John “Red” Shea’s close-cut hair — the hair that gave him that standard-issue Irish nickname — isn’t quite as fiery as it was when he was a young fighter coming up hard from G Street in South Boston. But his gunmetal-blue eyes still burn cold. It feels as though he could stare through stone. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s wiry. And about ten minutes after he first shakes my hand in an iron grip, I decide he’s the most intense man I’ve ever met.
Patrick Nee’s hair is graying. Thick around the middle and jowly, he speaks softly and moves around his small Southie apartment slowly and deliberately. As he settles into his sofa, with a tiny “attack dog” that looks as though it’s made of cotton and silk on his lap, he doesn’t much look like a man who used to rob armored cars, or who once tattooed an enemy’s torso with four bullets before kicking his teeth in.
These are two very different men. They’re from different generations. They come from different family backgrounds and have had different priorities and motivations in life. Both of them knew Whitey Bulger well. One idolized him. One did business with him grudgingly, enacting an uneasy truce after trying more than once to kill him. One was a drug runner, the other a gun runner. But both were Southie guys, drawn inexorably to the rough appeal of the criminal life. And each spent more than a decade in prison for his troubles.
As the Kevin Weeks/Howie Carr publicity machine trundles on and starts to sputter out, Shea, 40, and Nee, 61, are adding their own stories to the Bulger cottage industry. Shea has his reasons for writing Rat Bastards: The Life and Times of South Boston’s Most Honorable Irish Mobster (William Morrow). Nee has his for writing A Criminal and an Irishman: The Inside Story of the Boston Mob-IRA Connection (Steerforth Press). But they share a few things too. They both still live in Southie, a neighborhood that has changed fundamentally since they went to jail. And as they recite their stories to ghostwriters, unburdening themselves of their pasts, they’re trying, each in his own way, to exorcise Whitey Bulger. He’s been gone from South Boston for more than a decade, but still he hovers over it, a phantom presence.
No rats allowed
In Jurys, an Irish hotel chain housed in the former headquarters of the Boston Police, John Shea sits in a bar called Cuffs and talks about going to jail. When he was nabbed in 1990 — sent to the federal clink after years of pulling off ballsy cocaine scores, trafficking trunkfuls up I-95 between Key West and South Boston for Whitey Bulger, Inc. — Red took his lumps and did his time.