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Summer in the City

The jury is out

Spinning tales and staying cool, these chair clubs create quite a chatter

By Billy Baker
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2010

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The “jury’’ sits around a bench just off Pleasure Bay in South Boston. They range in age from mid-60s to mid-80s, maybe a dozen on a given day, and they got that name because they have been sitting in judgment out there for as long as anyone can remember.

“We settle all the problems of the world,’’ Teddy Joyce says. “Politics, sports, you name it.’’

He’s kidding. Or lying.

“We tell lies, mostly,’’ says Oscar Kineavy, who says he tells too many lies to give his real age. “It’s all imagination. One guy will tell a story about something that happened years ago, and you were there, but it’s absolute bull.’’

The jury represents one of the great summer traditions in the city, especially in neighborhoods that aren’t known for their backyards. They are a chair club. When the weather gets hot, chair clubs spring up everywhere, on sidewalks and stoops from Mattapan to East Boston. Chairs get unfolded, coolers pop open, and then . . . they sit.

“What time does the tide come in?’’ someone in the jury asks.

“Two.’’

“No, three.’’

They go quiet for a minute. Cars drive by.

“Someone almost gets killed in that crosswalk every day,’’ Jim Walsh says.

They all agree.

A plane flies low overhead on the approach to Logan.

John Shea reclines in his chair and puffs on a cigar. It’s a rather elaborate chair, more of a chaise lounge. Everyone comments on it. His daughter bought it for him for Father’s Day a couple years ago, paying $150 for it.

“We used to talk about women,’’ says Shea, a retired Boston cop. “Now we talk about operations and doctor’s appointments.’’

A few feet away, the statue of Admiral David Farragut faces the bay, just like the jury. They all have their own version of why that statue is there, because Farragut, of “damn the torpedoes’’ fame, is definitely not from here.

Gossiping about that statue is one of the great Southie traditions, and all on the jury has their own version. One says it was supposed to be in South Boston, Va., and got delivered to the wrong place. Another says James Michael Curley, the great mayor-showman of the old days of boss politics, bought it surplus and put it up to dignify the place. The real story is probably out there, but no one here is interested in hunting it down.

Police motorcycles come down East Broadway, leading a funeral procession. This happens almost every day; it’s a Southie ritual for funeral processions to drive along Pleasure Bay to Castle Island. The jury usually knows who it is, because Jackie O’Brien, one of their regulars, owns one of the neighborhood funeral homes. They talk about the deceased, a young guy from the neighborhood who has four young kids. It’s a real shame, they say.

On the bench, there are six brass plaques. Death is a frequent topic, and the plaques carry the names of fallen members of the jury, including a dog named Daisy who put in 13 years in the grass behind the bench. They have recently added a new name, Rabbit Adams, who they say was the chief justice. He died in November. A couple of the other regulars are in the hospital.

“Billy Bulger used to call Castle Island ‘God’s waiting room,’ ’’ Kineavy says. From their bench, they have a great view of Castle Island just across the bay. “That’s why we don’t hang out there. We’re close enough here.’’

O’Brien tells an old funeral director’s joke. “Everyone wants to go to heaven,’’ he says, “but no one wants to die.’’ They’ve all heard this one before. They nod.

The jury has mastered the ocean breezes, which is why they are able to gather almost year-round. When it’s cold, they’ll move a couple hundred yards down the sidewalk to let the Murphy Rink block the winter wind out of the west. In the summer, even in oppressive heat like we’ve had this week, their spot is cool; it’s in the shade, catches the east wind, and feels 20 degrees cooler than it should. As the needle pushes 90 degrees in the sun, O’Brien goes to his car to get a light jacket.

They sit for a minute. Across the street at the beach, a woman walks by in a bikini. They nudge each other. That bit earlier about not talking about women, yeah, that was another lie.

Another plane flies low and loud, forcing silence; this is usually when they shift topics. Someone mentions a guy they all know.

“I think he still holds a record up [at] Southie High.’’

“Track?’’

“Yeah. He was a hell of an athlete.’’

Another plane. They sit. An ambulance drives by.

“They slowed down to check us out,’’ Shea says. He puffs on his cigar.

A woman walks by pushing her grandchild in a stroller. They all greet her, wave at the baby. The woman stops and looks them over.

“Is this crowd getting younger,’’ she says, “or am I getting older?’’

They like this.

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