Dread and fear should not be confused / By dread I'm inspired, by fear I'm amused
—Will Oldham, "Another Day Full of Dread"
I consider myself lucky to have had once nice St. Patrick's Day in Chicago—my first, 10 years ago. A friend, now my wife, took me to Beverly for a gathering of family friends. She grew up in the neighborhood, and though she's only part Irish, she grew up among McDonnells and O'Keefes and McCanns. Coming from a place where there's very little white ethnic identity—my family hasn't left the Virginia-Kentucky-North Carolina region in the couple hundred years since my Hessian ancestors were tricked into fighting for the British in the Revolutionary War—it was a wonderful introduction to Chicago culture. Corned beef and potato liquor were served, and the matron of the family sang folk songs.
A couple days later, I accompanied another friend to the Amtrak station and stopped to see the greening of the river. And then I high-tailed it back to Hyde Park before the revelers had gotten more than a couple drinks into the day, which is to say around noon. Being a neighborhood of professors and transient college students, it's safe from the holiday.
Fast forward a few years of living in Hyde Park and Oak Park, safely distant from the green-shirted and green-faced masses, and I'm in West Town, not quite within hurling distance of the North Side bar scene. The day after St. Patrick's, it's nine in the morning, and I'm waiting for a bus at Grand and Ashland as a woman furiously stumbles around in high heels, trying to hail a cab, still wearing a shamrock necklace from much earlier that morning.
Most of my friends and acquaintances celebrate St. Patrick's Day by avoiding everything from downtown to Wicker Park, particularly the inebriated corridor from the lake between Chicago and North, all the way west to… well, if you're going to be safe, probably Western. This year was the first year I was unable to do so, having social engagements at State and Randolph and Milwaukee and Wood. I expected the worst from the novelty-shirt hellscape, and got it. Aside from the usual—two women trying to keep their male companion from drunkenly stumbling into traffic on Milwaukee at 4:30 in the afternoon, a man trying to high-five passers-by on State as his friends filmed him with an iPhone—two thirty-something dudes on their Damen Avenue stoop loudly harrassed my wife as we walked by. She's a domestic-violence attorney with a professionally long fuse, and seemed content to wait for them to show up in her courtroom. I had to restrain myself from causing a scene.
Interested in what other people were going through as they tried to make their way through Chicago without incident, I checked Twitter occasionally for dispatches from the maelstrom. Dmitry Samarov, one of the city's finest diarists, had a cab-driver's view:
Driving my first fare of the day, a sweating man crosses our path on Ashland Avenue. His eyes are glassy, unseeing, as he stumbles past. Four or five necklaces of green plastic beads cover his wrongly-buttoned shirt and his fly’s all the way down. It’s only 2:39pm.
A girl on Fullerton hurls so hard she loses her shoe and bangs her head into the side of a parked car.
Remarkably, he got through the night without having to clean vomit out of his cab.
More notes from the field:
* "7:04am, Woman in shorts & a green blazer w/ a guy, thought it was a walk-of-shame…she was teetering, it's their night ending"
* "Not sure how much beer Murray licked up before I realized college kids were throwing Bud Light cans on our patio last night. #drunkpuppy"
* It's 6pm and I just witnessed a girl crying say, "I just want to go home… How did I get here?" #StPaddy
* "I live in the Viagra Triangle and haven't left my home all day."
St. Patrick's Day, at least throughout a broad swath of the city, has the same relationship to "fun" that bungee jumping has to recreational sports. It's less about camaraderie than the experience of voluntarily giving up all control, simulating the fall into a dark place, the only safety net being the equality of agreed-upon stupor, the assumption (or hope) that cops, bouncers, cabbies, and friends are prepared for what's coming. Kids jump from rooftops or take their hands off the handlebars as they careen down a hill; the post-adolescents in the Viagra Triangle drink themselves cross-eyed and helpless.
When confronted with the inevitable crossover between adolescent American culture and malevolent binge drinking, I usually think of David Foster Wallace's essay "Laughing With Kafka":
You think it's a coincidence that it's in college that most Americans do their most serious falling-down drinking and drugging and reckless driving and rampant fucking and mindless general Dionysian-type reveling? It's not. They're adolescents, and they're terrified, and they're dealing with their terror in a distinctively American way. Those naked boys hanging upside down out of their frat-house's windows on Friday night are simply trying to get a few hours' escape from the stuff that any decent college has forced them to think about all week.
My travels through the city this weekend were as compelling as those I took a decade ago. Only this time it was less about culture than scouring it away.
Photograph: bardsmith (CC by 2.0)