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  new york - mark mcclusky

Drunks and Elephants

The Beery Horde

There's nothing more frightening than a drunken cop. Standing outside a bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, this one's wearing his dress uniform, holding a beer and slapping fellow revelers on the back. There is something about seeing a policeman drinking on the street that can't help but make me wonder about the breakdown of authority in New York. But maybe that's what today is all about.

It's March 17: Saint Patrick's Day. Over a million people line 5th Avenue from 44th to 86th Street for the ma of all parades, forming a two-mile gauntlet of citizens clutching beers in brown paper bags and wearing green plastic derbies. Pipe-and-drum bands, battalions of firemen and cops, politicians from all over the state stream past, and the crowd cheers and drinks and cheers.

Newspaper headline: Mayhem on Mad Ave.

The parade ends blocks from my house. When I come home from work, the throngs are still there, wandering from bar to bar, faces now green not from facepaint but from too much booze.

It's an odd celebration, this day that honors the saint that brought Catholicism to Ireland. As the parade passes in front of Saint Patrick's Cathedral in midtown, the participants turn and wave at John Cardinal O'Connor, the archbishop of New York, who presides in a long, flowing red robe.

At O'Connor's suggestion, the parade stops at noon, and stands still for a minute in remembrance of the millions who died in the Irish potato famine 150 years ago. It's a poignant moment, thousands of people dead silent in the streets of New York.

Unfortunately, that spirit doesn't last. Later, 18-year-old Michael Sarti is brutally beaten on 59th Street just off the parade route, a casualty of one of the many mob fights that flare up during the day. The NYC police (those who aren't marching) arrest 38 people for various infractions, and issue 762 citations for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

The celebration leaves a bad taste in my mouth each year, and I say that as someone who's a quarter Irish and more than happy to get drunk. There's an edge to the day that leaves me cold and queasy, the sense that it's a day for mindless drinking and violence, an occasion when social norms crumble under the auspices of the Church.

Picture of an Elephant.Bring on the Elephants

I'm ready to give up on parades, but the next night I still head down to the Queens Midtown Tunnel for one of New York's most unique scenes. Each year, when the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus comes to Madison Square Garden, it's the occasion of a truly strange and wonderful parade, as the elephants walk under the East River.

The trains that carry the elephants can't come onto Manhattan, as there's no freight train depot on the island. So instead, the pachyderms detrain in Queens and walk through the Midtown tunnel (one tube of which is closed to traffic). Then they march down 2nd Avenue to 34th Street, and across town to the Garden.

It's a beautiful and surreal sight, the juxtaposition of elephants and zebras and camels with the harsh cityscape of New York. The first animal is led from the tunnel, and I wonder what he thinks of all of this -- the green signs and the TV cameras.

The procession takes place at midnight to avoid tying up traffic too badly. Considering the hour, a large crowd has gathered. A thousand or so people have come out to see the animals. Several mothers hold their kids on their shoulders so they can see over the crowd, and everyone is snapping pictures as fast as they can. It's goofy, it's wonderful, it makes me remember the excitement of the circus and the thrill of the exotic.

The contrast with the day before couldn't be more stark. Everyone is running along 34th Street to see the elephants again and again. As they come past me for the third time, I'm only about five feet away from them as they march, holding each other's tails with their trunks in the crisp New York night. There are no brawls. And all the cops do is help close the route.


jenb said:

I'm still a long way from taking the leap to calling myself a San Franciscan. I still feel like I'm just visiting, and I'll always be a New Yorker. My good use for a displaced NYer? Well, that's easy! A displaced NYer can always be counted on to give it to you straight when everyone else is doing the placating, non-confronational, "don't forget to breathe" schpiel.

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