March 2007

A St. Patrick's Day Memory - "Have You Seen Joe?"

Author: Paul deVere

For the rest of the country, “March Madness” means NCAA basketball playoffs. In Savannah, for the past 183 years, it has meant something very different.

On Saturday morning, March 17, you will not find a place to park in Savannah’s historic district. Claiming to be the second largest in the country, only bested by New York City, over 400,000 “revelers” will cheer the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The water in Savannah’s famed fountains goes green, and if you are thinking of having a green beer on River Street or along the parade route in celebration of the event, you have to wear a wrist band ($5).

While there are several floats that truly impress, much of the parade is a combination of silliness (in the best sense of the word), civic pride (school bands, Cub Scouts, the Hibernian Society of Savannah), national security (every branch of the military is represented, with the possible exception of NSA) and, of course, politicians—lots of politicians.

While today’s parade is somewhat less boisterous than, say, a few decades ago, it is always wise to remember an old Savannah saying: “If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’”

Eighteen years ago, my bride, our almost one-year-old twins and I went to the parade. We had gone to the parade BT (before twins) and joined a few of the parties along River Street. But the165th parade, for my little family, was definitely the most memorable.

Having kids that young attend the parade seemed rather crazy until a friend of a friend of mine invited our new foursome to view the pomp and circumstance from the balcony of one of the beautiful historic homes lining Lafayette Square. We accepted. Changing diapers in a bar on River Street held little appeal.

It was just a little after eight in the morning when we were escorted into the home of our friend’s friend. People were already milling about with mimosas in their hands. We were immediately offered our very own by a maid. She looked like she’d just come over from central casting: black dress, white apron, big smile. Another central casting maid was passing what a delighted, if somewhat wobbly, attractive lady guest described rather loudly as “breakfast canapés,” and added, “Joe is such a sweetheart.”

Some of guests were dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns. It seemed the rather formal party that began the night before wasn’t quite over. Others were decked out in everything from expensively-tailored casual wear to old Bermuda shorts and ratty sandals. Everybody had on something green. We were the only ones with kids.

As we made our way to the second floor balcony, we heard someone begin to play the piano below us. Sounded like a Johnny Mercer tune. The “breakfast canapés” lady was right behind us. “Joe is so talented.”

By the time the parade got to our personal “viewing stand,” most of the guests had made it to the balcony. “Ms. Canapés” asked if anyone knew where Joe was. Throughout the parade, which was splendid, the canapés lady, possibly a mimosa or two to the wind, kept up her inquiries about the whereabouts of Joe. By the time the Budweiser Clydesdales passed before us, about midway through the parade, I too wanted to know where Joe was, if only the shut “Ms. Canapés” up. We found out later that Joe was our friend’s friend, our host, and supposed owner of the four-story Hamilton-Turner House.

If you have not read the mammoth best-seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt ( now simply referred to as “the book” in Savannah) or seen Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation, the name Joe Odom might not mean anything to you; therefore, an ultra-short synopsis.

Berendt’s book, published in 1994, is the true story about a murder in Savannah that took place in the 1981. In retelling the story and ensuing trials, he created an extraordinary portrait of Savannah and a few of its colorful citizens. The book still draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city every year.

One of those colorful citizens was a young attorney, Joseph Algerine “Joe” Odom. Joe Odom has been called everything from a crook to a “rapscallion;” the former if he owed you money, the latter if you were a neighbor and were scandalized by the partying that went on for days at a time.

According to Berendt’s book, Joe was a charmer, piano player, and bar owner. He definitely did not own the Hamilton-Turner mansion. Though Joe rented a room there, he just pretended he was the owner. With the owner absent, he charged tourists three dollars to take a short tour of the first floor. Odom acted as the tour guide. Sadly, Odom succumbed to AIDS in his room at the Hamilton-Turner House in November 1991.

It was quite a parade that year. About the time March 17th rolls around, I can still hear “Ms. Canapés” calling out, “Have you seen Joe?”

No, we never did.

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