On March 17, 1867, a loose assemblage of the town's Irishmen marched, sang, and danced their way through their West Side neighborhood, unwittingly ushering in the beginning of Cleveland's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. Plenty of rich history has elapsed between that first parade and the one happening this week, but what's most important is to reflect upon what the tradition really means to us: The year's greatest opportunity to get drunk in public and celebrate marginal Irish heritage.
"I am Cleveland's proudest Slovenian Irishman," says downtown Councilman Joe Cimperman, a proud attendee of more than 30 parades.
Indeed, unwritten St. Patrick's Day doctrine dictates that everybody is Irish on the holiday, so compensating for your Eastern European surname with an eye-popping array of green clothing is both necessary and strongly encouraged. And there are plenty of other things you'll need to know for making your parade experience memorable for reasons other than those pesky public intoxication citations. To consider: When does the parade start? Where does it go? How do I get there? Where should I stand? How do I disguise the booze?
All pertinent questions indeed. With this guide in hand, you'll likely survive the march down Superior Avenue. Just don't let it slip away in the swell of Guinness and Jameson.
Last year's parade saw a record 13,500 marchers in 213 units, along with an estimated 400,000 observers. Thursday's edition, stepping off at 1:04 p.m from the intersection of Superior Avenue and East 18th Street, could be even bigger. Thus, some strategy is required.
For instance, it pays to know the route. From the starting block, the parade will travel southwest on Superior Avenue to East Roadway; northwest on East Roadway for one block; and then northeast on some other street you don't know by name. It will end some 2.5 hours later at the intersection of Rockwell Avenue and East Sixth, whereas you will have ended one hour before that on a bathroom floor near East Fourth.
With all that ground to cover, there's plenty of public sidewalk space along the way, including the south end of the Mall, the eastern edges of Public Square, and the steps surrounding the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Most years, we find the crowds are heaviest near Public Square and thin out toward the eastern end of the route. Then again, when you pack hundreds of thousands of inebriated celebrants (celebriants?) into 25 blocks, great sight lines are as likely as shamrocks sprouting from your arse.
Of course, you still have 24 hours to develop friendships with folks who work on the proper side of an upper floor of the Terminal Tower, Key Tower, or the former BP building. The library also offers views — and bathrooms! — but be sure to mind your manners.
No matter where you decide to perch, get to your desired vantage point early, says Martin Flask, Cleveland's director of public safety and a wellspring of advice for parade-going. Arriving before the crowd ensures you a prime spot.
"Early" is difficult to quantify, but here's a way to ballpark it: St. Patrick's Day is, in its purest form, a religious holiday. Plenty of parade-goers will kick off their day by attending Mass. St. John's Cathedral on East Ninth Street, just a skip away from the parade route, will hold Mass at 10 a.m., meaning a swell of well-churched partiers will start streaming onto the sidewalks around 11. Unless you're attending Mass yourself, that's an easily-beatable crowd.
So, getting there: There are a handful of options to weigh, but we'd like to recommend public transportation. Not the most glamorous, but likely the safest and most dependable. All lines on the Rapid Transit include a stop at Public Square, and a good handful of stations throughout the city offer free parking. You can find more detailed information at riderta.com
If you're thinking about driving, think harder. It's an option, but pitfalls abound. First and foremost, it leaves only a few green beers' worth of wiggle room between you and party plates. And you'll need to find a safe spot to leave your car. "Parking is at a premium on a work day," Flask adds. Downtown's offices will still be filled with pencil-pushing squares despite the festivities, so you might have trouble finding a parking spot near the action.
But that doesn't mean your legs don't work. Consider parking in either Ohio City or Tremont, which won't be full up with the vehicles of downtown's worker bees. Plus, the walk to and from Superior makes for a needed bit o' exercise to counteract the beer calories.
Or take a taxi. Yellow Cab, Ace, ABC, and others offer service around Cleveland. Memorize the name of one of them before the parade. Just in case.
No Cleveland meteorological rule holds stronger than this one: There are no rules. Rain, snow, sleet, high winds, or even sunny skies are all possibilities, and all on the same day. Dress in layers, and bring an umbrella — it's just as valuable as a walking stick once the day wears on.
As for the main event — getting drunk on the sidewalk with thousands of your fellow Clevelanders — and the dangers involved: Even the tiniest bit of common sense goes a long way. Yes, the cops know you're drinking. So long as you're not making their job more difficult, they probably don't care.
"It's an officer-discretion issue," says Flask. "It depends on the circumstance, it depends on the officer."
So keep things discreet. Flasks are a timeless and sophisticated means of camouflaging liquor. Your favorite travel mug can hold whiskey just as well as coffee. Bring a small cooler of beer and an opaque cup. Options are only as limited as your imagination. And don't litter your empties.
"People recognize the day for what it is," says Councilman Cimperman. "Cleveland Police are phenomenal in their ability to protect the people from themselves."
After so much alcohol, you're going to have to pee. This will suck. There can only be so many portable toilets, and there won't be enough of them. Peeing somewhere on the street is one of the worst ideas you'll have all day. (Remember that bit about common sense?)
So be prepared to hold it. Hold it until you find an empty porta potty; hold it until you get to your post-parade party spot; hold it until you get home. By then, after all, you'll have successfully conquered the 2011 St. Patrick's Day Parade, and can start planning for next year.
Till then, sláinte!
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