Many years ago I had the chance to go to Ireland and trace the steps of famous Irish writers I admired such as James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, and Sean O’Casey. Armed with Joyce’s Ulysses, I did seek some sort of intimate connection with Dublin, though not specifically along the path of character Leopold Bloom. I also took courses at the Irish Writers’ Centre, met other writers from all over the world, and spent afternoons in the Garden of Remembrance thinking and writing.
I had a small flat on Upper Rathmines Road in a quiet section of Dublin. I enjoyed my days there and had a chance to get some serious writing done, beginning work on what would eventually become my novel, Like a Passing Shadow. During this time I also got to know the family next door, including ten year old Brendan who was fascinated with the fact that I came from New York City.
“One day I am going to come to visit you and see the St. Patrick’s Day Parade!” he would state rather emphatically. Of course, I told him that if he ever came to the Big Apple that I would take him to see the parade.
So eight years later, I was more than a little surprised to receive a letter from Dublin stating that Brendan was coming to New York for a visit. He would be staying with family in Brooklyn, and his arrival couldn’t have been timed more perfectly as it was the day before St. Patrick’s Day.
I took the subway down to Park Slope and met Anna and Patrick, his aunt and uncle, who were in their 70s and kindly folks. They broke out the Jamesons and made me feel right at home. Brendan now was a tall young man with twinkling green eyes and dark red curly hair. He was filled with excitement about being in New York, and reminded me of my promise to take him to the “big parade.”
The next day it was blustery and cold as we came up out of the subway and encountered the crowds of people running through the streets. Everyone seemed to be wearing green: hats, scarves, jewelry, coats, and shoes. Pretty girls ran past us with shamrocks painted on their cheeks, and Brendan grabbed my arm and proclaimed, “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
We passed a ubiquitous Irish New York bar with an illuminated Budweiser shamrock in the window, and this was the call to whet our whistles. Brendan noticed that customers were drinking green beer, and he had to try this at once. Afterwards, we exited the bar and continued walking toward the sound of pounding drums. Once we reached the parade on Fifth Avenue, a group of men playing bagpipes passed by as if on cue, and Brendan’s eyes widened and he looked at me with a glowing expression that reminded me of the Dublin boy who once said that he would be here to see this.
We continued walking up Fifth Avenue ostensibly following the parade route, stopping in another bar to use the bathroom and have another drink, and then we went out and stood on a street corner and Brendan saw St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the first time. We went inside and, with the sounds of the parade momentarily muffled by the gothic architecture of the building, he walked around with his mouth agape touching the benches and the walls. We stood quietly for a moment until the sound of bagpipes broke the silence, and he looked at the doors as if he remembered why we were here.
We went back outside and made our way through the crowds, pushing northward. Brendan turned and saw everyone clad in green and waving the tri-color Irish flag, and he shook his head and said, “I never knew there were so many Irish folks in New York.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Everyone’s Irish in New York on this day, even Mayor Koch in his green sweater.”
We kept walking and stopped in another bar, and then we came outside and Brendan got a glimpse of Central Park. He waited until a marching band from New Jersey finished its version of “Stayin’ Alive,” and then he dashed across the street flailing his arms and yelling, “I love New York!” I ran after him and we climbed over the wall and dropped down onto the grass. He was out of breath and laughing like crazy.
As we walked down the hill we saw mounted policemen chasing a group of about one hundred people who were carrying six packs of beer and bota bags slung over their shoulders. As the crowd dispersed, some of the young people came running in our direction. I saw a couple of my friends in the group and I jokingly asked, “Hey Sean, Jimmy, you bothering the horses?”
I soon found out that their bota bags contained whiskey, and I introduced them to Brendan who kept staring as the cops on the horses galloped away with the crowd running in all directions. “It’s like the wild west here!” he exclaimed.
Soon more of my friends’ group had come around the meadow and through the trees and gathered for the party they still intended on having. I hadn’t seen Sean and Jimmy for a while, so we started talking about high school and what had happened since.
After a time I turned around and realized Brendan was gone. I heard the sound of bagpipes in the distance and realized that the parade was almost over, but people were still swarming all over the streets. I said goodbye to my old friends and started a frantic search for Brendan. How was I going to find him amongst all these people? I walked around the park but I couldn’t see him, so I decided to go back over the wall and look along Fifth Avenue.
I passed the review stand where dignitaries were still talking and shaking hands with people, though Mayor Koch and his green sweater were long gone. I kept going, looking at everyone laughing and swigging bottles of beer, but there was no sign of Brendan. When I reached 81st Street, I pictured myself taking the train back to Brooklyn and telling his aunt and uncle that I “lost” Brendan.
Being a cynical New Yorker, I started having the worst thoughts imaginable regarding the young man’s fate. He was kidnapped, mugged, or dragged into an alley somewhere and beaten. How could I have let him out of my sight for even a few seconds?
As I walked back to the subway station, dusk started falling over the city. The lights popped on in all the lamps along the avenue, and dark shapes of revelers rippled in the glow of now bright storefronts and illuminated restaurants. I remembered sitting and talking with Brendan when he was a boy in Dublin. He asked so many questions and seemed so determined to come to New York, and now I recalled how his parents treated me like family, and I couldn’t imagine having to write that letter to them about what I had let happen to him.
After the long walk back to midtown, I was about to go down the subway steps at 42nd Street and Fifth to get the D train and go see his family, when I saw a transit cop standing there talking to someone who looked like Brendan. I walked over and the cop glanced up at me and I heard, “Oh, Vic, you found me.”
The cop was about to write Brendan a ticket for having an open container of alcohol, but I explained how he had just come off the plane from Dublin and that he had no idea about the rules here in New York. I noticed the cop’s name was Clancy and I asked, “Come on, Officer Clancy, are you really going to give an Irish kid a ticket on St. Patrick’s Day?”
The cop relented and soon Brendan and I were on the D and he was clapping his hands and barely able to contain himself. “What happened to you?” I asked.
He launched into what seemed like a stream of consciousness worthy of Joyce. “I saw this angel floating in the park and I followed her. She had long blonde hair and these large blue eyes and took me by the hand. She brought me to a meadow and then to some lake where the birds floated on the water and the boats were all upside down on its banks. We sat on a bench and kissed and then she said to follow her. We ran through the trees and came to the wall and like in Alice’s mirror she was gone.”
I stared at him. “Really?”
“Well, that’s one way it could have happened.” I laughed and he continued, “And then I figured I’d get a drink but remembered where we came out of the train tunnel and I figured I’d go back there because you had to go back home that way.”
“I’m glad you thought of that,” I said.
Brendan stuck out his hand. “I just want to say thank you.”
“What for?” I asked as I shook his hand.
“You’re a man of your word. You said I could come here and you didn’t forget it, even after all those years.” He sat back with a silly grin on his face. “I can’t believe I saw the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City! You think I’ll have enough to talk about in the pub when I get home?”
“I imagine you’ll have a tale or two to tell,” I said.
I am happy to say I was able to deliver Brendan safely to his aunt and uncle that night. We got together a few more times before he returned to Dublin, and then I never heard from him again; however, every St. Patrick’s Day since, I have remembered that long day in New York City with the boy I used to know from Dublin. I will hoist a pint of Guinness and toast him as I do every year. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Brendan, wherever you are!
Photo credits: babble.com; nbcnewyork.com; Guinness.com