Once a year it all comes back for Bill O’Dwyer. Yesterday, with a band playing “Garry Owen” very strong and these young girls from Marymount College parading by and the people all coming around the gray wooden police barriers to shake his hand, Bill O’Dwyer stood on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street and this was his town again.
He is seventy-four. He returned to New York from Mexico five years ago. He is one of the great personalities in the city’s history. Also, as Mayor from 1946 to 1950 and then Ambassador to Mexico, one of the most investigated politicians the nation has had. But now Bill O’Dwyer lives alone in an apartment on 57th Street and he goes through the year almost totally unnoticed. Except for yesterday. Yesterday was the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and he was, as he stood amidst the music and the people on this street corner, anything but an aging man that nobody recognizes.
He was “Mayor O’Dwyer” to everybody and he held a black Homburg hat over his chest while the flag went by; then he put the hat back on and his right hand came out automatically to shake with the uniformed cop.
“You look good,” the cop said.
“God’s in His heaven,” O’Dwyer said.
“I came on the job under you,” the cop said.
“Did you? Well, if you did the right thing, the children should be getting married now.”
The cop laughed and O’Dwyer looked at the parade.
“How are you, Mayor?” a man in a gray suit said. “I’m fine,” O’Dwyer said. “It’s good to see you. How have you been?”
“Fine,” the man said.
“My regards to everybody at home,” O’Dwyer said. O’Dwyer watched the man walk away.
“Now who is that?” he asked.
“Frank O’Connor,” he was told. “The District Attorney in Queens.”
“Oh, Frankie, now why didn’t I know him right away? I knew him and his people before him. God rest their souls.”
Then he began to talk about the town. “It always changes,” he said. “When I first came here from Mayo, I worked behind the bar at the Vanderbilt Hotel. I think they used to drink more Alexanders than they do now.”
Priests walked by with a Catholic high school band. “I was in a seminary when I was a boy,” Bill O’ said. “A Jesuit place in Salamanca, Spain. I was there for about a year. Then nature called.”
His eyes smiled. “And she was served,” he said.
There were a couple of people around him now, and he was enjoying it. They wanted him on the television, and to say something on the radio, and all the time the right hand was out because there was another cop, or another politician, ready to take it. Mention Bill O’Dwyer and a lot of smart people in this city throw the book at him. There was none of this yesterday. Saint Patrick’s Day in New York is a time when the spires of concrete and plate glass are here only as a background for the sentiment which slips through the city. And the man who didn’t think it was a pleasure to shake hands with Bill O’Dwyer yesterday should have been working overtime on a garbage scow.
“My favorite politician,” O’Dwyer said. He thought for a moment. “It would have to be Hymie Schoenstein. From Brooklyn. He was running in a primary and he needed every vote he could get. The Gallaghers, down by the waterfront, had twelve of them and Hymie wanted them all. So he went to the Gallaghers and asked for the votes.
“‘What do we get?’ they said to Hymie. ‘What do you want?’ he answers. ‘We want seaboots for fishing,’ they say. So Hymie says, ‘I’ll give you twelve left boots now and I’ll give you the other twelve boots right after the primary.’ They took the contract and Hymie won the primary.
“Hymie Schoenstein was the Commissioner of Records in Brooklyn. Some people sued him in court to get him out of the job because he couldn’t read or write. You know what the court found, don’t you? The court found that long as the Commissioner of Records did a competent job he didn’t have to be able to read and write.”
O’Dwyer was beginning to tell another story when a couple of raindrops started falling. Just as Division 6, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Greenpoint, was coming along in the line of march, a man in a gray hat called to O’Dwyer and said they’d better get in the car now.
It was Pat O’Brien, the old movie star. So Bill O’ shook hands around one more time and then he started off through the crowd. It had been his day, but now it was starting to rain and it was over. Everybody on the avenue, by the reviewing stand, knew him. But nobody on the street noticed Bill O’Dwyer while he and this old movie star walked away from the Saint Patrick’s Day parade.