St. Patrick’s Day is here. I am Irish. My mother’s maiden name was McGarry, her mother’s maiden name was O’Sullivan, and so forth. My father’s mother’s maiden name was Sullivan, her mother’s maiden name was Coan, etc. The lineage goes back to the Old Country. I am also from Chicago, inhabited by more Irish than live in Dublin, Galway, and the County of Cork. Every year, the Mayor orders the Chicago River to be dyed green to compliment one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country.
St. Patrick’s Day. It was always first on the “incidents of unpleasantness” scale in my neighborhood. There is nothing worse than a collection of loud, fat, patsy Irishmen becoming a litter of loud, fat, patsy drunken Irishmen. The haze of barely literate conversation and odor of spilled Schlitz and Hamms in the twelve ounce cans still haunts me.
I went to St. Gertrude’s School, a gothic structure of granite and stained glass that, if you throw in the convent, the rectory, and the gym across the street, would take up an entire city block. It’s presence greets you as you disembark the Granville Avenue Elevated Train station. Look East, you see Lake Michigan. Look West, and you see the St. Gertrude Church steeple, a far more imposing site.
This school had rules. And one of the most earnest, hardened and steadfast was attendance at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. We had a teeming majority of Irish kids: Sullivan, Murphy, Flaherty, Ryan, O’Connor and Duffy. And that’s the short list. Give me ten minutes and a Guinness and I’ll give you thirty more.
These kids and I were told that it was our duty to attend the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade not because the Knights of Columbus sponsored a float every year but that our classmate, Eileen O’Toole and her brother, Patrick, were dancing the Irish Jig on the float and it was our “Catholic Duty” to support them. Nobody knew what they meant, but we didn’t want to get smacked. So, obediently lined up outside the front of the school promptly at 8am and arrive at the parade route at 9.
When a kid of ten years old gets off a bus in Chicago on Michigan Avenue four blocks from Lake Michigan in March, a month in which Garrison Keillor said God invented “to let people know who didn’t drink what a hangover was all about,” the kid isn’t thinking of celebration. He’s thinking misery. Sore legs. No bathrooms. Angry nuns. And a winter coat that, under normal circumstances, would be just fine to insulate you from the cold. But when you’re standing still, up against the twenty five mile an hour “Hawk Wind” slicing off the lake, between the buildings, and directly at your tiny chest, you may as well have left the house in a t-shirt.
There we stood. Practically naked against the elements. No food. No water. Just standing there, waiting for the cursed O’Toole children to dance past on this cardboard platform with green ribbons being carried slowly on the top of some guy’s 1953 Bel Air.
Finally, after what seemed weeks on end of being cut to ribbons by the chainsaw that was the Chicago wind, here comes Eileen and Patrick. They were dancing an Irish Jig which, to the untrained eye, has the same spastic motions of the extremities as those afflicted with Bells’ Palsy. They were both smiling. At the sight of their faces, one of the more brave and honest kids behind me whispered a very soft and slightly audible “Boo.” As I started to turn around, his memory of this parade was about to be sealed from Sister Mary Roselle’s right hand. Minutes after they passed, we were shoveled back on the bus for the long ride back to school, quietly wondering if the numbness and pain of this “Catholic Duty” was going to wear off any time soon.
In the subsequent St. Patrick’s Days, I have tried to stay quiet. I have eaten my perennial corned beef and cabbage with the appropriate reverence for the families that have gone before me. I hold nothing against the O’Tooles’. In fact, Eileen was my first official slow dance partner in eighth grade. She was pretty, smart and quiet. And she had great legs.
But every March 17th, I now make it a habit to stay inside. I avoid parades at all costs. I no longer frequent bars as my associated behavior has gotten me into more trouble than I’m willing to share in this space. So forgive me if I refrain from wearing green, drinking beer and attending any festivities.
Instead, I will begin the day in bed, eyes barely open, waiting for the vision of that float to pass into the distance, Eileen and Patrick fading into the gray horizon of the dank morning.
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