Saturday, March 19, 2005

A Good Day to be Italian

My first memories of St. Pat's Day in Dogtown are exclusively associated with the now-defunct O'Shea's Bar, which was located next the drugstore at Tamm and Clayton. Each March 17th, Norm Journey, a card-carrying steamfitter, low-level racketeer and owner of the establishment would throw an all-day wingding featuring green beer and corned beef and cabbage. O'Shea's, unlike the current bar at the same location, was named after a real person, the late Jack O'Shea, the original owner and a Democratic ward committeeman. O'Shea opened the bar sometime before or after the repeal of Prohibition, give or take a few years, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a place where an under-aged drinker could buy a drink with no questions asked, especially on St. Pat's Day. By closing time on that day, if not before, the drunks would sprawl into the street, a few fights would break out and the cops would come and chase everybody home.

But things changed in the early 1980s, when the Ancient Order of the Hiberians got into a donnybrook with the official organizers of the downtown St. Pat's Day parade. The civic-minded citizens who promoted the festivites banned the participation of a pro-IRA float. The Hiberians reacted by pulling out the of official parade and forming their own parade in Dogtown, the closest thing St. Louis has to an Irish neighborhood.

After 20 years, the Dogtown parade has grown leaps and bounds and now rivals the downtown fete. And so it was that I found myself blocked from getting home Thursday. Streets leading into Dogtown were either closed or jammed with traffic. I realized my attempts were futile when the green-clad teenager riding in the bed of the pickup truck in front of me began screaming incoherently, prompting me to flee to the Hill, the adjacent Italian-American neighborhood.

Here the streets were empty. I went grocery shopping at Viviano's; sipped an espresso next door; and topped it off with dinner down the street. By the time I crept back home way past dark, the crowds had waned, but there were still college-aged hooligans hooting on the front porch across the street and downstairs a troupe of young Irish dancers shook the floor joists.

All and all, it was a good day to be Italian.