The Spirit of St Patricks Past
St Patrick’s Day was never one of my favorite days. It started in high school. Back in the 60’s if you attended a Catholic girl’s high school in Manhattan chances are you marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Some schools were competitive, requiring their students to spend time after school or on Saturdays drilling march steps and turns so each line would fan out onto sunny Fifth Avenue from their staging area on a side street with kaleidoscopic precision while the Irish-flag waving crowd cheered them on. Left, Right. Left Right. Eyes right at St Patrick’s Cathedral to be honored by a wave or nod from Cardinal Spellman, all in hope of winning the Cardinal’s medal or trophy or whatever it was they coveted.
The reason I don’t know what it was is because my school was not one of those.We just had to show up; no practicing – unless you counted that one P.E. class devoted to marching back and forth in the gym to blaring John Phillipe Sousa music. And since we didn’t start off early with the contenders we could sleep late. The down side of that was by the time we assembled on 46th St, the sun’s rays no longer reached down between the tall grey office buildings. But the wind stayed for us. Have you ever been in midtown Manhattan in late afternoon in March? No? How about a windswept canyon? Been there? Well then you know what I mean when I say that by the time it was our turn to move toward Fifth avenue, we’d frozen off our as-pirations of school spirit.
At about 4:00 we spilled out, amoeba-like onto Fifth Avenue. The crowds were long-gone but the green stripe remained, and we had other decorations that our friends in those competitive schools had not; random piles of horse plop, soon to be scooped up by the marching contingent to our rear – the Department of Sanitation with their brooms and shovels. It would be untrue to say we had no spectators. We did, captive ones : Nannies and toddlers on the Central Park side of the Avenue, waiting for a break in the action so they could dash across Fifth Avenue with their carriages after a day in Central Park. There were also the dog walkers – ditto for them. On the building side of Fifth, there were the doormen ducking out of their lobbies for a smoke. and when we reached the reviewing stand at St Pats? Empty unless you counted the orange white and green bunting fluttering in the wind or the abandoned folding chairs.
We would have a crowd though, up at 86th Street, it would swallow us up as we approached the official Parade finish line at Park Avenue – a crowd of drunks, no , excuse me, revelers: office workers of all ranks, sprung loose from their nine-to-five’s and intent on partying to the max, tourists, college kids from near and far. The drinking age back then was eighteen which made it easier for my high school friends with their doctored birth certificates to try to pass for legal
As for me, it was all too much. I won’t say the atmosphere charged with enough beer fumes to give a contact high frightened me, it just made me uneasy. And so I’d leave my friends to celebrate for me, and make my way to the bus stop to wait for the 86th Street Crosstown to whisk me through park and over to the sanity of the West Side.
Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but I bristle at being required to do something, even party. That’s why Years Eve is #1 on my hated days list, followed by Valentine’s Day, impose romance doesn’t appeal to me either. So is St Patrick’s Day #3 on the list? No, I don’t hate St Patrick’s Day, it’s just that ‘I’ve never felt it was mine to celebrate. I may have had an Irish American grandfather but I also had a German American grandmother and a grandmother and grandfather who’d emigrated from the West Indies so somewhere along the way any bag pipes or Danny Boys in my gene pool got drowned out. I know they say everyone’s Irish on St Paddy’s Day but that was just talk to me.
But flash forward… never mind how many years later but 48 miles to the north where this St Patrick’s Day found Marcos Dog and I following our Saturday routine We enjoy our tranquil morning walks all week but we’re city people so we need our fix of sidewalking! And downtown Peekskill is but six miles from our house.
Peekskill is an old river city, its multi-cultural population a mix of aging old time residents, young professional families restoring the city’s abundant crop of beautiful old Victorians, and Latino laborers and their families sharing Victorians that have been divided into apartments. Accordingly, the downtown area is a mix of upscale restaurants, art galleries, artists ‘lofts, antiques stores, as well as bodegas and bars.
Ubiquitous posters advertise Spanish bands and groups playing each weekend at the bars and clubs catering to the young, single, and probably lonely young men. The first one I come upon this week displayed in a bodega. The usual buxom dark-haired beauty in the forefront shares the poster with the handsome guitar-laden musicians. But it is the words that have me smiling and shaking my head. St Patrick’s Day. Cerveza Verde. Shots de tequila. Margaritas. Botellos. Ah well, I think You don’t have to be yada… yada
African-American Spirit #1
I smile and continue on. Next we come upon a cluster of people, clutching take-out coffee cups and smoking cigarettes in front of one of the downtown churches. It must be ten o’clock, The doors will soon be opening to admit them to the AA meeting. I pass two older women, one black, one white. The black woman proclaims, “My man is gonna cook corned beef and cabbage . I’m gonna be eating good tonight!” Yes, you don’t have to be I____
Finally Marcos decides the walks over, time to head back to the truck. As we pass a stately apartment ,a preppy-looking bi-racial teenager laden with a lacrosse net cuts across the grass. “Happy St Patrick’s Day” he calls. His smile is so infectious I fond myself returning it along with his wish. Ah well, like me, he could be part .You don’t have to be IR___
African-American Spirit #2
But the universe is not through with me yet. That afternoon one of my errands takes me to the beer and soda distributor in town. I walk over to the bottle return area and the young African-American young man in charge is wearing his usual broad smile.. as well as a string of green beads interspersed with glittery shamrocks. I see you’re ready to celebrate.” I say. You don’t have to be IRI__
But we’re not finished yet.
Post script #1. I turn on the 11 0,clock news.
Alright, Already. You don’t gave to be IRIS__
Post script #2 The next day I visit the cemetery to do some early planting. I look up at my brother’s grave while digging and while I can’t say I’m noticing it for the first time, but the engraving adorning it pops out at me. A Celtic cross!
I give up. You don’t have to be IRISH to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. Just don’t make me march!