Friday, March 25, 2011

The St. Patrick's Day Parade

The FDNY pipe and drum band at the end of the parade.
Marching up 5th Avenue.
Another shot up 5th Avenue, follow the green line!
Myself with Division 1 of the AOH, holding the banner.
Myself with one of Division 1's VPs.
The banner, Thomas Rogers Memorial.
Another shot of the banner for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Division 1.
This past Thursday, New York City held it's 250th annual St. Patrick's Day parade. It's one of the city's oldest traditions, dating back to 1762, when ex-patriot British soldiers from Ireland marched in formation up lower Broadway, playing traditional songs, wearing green and speaking Irish, which was all banned in their home country. After the Revolution, the parade transformed from being a military review of British soldiers to being a gathering of the many religious, cultural, and social organizations of the city's Irish. By the the time Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott and Prince Streets was finished in 1815, these various groups would start from their church or headquarters, around such places as St. Peter's on Barclay and Vessey Streets, St. James' between the underpass of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, and St. Joseph's on West 8th Street and 6th Avenue, and all march toward the cathedral where they would be met by the Bishop of New York. A mass or prayer service would be held where the bishop and other dignitaries and politicians would speak, and then everyone would disperse to start celebrating.

As the heart of the city migrated further north, so did the Archdiocese with a new cathedral on 50th Street and 5th Avenue, and so did the parade. By 1851, the parade began to to unite under a single grand marshall and be led by the newly formed 69th Regiment of the Irish Brigade, which it still is to this day. Also, since 1851, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who formed at St. James Church in 1836, have sponsored the parade. I started marching in 2007 after I had joined to AOH a almost a year earlier in April 2006. Originally founded to defend and protect Irish Catholics in America by guarding churches that would otherwise be vandalized and burnt to the ground, and standing up for the rights of neglected Irish workers, they seemed to have evolved into an organization of older guys who talk about organizing charity drives, cultural events, the Christmas party, and what time and where to meet for the parade on March 17th. All in all, pretty light stuff ... and, no, ILGO and all those gay people who are supposedly "banned" have never once been mentioned. But the parade, the largest in the world, upholds strict traditions by not having political activist groups, pro-Catholic or not, march, as well as remaining strictly a marchers' parade by not allowing floats or cars. As a member of Division 1, we meet where it all began, far downtown in Manhattan, at the Mercantile Grill on Pearl Street, not too far from Fraunces Tavern at the end of the block, where George Washington said farewell to his officers and went back home to Virginia at the end of the Revolution. However, being a Upper-East-Sider, this is my excuse for never making it to the meetings.

The parade is always backed up, and we stood on 46th Street and Vanderbilt Avenue for about two hours, and then finally was the long haul up to 79th Street. Unfortunately, the parade, and all parades in the city, were cut short by Bloomberg starting in April of last year to supposedly cut costs on sanitation. Last year's St. Patrick's Day parade was the last to march up to 86th Street and past the Irish Historical Society on 83rd Street, as the new rule went into effect on April 1st of last year. That's Bloomberg for you: if he decides he wants to do something, he just goes right ahead and does it, often despite what most New Yorkers want. It's a hefty walk just the same, though, and as it nears the end you seem to get a less formal crowd of little kids holding out their hands to slap five and older "big kids" drunkenly yelling things. All in all, there's a lot of history and tradition to all of this, and I'm happy to be able to take part in the largest parade in the world. Celebrating afterward is always good, too.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nick Valensi's Eighth Birthday Party

Pinnacle Bagels was Valensi's parents' restaurant in the '80s.
The Gap on 42nd and 3rd was the nation's last automat until 1991.
The Strokes are currently on tour again. Little known fact, but I was once, very briefly, good friends with guitarist Nick Velensi in the second grade. For some reason, there was a time when we were around seven when he really liked me. As true then as it is now, he always seemed a little bit cooler than everyone else, especially kids like me and my brother. To prove what was already obvious to us all, Nick Valensi threw the party to end all parties at his ultra-hip parents' restaurant on 3rd Avenue at about 45rd Street in honor of his turning eight years old, and invited Mrs. Turner's entire second-grade class at P.S. 183 on East 66th Street between 1st and York Avenues.

I wish I remembered more from that night, or at least that my parents did, but all I remember was that it was a very sophisticated, adult party, set in a very loud, dark bar/lounge/restaurant, that we all seemed to be about ten to fifteen years too young for. My father remembers a large staircase leading up to the second level, lined on both sides with girls all about eight to ten years old, dressed and made up to look like they were in their twenties. Nick came with an entourage of mature-looking girls on his arm and mixed and mingled with the rest of us.

In the meantime, my dad headed out after dropping us off. My mother was at home under the covers at the time, with just about the worst case of the flu she had ever had, plus eight month pregnant with my brother Joe. So my father decided to give her some time to herself and walked down three blocks to the automat on the southeast corner of 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue. Automats, considered the height of modern-day eating-on-the-go, and an iconic symbol of New York City around fifty years earlier, were already far past their golden age, and this one on the corner of 42nd and 3rd would be the last in the country, closing two years later. Some folks tried to give the automat concept another whirl in 2006 in the East Village, with BAMN! on St. Mark's Place between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, but it closed three years later due to lack of interest. This type of dining that was once so quintessentially New York had rapidly declined in popularity due to fast food joints and people wanting fast food that was (supposedly) fresher. It was all too evident on that Saturday night in January 1989 that the automat had long past its height of popularity as my father sat there with five bums, trying to give my sick mother at home some peace and quiet.

But you know how little kids get sometimes about late-night parties in nightclubs, and only about a minute after our dad walked out the door, my brother Patrick freaked out and wanted to go home immediately. Nick's mother's only choice was to call our apartment. With that, our mom had to somehow drag herself out of bed, drag herself down the stairs, and hail a cab to come pick up Pat, all the while unbeknownst to us all that Dad was just a few blocks away. Such was life before cell phones.

Looking back on it now, my mom says it seems like such a dated story. There were no cell phones so my parents couldn't communicate (something that is so easily taken for granted now) and my dad was hanging out at the automat, one of the most dated of New York City institutions. It finally closed in April, 1991, and there's a Gap store there now.

I walked up Third Avenue the other day to try to find the building where that restaurant used to be, and I think it's Pinnacle Deli and Hot Bagels, between 45th and 46th Streets. Nick, I know you're a big-time rock star now, but remember me -- Jamie Meehan -- your old pal from Mrs. Turner's second grade class?