In “Against All Odds: My Life of Hardship, Fast Breaks, and Second Chances,” Sen. Scott Brown opens up about a childhood rife with adversity and his astonishing ascent to public office. Here’s an excerpt.
Chapter One: Busted
The Liberty Tree Mall was our last stop. It sits right off Route 128 in Danvers, Massachusetts, its big anchor stores rising up flat and square, like stackable Lego blocks. At one end was a Sears with tools and tires, appliances and coveralls, and at the other, a Lechmere store, with displays of stacked luggage and sporting goods, jewelry cases, as well as an electronics section and, most important, a record department. We pulled into the lot, away from the hum of highway traffic headed south toward Canton or Braintree, or looping around toward Boston itself. One of my good friends was riding shotgun in the car; one of his buddies was driving. Both were a couple of years older than me and both were basketball players. I was sitting in the backseat. I was thirteen, a few months shy of fourteen, but I was already closing in on five foot eleven. My hair hung long, skimming over my shoulders, drooping into my eyes.
I was lucky in that moment, not lucky that I was along for the day — I had been hanging around these guys for a couple of years, shooting hoop, going to their parties, sipping their beer. That afternoon, I was lucky I wasn’t the one driving.
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We parked, rolled up the windows, hit the locks of the car, and then shuffled across the baking asphalt. The air was hot, that sticky, humid July heat, where the sky turns thick and white and presses back down upon you until each breath seems liquid, like sucking pool water into the lungs. The weather was why we weren’t on the basketball court; another reason was when both guys woke up in the morning, they had decided that they wanted some records. I wanted some too. I had a few records, but all my friends owned dozens and dozens.
We had already been to two record stores that day in another mall, but there was one more inside the sprawling sections of Lechmere, beyond the luggage displays and jewelry counters that beleaguered husbands crowded around when it got close to the holidays. We ambled through the store in the air-conditioned cool, beneath the bright fluorescent lights, which made it impossible to tell afternoon from evening. I had on overalls, blue and white railroad stripes with a big front placket. I called them farmer pants, but my mom or I had most likely found these in a surplus store or a discount bin. On top, I wore my junior high basketball jacket, a bright red nylon with a heavy lining for the damp, bleak Massachusetts winters. It had our team’s emblem, the Wakefield Warrior, a big Indian chief in profile with a full feather headdress, stamped across the front. If there was a moment when life became premeditated, it was when I got dressed that morning.
We walked into the store and went over to look at the music, arranged alphabetically, A for America, B for Beatles or Bee Gees, C for Creedence Clearwater Revival, D for the Doors. There were the small 45s with one song on either side, but we wanted albums. Although the radios played Elton John, Steely Dan, and the Steve Miller Band, our tastes ran to hard, searing, guitar rock, like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple, or the pounding, mournful songs of Jim Morrison. Morrison’s “Riders on the Storm” echoed in my mind. I followed, and after they had thumbed through the stacks, I noted what they had chosen, what was cool. My friends headed off to another area of the store, but I stayed behind. After checking around, I leaned in, unfastened the two side buttons on my overalls, and slipped an album behind the jacket. Then another and another, and another after that. I could comfortably carry five. The cellophane covers slid easily against each other, and the thick mass came to rest on my stomach. Trying to look nonchalant, I popped the metal buttons back through their holes, zipped the jacket, and began to amble out of the store. The other guys had already left, and they were waiting for me in the parking lot. I was almost to the doorway; perhaps I was even grinning.
Suddenly a man’s hand reached out and patted my back. Instinctively, I stopped and that same man said, “Hey, it’s awfully hot out today.” I tilted my head, which was angled down, and looked out through the thick fringe. He was wearing regular street clothes, but still my heart began to pound. “Yeah, it is,” I managed to reply. “What are you doing?” I mumbled, “Just hanging out.” Then the man’s hand slipped around my shoulder and gave three hard pats on my stomach. There was no mistaking the clean-cut cardboard edges or the hard feel of the album covers. “I’m store security,” he said. “Why don’t you come with me?” I had the sickening feeling that he had probably been watching me, in my winter jacket, the entire time.
He led me out through a side door, away from the bright lights, to the concrete back corridors of the mall, where everything was gray cinder block and the ceiling lights were skinny tubes that flickered and hummed. I had never been in the bowels of a store before, where stock was rolled on dollies off the loading docks, where employees entered and exited, and dull doors opened into backroom offices.
I walked wordlessly, head down, afraid that I might see someone I knew. The soles of my sneakers made squeaking noises on the hard, flat floor. He led me into one small room, which housed the security office. It was sparsely furnished, with nothing more than a metal desk, an industrial chair, and a telephone. My friends were still waiting for me in the parking lot, having no idea that I’d been caught. The guard told me to unzip my jacket, and I removed the records, the bright cover art already peeking up from behind the placket of my overalls. He looked at each album and then began asking me questions, including, “How did you get here?” When I told him that I had gotten a ride, he asked me to take him out to the parking lot, where my friends were leaning against the sides of the car.
Once we reached them, the guard told the driver to open the doors and then the trunk. There were twenty or thirty other records inside, all still in their shiny cellophane jackets, from other stores where we had stopped earlier that afternoon. I don’t remember whose idea it was to boost the records, probably mine, but the other guys had gone along. In that moment, I think I took the blame for everything.
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The guard picked up the records and we walked back inside. I returned to the solitary room. He asked me for my parents’ phone number, and I gave him my mom’s number at work. I didn’t even consider giving him my dad’s. I never knew on any given day where he was or if he would come.
The security guard called my mother and then he called the cops. The other guys were older, but I was a juvenile, and I had been caught with the records, so it was easier to pin the entire haul on me.
At that moment, it wasn’t as if I saw my future flashing before my eyes, but I was definitely scared. I was thinking: what about basketball, what about school, what would my punishment be? The guard was lecturing me about stolen property and then I saw the shiny blue uniforms of the cops. The looked at me with inscrutable stares, asked some perfunctory questions, examined the albums, and wrote a citation and court summons on a thick pad with layers of carbon paper. I was, they said, remanded to the custody of my mother until my court appearance, two weeks later. My mother came straight from work, her face red, her leather purse clutched like she might at any second smack me with it. I braced myself for the car ride home. Not only had she left work early today; she would have to miss work again to take me to court. And I had been caught stealing. I sat in gloomy silence as she yelled at me the whole way, her hands intermittently flying off the wheel. When I managed to get out a word, she immediately cut me off with another volley of screaming. “How could you do this?” I heard that line again and again.
How could I do this?
I did it the same way that I stole a three-piece suit from Park Snow, the stand-alone department store in downtown Wakefield, because I had nothing to wear to a school dance. I had walked in, carrying a duffel bag, tried on a suit that was right against the wall to make sure that it fit, then inside in the solitary confines of the dressing room, stuffed it in the bag and sauntered out.
And I did it the same way I stole food.
That had started earlier. I was eleven or twelve and hungry all the time. Ravenously hungry, to the point where my stomach would often ache, and I would sit on the couch with my knees drawn up to my chest, as if I could physically shrink the space between my lungs and my abdomen. There were long stretches of hours when my mother was not home; she had office jobs, hospital jobs, and many stints as a waitress. It was only my half sister, Leeann, and me, and a babysitter who was there mostly for Leeann. In the late afternoons, I would go on my bike, a rusty, secondhand blue Schwinn, down to the A&P in the center of Wakefield, a couple of stores away from Park Snow. Sometimes, I went straight after basketball practice. If it was after practice, I had my gym bag with my sweaty tube socks and clothes. Otherwise, I wore my railroad stripe overalls. I would grab a cart and meander through the stores aisles, picking out a loaf of bread, maybe some juice. The mothers with their cranky toddlers or trailing grade-schoolers were too busy to notice when I lingered by the meat case. There, under tight plastic wrap, were piles of freshly ground hamburger and rows of thick-cut steaks. I would pick up one or two packages, examine them, and then pop the button on my overalls and slide them in, or drop them into my duffel, and fumble for a second to slip the sweaty clothes over the top. There was so much meat, I reasoned, how would they miss a package or two? They could never sell it all. No one would buy every last hamburger package. I was saving it from the Dumpster. And I was starving. Most times, I did not have to suck in my belly to feel each individual rib.
After the meat counter, I would push through the aisles, maybe snag some milk, which I could down by the gallon, and then head past the cereal boxes and white rice to the registers. I always bought some of the cheaper items, but first, I had learned to hang back for a minute and analyze each checkout clerk. I never went to the middle-aged ones; I always chose the line with the teenage kids working after school, kids whom I sometimes knew, who sullenly punched the numbers on the register, who would never look at my now-bulky overalls or gym bag. What sixteen-year-old kid imagines a twelve-year-old stealing food? Certainly not in Wakefield, Massachusetts, a pleasant middle-class town, a train town on the railroad line into Boston, a pretty quiet place back in 1971.
I would ride home, clutching the grocery bag in my right hand, feeling the jolt as it bumped against my legs or swung against the wheel. With my left hand, I steered the handlebars. The meat was always in my duffel, slung over my shoulder, messenger style, or tucked safely behind the placket of my overalls. We lived in a second-floor walk-up apartment in a converted house. My room was what had been the attic. It was a long, narrow house, completely unadorned. The backyard was so dark from woodsy overgrowth that nothing grew and the ground was usually brown. I would ditch my bike in a shed out back and carry in my haul.
I didn’t even bother putting the meat in the fridge. I dropped it on the counter, pulled out an old, scratched aluminum pan, and flicked on the range. Sometimes I slit the cellophane with a knife; other times I just tore it with my bare hands. I pan-fried steaks or burgers, listening to the sizzle of the meat, feeling the quick splatter of hot grease across my knuckles as I flipped them. I learned by trial and error, trying to remember the early cooking lessons from my grandmother, to get the blue flame of the burner just right, so the steaks or burgers would not be charred by the time I turned them, or still be so raw that the outside layer stuck to the bottom. Sirloins were the best, the tenderest cut. Burger meat was hit or miss; some bites were gristly with the remnants of tendons and butcher scraps cut too close to the bone.
When at last they were hot and dripping pink juice on the plate, I would cut up the meat or serve the burgers, giving some to Leeann, who was six. She hardly ever asked where it came from or why I was cooking it, but if she did, I would just say it was in the fridge. She would nod and start eating in silence. I ate my own portion in gulps, not bites, until gradually the stabbing sensation in my stomach would give way. Then I cleaned up, scrubbing every pan, every plate, opening the windows even in the winter, wiping the stove, the counter, pumping a quick spray of room freshener, so that there was no trace. Mom would come home to the often barren fridge, her shoulders slumped and aching from a long day at work, and ask what I wanted for dinner, and I would say, with complete truthfulness, that I was OK; I was full.
That seemed to satisfy her. Once in a while she might ask what I ate, and I would mumble about grabbing something after practice. And that was all. There would be the clink of ice in the glass and the splash of vodka, followed by the scrape of a match on the back of a free book from one of the restaurants, bars, or lounges that lined the highway known as Route 1. She always lifted the matches they kept in bowls by the door or dropped in the center of amber glass ashtrays for the patrons. The match head would hiss, and she would light a Marlboro Light and draw in a deep breath and then exhale streams of gray smoke in a long trail out of her mouth and nose. She might ask me about basketball or school. I kept the answers short. Or she might hassle me about dirty clothes or a messy room, and I would match her word for word. Whatever she threw in my face, I lobbed right back. It was the dance we did, with the television droning in the background. She came home tired in a used car to an apartment where there never seemed to be enough cash; she was thirty-four, and in fourteen years had married and divorced three husbands.
Some nights she was itching for a fight, but others she was too tired to notice if I’d eaten or done my homework. Then there were the nights when she was simply gone, out for the evening with her friends to a club or a bar, where they laughed long and loud and left behind lipstick stains on the cigarette butts and liquor glasses. When we were short on rent, she waitressed in one of the places out along Route 1, flirting I think with the middle-aged men who were the ones to get the check and who she hoped would reach in their wallets for a stack of bills, saying, “Here, honey, keep the change.” Her other gigs were mostly on the weekends, when she dressed in black and served identical plates of catered food for extra cash at wedding receptions or banquet meetings. If there were uneaten meals, she might take those home in foil tins, extra portions of chicken breasts with congealed mushrooms and cream, rice gone a bit dry, cold tomatoes that hours earlier were baked and bubbling with bread crumbs. The nights when she had a catering job were the nights when I, as I got a little older, was most likely to take the car for a spin. I was twelve when I first slid behind the wheel.
I began by backing the car out of the driveway of our duplex so that I could get to the basketball hoop, just easing it out and angling it along the curb down the street. But gradually I became more daring. Months passed and the distances got longer, until at some point, I was driving. I learned to drive by watching some of my older friends when they picked me up for league basketball games, staring at the way the steering wheel rolled through their hands, how they flicked the turn signals with a quick tap of a finger or a thumb and pressed down effortlessly on the gas or the brake, rocking their large basketball player feet up and down on their heels.
There were even times when I would drive one of the older kids home after he’d knocked back a couple of beers in someone’s basement and tossed me the keys. I was tall, I looked old enough to pass for seventeen, and my long hair hid what was left of any little-kid face. Other drivers might glance over, but they rarely glanced twice. I was like any other kid out with a parent’s car on a Saturday night. I was always very conscious of following the rules of the road. In retrospect, I was also just plain lucky.
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I taught myself to drive in my mom’s Chevy Impala, a bright white car with red leather seats and four doors, wide and roomy so everyone could pile in. If I knew she was going to be gone from three until eleven, hitching a ride with her friend, I would take the car out from five to eight, with two or three of my friends in the backseat. In the beginning, to teach myself, I drove the car down to the vacant parking lot outside the American Mutual Insurance building, which backed up against Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield. It was the same building and the same company where my mother had worked for the insurance company, typing and filing, but the irony was lost on me as I practiced turning, parking, shifting the car into reverse, stopping on a dime. It didn’t matter if my mother had her purse with her; I had my own set of keys. One afternoon, I rode my bike down to the local hardware store and had a copy cut for nothing more than the cost of some pocket change.
At twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, I was not as smooth as the sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds, but I was nearly as tall, with a clear view over the wheel, and I was careful. I didn’t drive after I’d tried a beer, and I didn’t race or try to beat the light. I only stayed inside the confines of Wakefield. No highways, no busy routes with cars passing and pulling into and out of view. The driving became like a running joke, although I was always careful to put back in just the right amount of gas, so she would never wonder when she came down to start the engine in the morning.
When she drove me home from Liberty Tree Mall, yelling at me for what a disgrace I had been, she never thought for a second that she just as easily could have gotten a call from a Wakefield cop on a Saturday night, someone in a blue uniform who had taken a second look and had busted me for being behind the wheel without a license, or, God forbid, for crashing into, injuring, or even killing someone else while I was driving underage. I never thought of it either.
That night, as I did on most nights, I took my basketball to bed. I could trace my fingers over the black ribs and talk to the ball. It smelled of sweat and dirt and whatever had dropped from the sky or trees onto the court. And it listened companionably in the darkness. I slept with my hand resting alongside its worn pebblelike surface.
I assume Mom called my dad that night or the next morning, if only to say, “Look at what your son has done,” but I never heard from him after the incident at the mall. He didn’t come around afterward, and there was no father–son talk. His absence was as loud as the proverbial slam of the screen door when I was mad and raced out, wanting to be anywhere but home. After that, I was forbidden to see my older friends, the guys who drove and who had driven me to the mall, but my mother exercised no control over the basketball court, and we still met up there, where we rebounded, took freethrows, guarded, and jumped, and never said anything about what had happened on that July afternoon. And we still hung around anyway. I didn’t even know if anyone else had gotten a summons, and I didn’t want to ask. I had two weeks to wait for my court date at the Salem County Courthouse.
The morning arrived and it was hot. I wore a shirt and tie, and the suit that I had lifted from Park Snow, sweating in the heat. The Impala had air conditioning, but air conditioning burned more gas, so we drove to Salem with the windows down.
It was the Salem of the infamous witch trials, where 142 people were accused of witchcraft and 19 were hanged. One man, Giles Corey, a cantankerous farmer, was pressed to death over two days, lying naked on his back under the September sun as one by one stones were placed on his chest until his ribs and lungs were crushed, because he refused to enter a plea of guilty or not. But I hardly knew any of that. I knew nothing of Salem’s days as a port that shipped salt cod to the Caribbean and Europe and as the final destination for bags of sugar and barrels of thick, dark molasses from island plantations, or tins of Chinese tea, arriving on boats that had crossed around the bottom of the world. I was a boy who had at most been to Boston once on a class trip. To tell me that Nathaniel Hawthorne began "The Scarlet Letter" in the Customs House near Pickering Wharf would have done little more than bring a glazed look to my eyes. More appropriate to me that morning was the fact that Salem had been a hotbed of privateers seeking riches on the high seas; Salem ships captured or destroyed some six hundred British vessels in the Revolutionary War and struck again during the War of 1812.
The courthouse was a reminder of that prior world of prosperity and commerce, a beautiful old building sitting in the middle of downtown.
Inside were the sounds of footsteps on its glossy floors and men in suits and ties, clutching briefcases, moving with purposeful steps. My case, I learned, was going to be heard by Judge Samuel Zoll, who stood six foot four in his flowing black robes. I walked into the courtroom with my mother, eyes down. A public defender or juvenile representative had been assigned to me. Judge Zoll looked at the defender and my mother and then at me and in a booming voice asked to see me in his chambers, just the senior probation officer and me, alone. I left my mother outside the courtroom and a bailiff escorted us back through the labyrinthine hall. Wordlessly, he ushered me forward, and I walked into the judge’s private chambers, my hair too long, my feet shuffling, my palms damp. Behind me, the thick wooden door shut, and across the desk, a single pair of eyes bore down.
Excerpted from "Against All Odds: My Life of Hardship, Fast Breaks, and Second Chances" by Scott Brown. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins.
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