Maybe there’s no good day to have a birthday. Maybe having your birthday fall on July 23 really sucks. I don’t know. What I know is that my birthday falls on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, and that really sucks. Or at first it’s fun, then it sucks, then it sucks more.
Allow me to start, as all birthdays do, at the very beginning: my actual birth. I came into this world some two weeks after my mom’s due date, after a protracted labor, as a large and evidently lazy boy, at 9:25pm, March 17, 1985. Another three hours and I might have been saved — but I was marked. When my Irish-Brooklyn family found out I hadn’t been named Patrick, they freaked, my maternal grandmother most of all. Since my parents had hoped to compromise by making that my middle name, our relatives kept calling me Patrick, and when my first cursed birthday came, the cake said “Patrick” on it.
Like I said, it wasn’t all bad, but even the good stuff had a way of turning sour. My parents told me that the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York was for my birthday, and I waved to everyone who marched as if to thank them; later I was crushed to learn the celebration had nothing to do with me. My mom gave me cupcakes to take into school each year, with cute little Irish toothpick flags, but the food-dyed green frosting I loved so much made other kids suspicious, and I sometimes went home with half a tray left. For a holiday dinner, our family would have the traditional corned beef, cabbage, and boiled potatoes, until I finally got the nerve up to confess I hated all that stuff. You can’t know how guilty I felt asking if we might once do spaghetti and meatballs instead.
As I got older, I began to accept that my special day would always be at least partly subsumed into the observation of St. Patrick’s Day as it manifests in the United States, which is to say a fairly debauched shitshow where alcohol consumption asserts vague ancestral ties. (In Ireland, I’ve read, it’s more family-friendly.) Like many Americans, I had a few drunk Paddy’s Days before I turned 21, and was not immune to the appeal — so I greatly looked forward to March 17, 2006, when I’d finally get to raise a glass in a pub. Picture my dismay when the bouncer at our college town’s sleaziest bar looked at my ID that night and said I wasn’t getting in. The New Jersey driver’s license I offered was in that decade one of the most easily faked, and it must have seemed a tad too convenient, not to say absurd, that it claimed I was exactly 21 years old as of the biggest drinking night of the year. It took my friends a solid 10 minutes (and I think a substantial bribe) to get me in the door. And there my troubles began in earnest.
After my cohort tricked me twice with a “prairie fire” shot — a combo of tequila and tabasco that burns for hours, if you want to ruin someone’s evening — I fast-forwarded to “waking up” to last call at a different bar, all the lights suddenly blazing. “Does this mean we can go home?” I reportedly asked the room. Later came the barfing that would cap the end of several future birthdays, including the year I had to lurch off a subway some hundred blocks before my stop to puke in a platform trash can. Do other people have treasured memories of special birthdays? All I’ve got is an archive of near-blackouts. It’s not that I don’t drink heavily on pretexts besides this relatively meaningless milestone, but the combination of St. Pat’s “one more round” peer-pressure and the birthday obligation to pals eagerly handing you free shots and beers always starts to add up.
On top of which, let me say this: I hate Guinness with my life. Guinness isn’t a drink, it’s food. It’s like sipping a pint of bread. Jameson is somewhat less objectionable, though it clearly leads to darker places (my own dad refuses to drink it due to some incident so horrible he has never been willing to describe it to me). Worst of all is the dreaded Irish Car Bomb, invented by a tortured soul who clearly sought the untroubled sleep of the grave. Chugging a mixture of Guinness, Jameson and Baileys (an aunt sends me a bottle every year; I can’t even give them away) is a crime against your body and god. But try ordering a lousy vodka-soda or, heaven forbid, a Stella on my birthday and watch the bartender wince. All I want is the very cheap gift of not being judged for this! I also, to be honest, look sickly in green — don’t shame me for dressing to my strengths.
I know that things will only get worse. Not long ago I was perfectly comfortable in the hot, sweaty, fart-scented din of a divey bar on St. Patrick’s Day; now it is a gauntlet of horrors. Lately, when March 17 rolls around, I must convince myself that going out could actually be fun, foolishly imagining quiet cocktails and conversation with witty friends. The reality is that we stuff ourselves into a crowd of strangers and can’t hear each other, and eventually the most intoxicated woman in a 50-foot radius, decked out in a green-sequined leprechaun hat and Mardis Gras-style beads, will stumble over to scream in my face that I look like James Van Der Beek. Then she’ll drag her girlfriend over to confirm this assessment. This is not exaggeration. All of this has happened.
Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I ought to quit playing victim and martyr. It wouldn’t be impossible to stay home this year, pour myself a more upscale Irish whiskey — single malt, even — and settle down with a book of Seamus Heaney poems. Or Beckett! Listen to a Chieftains record. Why not? It’s my birthday. I’m not a slave to the cultural hangover of some medieval Christian festival. Until I hear a pack of merry revelers on their way to toast and imbibe rambunctiously, and I start to think: Maybe this year will be different.