To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Magic Of My Father's City: Ghosts Of St. Patrick's Days Past

St. Patrick's Day Parade, NYC 1959

It was a world of parades and pubs and politics, my father’s world, a world that was shaped by the ethnic milieu of that day and also transcended it. It made for a life in the 20th century that really was a life in full.  

There he is, in the photo above, Himself, as the New York Irish would say it, the late Detective Captain William J McGowan (1923-2000), leading the New York City Police Department's Emerald Society up Fifth Avenue as a sergeant in the late 1950s. Historically, the decision to march up the avenue was a very calculated affront to the WASP elite of the 19th century who did not have a particular fondness for the dominant immigrant class of that Know Nothing era.

My father (1923-2000) spent 6 years in the US Navy as an aviator during WW II before going "on the Job" in 1946. Along with his cousin, late Detective Harry Fitzgerald and several others, he co-founded the NYPD Emerald Society in 1952, serving twice as its president and once as president of the Grand Council of Emerald Societies. He also played a key role in the formation and organizational politics of the department's other fraternal organizations, such as the Shomrim Society (for Jewish officers) and the Pulaski Society (for Poles). Although white flight was cutting into the traditional "Irish vote," during the 1950's and 1960's the Emerald Society played a big part in the city's Democratic politics. Politics worked differently in that era, from the ground up, rather then the top-down model we now have. Men like my father, and others in the leadership of ethnic organizations like the Emerald Society were the civic glue that held everything together, fostering accountability on the part of political elites that they don't feel now, in the age of Big Money.

The work brought my father close to former New York City Mayors Robert Wagner and Abraham Beame, as well as to Robert Kennedy, Teddy Kennedy, Averell Harriman and a host of judges, lesser politicians and others with "big jobs," as the saying went in those days, at least among a certain slice of the Greatest Generation. He brought the Emerald Society Pipe and Drum Band---you know, the beefy guys with the tall hairy hats--- onto the Ed Sullivan show one year and got an on-air shout-out for that (or knock-down, as the Irish peculiarly say), was a fixture on Jack McCarthy’s St Patrick’s Day special on WPIX, where McCarthy always inquired about “Nellie” my father’s mother, and escorted the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, on his historic journey to the US in 1957.  The Boston Irish actually delayed their parade for a day that year so that Briscoe---Dublin’s first Jewish Lord Mayor---could experience the real thing in the New York.

Robert Briscoe, Lord Mayor Of Dublin, St. Patrick's Day, 1957 

With Senator Robert F. Kennedy and future NYC mayor Abe Beame, 1966

I’d say you could call me a “Paddy” but then I’d have to punch you. It’s also not true in the strict sense of the slur. My father was 100% Irish, though with both of his parents born here. But I’m part German, from my mother, Ellen Lilienthal.

My father retired from the department after 27 years, going on to open Danny Boy's Pub at 51st And Second Avenue which was a fixture on Manhattan's East Side for nearly fifteen years. (The New Yorker's Talk Of The Town observed closing night in their June 4, 1984 edition.)

The place was a magnet for all sorts of New York "characters," where a gruff democracy and a militant decency ruled. Class was in the way you treated people, not the airs and attitudes you projected or the poses that you struck. There was name-dropping to be sure, but I can’t recall the kind of social status “signaling” that passes for conversation now. Any Friday night would see half of police headquarters mingling with diplomats from the UN and an assortment of labor leaders, the occasional hansome cab driver, his horse waiting at the curb, along with a few priests and a lot of very pretty women who could have inspired the creators of Mad Men. There’d be a good number of “newspapermen,” as media people used to call themselves, with the guys from UPI grabbing the phone to call in stories and a headline writer from the first Murdoch ownership of the New York Post ginning himself up most afternoons, literally, before returning to the newsroom in order to write that day’s “wood,” as the tabloid trade refers to it. (Vanessa The UnDressa!; Headless Body In Topless Bar!) The occasional celebrity too: Truman Capote was a Sunday evening regular, nursing a Sunday evening sadness, though most of the literary crowd that came in occasionally found a better welcome uptown when Elaine Kaufman, who’d worked at another Irish bar down the block from Danny Boys and hung out with my father after hours now and then, opened up her infamous salon. The New York Irish certainly have their insular side, but the pub was an inclusive, all-are-welcome kind of joint; Open doors for the hoi polloi and for the swells. Except for Jimmy Breslin. My father considered him a populist phony and barred for him life.

St Patrick’s Day was a madhouse: Cousins; uncles and aunts; in-laws; my parents’ friends from the “old neighborhood” in Flatbush; partners of my father’s from the Job, priests, a nun here and there, and a floodtide of people from the parade, river of them, torrents of them, from noon when we opened til 4AM when we closed. For us, it was a family event--all hands on deck, with my brothers and sisters---some still in grammar school--- busing tables, scooping up glasses, and keeping all the service bars in ice. It was, you can imagine, a big day for the till---an “owner’s day” as the run-ragged staff would call it. It certainly made putting eight kids through college a little easier than it would have been, even on a Captain’s pension. Thank God Danny Boy’s could afford to pay musicians who could actually sing. Danny Boy is a beautifully written song and can be even more beautiful when sung correctly, especially the heartbreaking second verse (lyrics below). But it’s a hell of a wail when you've got a hundred tipsy Irishpeople, and those who are Irish for the day, making a go of it on their own.        

What I remember most about Danny Boy’s though is the echoes of the conversation, the craic as the Irish call it, a word that captures the inventiveness and velocity of it quite well, along with its addictive quality. Sitting by myself at the bar as a young aspiring writer not long after college, I often had a hard time keeping up as I scribbled like mad to get it all down. After a few hours and as many beers, the banter would take wing, the quotidian shifting into the profound, moving to a place that was almost beyond language itself, even if you could still hear Irish brogues and New York accents. Meanwhile further down the bar and a little closer to Planet Earth, a couple of old Irish guys would be hitting each other over the head with folded-up twenty dollar bills---like cavemen with sticks--- as they argued over who had right to buy the last round. There’s a reason why James Joyce set Ulysses in a pub, why the sacred and the profane seem so comfortable side by side. In the same way that “Kilroy” was there, so too were Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Stately Plump Buck Mulligan (Introibo ad altare Dei)in spirit at least.   

"Here we are," Himself would say, savoring the ineffability of the moment and sipping a Dewar's before heading home. The till would have stuffed into a crumpled paper bag and tucked under his arm---my father’s way of confusing would-be robbers---bringing it home for my mother, the real brains of the operation, to do the accounts. "Letsee Go! Letsee Go," the Chinese porter would yell, literally sweeping the late-stayers out the door, before picking up the change that had dropped behind the bar rail. I must have filled a thousand bar napkins with what I heard and saw back then. I keep them in storage, in shoeboxes stacked by year, like the cardboard caskets you might see in a coroner’s office.   

Inevitably however, the parades and the pub gave way to a funeral procession. My father lived exactly six months into the 21st century, passing away on July 1, 2000. 

His life was so representative of the political , the social and the cultural forces and dynamics at play in America at large  ---so bound up with the events of the 20th century century, both large and small --- that it would have been somehow inappropriate for him to breathe too much of this century’s air. When his time was gone, he was gone too, little need to quarrel with the bouncer. Like he and the rest of the Paddy's Day parade had done on Fifth Avenue, however, he stopped traffic in death as well. As the cortege wound its way from our family home in Westchester County toward the Pinelawn veteran’s cemetery on Long Island, the NYPD highway patrol kept other motorists frozen on parkway entry ramps as we rode by, throwing sharp salutes at the hearse. Everyone’s gonna go someday; its none too shabby to have stopped New York City traffic in a couple of the five boroughs when you do.

Many memories, that parade. Many lives, that pub. Much thanks to that man, in sunshine and in shadow. Horseman Pass By. 


Danny Boy
Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow 
 Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.
And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me. 

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