through the hazy afternoon down to the financial district and Hanover Square – almost at the very bottom of the island – where the streets are narrow and cobblestoned, and the buildings careen above, leaving you walking through windy concrete canyons …
It is impossible to be down there and not remember. Especially after dark because the entire area clears out, not being a residential neighborhood. The streets are empty, and with the cobblestones there are certain blocks where it is impossible to tell which century you are in. It’s lovely, but also sad.
There’s a huge bar down there called Ulysses which was celebrating its one year anniversary yesterday. They opened on Bloomsday last year – and I was there. (Duh.)
My good friend Aedin, an Irish actress, had been hired by the bar (with a couple other incredible performers and writers and singers) to run the Bloomsday readings, to keep things going.
Aedin and I were in a new Irish play last year, which is how we became friends. She’s Irish, and I had actually seen her before we met – in, oddly enough, the film Ewan McGregor produced and starred in about James Joyce, called “Nora”.
Needless to say, I own that movie.
First of all: EWAN MCGREGOR. Egads.
Second of all: Ewan McGregor as JAMES JOYCE??? That I should be so lucky having such an event occur in my lifetime…
Aedin played Eva Joyce, James’ sister – who ends up coming to stay with James and Nora (played by the miraculous Irish actress Susan Lynch) in Trieste. At first, Eva just comes to help out with Giorgio and Lucia, the two Joyce babies, but it becomes apparent that Eva has actually come to spy on them, and send home alarming reports to the family in Dublin. Eva is HIGHLY disapproving of James and Nora’s un-married state, their non-church-going lifestyle, their general squalor. And there is my friend Aedin, sitting at the kitchen table, in a big wide-brimmed church hat, reading her Bible ostentatiously AT Ewan McGregor … who is still in his long-johns, drinking tea, hair scruffy, etc. Completely disreputable and bohemian. Aedin’s face is stiff, disapproving, silently condemning. So funny.
Anyway. The day of the first rehearsal of the play, I suddenly remembered who she was. And of course, I grilled her for information about Ewan. “What’s he like?? Was his wife there? Is he fun? What was he like to work with? Is he as hot as he seems?”
Aedin answered, in her rough-and-tumble Dublin brogue, “Oh Jaysis, he’s feckin’ sexy, isn’t he?”
Through the tormented run of that show (there were many issues), she and I became fast friends. We played Irish sisters. She was the loony-tunes sister – in a state of arrested development, I was the bitter single sister trying to get away from the family … etc.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Usually strong close friendships develop during difficult shows, shows with problems, with tension, with people quitting, walking out, with bad reviews, etc.
The play itself was wonderful – but everything else was a swirling pit of hell – and through that, Aedin and I got real close real fast.
Ulysses, the downtown pub, is huge – cavernous – dark – with exposed brick – candles – a couple separate rooms – and in the summer, they have picnic tables out on the cobblestone alley, and waitresses circulating. You sit outside, in the middle of a concrete canyon, and have a drink. You are a block away from the East River. It’s a beautiful spot.
Happy Hour is INSANE at this pub. I talked with Danny, the owner – I know him from two other venues he also owns: Puck Fair and Swifts, both of them awesome Irish pubs. Danny was trying to organize when he would segue out of the Bloomsday readings, because Happy Hour was about to begin and everything goes insane.
He said, “Well, at 4:20 they’ll all be here…”
4:20, huh? That’s very specific.
Because it was Bloomsday, Ulysses had an open bar from 4:30 to 6:30 – which … well. I just love it that the bar is in Wall Street, and every single person at that happy hour is making shitloads of money, they’re the wealthy elite of this damn country, and there they are, jammed up at the bar to get a free Guinness. Heh heh. Everyone loves to get stuff for free. I won’t begrudge them.
I got down there at around 3.
The Bloomsday celebration was being held outside. A trio of Irish musicians were playing, and the picnic tables were filled with hard-core Joyce fans. Everyone had their book of Ulysses. They had been there all day.
Aedin had been reading, sporadically throughout the day, from the Molly Bloom section at the end …
It was a lot of fun, because everybody talks back. It’s not a precious thing, a “Oooh, quiet down” thing. It’s an Irish celebration, after all.
So Aedin read the whole section about how great it would be if women ruled the world, because this and this and this would follow … and then Molly starts ruminating about Leopold (her husband) – how he goes to whores, and she’s afraid he might have passed on an STD to her … etc.
One guy next to me called out, in a thick brogue, “He’s been a naughty boy!”
Aedin called back, “He has indeed…”
She would respond to all of it – it was great fun. Raucous, bawdy, comedic – just like Joyce meant it all to be taken.
I met Colum McCann – an Irish writer whose latest book (Dancer: A Novel - about Nuryev) has been garnering great praise. I have heard a lot about him, and recognized him immediately. Aedin and he were co-conspirators of Bloomsday. They picked the readings, they were ring-leaders …
I loved it – because I was with people who knew and loved the book as I did.
There was no need to apologize, to feel the need to defend the book, to have to answer any criticism about it whatsoever … It was a group of fans. A love-fest. And also – there wasn’t a soul there who hadn’t read the thing. People had certain favorite sections and would call it out as a request:
“Do the list of names then!!” (The 2 page list of names in the Cyclops section … great rollicking fun … Last year a woman read them out, and somehow she made the list of Irish names sound like HIGH comedy – they went on and on and on …)
That kind of thing. “How about the song from Night Town?”
Shorthand. No explanation, no justification … we’re there because we’re geeks, and we love Joyce, and we are happy and proud of it. Like a Star Trek convention or something, or the geeks who dressed up as Gandalf for movie premieres. It is a COMFORT to be with people who are also obsessed and who do not think you are insane.
Colum came running over to Aedin and murmured, “Do the Gibraltar section of the monologue…”
Aedin flipped through, trying to find the page … I prompted her, “It’s right after the part where she talks about her underwear…”
“Ah yes, thank you…”
Colum hired Aedin and myself to come back next year and to do the entire Molly Bloom monologue in tag-team fashion. Starting at around 11 in the morning – it’ll take us about 3 hours to do it. Ha!!
There were lots of performers though. Great Irish singers – they would come up and sing stuff a capella – One guy led us all in a rousing rendition of the Night Town song. All of the voices around me, singing in unison, banging on the table at certain points, clapping. These people are my own kind.
Aedin sang a couple of songs, too. Traditional Irish songs, known by the entire crowd. Singing along … There were some people in the group who were wearing eye patches, as a tribute to Joyce’s blindness – I was singing along with everyone – and I would look around – at the eye patches, the cobblestone alley, all of the Ulysses copies scattered about, and the random Wall Street folks trying to stop by the bar for a nice drink, and coming upon this scene … Like: What the hell is going on down here? Is it a convention for … uh … people with only one eye or something?
Afterwards, all of the performers gathered at a couple of picnic tables – and normal Happy Hour commenced. By that I mean – a non-Bloomsday thing. But for the Joyce freaks, Bloomsday was far from over. We piled all over these two picnic tables, and a sing-along began. We sang together as a group for … uh … no lie, an hour?? I have no idea who these people are, but I love them all. When I left later that night, we all embraced as though we were the dearest friends.
I hugged Colum McCann like he was my long-lost brother. He felt like my dear friend now, merely because he and I bonded about our love for the musical “Oliver”.
We sang Irish songs, yes. And of course, all Irish songs have about 12 or 13 verses. I would only know the first two, but the Irish crazies around me (I was the only American) knew every goddamn verse … It was hysterical. The songs that never ended.
And then – somehow – someone started us on singing songs from “Oliver” – which – well, I won’t go TOO into it – but which was one of the biggest influences on me as a kid. I know every stinking word. Every orchestration. Every voice, every nuance. Engrained in my brain since the age of 9.
Clearly, these people had had similar childhood experiences.
We sang “Where is Love” of all things.
I began it, rousingly, and one scruffy Irish dude, a great singer, with Elvis Costello glasses, held out his hand to me for a high-five.
A high-five for “Where is Love”.
I LOVE GEEKS.
Scruffy Elvis Costello dude took on the role of conductor, too – making us all sing quieter at certain points … and then making us surge up in volume at the very end … and we all obeyed his commands. Freakin’ hysterical.
We sang “Consider Yourself”.
We sang “Who Will Buy.”
“Who will buy this wonderful morning
Such a sky you never did see
Who will tie it up with a ribbon
And put it in a box for me …”
I took on the role of the soprano strawberry-seller. “Riiiiipe, strawberries, riiiipe … riiipe strawberries riiiiiipe…”
We could not stop. I was introduced to almost NONE of these people. But they were my dear friends.
I’m not exaggerating when I say we sang the entire score of Oliver. Even the lesser songs like “So Long Fare Thee Well” and my personal favorite: “It’s a Fine Life.”
“Small pleasures, small treasures
Who would deny us these?
Gin toddies, large measures
No skimpin’ if you please
I rough it, I love it
Life is a game of chance
I never tire of it
Lead in a merry dance…
If you don’t mind havin’ to go without things
It’s a fine life (It’s a fine life)
Though it aint all jolly or pleasure run-ins
It’s a fine life (It’s a fine life)
When you’ve got someone to love
You forget your care and strife
Let the prudes look down on us, let the wide world frown on us
It’s a fine, FINE life”
It could have been the anthem for the Bloomsday revelers!
We sang “Oom-Pah-Pah” and one of the Irish women got up on the table, and did a little naughty dance … just like Nancy does in the movie.
We cheered her like lusty chimps.
We were surrounded by the Wall Street Happy Hour crowd – and beautifully, some of the suits knew some of the songs, too – and joined in. I saw one gentleman, in a conservative grey suit, Ray-Banz, holding a glass of beer, singing lustily:
“WHO WILL BUY THIS WONDERFUL MORNING??”
I love people.
It was a total BLAST.