The radio was tuned to the Latin music show as we drove to see Saturday’s St. Patrick’s parade at the Irish Channel home of a former co-worker, an Italian-American woman from Philadelphia.
The show has been a staple in the WWOZ lineup just about forever, long before the post-Katrina influx of workers from Central America.
On an overcast day, the parade route on Magazine Street was a river of green. The front of the parade had a few dignitaries in cars: Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni, New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. A rather ethnically diverse bunch, these Irish Channel marchers.
New Orleans Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell was watching the parade from the street a few feet away from me, and we struck up a conversation. I told him my dad retired from the Fire Department in the late ’60s, which would have been a full decade before McConnell joined the department.
“He might have worked with my dad,” he told me.
For the longest time, working in urban police and fire departments was a family affair that spanned generations. My grandfather, who died before I was born, was a firefighter as well.
We talked about how police and fire jobs originally were considered menial positions, which is why immigrants such as the Irish and the Italians often wound up working them.
As we chatted, McConnell revealed to me that he has Italian relatives on his mother’s side. For me, you’d have to go back a few generations before you would find any diversity. Hidden in a thick forest of Italian trees you can find ancestors such as a great-great-grandfather who was born in Mexico, a great-great-grandmother who was born in London and a smattering of French, or at least French-sounding, names as well.
Some of the parade watchers recognized Evander Holyfield as he passed by in a small group. Another person was more easily identifiable, and cheers followed him along the route as the big man with a gray mane walked by. His Irish surname wasn’t what made him so popular; the people loved Rob Ryan for other reasons.
On the way home, we pulled into a store on South Broad, a Latin supermarket that opened to cater to the tastes of those immigrant laborers who stayed after the bulk of the post-Katrina work was finished (though, sadly, there still is so much left to be done). Various meats were grilling behind the hot-food counter, and the steam tables were filled with dishes that were mostly unrecognizable to me. The women worked quickly to fill up the takeout boxes of those waiting in line.
After we checked out, the young cashier, apparently spying the pair of green beads around my son’s neck, wished us a happy St. Patrick’s Day.
You’ve gotta love this town — what it has been and what it’s become.
While Ted Nugent fulminates about “subhuman mongrels,” this part of March in New Orleans shows us a better way. We celebrate the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, the Italians on St. Joseph’s Day. St. Bernard’s Isleños, descendants of people who came here from the Canary Islands, also get in on the fun. The African-American Mardi Gras Indians (a concept that would boggle our minds if we weren’t already accustomed to it) like to wear their finest on “Super Sunday,” a celebration that also is tied in with St. Joseph’s Day.
It seems just about perfect, a fulfillment of the promise of what America can be.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.