A ‘green’ group’s St. Patrick’s Day surprise

St. Patrick’s Day was never my favorite day. When I was in elementary school, there was a tradition that if you didn’t wear green that day, it was open season on being pinched. I didn’t own any green clothing, so I was always a target.

I remember scanning my scant wardrobe for any article of clothing, perhaps a plaid fabric, that might have a hint ‘o’ the green. I never found anything that would dissuade the pinchers. My parents were northern Indiana transplants, so we weren’t Notre Dame fans. My mom, who grew up in New York, had a bit of an anti-Irish bent. The pinching tradition turned me off the holiday for years. 

During college, when I became a basketball fan and my Indiana Hoosiers were a perennial national power (ancient history!), my opinion of St. Patrick’s Day softened. One week of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament always coincided with St. Patrick’s Day, so I often found myself in drinking establishments surrounded by revelers festooned in green. In one particular incident that is burned in my memory, I was seated at a sports bar table with some guy I didn’t know who was brandishing a bottle of green food coloring. He had taken it upon himself to color everyone’s beer green. I was wearing a new pair of white Nike tennis shoes. When I woke up the next day, my shoes were spattered with green spots. Go Irish!

There was also a year when my employer sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day party. I somehow ended up with the half-full “pony keg” of green beer in my apartment. A friend and I did our best to empty it. Not to be too descriptive, but there was plenty of “green” for days after.

But nothing I had experienced on any St. Patrick’s Day prepared me for the celebration I experienced in Chicago five years ago. Ironically, it was with a church youth group.

Our group managed to smile despite adversity in our trip to a festive Chicago.

The pastor at my church had been in the ministry for forty years. He sometimes led the confirmation class for young people contemplating becoming members of our congregation. A part of the class was a trip to The Art Institute of Chicago where he would lead a tour focused on religious art. He looked at his calendar, and picked a Saturday that fit in his schedule: March 17, 2018. What does a Methodist pastor know of St. Patrick’s Day festivities?

When somebody pointed out to the pastor that his selected day fell on St. Patrick’s Day, he thought his choice was fortuitous. After all, with everybody celebrating in the streets of downtown Chicago, our group would have the Art Institute to itself. While that turned out to be true, the getting there and getting out did not go smoothly.

Chicago hosts one of the country’s largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Some estimates state more than two million people descend on downtown for the parade and the party that ensues. When our group drove into the city from the south, we realized that the entire center of town had been blocked off to traffic. We parked at Navy Pier, leaving us a walk of more than two miles to the art museum. A walk like that on a normal day would take around 45 minutes. On this day, it took us two and a half hours. 

As our group of four adults and five youths worked our way west to Michigan Avenue it became apparent that we were in for some delays. The crowds, clad in green, packed the sidewalks and parts of some streets. When we made it to the Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River, the clog of people came almost to a standstill.

Part of the reason for the jam was the traffic lights were not adjusted for the amount of pedestrian traffic, so each turn of the light let only a few people through at a time. The other big reason for the delay was that it seemed like everyone was snapping selfies of themselves on the bridge above the green-dyed Chicago River. In all, it took us forty minutes just to cross the bridge. 

Everyone stops on the bridge to photograph the green Chicago River, blocking pedestrian traffic.

When we finally got to the south side of the river, the crowd became more densely packed. Our group decided to find a place to eat and wait out the end of the parade. Of course all the street-level restaurants were packed. We ended up dining in the basement cafeteria of one of the downtown department stores. It was the calm before the storm.

By the time we emerged from the basement, the parade had concluded. Michigan Avenue was mostly closed to car traffic, although somehow a few cars had snuck onto the streets. People were still milling about, but they seemed to be enjoying walking in the middle of a normally busy, big city street.

We paused on the outdoor walkway of the Art Institute for a couple of pictures and then entered the mostly empty and quiet museum. I don’t remember how long we were in the Art Institute, but during the time we were there, downtown Chicago morphed from a city of happy parade attendees into the Windy City version of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

The crowds were packed into every open space available, plastic cups of their favorite beverages clutched in their hands as the pungent smell of marijuana wafted everywhere. Fistfights broke out and police hustled to the latest outbreak of violence. Our little group, with the kids wide-eyed, got separated at one point. I don’t know how we eventually found each other. I can admit it now, I was scared.

Thankfully, the walk back to Navy Pier was faster than the walk into downtown. The confirmands went to Chicago to get an art education. Instead they got a real-world lesson in debauchery. My pastor, now retired, called it the most embarrassing event in his ministerial career.  

I try to look on the bright side. At least I didn’t get pinched.