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In a former life, I was an Irish shop-girl. Don’t worry, this isn’t
another one of those trendy, mystical vodka ads. Actually, I’m not a
drinker, haven’t been one for 10 years now, ever since drinking gave me up.
But if you’re among the sizeable number of Americans who ascribe any
legitimacy to reincarnation or past life regression,
I had red hair, spoke in a discernible
brogue, and was called Matilda. Supposedly, I moved down South from the
Midwest around the time of the Civil War, seeking more interesting work.
How I “know” this, is Frank Rocco told me so. He was someone I once
interviewed for his accomplishment of hypnotizing the entire Frankford High
School football team to league victory. It was a great little local sports
story — hypnosis as athletic motivation. And after we finished talking
football, he offered to show me what else he could do with hypnotism: take
me back to a former life.
Always curious, I said yes, and he turned on the tape recorder. If
anything is my undoing, perhaps it is my curiosity. Growing up, I seem to
remember having read “THE SEARCH FOR BRIDEY MURPHY,”
how an ordinary housewife had so many
personalities she didn’t know what to do. In any case, suddenly I was
speaking on tape in a brogue, and Frank Rocco was recording it. I certainly
can’t imagine where THAT came from — my folks were
Austrian/Russian/Dutch/Polish Jews from Brooklyn and the Bronx. I never had
a flair for dialects. I wasn’t an actress. I didn’t do imitations, or
impressions. I didn’t particularly even celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
It seemed a specious premise for
a holiday. If Ireland had been rid of snakes, too many of them had moved to
Though I must confess I did have an Irish boyfriend at the time, Annson
He lived with his mother and brought me home to North Philadelphia with him
on Sundays for hoagies. But neither of them had the slightest hint of a
brogue. Actually, Annson had a large handlebar moustache and called himself
“Black Irish.” Which meant, I guess, that his ancestry was enriched by
Spaniards or Moors. Annson was a compelling dude. He lifted weights. He
watched out for his mom since his TV repairman dad passed away. He drank. He
was a gifted teller of tales. He OWNED the language. He was very smart, and
had a stray cat that answered to “Anthrax.”
This was a while back, when St. Patrick’s Day was still just a one-day
celebration involving general conviviality, high spirits, green beer, genial
boisterousness that momentarily obscured the darker side of drinking, and a
few Stupid Human Tricks thrown in for good measure. It was Annson’s holiday,
not mine, and so I never really joined him in his sodden festivities.
Finally it caught up to him, a fatal car crash after two days solid drinking
when he was just 37. You can run, but you can’t hide.
This past Saturday afternoon, my old buddy Joe Bee the sidewalk
water-color painter and I were having an impromptu lunch at a local café.
Me, the pesto pizza and side salad with balsamic dressing. Him, the roasted
red pepper stuffed with beans and rice. We’re sitting in the café’s front
window, so we can’t help but notice an almost unending stream of inebriated
college students, dozens and dozens of them, uptight young white kids from
University of Pennsylvania in West Philly, drunk already in broad daylight,
on an afternoon pub crawl downtown, clutching plastic cups of brew as they
stumbled along, wearing silly green hats and shamrocks, making the staid
city streets seem like a vest-pocket version of New Orleans.
Looks like St. Paddy’s Day has become big biz. All the ads say, You don’t
have to be Irish to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. “The university buses the
kids into center city,” Joe nods. “To drink? They look like teenagers to me.
Mostly minors,” I say incredulously. “Yep,” he says, “busloads of them. I
guess the school thinks it’s safer this way. Too many murders and beatings
around campus. Look at ’em. Don’t they know they’re not supposed to drink in
public? And it’s only March 13. Wait ’til it’s REALLY St. Patrick’s Day. The
streets will be running with Green Beer!”
Lately, the local bars, apparently catering to these children of
over-privilege, have strrrrrretched St. Patrick’s Day into a boisterous
weeklong celebration of ritual drunkenness in Philadelphia at least, I guess
taking up where Joe Camel has left off. I’m no fuddy-duddy, I tell Joe, but
I don’t like it. Why can’t they stay in their own neighborhoods, instead of
descending en masse upon mine? Whatever does Penn prexy Judith Rodin have in
her mind? “Nah, they won’t make any trouble,” Joe says, “Look at those two
cops over there by the bar, making sure the kids stay cool.” He motions to
the phalanx of pie-eyed kids, some of whom look VERY YOUNG. … MY tax
dollars being used to pay for cops to keep drunken college students calm? I
don’t think so. “Yeah,” Joe says, “but it does get really bad later when
they start kicking at the storefront windows.”
Erin Go Brats!
Past lives come in handy for happy endings when the present is slightly
unpleasant. So back, momentarily, to my “former life” as an Irish servant-
girl. Somehow “Matilda” found herself working as a maid in the kitchen of a
big, big house, where she was prone to shivering next to the wood stove and
making impassioned, dramatic declarations in her thick Irish brogue like
“There I was … a lady … but I was not the lady of the mansion.”
Eventually, despite complaining how he initially “mocked” her, she married
her employer, a darkly handsome and vaguely tragic figure recalling Mr.
Rochester in the novel “Jane Eyre,” had a son named Anthony, light of her
life, and became … the Lady of the Mansion.