For a while I lived in San Francisco, right down the street from a bar where even at 11 AM I could usually make out three or four ancient, hunched-over permanent fixtures nursing beverages in total darkness. Things picked up later in the day when they were joined by a handful of colleagues unlucky enough to have jobs. Since it was an Irish place, occasionally one of these corpses would burst back to life, momentarily, with a song.
I happen to know enough Irish songs to make anyone sick. Anyone, that is, but these guys. So when I stumbled accidentally into this Guinness-soaked cave one Friday night, I found myself singing for beers. Nothing encouraged them more than this third-generation loner with a decidedly unhealthy thirst for tapping into his musical roots. The Great Green Hope. My money was no good in there, so of course I returned from time to time.
Two nights before Saint Patrick's Day I stopped by to cash in just a verse or two. A dead martyr, a dead mother, and out the door. But there was something different about the place. There was a real live woman in there. She was not exactly ravishing, but since she seemed to have been born sometime after the last potato famine, she was causing a sensation among the decrepit clientele. She was fresh off the boat and looking for adventure in the New World.
Luckily, I know a few cowboy songs too. I introduced myself, and as we delved into cross-cultural musical exploration, the stout started flowing. Before we knew it, our mutual admiration was multiplying by sloppy leaps and bounds. At about four songs past midnight, in the middle of a dizzy, impossible stab at "The Rising of the Moon," she whispered, "Let's stroll over to my place."
So down the street we weaved, serenading the workaday stiffs who otherwise would have been wasting their lives sleeping. The concert lasted until we reached the bottom of the long staircase that led to her cousin's front door.
We had pulled each other about halfway up when a dark figure appeared at the summit, backlit like the Exorcist by the kind of moon that looks so big you think maybe it's about to crash on top of you. A thick growl greeted us from within the massive silhouette. The Irish Bigfoot. "Get your fucking hands off my cousin."
"But Joe..." she pleaded.
"Get yourself inside," he interrupted, "and you get the fuck off my stairs!"
She pushed by him, crying and swearing her way into the house. I sensed that the Irish jig was up--I did not know a song that could begin to charm Cousin Joe--so I elected to abandon the concept of romance. Anyway, another issue suddenly became more pressing. Perhaps due to the gravity of the situation, every drop I'd had to drink rushed, with the force of the eternal tides, into my bladder.
"Cousin Joe, sir," I queried with sheepish urgency, "could I possibly come inside just to go to the bathroom?"
"Over my dead body," he replied.
I somehow mustered the presence of mind to sidestep this beautiful new variation on the old straight line and politely, quickly bid farewell. I retreated to the convenient facilities of a nearby alley.
What happened next is hard to explain. At the time I was working in a movie theater, sitting in the dark with that film-fiend subculture that regards all out-of-theater experiences as mere footnotes to the real world on the screen. Maybe you've met people like that. "Yes the building is in fact burning down, but moreover, this haunting mise-en-scene recalls a masterwork that falls squarely into my personal cinematic pantheon..."
Anyway, there I was in the alley. It looked like a movie set. In front of me was a ladder leading to a roof. Robert De Niro, on rooftops, stalking his prey in the Little Italy parade below in Godfather II. A great scene. Up I climbed, my brain equal parts stout and celluloid. The view was nice, but spinning. Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo kicked in and I opted not to leap from rooftop to rooftop.
Down the ladder I went, but when I landed I stepped into a gigantic cooking pot and tripped. My fall caused a tremendous racket because it turned out that this pot was only one of many that had been deposited temporarily outside the kitchen of an Italian restaurant during cleanup. Immediately and inexplicably I cast myself in the role of the innocent but guilty-as-hell Catholic Hitchcockian fugitive. I gathered up the pots and pans and headed home.
On Saturday, there was rest. All I remember is my roommate tapping on my door and asking ridiculous questions. "Something, something, something, pots and pans, something, something?"
The next day was Saint Patrick's Day, and although I was reluctant to leave the house at all, much less for anything Irish, I was pulled kicking and screaming by a couple of friends. "You may have lost the battle," they said, "but you still have plenty of time to lose the war as well." I did convince them to avoid the Irish bar and any other Irish place. We made a few stops and ended up in a newish young-people joint.
This sparkling place was about as wholesome as a bar could be, not the kind of establishment where fun of any kind was likely to get in the way of gulping a few lonely drinks and crawling home at a reasonable hour. There was nothing Irish about the place, which suited me fine. But when Billie Holiday came on the jukebox, I found myself singing softly along with her. The next thing I knew, everyone at my table had joined in and it spread like wildfire around the room. The place was packed and almost everyone was singing full volume with every record that played. Eventually, people stopped feeding the machine, but the singing continued anyway. An astounding number of unlikely vocalists took turns leading the group in good and bad songs of all kinds. Hank Williams, the Monkees, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra, the Fugs, the Sex Pistols, the Muppets, Nancy. Sinatra. I delivered "Kevin Barry" with the phoniest possible brogue, but it brought dampness to the eyes of the vulnerable. Dancing broke out when a loosened-up accountant did an energetically awful Otis Redding.
At closing time there were still about a hundred people in the place. The bartenders apologized as they gently herded us toward the door. We spilled onto the sidewalk but didn't disperse. This party would not be broken up. We talked and laughed and basked in the euphoria we'd conjured up.
Then, from a distance, came the sound of a speeding car. A too-loud muffler moving too fast in our direction. I looked down the street and saw it coming. A little bearded guy, who'd been singing beside me inside, stepped away from the crowd and off the curb. The car kept coming. The little guy stood in the gutter, pantomiming a matador. He challenged the car with a big smile on his face. But as the little guy leaned in, the car swerved out. One hundred drunken fools watched as the car knocked the little guy high into the air. Two hundred blurry eyes followed his slow-motion body turning over and over in the sky. When he landed on the pavement, half a block away, the car was already turning the corner, disappearing forever. Dozens of unreliable witnesses gave dozens of different, vague descriptions of the car. Nobody got the license plate. The next day the neighbors started collecting funds for the guy's medical expenses, but a week later the money was used to bury him.
I replayed that hit-and-run countless times in the following days weeks, but unlike memories in the movies it became less detailed with time. A few months later I saw the Irish woman waiting for a bus, but I didn't say hello.
I skipped a few Saint Patrick's Days after that. I don't like to drink as much anymore anyway, and when I moved to Chicago I was really kind of sickened by that green river.
But a few years ago I found an annual party where we wallow in Irish-American stew in the safety of a house. And, like all other sentimental saps on the planet, Irish or otherwise, we sing for those who've gone before, for our own ongoing tragicomedies, and for innocent targets everywhere.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Peter Hannan.