.
RB: You are an excitement junkie—in the times that you were doing crime, did you know that the things you were doing were wrong?
RM: Absolutely. I knew exactly that what I was doing was wrong. And I planned to the max so I wouldn’t get caught. But to answer your question, I had a very dear friend of mine, and he’s dead now—he passed away about a year ago, in prison. He was a Mafia capo with Gerry Angiulo. I used to call him Lex Luther. This guy, if you put him in the business world, he would have been a multimillionaire. He had a mind like a Swiss clock. I used to say to him, “Frankie you never had a legitimate thought in your life.”
RM: He saw an angle in everything. He did time for murder, but he was a master manipulator. Con man; and he was huge moneymaker for Angiulo. He did seventeen years for second-degree murder and got out on parole; and in two years he put together a three and a half million dollar loan shark ring that used a bank as a referral: people who got shut down by this bank, Capitol Bank, would refer their customers to him for loans. And people who were in arrears to Capitol Bank, Frankie would send the Hell’s Angels. This is all a matter of record. This guy was incredible—he had money coming in from everywhere. And he was a very dear friend of mine, and the stuff he used to tell me was absolutely amazing.
RB: You’ve alluded a few times to your naiveté, your lack of experience in the publishing industry.
RM: I am learning slowly.
RB: What is your sense of the way people respond to you because of your, uh, checkered past?
RM: People love it. They just do. I mean I’m a good guy. I’m a nice guy, and I am genuine.
RB: And you are clean.
RM: And I comb my hair and I bathe every day. I always shave before these things
RB: You like dogs.
RM: Exactly. I love dogs. I love animals. I love people, too. In the old days I didn’t like people. I didn’t like anybody. I didn’t like myself, you know. Nowadays I cleaned up my act and I feel good and I reconnected with God. It may be trite, but it’s true. It’s a very important thing in my life. I connected with God and keep that spirituality going. And it helps me to write and do a lot of things. But when I am out there talking to people, I can look in their eyes. I can read people. You read their faces. And they want to know and they want to hear. And they like you. I am not saying if there is an audience of fifty people every person likes you, but maybe forty-eight of them do. And that’s enough. And they are all there, and I don’t care if they don’t like me: they are they are to listen [to me]. I try to educate them a little bit, and I enjoy it and they enjoy it. I see it’s genuine.
RB: I’m thinking of—I think the phrase is “your career” as a writer—in one sense you keep doing what you are doing: publish another book and you’ll meet more writers. Are you interested in doing workshops or getting an MFA?
RM: I have a master’s degree already. I earned my bachelor’s as well as my master’s from Boston University.
RB: You did it in prison? Were there the same kind of workshop situations that other writing programs have?
RM: The BU program is a liberal arts program. Professor Elizabeth Barker and John Silber believed the liberal arts education is an education befitting a free man—I got a masters of liberal arts degree with a focus on children’s literature—there were a lot of creative writing courses.
RB: So, fifteen people or so, give or take, meet umpteen times and write their stories and periodically you present your stories and everyone critiques it. Is that the way it works in your program?
RM: Yeah, the P.E.N. seminars—Professor Monroe Engle came in two years in a row with his P.E.N. Seminar, and he brought in different people—writers—and we’d write for him and come back the following week and dissect each other’s work; and the same thing happened in the creative writing classes.
RB: Any other success stories coming out of your classes?
RM: Yes, Joe Loya. He’s just published his second book, great reviews—Confessions of a Bank Robber: The Man who Outgrew His Prison Cell. There was someone else, but he’s dead now. He was doing some newspaper work. The measure of success of the program is the low rate of recidivism. That’s the mark that you judge success of the BU program. We had two hundred people in twenty years who have graduated from the program—six have been returned to prison on parole violations, and two have been convicted of new crimes—out of two hundred.
RB: I’d say that is incredible.
RM: Yeah. And that’s what it is.
RB: A cynic might argue that the people who choose this program were unlikely to repeat offend anyway—
RM: It doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dime; that’s the beauty. I make it very clear to these people who come to my readings that it’s not costing you a dime. But you are saving money.
RB: People begrudge the convicts this.
RM: Absolutely. I hear it all the time. I tell ‘em, “If I didn’t have the education, you sure as hell wouldn’t want me moving in next you when I got out.” I went into prison, I was like a werewolf. I was a bad guy.
RB: It’s amazing the eighteenth century attitudes that are still around about so-called criminal justice.
RM: It’s hard to change the mindset.
RB: It’s some kind of irony that this country has the most—
RM: —incarcerated people on the planet. More probably than China. We don’t know China’s numbers. But we are number one. What’s it, one out of eighty people are locked up in this country. C’mon.
RB: And more than half are black. But it is an earmark of this time that people seem to be acting against their interests. Poor people, working people voting for Republicans.
RM: It’s brutal. It’s like, put on the Super Bowl, eat your Cheeze-Its and microwaved popcorn and forget about what is actually happening in this country. This is scary. We live in scary times, man, and it’s getting worse.
RB: I’m not sure they are getting worse—I feel like they have been perilous for some time. But it is hard to make sense of.
RM: The Bill of Rights is being gutted daily. That’s what scares me. The infringements on people’s rights.
RB: We better not dwell on this or we’ll both be upset.
RM: Exactly. I get crazy. It keeps me awake at night.
RB: I assume the underlying theme of the Globe piece is that Boston is a great setting for crime stories.
RM: Look at the authors that come out of here.
RB: Okay, right.
RM: Their question was why.
RB: Well, the same can be said about Miami and L.A. It’s odd that Chicago doesn’t seem to have much of a presence in the crime story world. Other than the late lamented Eugene Izzi. Almost every big city seems to have some writer writing about the mean streets.
RM: Not like Boston. You have Parker. He’s the dean of P.I. writers. Dennis is like one of the top in the country. George V. Higgins.
RB: Higgins was great.
RM: He was my guy, the guy I emulate. I was going to take a class from him. I was bullshit when he died.
RB: Friends of Eddie Coyle was—
RM: —a masterpiece. Watching that twenty years ago sticks in my mind all these years, and the way he wrote, it caught my ear.
RB: Is that a big part of your intention, getting right how people talk?
RM: Absolutely. I write pretty much by sound. I‘ll write something down, a phrase , and then I‘ll read it out aloud. If it doesn’t sound right I’ll change it until it does. It’s the vibration of the words. I’m not Joe Grammarcist.
RB: Do you watch television crime stories?
RM: No, I don’t—there is so much crap out there. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. There are so many phony crime stories.
RB: Have you seen The Wire?
RM: I should watch it and Oz.
RB: Lehane is writing for it, as is Pelecanos. And Richard Price is.
RM: How many of those guys have been involved in crime? Not taking anything away from the quality of writing.
RB: None of them.
RM: Exactly. How do they know what they are writing about?
RB: Here’s the thing. That’s what good fiction writers do. But I hear you—
RM: I’m not knocking them. I don’t want to get them on me. Dennis is a friend of mine. A fabulous writer. But you are writing real gritty, true crime stories: how the hell do you know it’s gritty and true? I see these so-called real movies like Heat. I’m in the can and a friend of mine says De Niro is you. I get out of the can—I kept a way from it. I didn’t want anything to do with crime. Finally, I’m out maybe ten months and I went to see it. And I’m sitting there . . . it’s entertaining, but it’s so far off the mark. I liked the weaponry and stuff. I used similar weaponry—an 18k91 that I had that my father threw in the damn river when I was in prison. A two-thousand dollar rifle—but anyway, as far as realistic—forget about it.
RB: I like Michael Mann’s movies—Pacino’s character in Heat bothered me. He didn’t work for me.
RM: It’s a great movie. I loved it. But as far as accurate—you want to see accurate, see Thief—Jimmy Caan.
RB: I loved that movie; that’s another Michael Mann movie.
RM: Michael Mann is great. I love Mann.
RB: Remember Crime Stories on television?
RM: With Dennis Farina. Another good movie, City of Industry. You never even heard of it. Harvey Keitel. Check it out. This to me is a realistic crime drama.
RB: Do you know Straight Time?
RB: Dustin Hoffman plays an ex-con, a career criminal. Harry Dean Stanton as his partner in crime. Emmett Walsh, Theresa Russell, and Gary Busey, based on an Edward Bunker novel in the earlier ‘70s. Anyway, what I liked about The Wire is the actors.
RM: I’m sure The Wire’s a great show. I see these things and just can’t get into them. When you have lived it and done it—it’s like, please—
RB: There is that attraction to crime stories, the flirtation with darkness or something unorthodox. People do gravitate to it.
RM: People are stuck in very boring humdrum lives for the most part. I don’t care if you are making three hundred thousand a year. A lot of people’s lives are boring, and they have never had the excitement, and they wonder. How many times have you wondered when you are driving down the street, seeing an armored car, about grabbing it?
RB: Until Out of Sight, never. I don’t live a humdrum boring life.
RM: I’m not saying you, but in general: people, they get up in the morning and they have their coffee and argue with their spouse and go off to work, come home and have supper, put on the tube, watch the news, and—
RB: And check the lottery numbers.
RM: Each to his own. That was never my part. I was always different. I never fit in.
RB: What is your view of your life moving forward?
RM: I’m getting back into the prisons. I was just cleared last week to go into the Billerica House of Correction. I am going to be talking to two groups that are on the verge of re-entry. A drug group and another group. I did a reading last week at the Methuen Nevens library and I met a lady from the state parole board. She came up to me afterward and she wants me to go back to the state prison system and talk to guys. That’s what I’d like to do—talk to guys, “These are the pitfalls you face when you get out. This is how I avoided them. This is how you might. This is what you are looking at.” When you are in prison, I might be with you, walking the yard for three years and go off on parole and I don’t see you for a year and you come back, violated, committed a violation, bad urine or you were with a known felon—so they violate you, pull you back behind the wall. Inevitably these people would say to me, “Jesus, Rickie, you won’t believe it’s just so hard out there. You can’t make it. You can’t make it straight. No one wants to hire you. You cant take shit from these assholes. And you’re not going to take anything from these people, knowing how you are.” And I’d hear this stuff for ten years and when I got out I said, “I’m doing what I have to do to stay out, honorably. I’m going to work. And I did it. There’s ways. I was recruited when I walked out the door. Before I even got out the door I was being recruited by people: “Money, car, whatever you need come work with us.”
RB: What did you say?
RB: You said, “No, I am writing now”?
RM: I wasn’t writing then. My professors wanted me to write. I was afraid if I started writing about this stuff again—I didn’t want to have nothing to do with crime. I was ten years a gangster, a hoodlum, a robber, and I was ten years in prison. That’s twenty years of being surrounded by hoodlums. I didn’t want anything more to do with that stuff. I got out and I just worked. I went to work as a sandhog. I went 430 feet down and nine and a half miles out into the ocean in Boston Harbor. I broke my ankle, my knee, my elbow, my nose. I kept working. After I broke my nose and elbow I said, “Well maybe I can write.”
RM: After about four years of that—
RB: Wasn’t Thomas Kelly (Payback, Empire Rising) a sandhog?
RM: He wrote a book about sandhogs. I read his book; it went around what they call the hog house, on the job site—I said, “I’m not doing this for the rest of my life. I just started working, working on this. And then the rust started to flake off and it felt good again to do it. And God’s good. I mean the things that have happened for me—a miracle.
RB: Is this book in paperback?
RM: The book was out three weeks and a couple of companies made paperback offers, but they weren’t substantial enough so we turned them down. Then they came back with substantial offers about a month ago. See, I don’t have an agent. I have a lawyer that represents me. She’s my friend. I just hired an agent—Fred Morse. I talked to my publisher and he told me the thing’s coming out in paper in September; I am pretty much kept in the dark. I don’t know the right questions to ask and I don’t want to get pissed off. I don’t function well when I am angry, like most of us. So it’s just—like I just want to write. I am doing my own thing. Like this book here [has a copy of Jay Atkinson’s Legends of Winter Hill]--I’m reviewing it for the Boston Globe. So I am doing that.
RB: In your position doesn’t the really big money come from movies?
RM: Yes. There are seven film companies looking at this thing right now. And someone is showing it to HBO. But Showtime just came out with something. You know that?
RM: It’s called Brotherhood. It’s an Irish mob, South Boston—they are filming it in Providence. Twelve episodes; they’ve already done the pilot. And Scorcese is filming The Departed, an Irish mob movie. I went to the casting call, two weeks ago. I figured if I could get on the set, I could get my book in his lap. I said, “In two days I’ll be sitting in his lap with this book.” They didn’t pick me to play a gangster—
RB: [laughs] You shouldn’t have looked do clean. Speaking of which, I think the great Boston crime novel, a so-called standalone, is Bob Parker’s All My Tomorrows. A young guy from Southie becomes a lawyer and then is involved in the municipal criminal justice system; and it ends up including Charlestown lore—
RM: The next book I want to write is something along those lines—involves a lawyer.
RB: We started to talk about Boston as a hotbed of crime literature. Other cities have larger Irish communities.
RM: It’s not just Irish though. South Boston is very unique. When I was kid—my grandmother was born and raised . . . she was actually born in a house on Athens Street in 1900. She had just come over from—her mother came over pregnant. There were like twelve of them in the family, and from the time I was a little kid I heard stories about south Boston from my grandmother. “South Boston was God’s country. These are the type of people there—this is their character, their strengths and weaknesses.” She was a great raconteur. And she’d tell me these incredible stories. I almost knew the stories alphabetically. I’d say, “Grandmas, tell me C.” She would tell me the story word for word, y’ know. And I listened to these things until she died. She died when I was sixteen years old. She was my favorite relative. Southie is a very, very unique place. It’s not just the fact it’s Irish. There’s characters like—
RB: I used to work out at a health club there, and the guy who’s been cutting my hair for almost thirty years has a salon down there; and I take Rosie to the beach near Castle Island. It’s beautiful down there. Great houses—
RM: That’s the Point area. Southie for years was an undiscovered area. No one knew about the beauty of South Boston. It was a very guarded area. Anybody with dark skin wouldn’t drive through there—because you would literally get pulled out of the car and get beaten. But the thing is: that area was discovered in 1976 when the Tall Ships came in, and people flocked to Castle Island to watch them come into port, and that’s when word got out that it was a beautiful place to be. I live there now, but I want to get out in the worst way. I want to move to Florida.
RM: That’s my goal. But it’s a beautiful place . . . but the Southie that was twenty years ago—
RB: Can anyone afford to live there anymore?
RM: Yuppies. Upwardly mobile people. The yups are coming in and they are everywhere with their dogs running up and down hills and spandex pants. In the old days nobody ran the hills—you ran the beach, and anytime you saw someone running the hills you knew it was an outsider. And if they were running with a dog you definitely knew it was an outsider.
RB: Didn’t Southie people have dogs?
RM: They wouldn’t run with them. I ran with a chow that I ran with for years. People would run with their pit bulls, but they’d want to fight. It was a big pit bull kingdom over there. This was back in the early ‘70s. No one had pit bulls except for Southie
RB: Getting back to your goal of moving to Florida.
RM: I want to write about Boston from Florida. I could do it much better from a warm climate—I just know. That’s all it is. It’s not the people. Southie is not Southie anymore. The book I’m writing now: I am writing about places that don’t exist anymore. I’m updating it. Bars that don’t exist—these are all real places, but Jimmy’s “fern” bar doesn’t cut as compared to Streetlights—we used to call it “Streetfights”—
RB: Is there a Starbucks in Southie?
RM: There probably is—as far as restaurants and that type of stuff, it’s a wasteland. If you want to get tanned or a slice of pizza, there’s eighty thousand pizza shops and forty thousand tanning salons. But there is one decent restaurant, a little Italian place called Portobello’s.
RB: How long to finish the book you are writing now?
RM: I don’t know. I shoulda had it finished by now. I stop, start, stop, start, two hundred pages, stop.
RB: Apparently, you changed your mind about it.
RM: Yeah, the agent that I finally signed, he saw the flaws where I was going with it. I came out with this idea. My publisher wanted me to do a sequel to Boyos and I said “No, no sequels. That’s it. That’s the story.” Who knows? Down the line I don’t know what’s going to happen.
RM: But the characters . . . I am pulling a lot of these characters for the next one—Michael Curran, he’s the gang boss of South Boston, and now he is dealing with his own treachery. Who knows, maybe a year? The pressure is on to do it, but I don’t work like that. I could sit for four hours and bang out two pages or one page, y’ know.
RB: So it hasn’t become a commercial concern for you [yet]? A book a year?
RM: No. Once I get this formula down, I may be able to do that.
RB: Doesn’t the idea of a formula disturb you?
RM: Not so much a formula—a format. I get in my head that I can do this. I’m still out there doing the Boyos thing. So, I have Boyos on my mind and I am trying to write a new book. And it’s screwing me up a little bit. I haven’t been writing for twenty years and have all this experience behind me. I’m learning as I go along. Hopefully, it could be six months, could be nine months; could be a year. But it’s gonna be done.
RB: Well, then we’ll talk again.
RM: Sounds good, Robert. Thank you very much. A pleasure.
© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing