In a former life, I was an Irish shop-girl. Don’t worry, this isn’tanother one of those trendy, mystical vodka ads. Actually, I’m not adrinker, 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 anylegitimacy to reincarnation or past life regression, I had red hair, spoke in a discerniblebrogue, and was called Matilda. Supposedly, I moved down South from theMidwest 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 onceinterviewed for his accomplishment of hypnotizing the entire Frankford HighSchool football team to league victory. It was a great little local sportsstory — hypnosis as athletic motivation. And after we finished talkingfootball, he offered to show me what else he could do with hypnotism: takeme back to a former life.
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Always curious, I said yes, and he turned on the tape recorder. Ifanything is my undoing, perhaps it is my curiosity. Growing up, I seem toremember having read “THE SEARCH FOR BRIDEY MURPHY,” how an ordinary housewife had so manypersonalities she didn’t know what to do. In any case, suddenly I wasspeaking on tape in a brogue, and Frank Rocco was recording it. I certainlycan’t imagine where THAT came from — my folks wereAustrian/Russian/Dutch/Polish Jews from Brooklyn and the Bronx. I never hada flair for dialects. I wasn’t an actress. I didn’t do imitations, orimpressions. I didn’t particularly even celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It seemed a specious premise fora holiday. If Ireland had been rid of snakes, too many of them had moved toAmerica.
Though I must confess I did have an Irish boyfriend at the time, AnnsonK.He lived with his mother and brought me home to North Philadelphia with himon Sundays for hoagies. But neither of them had the slightest hint of abrogue. Actually, Annson had a large handlebar moustache and called himself”Black Irish.” Which meant, I guess, that his ancestry was enriched bySpaniards or Moors. Annson was a compelling dude. He lifted weights. Hewatched out for his mom since his TV repairman dad passed away. He drank. Hewas a gifted teller of tales. He OWNED the language. He was very smart, andhad a stray cat that answered to “Anthrax.”
This was a while back, when St. Patrick’s Day was still just a one-daycelebration involving general conviviality, high spirits, green beer, genialboisterousness that momentarily obscured the darker side of drinking, and afew 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 drinkingwhen he was just 37. You can run, but you can’t hide.
This past Saturday afternoon, my old buddy Joe Bee the sidewalkwater-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 roastedred pepper stuffed with beans and rice. We’re sitting in the café’s frontwindow, so we can’t help but notice an almost unending stream of inebriatedcollege students, dozens and dozens of them, uptight young white kids fromtheUniversity of Pennsylvania in West Philly, drunk already in broad daylight,on an afternoon pub crawl downtown, clutching plastic cups of brew as theystumbled along, wearing silly green hats and shamrocks, making the staidcity streets seem like a vest-pocket version of New Orleans.
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Looks like St. Paddy’s Day has become big biz. All the ads say, You don’thave to be Irish to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. “The university buses thekids into center city,” Joe nods. “To drink? They look like teenagers to me.Mostly minors,” I say incredulously. “Yep,” he says, “busloads of them. Iguess the school thinks it’s safer this way. Too many murders and beatingsaround campus. Look at ’em. Don’t they know they’re not supposed to drink inpublic? And it’s only March 13. Wait ’til it’s REALLY St. Patrick’s Day. Thestreets will be running with Green Beer!”
Lately, the local bars, apparently catering to these children ofover-privilege, have strrrrrretched St. Patrick’s Day into a boisterousweeklong celebration of ritual drunkenness in Philadelphia at least, I guesstaking up where Joe Camel has left off. I’m no fuddy-duddy, I tell Joe, butI don’t like it. Why can’t they stay in their own neighborhoods, instead ofdescending en masse upon mine? Whatever does Penn prexy Judith Rodin have inher mind? “Nah, they won’t make any trouble,” Joe says, “Look at those twocops over there by the bar, making sure the kids stay cool.” He motions tothe phalanx of pie-eyed kids, some of whom look VERY YOUNG. … MY taxdollars being used to pay for cops to keep drunken college students calm? Idon’t think so. “Yeah,” Joe says, “but it does get really bad later whenthey start kicking at the storefront windows.”
Erin Go Brats!
Past lives come in handy for happy endings when the present is slightlyunpleasant. So back, momentarily, to my “former life” as an Irish servant-girl. Somehow “Matilda” found herself working as a maid in the kitchen of abig, big house, where she was prone to shivering next to the wood stove andmaking 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 marriedher employer, a darkly handsome and vaguely tragic figure recalling Mr.Rochester in the novel “Jane Eyre,” had a son named Anthony, light of herlife, and became … the Lady of the Mansion.