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Irish eyes are smiling
Crowds pack Savannah for St. Patrick's Day celebration
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — As bagpipers and shamrock-plastered floats passed the crowd, Nancy Cox raised a Bloody Mary and clicked the heels of her emerald slippers — one of the head-to-toe green accessories of her "Wizard of Oz" costume.

Each time her sparkling shoes touched, Cox repeated: "There's no place like Savannah."

Especially not on St. Patrick's Day. Thousands of gaudy green revelers lined the cobblestone streets and magnolia-shaded sidewalks of the downtown historic district Tuesday to join this coastal city's 185-year-old Irish celebration.

Economic gloom may have thinned the throngs slightly, but thirsty tourists started hitting the bars as early as 7:30 a.m. and bar owners anticipated healthy profits by last call at 3 a.m. Wednesday.

"Glad y'all came!" Bonnie Walden told customers as she gave them strands of green beads at her downtown bar, Bay St. Blues. Seats at the bar were full as the parade got under way, but there was plenty of standing room inside.

"We've seen bigger and better, but this one's good," Walden said of the crowd. "I'm hurting like everyone else, but this our big day. Give us our party, and then we'll go back to worrying."

Started in 1824 by Savannah's early wave of Irish immigrants, the St. Patrick's Day parade is the biggest tourist attraction of the year in Georgia's oldest city.

Savannah touts itself as having the nation's second-largest parade, based on the hours-long procession of marching bands, and elaborate floats, Civil War re-enactors and convertibles chauffeuring local dignitaries. On peak years, the celebration draws up to 400,000 party goers to this city of 150,000.

Tim Watson, an admissions officer for a private school in Boston, didn't think twice about joining some college friends to celebrate in Savannah, where a rainy Monday gave way to sunny 72-degree weather for the parade. Boston had snow on the ground when he left.

"You do a little more shopping when you're looking for flights, because you want to save a couple of bucks," Watson said. "But I just wanted to come down here, smile and have a good time."

The turnout Tuesday wasn't nearly as smothering as Savannah can be when March 17 falls on a weekend. People stood shoulder-to-shoulder two to three deep on the sidewalks, but many spots had enough elbow room to walk unimpeded.

Oak-shaded Chippewa Square, normally one of the busiest parade-watching spots, still had ample space for party tents by the time the parade began.

"It's usually so packed, you can't walk," said Cynthia Egan, who stakes out her family's spot in the square every year. "Probably it's the economy. We have a lot of friends who always come here, and they couldn't take a day off. They just couldn't lose the hours."

Susan Jaffie, who owns a cafe on the parade route, sold out of ham-and-cheese biscuits to hungry visitors by midmorning — but only prepared half the amount she offered last year.

Jaffie said economic uncertainty for St. Patrick's Day this year forced her to be more cautious than usual. She had plenty of soft pretzels stocked up, because she sells them year-round, but the green bagels she was selling for breakfast were leftovers from a recent catering job.

"I don't want to be stuck with those," Jaffie said. "I'm keeping my expectations level, within reason."

Still, many whose paychecks rely on Savannah's $2 billion tourist economy said they made solid money over the weekend, when a steady influx of visitors who couldn't stay for the midweek parade celebrated St. Pat's early.

Ryan Paulk, a driver for Savannah Pedicab, said passengers were paying fat tips for rides on his large, tricked-out tricycle.

"They definitely saved up for St. Patrick's Day," Paulk said.

Matt Jackson, who owns a local landscaping business, took St. Patrick's Day off from keeping his customers' lawns green.

Jackson said he typically works New Year's Eve, even Christmas, to make sure he can afford to party on St. Pat's. He smiled as he pulled a can of Bud Light from a cooler of ice at his feet.

"This is the only time you can get up at 7 a.m. and drink beer, and nobody says anything," Jackson said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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