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Face down in the Garden of Good & Evil
In praise, and warning, of the Savannah St. Patrick's Day Parade
Every so often, the fates align just right and St. Patrick’s Day lines up perfectly with the opening days of the NCAA tournament. This is pure drunk-sports joy, ratcheting up what’s already one of the best days of the year to another level with copious pours of Guinness, Jameson or whatever green-tinted garbage American brew is handy. Hell, it’s been decades and I’m still shaking off the effects of a 1990s pub crawl down Memphis’s Madison Avenue. We spent an entire afternoon and evening clutching our beer-and-sauce-stained brackets — this was pre-smart phones, of course — checking in on games and avoiding the occasional street fight or romantic hookup/breakup as we trundled from bar to bar.
We thought we were wild. We had no idea what was happening a few hundred miles to the east in Savannah, Georgia.
Many years ago — nobody’s quite certain when, but everybody’s quite certain they’re right — the Hibernian Society of Savannah, an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of Irish immigrants, decided to celebrate the joy and breadth of the rich culture of Ireland with a feast. Like all good feasts, they decided they needed to walk it off. Hence, a parade. It was a lovely idea, and it’s since grown into one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country, the kind of thing you look forward to half the year and try to remember (or forget) for the other half.
Naturally, over the centuries of its existence the parade has both devolved into a drunken free-for-all and been recast as a genteel kelly-green postcard, dyed fountains (see above), shamrocks and rainbows and pots o’ gold and all that tourist-friendly junk. Bring your culture to America, fellow citizens of the world, and within two generations we’ll turn it into a family-friendly cartoon!
The entire legacy of Savannah as a land, then a city, then a state of mind is way too complex to unfurl here. I’ll simply say that if you haven’t been there, wandered its streets and squares, and watched the breeze off the water ripple the Spanish moss in the trees, well, you need to rectify that soon. You’ll be reminded soon enough that you don’t really belong in Savannah, but that’s OK, you wouldn’t even if your great-grandparents had been born there. (Read “Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil” as an outsider-friendly starting point for this particular thread; for the love of heaven, don’t watch the movie.)
Here’s your official parade map from this year; you will note that there is a significant and substantial absence of large streets:
For many years, the city of Savannah basically treated its entire historic district as a free-fire zone, with laws of God and Man suspended for the day. The pandemic offered an opportunity for a civic reset, though, and now the city has decreed that in order to preserve the parade’s “family-friendly” atmosphere, there’s not as much officially-sanctioned alcohol available. In theory, it’s a wonderful idea. In practice, it means that the 100,000 or so people who pour into the city have to get their drink on well before the parade’s 10:15 a.m. start.
As anyone who’s suffered through “Forrest Gump” knows, Savannah is made up of a series of squares, idyllic mini-parks with fountains and benches and such — 22 in all. They’re much-loved and highly romantic locations, and they’re also the best spot to watch the parade unfold. Accordingly, the Running of the Squares begins in the predawn hours; parade-goers rush to set up their tents starting at 6 a.m. while they still have the manual dexterity to hoist them:
Parade day begins with an 8 a.m. mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, just to get in one last good word with the Almighty, and then it’s on.
Parade organizing committee members, and especially Grand Marshals are figures of high respect in Savannah; this year’s Grand Marshal has been on the committee for 40 years, he’s the son and grandson of two parade committee members, and his son is now on the committee too. In other words: if your 19th-century ancestors weren’t already members of Savannah high society, you don’t have a chance. The Grand Marshal leads the parade, and very often, it looks wonderful and genteel, like this …
… before devolving midday into a crowd like this …
… and finally wrapping up with something like this:
I’m fairly sure those are grocery carts full of Girl Scout Cookies, since a. the Girl Scouts started in Savannah, and b. enterprising Girl Scouts can make some bank off both well-lubricated parade viewers and exhausted parents alike. If I’m those Girl Scouts and their mothers, I’m emptying those carts and using them as impromptu Ubers for people too, uh, tired to walk. Hundred bucks a push, you could fund your troop’s annual budget in a day.
Savannah has organized the parade into a sleek machine, right down to a publication of the fines you can expect if you enjoy yourself a little too much:
One drink on-street limit - $121
Size limited 16 ounces - $150
Drinking from can, bottle or glass - $150
Drinking alcohol in parked motor vehicle - $150
Unlawful for minor to drink/possess alcohol - $250
Disorderly conduct by: urinating in public - $200
Disorderly conduct by: fighting, indecency, etc. - $500
Some see those numbers as punitive. I view it as a budget. Two giant drinks, a fight and a pee in the bushes will set me back $1,000, so now I can plan accordingly!
So what’s the parade like on the ground? Here’s a recap of yesterday’s events from an unlikely source, Designated Irish Brawler Conor McGregor:
Here’s another, more literary view of the festivities via the Bitter Southerner. (That includes a first-person recounting of the Running of the Squares; it’s highly recommended.)
This year’s parade was the 199th, which means you probably ought to start camping out in the squares for next year’s right now. Save me a spot, willya?
Song of the Week: “Coal Black Mattie,” The Black Keys
Back in 2021, the Black Keys recorded — in the space of about 10 hours — and then released an album of Mississippi hill country blues covers called “Delta Kream.” It absolutely smokes. Every song starts like someone falling out of bed, finding their feet, and then stomping with religious fervor. This particular tune, a version of an old classic covered by RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, among many others, is a perfect representation of the album as a whole — seething bass, greasy rhythm guitar, frenetic lead, skittering drums, all resonating in an ecstatic cacophony. Dig it.
Reads of the Week
“On the court, Alabama didn’t miss a beat.” For the day job, I went to Birmingham Thursday to cover the Alabama Crimson Tide, the phenomenally talented basketball team which just happens to have at least two current players who were present at the scene of a murder in January. You’d think something like that would dent a program, but as evidenced by their No. 1 seed in your NCAA bracket … nope.
“All Hail Cocaine Bear,” Garden & Gun: The fine folks over at Garden & Gun are giving me space to write about Southern weirdness there every so often too, and this week I penned an ode to Cocaine Bear, Southern cinema’s latest heroine. This was probably the first time the phrase “ropy entrails” has ever been used in that esteemed publication. Give it a read.
That’ll do it for this week, friends. Nurse those St. Patty’s hangovers and protect those brackets, and we’ll see you back here next week…
(All photos via Creative Commons)
This is issue #97 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, jump right to our most-read stories, or check out some of our recent hits:
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When you just gotta have a Popeye’s biscuit right now
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