I published this story two years ago for a writing contest about middle age life experiences. I wrote about my fortieth birthday celebration in New York City. I was a finalist in the contest but did not win. Although this was a surprise and disappointment after the amount of positive feedback my story received, I came to realize that the response I received was even more important than winning. People who commented shared things about their own lives and experiences. This indicated to me that they connected with my writing on a personal level, and isn’t that really the point of artistic endeavors? Putting my writing on WordPress has opened my work up to a whole new audience. I anxiously look at my stats and see how far and wide my stories have been read. I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but comments and likes are validating that my work has some value.
“Celtic rock band Black 47 announces plans to call it a day.”
The headline stared at me from the entertainment section of the Irish Voice newspaper. The band I had spent countless fizzy nights bouncing around to in my twenties was now ending as my fortieth birthday loomed large in front of me, and the shadow of my father’s recent death pursued me from behind.
The band was to play only a handful of shows over the next year before disbanding for good. One of those shows was the week of my birthday. It was to take place at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar, the former home base for the band, a spot where for years the dark wood walls vibrated with the heavy clap of drums, hummed with the squeal of bagpipes, where the notes of the slide trombone cascaded down over the raucous crowd, and the impassioned belting of immigrant stories by lead singer Larry Kirwan worked the whole congregation into a foolish frenzy of singing, boozing and boogying every week.
Of course, that was twenty years ago. We were college kids or at least college-aged. As the fans approached middle age, would the band be able to evoke the same youthful exuberance from their audience? Well, there was only one way to find out.
I would celebrate my fortieth birthday the same way I celebrated my twentieth, minus the fake ID. I reached out to my old pals via Facebook. I was not hopeful. The once-single girls with no responsibilities had become the unimaginable: grown-ups. We had children, houses in the suburbs with mortgages, real jobs. Still, we were not dead — yet. A night out in the city could be just what we needed.
Or, more accurately, it was what I needed. After all, I had just spent the last few months watching cancer eat my dad alive, a piece at a time — with me completely helpless to ease his suffering — until it finally ate him whole. My marriage was teetering on the edge of a cliff. I struggled daily at a job for which I was ill-suited. I needed some friends. I needed a break.
To my surprise my old friends lined up babysitters and skipped their PTA events to join me in celebrating my passage into middle age. Now I had to get the tickets. I went online to make my purchase. I read incredulously “Tickets available at the bar only.” What century was this? No online tickets? So, on a Wednesday evening, I drove through rush hour traffic into Manhattan after a long day at work. Of course, there was construction, making my trek longer than I had hoped. Finally, I reached the block, threw some change into the parking meter and bounded into the bar.
“Three tickets for the Black 47 show, please.” I said to the barmaid.
“Ach they just sold out this afternoon,” Her voice was lilting and lovely but it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Now what? “Are you sure there is nothing? I just drove over an hour to get here. It’s all I planned to do for my fortieth birthday.”
She smiled. “Well if ye leave me yer number I will see what the owner can do for ye. Maybe something will open up. Is there anything else I can get ye?”
“Bud Light,” I replied. It was amateur night but if I was going to miss my band, I needed some live music to show for my tedious journey. The fellow on stage was a tad boring but combined with my beer it was some consolation.
I went home defeated. The next day I checked my cell phone for any calls from Manhattan’s 212 area code. Nothing.
My friends did not know that I was unable to get tickets, and I did not have the heart to tell them. The show was only three days away, and I had not heard anything. Another day passed. No word. I never knew my own birthday celebration could be so stressful.
Finally, I took matters into my own hands. I sent an email off to the lead singer of the band explaining my dilemma. I was surprised to see a reply in my inbox within a few hours. He said he had no idea that the show had sold out and gave the number of a friend who might be able to sell me some tickets on the side. I eagerly jotted down the number and called the mystery man. Sure enough, he said he would hold the tickets for me and my friends at the door and to have cash on hand.
I met my friends at Penn Station. On the walk across town, the girls and I exchanged complaints about our kids, our houses, and our spouses. We arrived early, picked up our tickets, and went to a Mexican place down the street for a bite to eat. The waiter was quite friendly and brought us each a shot of tequila with the check. I did not want to be rude, so while my friends dumped their shots in their waters I downed mine.
We high-tailed it to Paddy Reilly’s, ordered beers and waited for the band. The show was supposed to start at 10 p.m. We talked then we waited. By 10:30 I was getting sleepy, the tequila and beer combination was not sitting well, and the band had not even started yet. Maybe I was too old for this. I scanned the crowd and noticed that aside from a few fresh-faced exceptions, everyone else was around my age or older. I figured if they can hang in there, so can I.
A few minutes later, the band came out playing the boisterous Maria’s Wedding, and the once subdued crowd instantly transformed into the rowdy gathering I remembered. As the band played old favorites and some new ones, we loosened up little by little until, by the end of the show, we were all jumping around, singing along, and laughing while the fresh-faced exceptions caught on to what all the buzz was about. We giggled at each other’s dance moves. We belted out the songs we knew and faked the ones we did not. We clamored for an encore when the band left the stage, which they delivered. In the cab ride back to the train station, there was not one mention of houses or spouses or kids. We agreed, “We have to do this again!”
By the time I am forty-one, Black 47 will be nothing more than one chapter of New York’s history and my own. Oh, but what a chapter it was.