On St. Patrick's Day a couple of years ago, I found myself in the ideal spot to celebrate the occasion the highlands of Papua New Guinea, as far from New York City as it is possible to be without the aid of a Saturn booster. My hosts lived in the Stone Age, perhaps a generation removed from head-hunting, but they seemed to me, on the whole, more civilized than those whey-faced, bleary tribesmen back in New York (some of my own savage people, long ago) who were busy honoring their particular heritage by vomiting in the gutters outside the Blarney Stone on Third Avenue. This last weekend, I should have flown back to Papua New Guinea in honor of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. Instead, I found myself accidentally in New York City. A mistake. The Puerto Rican Day parade in New York is as bad an advertisement for the Puerto Ricans as St. Patrick's Day is for the Irish.
I intend no ethnic slurs. I mean to suggest that chauvinist exhibitions become, themselves, a form of ethnic slur; Americans blaring pride in their origins somehow manage to insult themselves, to proclaim the ugliest stereotypes. We may be a nation of immigrants, but if you spike the punchbowl with too much booze and consequent stupidity, the results tend to encourage, in other Americans, feelings of covert ethnic loathing. We need to find more civilized ethnic displays.
The Puerto Rican parade was especially awful this year weather unbearably hot and sticky, thirsts more urgent than usual, it seemed, and therefore, as the afternoon advanced, the eyes of the celebrants glassier and their tempers nastier.
In Central Park, as the day wound down, bands of young men started menacing women spraying them with water, grabbing at them, stripping off their clothing, fondling them, groping their genitals. The predators, numbering between 15 and 25, went after a honeymooning French couple, held back the husband while ripping all the clothes off the wife. Later they attacked and sexually abused a British tourist.
I do not know the ethnic background of the attackers. I do know the mood of the day an atmosphere of boozing, marauding holiday, of norms suspended: a temporary overthrow of the authorities. The police Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's famous tough guys were in a lounging and permissive mode, as if, in the face of the crowds and heat and politicized cultural assertion, they had decided not to get involved. When people reported the attacks to police in the park, the cops seemed indifferent and evasive. And the bystanders were no help either.
So to the usual mountains of garbage left behind after these celebrations, the tabloids added headlines like "VICTIM RELIVES SEX-ASSAULT HORROR IN CENTRAL PARK."
Ethnic parades are disruptive, ruinously expensive, divisive rituals of residual dual citizenships. Politicians pander to them; they will never be abolished.
They are, in truth, brief symbolic occupations of the town one day of homeopathic ethnic triumph to last for the other 364. The fancy people along Fifth Avenue (the route of the parade) board up their buildings, leave their doormen at the barricades, and go off to the Hamptons for the weekend. Does not an aspect of gleeful class hatred and defiance throb in the Puerto Rican music, and flap tautly in the Puerto Rican flags on cars that speed down Park and Lex and Second, horns blaring, with half a dozen revolutionaries hanging out the windows, as if they had just occupied the capital?