To Be Irish in New York on St. Patrick’s Day
Chasing the Irish Arts Center's citywide book giveaway, nostalgia ensues
I have mixed feelings about St. Patrick’s Day in New York, as anyone over the age of 22 and not a purveyor of spirits, green-hued or otherwise, should have. There are things about it I love: the wearing of the green (in particular my wife’s reaction to seeing little girls in emerald dresses and lacquered shoes); Exile Ballads (in particular “The City of Chicago,” “Spancil Hill” and, of course, “Paddy’s Lamentation”); making otherwise well-meaning Americans feel bad about ordering Irish Car Bombs (I’ll never stop doing this). There are things about it I do not love: the faint whiff of old school patriarchy that wafts from the thrown-open doors of the city’s Hibernian Societies; the inexplicable-to-me prevalence of kilts, bagpipes and corned beef; that rare but hard to shake feeling that no matter how good this city has been to me in the three-plus years I’ve lived here, it is not now, nor will it ever be, home.
Whenever I feel this way, whenever I feel my Blood Maudlin Content (BMC) rising, I take out my phone and pull up my favorite saved picture: that of a lime green boomerang glowing radioactively above the caption “This is an Irish boomerang: it never returns, but it sings a lot of sad songs about how much it wants to.” I laugh, every time, and then I go about my day. So yeah, I have mixed feelings about St. Patrick’s Day in New York.
One thing I adamantly do not have mixed feelings about, however, is the Irish Arts Center: a Manhattan-based multi-disciplinary organization that connects Irish and Irish-American arts communities. Every year for the past six years the IAC has organized a St. Patrick’s Day citywide book giveaway—“a celebration of literature and literacy”—during which pop-up stands throughout the five boroughs dole out some 5,000 free books by Irish authors. Now this is an inclusive version of Irish-America I can get behind. With 11 different locations around the city, the only question was: where to start?
* * * *
My day begins outside the DeWitt Clinton housing development in East Harlem, just after sunrise, where the IAC stand shares a corner with a man pressing juices under a large blue umbrella. Harlem is the best neighborhood in the city; it’s where I live, and where I landed when I first moved over from Dublin. The night I met my wife, some three months later, we shared a cab back to the borough. Bucking the trend for writers in the city, she had chosen not to live in the (to me still) distant and confusing labyrinth of Brooklyn and so, when the bar emptied after a literary event that night in May, we happy two found ourselves the only ones headed uptown.
I ask David, a volunteer in a very fetching herringbone flat cap, how the reception on Lexington has been so far. “Pretty good,” he tells me, “people are always a bit wary at first—they must think we’re Scientologists or something—but most of them double back when they realize what we’re doing.” He’s not wrong. Over the course of a half hour, I watch dozens of early-morning commuters, mothers walking children to school, and ambling locals headed nowhere in particular peruse the selection of novels and short story collections on offer. The stand is low on books for children, but one young man—all of six years old with bright blue glasses and a backpack as large as his entire torso—is undeterred. “Is this for real?” he exclaims, before picking up a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol and striding away triumphantly, impervious to suggestions for more suitable reading material. The Spanish language version of The Quiet Man, El Hombre Tranquilo, proves popular, as does Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails, a collection of short stories from The Stinging Fly Press in Dublin. One woman, the chubby legs of her sleeping daughter dangling out from under a pink woolen blanket, chats to me about Seamus Heaney and the city’s child literacy rate. The day is getting brighter and the atmosphere more buoyant as the crowd of book-lovers grows, and I’d like to stay longer, but I have to get to Queens.
* * * *
I like Queens. I don’t visit often enough, but I like it all the same. The food is excellent, the residents hail from every place imaginable, and, most importantly, my doctor’s practice is out there. Why do I travel over an hour to a clinic that’s only accessible by bus and doesn’t accept my insurance? It’s a fair question. The best answer I can give is: nostalgia. Once, when I was unable to shake a chest infection but possessed no medical insurance, a fellow grunt at the midtown Irish bar where I worked at the time told me about a no-frills doctor in his neighborhood who charges 50 dollars and only accepts cash. This seemed reasonable, so the following day, comically large NYC map in hand, I went to pay him a visit. Next door to the practice is a bar where—on that particular day and many days since—a group of waiting room patients filed in and out like a wheezing accordion. One time, a heavy-set gentleman in a Jets jersey strode into the waiting room, realized he was still holding his pint, muttered “fuck” to himself, and strode back out again.
Across the road from the practice there’s a bodega with the ATM I use to extract the 50 dollars required to pay the Doc. This particular bodega sells loose pirated DVDs of Love/Hate, a popular Irish crime show, and Podge and Rodge: A Scare at Bedtime, a ten minute late-night bridging program where two puppets tell lewd cautionary tales from their house in Ballydung Manor. It should go without saying that this is my favorite bodega in the city. When it was my turn to see the Doc on that first visit, I sat patiently in his surgery for a few minutes until he stuck his head around the doorframe and, with a wide grin and every other soul in the building within earshot, asked me if I was here about an STI. I told him it was highly unlikely, as it’d been a good while since I’d had the opportunity to acquire one. We’ve been close ever since.
I was warned that in years gone by the Queens stands have run out of books in jig time so arriving at Woodside, that mecca of Irish immigrant life, before nine was of paramount importance. Alas, by the time I reach their table, Sarah and Patrick—two charming IAC Book Day veterans—inform me that the last of the books had been snapped up only minutes previous. The regulars have been out in force, they say, along with a healthy contingent of newcomers on their way to the subway station. Celebrity chef Stuart O’Keefe’s cookbook, The Quick Fix Six, and Colum McCann’s Transatlantic were apparently the most in-demand. “We’re the first stand to be cleaned out,” Patrick tells me, “if you head up to 74th Street now you might catch that group before they’re done, too.” So up I return from whence I came to take the 7 train a couple of more stops north to Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights. Surely here, with the chilling deterrent of a giant John Travolta billboard hanging above the plaza like the Eye of Sauron, I will find a stall still lousy with literature. Sadly, once again, there is no joy for this weary traveler.
Kerry and Jonathan, who have been at their posts since the wee small hours of the morning, are packing up their wares. Their only desired remuneration for this shift? To be allowed to select one book each from the stall. Kerry chose Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music, while Jonathan, like so many other Queensians that day, went for O’Keefe’s cookbook—perhaps the last free copy available in the borough that day. In my naiveté, I ask them to pose for a photo with their spoils, and in that moment, seeing O’Keefe’s handsome, open-collared form rise above the parapet of Jonathan’s tote bag, a stranger approaches. Her opening gambit is all smiles and sunshine. She just wants to see the book. She’ll hand it right back. But I know, and Jonathan knows, that it isn’t going to be that easy. “My friends call me the Grill Master,” she says, and pauses, O’Keefe and his “spice up your bar-b-que” section unwittingly co-opted into her charm offensive. Jonathan, ever the diplomat, smiles at her, but I can see the steel in his unblinking eyes as he holds out his hand, and etched deep into that steel are the words: I’m afraid you are mistaken, madam; it is I who am the Grill Master.
* * * *
It’s still only 9:30, but I’m told a local politician will be appearing at the Atlantic Terminal stand at ten o’clock sharp. I’ve already missed the opportunity to press the flesh with councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and councilman Daniel Dromm, so I’ll be damned if I let another celebrity slip through my fingers. I never fail to get at least a little bit lost trying to navigate the city’s most populous borough, and that inevitability makes me feel like its residents are somehow to blame for my navigational dyslexia, which in turn makes me resent them and the insufficiently grid-patterned streets they call home.
Thankfully, by the time I jog my way across the great oblong shadow of Barclay’s Center (the one Brooklyn landmark I’m confident I can find on the first attempt) and up the stairs of the Atlantic Terminal Mall, councilwoman Laurie Cumbo is still a few minutes away. While I wait, scribbling down important observational notes like “non-toxic beard dye” and “TV camera with handle,” the mellifluous sounds of “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” drift up over the balcony. Upon further investigation, a bespectacled gentleman in a striking forest green shirt is playing the fiddle one story below us. Quickly realizing that a sizable Hibernophile crowd is massing on the landing above, he joins our party.
It’s a genuinely lovely atmosphere, one infused with extra pizzazz once the councilwoman arrives. She’s a magnetic presence: handing out books, posing for photos, and chatting animatedly to folks making their tentative approach to the stand. In an impromptu interview, Cumbo (who founded MoCADA, Brooklyn’s first Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts) tells me that she sees the initiative as “an opportunity to create new relationships and promote a greater understanding of Irish history and culture.” I want to ask her to run away with me to Ireland, where her eloquence would see her elected president in a matter of months, but my odyssey is not yet complete, and so instead I simply thank her for her commitment to the arts, and depart.
* * * *
Before I even reach the 2 train, disaster strikes in three crippling Twitter updates: (i) The Bronx stand is no more, (ii) The Staten Island stand has exhausted its supply, and (iii) Hank Azaria has come and gone from the 72nd Street stand without me being there to make him uncomfortable by demanding he perform Simpsons voices for my amusement. Maybe it’s only right. Maybe Hank is nursing a head cold from the last days of winter. Maybe I need to spend more quality time in the outlying boroughs before I can feel okay about pestering strangers for their book preferences.
Trips to the zoo aside, only one event brings me to the Bronx with any kind of regularity. Every year in early May, I take the 1 train up to Gaelic Park in Riverdale to watch New York take on a county team from the West of Ireland in the first round of the Connacht Gaelic Football Championship. For the traveling contingent, it’s an opportunity to reinforce the tether between the Gaelic Athletic Association proper, and its most distant satellite. For the rag-tag team of Irish immigrants that make up the NYC team, it’s a comforting reminder that, even in exile, the dream of All-Ireland Championship glory is still alive, if only for a day. For me, and whoever I drag along to these usually sold out encounters, it’s an exercise in alchemy.
As for Staten Island, I’m not sure I’ve ever gone beyond the boundaries of the ferry terminal. One of my only trips out there was in the autumn of last year. My brother, asked to choose between the city’s innumerable attractions on the last day of his visit, decided he wanted to tick the fifth and final borough off his to-do list. It was late when we arrived, already dark, and we had no plan, so we just leaned on the railing outside the terminal doors and looked out over the water. We talked about family, about lads from back home and what they were doing now, about a girl he was seeing whom I hadn’t met, about vague plans we both had for the future. Then we drank a pint each at the terminal bar and took the ferry back to Manhattan. Since then, whenever I think about Staten Island, which admittedly isn’t often, I think about my family back home. We’re not estranged from one another; we don’t wait on letters for weeks at a time; we’re connected by whatsapp groups and email chains and Skype calls; we share an ocean that gets cheaper to fly across with every passing year. But we do live on opposite sides of it. That’s just the way it is.
* * * *
At midday, on my way back up through Manhattan, I decide to get off at Christopher Street to see if there’s anybody still alive out there and, sure enough, the IAC stand is in full swing. People are picking up books of poetry by Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon, novels by Anne Enright and Eimear McBride, even copies of the recently translated Irish language graveyard classic, Cré na Cille. A construction worker on a bicycle pulls over to take a look at what’s on offer. An elderly woman abandons her shopping bags to attend to her selection. I stop to ask a gloriously bearded man with a battered acoustic guitar why he chose a book of poems. Steve tells me that he’s always had a soft spot for poetry, but in this particular case he eye was drawn to the title: I Only Know That I Love Strength In My Friends and Greatness. “Where else but New York would you get someone handing you this on the street for free?” he beams. Most days, Steve plays guitar in Central Park, and he tells me that the staff at Belvedere Castle will lend you binoculars to roam the grounds and bird-watch. He tells me that he used to travel around the country more, but with all the different people passing through the city’s parks, eager to hear him play, he doesn’t need to anymore.
“How long have you been here?” he asks me.
“It was only supposed to be a year,” I say, “but it’s turned into three and counting.”
“It’s a hard city to leave,” he says, “there’s nowhere in the world like it.”