Fifty years ago this March, four Montaukers, only one of whom was Irish, walked down Main Street in full regalia on a bitter cold day to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. One carried an Irish flag. One wore a top hat, a green sash and carried a wooden staff. Another beat on a drum. And that was it. There was no crowd. No anything. Even the town newspaper, the Montauk Pioneer, which I was running at that time, knew nothing about it. The paper wasn’t even publishing in the wintertime.
From that day to this, the parade has occurred on the Sunday nearest St. Patrick’s Day in Montauk. It has grown considerably—it has sometimes been nearly an hour and a half to get all the floats to pass a particular point—jets have flown overhead and sometimes as many as 40,000 people have crowded the town to celebrate, a welcome jolt to the economy of the community. They buy postcards, souvenirs, shirts; they eat at restaurants and drink. Everyone loves the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Montauk and not only has it become a beloved tradition, it is now the second-largest parade of its kind in the State of New York. You know the largest.
In recent years, the Long Island Rail Road has gotten into the act. They normally have four trains a day that come out from New York to Montauk, even at that time of year. Two of them are early enough to get out there in time for the kick-off of the parade marchers down by the railroad station. (One leaves New York at 12:38 a.m. Ugh.) On parade day, they add cars to these regular trains, but in addition, beginning just 10 years ago, they also added a morning train—it leaves Jamaica at 8:43 a.m.—which they call the Parade Train. On board are a thousand or more happy people headed straight out here. The train brings them back to the city late in the day.
Last week, the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, the Montauk Friends of Erin committee and a whole lot of concerned citizens and officials met with people from the railroad in a conference room at Gurney’s Inn on the Old Montauk Highway to consider asking the railroad NOT to send out the Parade Train on March 12, the date of the 2012 parade. Indeed, the Friends of Erin in particular feel so strongly that the Parade Train should be cancelled that they say if it is not they will move the parade start time to three hours earlier, from 1 p.m. to 10 a.m., so people will have to get up earlier to get out here for the kick-off. If the Parade Train departure time remains the same, the revelers will get out here after the parade is over. (Won’t THAT be fun!) And if the Parade Train departure time is moved earlier three hours, they say those who drink will be so hung over from the revelries of the day before from parades elsewhere, they will sleep through the 5:43 a.m. Parade Train departure time, while more upstanding citizens, families for example, will get up to use it. It will, for them and their kids, be a pre-dawn adventure. Maybe so.
The issue has to do with changes in the caliber of the people who attend the parade over the years. The parade has always been a family affair. Montauk has always been a family resort, with people coming out here on vacation to stay at the motels. And there have always been revelers who sometimes have too much to drink. But usually it’s just a few.
But in the last few years, things have taken a nastier turn. Perhaps it’s the depressed economy. Perhaps it’s just Twitter and Facebook and all the rest. But the word gets out and it’s party time for the under-20s on Long Island for that Sunday in Montauk. What a goof. What a day to blow it out.
There are not 40,000 teenagers coming to the parade. There may be just those on the party train, or those who come driving out with alcohol in the car—a dangerous business unless you have a designated driver. But the result of it is an increase in the who-cares-for-the-town attitude, lots of drinking and the particular inaccurate belief that Montauk is another world (which it is) and that underage drinking rules no longer apply (which is not the case even in the Kingdom of Montauk). They try to get into the bars. In recent years, security at the bars—there are maybe nine of them in the town open in March—has been beefed up by police presence, and the railroad has instituted a no-alcohol rule on any train going to Montauk between 9 a.m. and midnight of the Sunday of St. Patrick’s Day. The railroad even checks backpacks and handbags at the stations. And the conductors keep law and order.
Or do they? Although last year, those who came out on the train came out in pretty orderly fashion, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade went off without a hitch and those who were underage or had too much to drink were disappointed at being turned away at the bars, this year it was a different story. Police reported at least three bar fights had to be broken up—not in the bars but on the sidewalks in front of them where people were turned away at the door. And meanwhile back at the train station, those coming in on the Parade Train, having considered the situation from the prior year, were now seen throwing backpacks off the train into the reeds as the train slowed to come into the station, then leaping off themselves, picking up the packs and running through the reeds, under the platform and along some trails to emerge onto Industrial Road victorious and ready for a full day of underage alcoholic revelry.
Personally, I have no ready answer for how to deal with this, other than to say that if we can get bagpipes and marching bands from Bay Shore and Huntington, we surely can also get more contingents of police from up-island to be out here on that day to help enforce law and order.
Although no firm decisions were made at the meeting at Gurney’s, it was agreed, according to Joe Bloecker, the president of the Friends of Erin, that by the end of the month a decision will be made to either cancel the Parade Train, run the Parade Train at an earlier time, or start the parade at 10 a.m. instead of 1 p.m.