Last week, the crew running the Fort Greene housing projects across the street from me asked if I knew a guy named Paddy Irish.
Of course I did; he's a jailhouse celebrity. Paddy was born into the Westies, an Irish-American gang from Manhattan's Hell Kitchen, a neighborhood real estate agents have almost succeeded in renaming "Clinton." He went to prison as a kid with a murder conviction, the standard 25 years to life.
By the time I met him in 2004 he had 20 in and lights out—which is to say he was never going to be released. Living up to the Westie reputation for violence, he had killed three additional people over the two decades he'd spent inside. The jail bodies, as they're called, upped his bid to 100 to life. He would have to live a long, long time to see a parole board. Paddy wasn't counting on it. Besides, he smoked. Accepting his fate stoically, he enjoyed the boons of his notoriety and treated me well.
I spent three Saint Patrick's Days with him.
Back in 2004, when I arrived at Green Haven, a maximum-security state prison about 70 miles north of New York City, I was quite green myself. Despite having committed armed robbery, it was immediately clear to the cops, the crooks, and myself that I didn't exactly belong. But while I may not have fit in, I did hail from an immigrant family and knew right away to find a niche. Adaptation was the key; my six-member clan left the Soviet Union in 1977, each person only allowed to bring $30 with them. Having learned new ways and prospered, they spend that on lunch now. Adaptation is humankind's strength, an immigrant's hope, and a prisoner's salvation.
It was Correctional Officer O'Something who first frisked me, and the notorious Paddy Irish who welcomed me into the yard. I suspected the prison guard was following a family trade, and Paddy Irish certainly claimed he was. Today Hell's Kitchen features residential towers that boast spiffy views of the Hudson River, but in Paddy's lawless youth it was defined by the tales of criminal legends like Mickey Spillane and Eddie the Butcher. Irish-American criminal culture has venerable roots; the specter of the 19th-century underworld that turned into Scorsese's Gangs of New York (which is based on Herbert Asbury's old book of that name) lingers to this day. The Departed did a lot for Boston's notoriety by elevating Whitey Bulger as a national figure, but New York's Westies held their own in the streets and onscreen as the Irish Mob. Every single O'Convict with aspirations to a reputation in prison invented some connection to them.
Of course, it was just as likely that they were related to an O'Copper. Law enforcement today isn't quite the same kind of ethnic club it once was, at least in big cities like New York, but the consequences of that legacy persist in prison. Holidays for state inmates mean an (unpaid) day off work and a special meal. There are a few major festivals with unique dishes, while the rest get a standard holiday tray. When I was inside, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day were each celebrated with two hot dogs and two hamburgers per prisoner. New Year's Day was chicken breast, Thanksgiving was turkey roll, and Christmas featured roast beef.
But there was an additional once-a-year meal at the top level, at least in New York State: corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. The annual slice of Ireland was good, but there weren't even dogs and burgers for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a slight grumbled about annually by the mostly minority prisoner population. The chow hall was where holidays were used to declare authority. Authorities let the inmates know what they thought of civil rights by ignoring MLK Day, the Irish legacy in law enforcement announced itself with a Christmas-grade meal on St. Patrick's Day, and even the convicts had a special day, on September 13, when we ate nothing at all. (That's when cons mark the anniversary of the 1971 Attica riots by taking their trays and silently abstaining from a single bite. Sometimes the guards even switched around the menu to make sure it was chicken day, everyone's favorite, but in the maxes—maximum-security facilities—this ritual was respected.)
In the medium-security joints, I found myself to be the one explaining Attica day to some of the inmates. Most of the men I described it to were unconvinced, but every convict who had come down from a max participated. On St. Patrick's, so close to the ignored birthday of MLK, no one boycotted the food, although I was one of the few who ate the cabbage.
The prison yard of my first big house was divided into courts, about 20 squares that were fenced by invisible lines. Each had weightlifting equipment and a table. Joining a court meant much more than a place to lift; it was your base, your association, and your protection. The borders separating courts were crossed either by invitation or provocation; spitting on the Italian court got my bunkie, the son of a "made man," stabbed through the mouth ten feet away from me. That was my first summer.
Gangs like the Bloods and Latin Kings each had a court, and there was a Christian one that did not require "clean" paperwork to join. (The others demanded documentation clearing you of being a sex offender or informant.) Many courts were ethnic strongholds—the "guineas'" plot was foggy with cigars, while the Jamaicans worked out in a different kind of smoke. There was even an "Asian" court, where Koreans, Chinese and one Japanese sadist were lumped together. The Dominican court featured fried patties and heroin for sale.
Of course, there wasn't one for Jews, or Russians, or NYU alumni—clubs that I could conceivably claim membership in. But the Irish took me in.
I was a member of their court for four years. We exercised and had parties and told endless lies to each other, but it wasn't all bullshit. I had to participate in the court's defense and once spent an afternoon wielding a scalpel with magazines taped around my torso. (Nothing happened, thank God.) I was not the only foreigner—a Colombian biker was a member, and so was a one-armed wino named Bum who told grotesque sex stories about his stump.
Maybe because the Irish have a lengthy history on both sides of the law in America, their court was the most inclusive; it even had a place for me. You might expect that kindness to have weakened our reputation, but instead the Irish court was admired for not being xenophobic. And it didn't hurt to have the notorious murderer Paddy Irish ruling from his throne on the incline press. On St. Patrick's Day, the custom was to wear green and bring snacks. I did both for three years running along with the rest of the court.
They say everyone's Irish on March 17, but for the first third of my sentence, it was Saint Paddy's every single day.
Follow Daniel Genis on Twitter.