“That’s not how it was supposed to go,” said the old man, his head barely poking over the bridge railing. “Not at all.”
None of the people in our green gaggle heard it. They were all taking pictures with their phones or taking swigs from their flasks.
One of the reasons I look forward to getting old is that old people generally have a fascinating ability to share their opinion with anyone and anytime.
“You work hard on the things you believe,” he continued, “and then people make a mockery of it.”
Me, I’m still young enough to worry what someone will think of me if I turn to a random stranger on the street and tell them my feelings about something around us. The old don’t give a fuck. That fucks-given graph is a bell curve, with babies on one low end — they throw up on your shirt, burp on your face, pee on your lap. They don’t give a shit; then again they’re probably not mentally capable of it. Old people, while having been proficient in doing so for the whole lives, just choose not to. They live on the opposite end of that curve, having already learned something we haven’t yet.
“How long until it starts?” the old man asked me directly, probably since I was the only person who had any kind of reaction to his previous attempts at conversation.
Children and old people are also the only two groups that feel entitled to know everything. Kids at least, will keep their questions restricted to their parents. Why does he talk like that? they’ll ask their mother, their whisper not yet calibrated to a volume that their subject won’t be able to hear. Old people will just turn to you and, not one fraction of a second devoted to loudness versus softness of voice, straight up yell WHY DO YOU TALK LIKE THAT? WHERE ARE YOU FROM? ARGENTINA?
I looked at my watch and explained to the old man that the boat unloading the green dye had already started making its way from Columbus Drive. It would be in view of us on the Dearborn bridge any moment now. Then it would make some laps, stir up the dye so it saturated the until-now-greyish-brown river, and the Chicago River would be declared green, to the delight of the tourism board.
“I never liked green, you know?” He said, with the most sadness anyone has ever used to talk about colors.
There’s no good way to respond to that, so I just looked out onto the river, and I swear I saw vomit splashing into the water after having flown all the way down from one of the Marina Towers balconies.
“Hey, is your friend Irish?” someone asked me.
I turned around to see a girl standing behind me, her eyes making an inhuman effort to focus on the old man. Her face was close enough to mine that I could see the thick layers of makeup and could probably dust off the already-peeling small plastic shamrocks.
“Are you Irish, Mr…?” I asked my, well, I guess we were friends now.
“Patty?” I said, my ears getting closer and closer to that old age with each day that passes.
“No, Patty is a lassie’s name,” he said, offended. “Paddy.”
“Hey, Pat can be a girl or a boy’s name,” said the girl, attempting to raise both her eyebrows in a way that communicated I know something you don’t know.Unfortunately, the early morning alcohol had turned her face, up until last night a cohesive well-oiled machine of facial expressions, into an every-man-for-himself crisis. Her left eyelid was the only one that followed directions, lowering itself at the right time. Her right eyelid got itself confused with the eyebrows and lifted higher instead, while the eyebrows themselves furrowed, their emotion assembly manual completely lost in translation.
If Paddy hadn’t been standing against the railing he would have taken a step back, but didn’t.
“Yes, I’m Irish,” he said.
“Hey I’m Irish too!” she said.
“Where in Ireland are you from?” Paddy asked, the slightest annoyance in his voice.
“Hey,” she said, and I started considering that her constant use of that word was not to get our attention, but to startle and assemble the parts of her brain necessary to ask and answer questions. Obviously, a question was an all-hands-on-deck situation.
“Colorado Springs, Colorado,” she continued, the redundancy completely unnecessary. “But my last name is Antonelli. Because I’m halfmItalian. And a quarter German. But I’m 25% Irish.”
“Twen-tay-five percent, you say,” he said, and I kicked myself for not having picked up on the obvious accent earlier.
“Hey,” there it was again. “And eight percent Cherokee.”
I looked at Paddy, who tilted his head slightly. I had the feeling his confusion had nothing to do with the girl’s math, and instead came from trying to understand why she had delivered that piece of information like a personal accomplishment.
“Hey,” she re-almost-focused herself, “kiss for good luck?”
Paddy opened his grey eyes wide and looked at me.
“She wants to kiss you,” I said.
“Why?” he asked out of sheer confused curiosity, not one iota of creepy interest.
“Because you’re Irish, and that’s what you do today.”
“So you kiss Mexicans on Cinco de Mayo too?” he asked, suddenly defiant.
The girl thought hey hey hey let’s not get ahead of ourselves here but then her brain reminded her that, yes, she probably had. But not because it was a tradition, more like, well, that would show her ex-boyfriend!
She recollected herself — as much recollecting as possible after having started your day with an Irish coffee and a Guinness and two local-but-owned-by-an-international-holding-company IPAs — and puckered up her lips.
“DID VALENTINE PUT YOU UP TO THIS?”
His scream caused the same reaction to her face as a rock causes when thrown into a fish pond, each eyelid, eyebrow, pupil and lip scattering in a separate direction. She took two steps back and her tear ducts made a hostile takeover of all facial operations.
“Why is she crying?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about it.” I said. “Crying girls is to St. Patrick’s Day what fireworks is to Fourth of July.”
“That’s not how it was supposed to go,” he said, turning back to the river.
The boat was now right under us. People around us cheered and clapped and took photos, their arms stretched out as much as physically possible, their hands facing opposite the river so the ratio green water/face was just right on the photo. Sometimes the concentration it took to get the proportion perfect caused the person to look more serious than needed, so after a quick check, the performance started over and happened an average of nine more times.
Paddy was so taken by the process all around him that he didn’t notice the two kids dressed as leprechauns approaching him. The first one looked at the old man from his bald head to his sandaled feet, and after a quick shrug (sandals in Chicago in March?), he motioned a quick thumbs-up to the second kid.
By the time I noticed what they were up to, they were already pinching Paddy all over his brown robe.
“Agh! Get off of me you rats!” he screamed. With two blows of a staff that I hadn’t noticed until that point, he pushed one kid back through the crowd and tossed the other all the day to Wacker Drive.
With all eyes on him (half the people thinking holy shit what a dick, fighting with kids and the other half going holy shit that was awesome I wish I had taken video of that), Paddy found himself with an audience.
“This day is not about green clothes!” the old man yelled towards everyone and no one in particular. “It’s not about leprechauns! It’s a day to honor a man who was taken from his family as a slave, found hope through God, and through that power saved a country from snakes!”
Now, I’ve heard before that Ireland never did have any snakes, not in the 5th century and not ever. But I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of an old-man-staff-beatdown. Maybe the snakes were a metaphor. I can live with that.
“And what,” he asked the crowd, stopping for a second to close his eyes in a manner more dramatic than necessary, “what does a leprechaun have to do with that?”
“Holidays need mascots!” a male voice shouted from the back, ignoring the obvious rhetorical question. “Like the Easter bunny!”
“Or Christmas without Santa!” another voice shouted.
The two kids looked at themselves as if that was the dumbest idea they had ever heard. Christmas without Santa, come on.
The old man could have searched for the owners of those voices among the crowd but instead looked down at the ground. I could still see the anger in his eyes so I intervened.
“Hey, better a leprechaun than a cupid. The symbol for Valentine’s Day is a flying naked baby.”
“True,” he said, and I saw the man smile for the first time. “That’s one stupid mascot.”
“Settle down, old man!” a new voice shouted from the crowd. “Someone buy this man a drink.”
The crowd cheered in agreement, cheering or booing being the only two possible ways a crowd has to express itself.
“Drink? I don’t need a drink!” Paddy said, probably wrong. “Why is it that this day is all about drinking? Saint Patrick died NEARLY A THOUSAND YEARS before whisky was first distilled in the Emerald Isle!”
A few people who didn’t expect to learn anything that day tried to file that piece of information in their liquored-up brains.
“And have some respect for the culture you are celebrating today!” the old man continued, with the bravado of someone who had actually had a few. “As I walked here I saw people drinking something called an Irish Car Bomb!”
A group of young people to his left cheered. I think I saw them chest-bumping too.
“Do you know how disrespectful that is to the country of Ireland?” Paddy said, shaking his head even more dramatically than before. “Car bombs were tragedies that were, unfortunately, far too common in my country and in Northern Ireland not so long ago. They were acts of terror that left innocent people dead and fearful to walk the streets. How would you feel if the Irish dropped a shot of Malort into a glass of Coors Light and called it ‘American Mass Shooting?’ Huh?”
Half the crowd booed. Most of the other half couldn’t help but imagine the concoction and groaned. One girl pulled away from kissing a large gentleman, her face streaked with dissolved mascara mixed with plastic shamrocks and rogue strands of his red beard hair.
“Hey, I’d try that,” she whispered to herself.
“It’s not like that,” I said, trying to get the old man to calm down. “People need a break from the norm, a celebration that gets people together and an event that gives strangers something in common with one another. Did you know two of my best friends met on St. Patrick’s Day? Now they’re married! And they have a dog together!”
“Really?” Paddy smiled for only the second time, his eyes narrowing. “Wait until Valentine hears about that.”
“See?” I said, putting an arm around the old man. “Good things can come out of a day like this.”
Before Paddy could thank me, five Chicago PD officers broke through the crowd.
“Are you with this man, sir?” the policeman shouted at me but didn’t wait for an answer. “We were told you’re being a nuisance, let’s go for a ride.”
From the back of the cop car we looked up at the Loop skyscrapers whizzing above us on the way down to the police station.
“That’s not how it was supposed to go.”
“I told you so,” Paddy said.