This is the story of Soapy, a homeless man in New York City who is trying to get arrested because winter is coming and he wants to get free room and board in jail.
The irony here is just that when Soapy wants to get arrested and taken to jail, he can never manage to get a police officer to arrest him. But then he decides to change his ways and quit being a bum. As soon as he does that, he gets arrested.
I think it is ironic that Soapy finally gets what he had wanted earlier in the story, but now he no longer wants that.
The entire concept of "The Cop and the Anthem" is ironic. That is what makes it such an amusing and enjoyable story even after all these years. Here is a man who is actually trying to get arrested. He seems like an admirably free spirit. He has dropped out of respectable, conventional society and is living a life many of us must secretly envy. He doesn't have any responsibilities or worries. He is like the pigeons in the park. He has to put up with some inconveniences, but he doesn't have to get up at six-thirty and work at some desk job all day long, and even all day on Saturday. Soapy is a bit like Henry David Thoreau, except that he is an urban dweller. Soapy is obviously a philosopher. Here is an example of situational irony:
At a corner of Sixth Avenue electric lights and cunningly displayed wares behind plate-glass made a shop window conspicuous. Soapy took a cobblestone and dashed it through the glass. People came running around the corner, a policeman in the lead. Soapy stood still, with his hands in his pockets, and smiled at the sight of brass buttons.
One of the dictionary definitions of irony is:
a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.
Smashing a big plate-glass window with a cobblestone is not contrary to what Soapy expects, but it is contrary to the reader's expectations. And it is amusing as a result, even though it is outrageous.
Every event in the story is ironic. It is ironic that a penniless bum would walk into an elegant restaurant with the intention of ordering some of the most expensive items on the menu. When he ends up eating at a cheap restaurant, he has to stuff himself in order to run up the bill high enough to make the management want to call the cops. And it is ironic that he eats a lot of cheap fodder when he had been planning on wild duck, Chablis, and Camembert cheese.
On the opposite side of the street was a restaurant of no great pretensions. It catered to large appetites and modest purses. Its crockery and atmosphere were thick; its soup and napery thin. Into this place Soapy took his accusiveshoes and telltale trousers without challenge. At a table he sat and consumed beefsteak, flapjacks, doughnuts and pie.
It is ironic that Soapy has to eat so much food that he can't try his restaurant trick again after being thrown out on his ear. He wouldn't be able to consume any more food.
It is ironic that the woman Soapy tries to molest would be just waiting for some man to approach her. It is ironic that he steals an umbrella from a man who had stolen it himself. And, of course, the final irony is that Soapy gets arrested just when he decides to reform.
Everybody has bad days like that. They may not be so colorful or dramatic, but there are days when nothing seems to go right. All the stoplights turn red just as we get to them. Some women call them "Bad Hair Days." Life itself is ironic.