Saturday, March 17, 2007

Satori in New York City

It's the morning of St Patrick's Day 1995. A bright and sunny good to be alive day. Or it would be if I didn't have the hangover to end all hangovers. The result of a three day tear taking in most of the bars in the Bowery and the East Village. Finished up the night before in a drinking competition with two travellers from Kerry called Tom and Jerry or at least that's what they said their names were. Rolling Rock with John Daniels straight up and straight down the hatch. I don't know who won. I think it reached a point where victory lay only in survival. Stepped out rubber legged onto Houston St at 4 am. I remember being cold and then I remember being in bed.

Anyway so now I'm shaved and showered and shining like a new dime as I walk towards Union Square and the uptown subway. It's 10am and my head hurts but this is New York and it's St Pat's. I can stand a little pain for that. Outside McSorley's there's a queue around the block. No-neck bouncers dressed as medieval monks keep a line of already drunk teenagers from the suburbs in order. They check that the fake IDs don't insult their fake IQs. One in one out. Next.

The streets are already a mess of kelly, emerald, and all hues Johnny Cash. 40 shades, more like 400. Anything that will pass for green or shamrock-shaped will do. Beer is sucked from brown bags by boys and girls in kiss me I'm Irish t-shirts, plastic bowler hats of an eye-stabbing hue only achievable at a high cost to the ozone layer, bawneen caps, blue jeans and plaid kilts.

I keep my distance from all this viridiana. I'm in black. A leather jacket I bought off a street corner Pakistani in Alphabet City, 5 dollar raybans from Chinatown, Levis, 18 hole Dr Martens boots. Black all black. My only concession to the day is an Aran sweater I forced my arthritic ould one to knit a Christmas or two before. She was unhappy about the colour. Did I have yearnings to be a priest she asked. No ma. Black is the new black, that's all. No shamrockery for me. I look like a Russian hoodlum from Little Odessa.

The subway is crowded with New York's Bravest. Badly cut dark blue uniform suits and woollen bawneens in the now ubiquitous Kelly green. You can see Mayo and Galway and Clare in their complexions and a tinker's thirst on their faces but no beer for these boyos until after the parading's done. They're laughing and talking. For once the New York subway feels like a place you might want to spend some time.

Off the train at 42nd St. Join the mill heading towards 5th Avenue and St Patrick’s cathedral. On the pavement the crowd is already 50 deep. Blue police barriers block the ends of each block. Like McSorley's it's one in one out but this time the bouncers are NYPD blues, Hispanics and Blacks mainly. No need to ask why there are no ruddy white faces in blue today. I stroll into St Patrick’s. The lace curtain Irish are gathering for mass. There are hats and white gloves and Sunday best outfits in evidence. The church is noisy and bustling and there's a crackle of excitement even among the respectable. It’s their day to day and begod won't everyone in the city know it before nightfall.

At a side altar a black woman prostrates herself before an enormous marble crucifix. She looks like she just stepped of the streets of Port au Prince. Cotton headscarf, so white it hurts my eyes, long skirt with a Gitanes-blue and white floral pattern. She is face down, arms out-stretched mimicking the man on the cross. The skirt spreads like a discarded opera fan. The lace curtain Micks step around her with eyes averted as if her devotions shame their noisy impiety.

I leave the cathedral by a side exit and try to slip under the NYPD barriers to claim a spot in the space reserved for the VII(rish)Ps . Rumour has it that Gerry Adams will be making an appearance after he's been and shown solidarity with the ILGO protest. I have a ticket in a sweep and I'm banking on 22 arrests at this year's demo. Sod ideology this means pints.

The things some folks will do to get in a parade: ILGO irony wasted on AOH

I almost make it into the Hibernian equivalent of the Royal enclosure when I'm stopped by a short female Hispanic cop. She asks for my invitation. I pull out my passport. It's green with a big gold harp on it. Worth a try.

No dice. No invitation no way in. I've come all the way from Liverpool for this. No invitation, no way in. Ah come now, you will. No she won’t. My scouse blarney offensive fails. No invitation, no way in. She's shorter than me but she has a gun on which her hand is now resting. No invitation no way in. I back away smiling. It's a fair cop and so is she. Happy St Pat's to you anyway so, Officer Sanchez. She shakes her head slowly and smiles. Crazy Micks. I vault back the way I came. One handed. Showing off for a Latina cop. What am I like?

Eventually I hook up with my mate Mike on the corner of 52nd St. He's from Clare. He's an artist. Came to New York 3 years earlier. No plans to go back to Sixmilebridge but he's never been in town for a St Patrick's Day. Too homesick he says it makes him as in 'sick of home' and the reasons he went away. Like me he's all in black, but that’s just overalls on the NYC art scene. He does wear the tiniest of shamrock buttons in his lapel.

The 5th Avenue pavements are sardined with Celtophiliac humanity. It's impossible to move up the sidewalk and the cops won't let you onto the street. We decide to follow the parade from the cross streets. This involves more exercise than our two hangovers were prepared for. But the sights are worth it.

The marching bands and school girl majorettes are limbering up, getting ready for their part in the big day. There's a crew of hard core republicans wearing T-Shirts with slogans that would get them arrested on the other side of the Atlantic. Their accents are New Jersey and Brooklyn . Alongside them stand a contingent of cops from Garden City in dress uniform. My attention is caught by a team of Latina teenagers from Our Lady of the Roses Parochial School; bronze limbed, black haired and beautiful. Cheerleaders for a culture that isn't their own.

A group of fireman pipers entertain each other by revealing what is worn under an Irish-American's kilt. I look at Mike, he looks at me. No comment but the grin gives it all away it all. The Majorettes of Mother Cabrini’s Marching Band do stretches while New York’s Bravest look on lusting visibly. There’ll be some impure thoughts to be confessed before Easter.

Grrrrr! says Finn the fireman

In the next street a drunken Caribbean man weaves along the sidewalk in time to a Bobby O’Marley back beat. In each hand he grips a can of beer robed in the obligatory brown paper bag. Both are open and he sips from them alternately, also in time to the music in his heart. On his head is a rastaman hat in green white and gold enhanced by green phosphorescent tubes. His shirt is open and 'Kiss me I'm Iris' is scrawled in green lipstick on his exposed chest. Hello Iris. He is watched by a group of young women. They're the whitest of white and wearing whiter t-shirts and skin tight blue Levis. They're accessorised with emerald green Wonderbras worn outside the t-shirts. One of them carries a banner ;'Hello Bhoys.' Very convent Irish.

In our zig-zag, leap frog from side street to side street we stop from time to time and engage in loud and nonsensical conversations as gaeilge. ‘Cad é an focail gaeilge 'dialysis machine'?’ as we witness one more kid drunk at 11.30 am. People look at us as if we're speaking Latvian. We keep it up trying to provoke a response or at least a word or two of Irish from someone else on the streets on this very Irish day. After five minutes we move on and try it again another street corner. In an attempt at guerilla street theatre Mike asks directions to Carnegie Hall in Irish from the leader of a Republican flute band. The man looks at him blankly, scratches an Aran clad armpit and points towards a cop standing on the opposite corner. Shona lá le Padraig tu féin, a chara. We move on.

Our zig-zag progress starts to take its toll and my hangover returns like a line from a House of Pain rap tune. We look around and realise that we're the only ones not drinking or marching or both. Our frantic pace slows and then slows again. Somewhere in the mid-70s I realise that this Bloom like sojourn cannot be sustained without pints and more pints. I emerge onto 5th Avenue heading east and realise that the parade has overtaken us. The last bands are passing and it's like the final scene from State of Grace without the carnage.

Zen and the art of piping NYC

I step out into the middle of 5th Avenue and look north. I see a throng of green and orange and gold filling it its width. I hear pipes and drums pumping out Danny Boy and the Wearing of the Green. The sound echoes and rebounds off the skyscrapers in some surreal Celtic DJ mix. My peripheral vision is filled with smiling, excited faces and a 1000 shades of green. I'm at the epicentre of a Black 47 universe and I want to do the funky céilí. Awestruck for more than a moment and then suddenly I'm homesick for a land that was never my own. There's a lump in my throat and tears slowly start to fill my eyes. In my mind, I defy anyone not to be moved by this. I can embrace the bawneens and even forgive the bowler hats. My satori moment comes clothed in makey-uppy plaid and green wonderbras.

Don't worry New York City, this child of migrants gets it. And loves you all the more for it.

A smiling black cop puts his hand on my shoulder and points me east. He wears a small tricolour in his lapel. 'Time to move along now, sir.'

Could be continued if there's enough interest....

The photo of St Patrick's Cathedral above was purloined from Griotphoto

These guys do good camera. Joe-Bob says 4 stars, check 'em out


Tim (the Irish sailor) said...

Brilliant LiamG, no shame in feeling pride on such an Irish day. Liverpool is after all the capital of Ireland?
I didn't make it up to Hammersmith, but I saw the rugby on the telly and roared at the box a few times, Come on Ireland my Swedish colleagues were completey baffled!
Happy Paddy's Day

Liam G said...

Thanks mate, appreciate it. And the same to you, a chara. Shame you couldn't get up the road though I bet the craic was mighty with the rugby on as well

The Hangar Queen said...

That was excellent and I hope you'll continue.1995 was my first SPD in the US (Washington DC) and it left me very confused.In the end though I came away from it much like you describe at the end.I'got' it.
This year I nibbled on tapas and guzzled sangria at a Spanish joint right across the street from one of the popular Oirish bars here.Wasn't too keen on waiting in line for a hour to pay a cover in polar temperatures.
Some of the olives we were eating were green though and like yourself in 95 I was all in black.First fecker to pinch me for not wearing green was getting a high heel to the neck.
Great post altogether Liam.Well done.

Liam G said...

Such praise! I'm going to have to have the door on this blog widened so I can get me head in:-)
Sounds like a very civilized Padraigfest to me, though. And any limes in the sangria would also count in fulfilling your green quota for the day.

I, alas, was forced to opt out of the day this year. Facing a Dublin St Pat's crowd I could have coped with, it was the thought of all those rugger buggers filling the pubs did my head in.