In years past I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day as vigorously as anyone, but not out of deference to my friends who happened to be Irish. It didn’t matter to me that I was of Italian-French-Austrian-German lineage; in fact, I participated in the day because my own background had nothing close to this kind of historically significant day that was also the best reason in the world to have a party.
A dear old friend from Ireland (who has since passed away) once told me, “St. Patrick’s Day is like New Year’s Eve, Halloween, and your birthday all at one time.” At least from the years spent here in New York City on this day, I know that is an accurate assessment. It is the only day I know when the streets of New York are filled with genuinely happy faces (some happier than others based on what they have imbibed) and good cheer. The green line painted down Fifth Avenue is sort of like an Irish spine connecting the city to something greater than itself, an intangible reminder that on this day everyone can be Irish and enjoy the best blarney of his or her life.
When I was in grammar school, the Irish girls used to come into class on this day with shamrocks glistening on their cheeks and green eye shadow. Some dyed their blonde and red hair green; others wore green clothing and hats. The boys were a bit more conservative in their dress (though I can remember one young fellow who ate a green bagel and thus had green teeth all day) but still ready for a party. This was the time I first became intrigued by St. Patty’s Day because the girls were sexier (like being dressed in a devil’s costume on Halloween) and the boys were just having a good time.
By the time I got to high school, St. Patrick’s Day was reserved for “cutting” classes, jumping on the subway, and heading over to Manhattan for the festivities. In my memory, St. Patrick’s Days past were always bitterly cold days, usually with a piercing wind, and the sight of the girls marching in the parade in their little sparkling green outfits was always exciting. Their batons glistened in the air as they tossed them to the drumbeat that was like the heart of Ireland itself warming the wintry city all day long.
The crowds were always thick on both sides of the avenue, but as we made our north and entered the park (Central Park), there would be a whole other world of partying inside the walls that involved teenagers drinking copious amounts of beer and whiskey, mounted police chasing these groups of revelers, and the usual denizens of the place (homeless people of all ages) watched this in amazement from their benches and cubby holes.
I once ran into a friend in the park (I think we were both 17) and his gang was being chased by the mounted police. We stopped to have a chat, and he was so drunk that I wanted to help him out of there and onto the street. I was with my high school girlfriend at the time and she was mad that I hadn’t made more of an effort to stop him, but he ran back down the hill into the fracas occurring between his crew and the police officers. The last thing I saw him do was throw an empty beer can at one of the cops, and then I knew I had to get out of there. By the way, the next time I saw him would be twenty years later, a father of three and reformed alcoholic who was enjoying a quiet life.
When I was in my 20s, St. Patrick’s Day became the day that went into the night. There were so many Irish pubs in those days all over the city, it seemed one could find one on every other block all around town (many with the ubiquitous name Blarney Stone). After the parade was over (and certainly even during it as well), there was a tributary of revelers who moved in and out of these watering holes like mischievous leprechauns.
The people formed an infinite stream of happiness, floating along the sidewalks of New York in an alcoholic haze from one pub to another. I remember meeting girls and sometimes walking one home, returning to the scene of the crime only to find my friends had moved on. I’d run to all the different pubs trying to find them, and eventually I would find them ensconced in a booth drinking Guinness at another pub.
The ride home on the subway at night was a mixture of drunken delight and sometimes putrid odors of numerous people vomiting and urinating in the cars. I can recall thinking corn beef and cabbage was the most disgusting and vile thing in the world after I watched it drip down the vomit stained walls (to this day I’ve never been able to even look at this meal again without getting sick).
In my 30s, I finally got to Ireland and discovered an amazingly happy fact: every day is St. Patrick’s Day there. There was always a party to be had in the pubs and the people lived and loved happily, their language a natural poetry that brimmed with humor and some angst because of the “troubles” faced by their island. Still in all, they were a resiliently positive lot of people and the Guinness I drank there was absolutely better than anything I could find back in New York.
Now, I sit here on a quiet St. Patrick’s Day and will probably watch some of the parade on television. I will dress in green as will my daughter (who has Irish blood courtesy of her mother), and I’ll take her to school and then walk the streets, passing the pubs but not entering. I could go in for a pint, but I have too much work to do today (and too many memories to deal with).
Some of my friends have passed on; I have lost touch with the others. I no longer wish to celebrate this day the way I did. I might have a shot or two of Bushmills tonight and wash it down with a Harp or two, but it will be in the quiet of my own home watching the fireplace as my daughter plays with her toys. It’s a far different time and place for me, but it’s where I want to be now.
Still the ghosts of those days linger in my memory; wispy green hazy days flash in my mind, howls of my friends’ laughter, gallons of Guinness consumed, and that incessant drumbeat of the parade that I will forever keep time with in my heart.