The Stinging Fly is going to New York
And we want to hear your New York stories.
Our new issue has a New York twist to it, and thanks to the support of Culture Ireland, we are launching it over there in October with three special events. The events are part of Imagine Ireland, the year-long celebration of Irish arts in America during 2011.
Click here to find out more about our New York events.
Find out more about the New York issue here.
In the meantime, we have opened up this space for people to write up their New York stories and experiences. Even if you have never been there yourself, chances are you know someone who has ended up calling New York their home. It figures in our imaginations through their stories and through the images of the city that we have built up through literature, film and music.
So, if you have a New York story, scroll down to the bottom of this page and let us know about it.
Meanwhile, you can read the New York stories already posted to the site…
By Craig Gibson on Wed, 30/11/2011 – 15:05.
Tiziano Crudeli wore a limp in his left knee. It carried a semi-tuneful click which emulated the involved rhythm of his two-step walking motion. It was suitably pronounced to be perceptive to most passers-by, regardless of the interpolation of downtown traffic. A wistful balladeer’s lament. Schwab’s Apothecary on Fifth furnished him with an ointment. Two bucks less a quarter. Nulled the twinge. Heightened the condition. Alas, alas. Two clicks his signature egress. From whence he came, from whence he came.
He pounded the pavements, in Wall Street parlance. He would oft hear the clicks of the investment bankers, financial projectors and stocks and bonds folk in his path. How they passingly and unconsciously imitated him with rattling change, cigarette lighters and pocket watches. Despite his considerable efforts, he himself seldom saw remuneration for his endeavours nor was it sought. For a fleeting moment he was fed societal justification with an occupation delivering pamphlets detailing the Word of the Lord (no nobler cause, to his mind) and indiscriminate packages. He was rapidly dismissed for his insistence on walking the entire route and only taking public transport to make the connections and deliveries.
Nonetheless he walked. And clicked. His perambulations never acquired a meander, a stroll or, heaven forbid, a strut. His ambulation and gait remained consistent and unbroken. Tipped his hat to all he encountered. Met the eyes of those who professed to look away.
‘Tiziano! Fair thee well, fair thee well!’
The waving fishermen of the docks.
‘Greetings and Salutations, Tiziano!’
The carpenters waved to address him.
‘Signor Crudeli, our noble friend.’
The upholsterers of the West Side countenanced him with a humble reverence.
‘Buon giorno, amico mio!’
A full smile accompanied a half bow.
By day he walked. By night his reverie was consumed with illusions of walking in the company of angels. His feet embroidered a pattern of ‘clickety-click, clickety-click’ momentum as he afforded his body a temporary cessation.
Over the passing of years he had attained the status of a minor persona celebre. This was something that had arisen organically as a result of his constant presence on the streets as opposed to something he endeavoured to initiate. In Times Square he was a feature of Coach Tours, the driver’s deriding him via the on-board audio mic, ‘And on your left you’ll see…’ The endemic stasis of their Brooklyn drawls propelled him forward and he failed to comprehend their capacity for such antipathy. Still he walked. Antiquated walkers from his generation would resentfully dismiss him. His peers, in walking terms, were twenty years his junior, wore odd shoes and held for stamina and vacations with open neck shirts. Martedì evening saw Leno wear tap dancer’s shoes on The Tonight Show. He limped onto the stage clicking an inharmonious representation of Crudeli’s, sparking rapturous, cue-card invoked applause.
He could not contrive to learn the days of the week outside of the native tongue. They lost their fundamental essence which characterized them and afforded dear Crudeli the impetus to clamber from his lowly crevice and accent the day. A redundant patriotic stand would not be his passé riposte to an indifferent world. Rather, he perceived, in a most simplistic way, that the commercial credulity of the Queen’s English obscured the musicality of the Romantic languages. The indigenous peoples were exposed to none of the flavour of the Classics. Some arbitrary resolution as this. He would not allow it to interrupt his walk.
Martedì had acquiesced itself, without its own cognizance, to the least notable of his days. That which he fulfilled largely of obligation to himself. It was a day upon which his walk was embraced with less emotive engagement than he would ordinarily contribute. One hundred and sixteen thousand, nine hundred and thirty-two clicks later (always at the double) and he was blessed with Mercoledì Eve; a finer place he could not conjure.
People would frequently condescend and patronise him. Crudely rendered photographs above subway parapets depicted our intrepid hero with his familiarly upbeat demeanour surrounded by buffoons. Their tuberous tongues and Nixon’s Peace signs, or cruder, strewn asunder. What was mistaken for naivety on his part was merely a desire to facilitate and a reticence to affront. On occasion unkempt figures would accost and even attack Signor Crudeli. Many times in the past this had saw him hospitalized and unable to fulfil his route. The liberal health centres for those without medical insurance were the pits (Staff & Patient Surveys, 2003 and abbreviated updated edition, 2007). Crudeli would always insert a ‘Grande Bravissimo!’ into the comment boxes. He was wary of his spelling. There was something in his disposition which attracted conflict. Albeit, he was far from confrontational. It was abundantly evident to all those who beheld of him that seeking to relinquish him of monetary substances would be a facile resolve. Though he was at pains to mitigate peaceably in such matters, some folk proceeded to savage him, an endeavour to deconstruct his wholehearted pursuit. Undeterred, he would not allow such misanthropy to excessively preclude him and in a day or two he would re-engage with his cloth canvas appendages and resume his journey. It has been noted by many that his undertakings thereafter were remiss of the vengeful bitterness accustomed with the age.
His Father may have been a walker. His Mother may have encountered his Father as they traversed the city streets respectively. As they glided. He supposed that he was the latest in a long line of walkers. He had a quiet fondness for such banal iconography. He was a member of a queue he failed to recall joining. It was a condensation, a reductive compression. Something. Giovedì was quietly satisfying.
Still he walked. A funny I-talian who walked.
Tiziano hit the movies on Venerdì after concluding his every day occupations. Chungking’s Chinese Theatre on Lower Lexington. The joint sat next to Ronnie Sak’s bookies adjacent La Patella, a shit hole for loners and freaks amidst a preponderance of such. A life-sized Bob Mitchum stared down at him from the side entrance, pointing, ‘I’m coming for you!’ An after-hours Hades which only opened after man’s daily birth, evolution, descent and fall. A nailed-on plywood notice welcomed declaring, ‘Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant,’ as he entered the darkened auditorium. Two male cops made out with an insalubrious vigour partially illuminated by a lurid apple green light. They straddled each other’s empty gun belts with phallus fixated fingers. The image of the Taxi Driver’s yellow casket working those same streets he himself undertook was an uneasy sight. He could never understand why the theatres were so insistent on its continual exhibition. It was an indictment of all of those who bore witness to it. Fabulous. Absolutely glorious depiction of the male psyche. Truly so. Travis Bickle’s soul had a six o’clock shadow and could use with a mint. Crudeli ached as he re-watched familiar scenes. He could see the best and recall the worst of himself within it. Every other week would suffice. To pursue it more was for those unable to find rest without the avidity of some rite.
In a brief article intended for the Herald Tribune’s Lifestyle Supplement NYC’s Quirky Quotient, reporter Edna Buttridge and her crew kept pace with our eponymous muse for the day. She observed how, ‘Mr Crudelli’s (The erroneous double ‘LL’ he assumed was somehow comforting to them but it did not upset him) travails carved a, ‘nigh-on flawless figure 8 of the city,’ barring for an ephemeral but wholly necessary adjunct at the New Jersey Turnpike. A miniscule and indistinct overhead map with annotations contributed little to aid the reader’s visualization or understanding. Crudeli was nonplussed by their speculations but appreciated a curious inscription on their footnote:
‘He is a triumphant vessel from a bygone era. A victim of an inculcated form of self-restitution. He holds his own counsel. Contemporary concerns are defunct for a man who exists entirely outside of social mores. He is the publicly inert interlocutor on all of our culture’s external monologues, dialogues and asides yet never penetrates the seal. What is essential is that we acknowledge how polite, erudite, pleasant and, perhaps most crucially, sane, Mr Crudelli is. Crudelli is a man with a certain passion. His fervour unequivocal for his divinely imposed task.’
Her conjectures painted a somewhat mythological artifice but he was not ill at ease with her contentions. His own contribution, a self-consciously forgettable sound bite (for Ms Buttridge to make copy, maybe even Features, ‘if it’s slow,’) proved most telling for the reader:
‘I have little in my life but what I love. This sustains me. I am not politically motivated. Nor do I carry a social commentary or agenda. I do not persist for the attention, for it is merely a consequence, neither fortunate nor unfortunate, of what it is that I do. Health and fitness are not central to my thoughts and similarly evolve in their own native and primordial way as a result of walking. I walk to correct myself. To attend to that within me which must be addressed. I am essentially a walker.’
The Reporter laboured for reasoning and logic. She essayed all of her sources and consulted unusually intrinsically with her Editor and Copy-Editor. She deliberated on the true value of the piece. Was it publishable in its present form? The privation of satisfactory conclusions troubled her.
A priest from St Bernadette’s in Lower Artery blessed Signor Crudeli as he walked past the Cathedral gates.
‘How are you fairing, Tiziano?’
‘I can’t complain, Father.’
‘You’re looking well. I’m delighted to see you.’
‘Apologies, I haven’t been in much recently.’
‘Don’t worry yourself. For he who makes his ablutions on the street achieves a penance without the necessity for stoicism and piety inside of these four walls.’
‘I must have overlooked that.’
‘It’s in there; keep looking. It’ll find you, if you can’t find it. Would you take a cup of tea, son?’
Crudeli surveyed the remainder of his daily route and with momentary hesitation he interrupted his walk for the first time since 1976.
‘You said nothing about scones.’ Jam and fresh cream oozed.
‘I’m partial myself. I’ll never make a salesman.’
‘Stick to what you know, Father, ‘spose.’
Crudeli shuffled his discomfiture on the worn black upholstery. Half a day’s walk left in him.
‘Take it easy and put your feet up, son. You’re home.’
Crudeli stretched out his weary legs and straightened the arch. With a solitary ‘click’ he tentatively placed his feet on the communal Kensington poofie.
And at last, lest he be perpetually bound in a state of flux for all of eternity, he stopped and was granted rest. He inhaled deeply. With a snap of the fingers he was done. Click.
By Pat Greene on Sun, 20/11/2011 – 23:05.
When I was younger, I one day met an elderly gentleman, who out of the blue announced to me ( and for no good reason, mind you ) “when you are going to the poorhouse, pretend that you are going to the bank.” In life, some things have a habit of sticking to us and I have never forgotten that particular piece of advice. In fact, I believe that it was those very words that have formed the basis to my constant belief that it is always easier to be happier in life, if OPTIMISM is my first and last solution to every problem that befalls me.
A few weeks back, here in NYC, while chatting with a friend about my life growing up in East County Limerick, my friend was particularly taken with one story of mine and has since even gone as far as to ask me to document it in the form of a short story. The title to this story will be “The Turnip Dinner” and if you don’t mind, I would now like to give you a brief introduction to “The Turnip Dinner” The main reasons for relating my turnip story here to you is in response to everything negative that has been written and portrayed about this latest World recession that we are all going through.
So this is the OPTIMIST in me and I believe, ( in fact, I have no doubt whatsoever ) that all of this misery and misfortune too shall pass.
I was born the middle son of seven boys and if Frank McCourt had the miserable hungry upbringing in the city of Limerick, my family and I shared a similar miserable existence about seventeen miles east of that same city. I’m not going to go into great detail here about that time in my life but I want to tell you of one day in particular from my childhood and perhaps then you will understand why becoming an OPTIMIST was more of a need for someone like me, as opposed to it being a luxury that I had the choice to freely adopt.
It was coming up on dinner/supper time and after scrounging around the house, we discovered that that night’s meal was going to be one solitary turnip shared amongst nine of us. When the turnip was eventually boiled and ready to be mashed, my father proceeded to mash it with an empty milk bottle….”what, you thought I was going to tell you that we owned a masher?”
“Didn’t I just tell you that we were every bit as poor as the McCourts.” And I bet you the McCourts never had in their possession, a masher either…..now stop being be silly!
Anyway, low and behold, didn’t the bloody milk bottle smash from the heat in the saucepan and there was the broken glass smathered all over our beautiful turnip dinner. Well I guess another family would have felt devastated and would have taken the saucepan and tossed everything into the rubbish bin. But we were no ordinary family. To this day, I’m still proud of my dear old dad, for he dealt with the wretched moment like a CHAMPION OPTIMIST and he began to very delicately pick every shard of glass from the steaming pot. When he eventually spooned out our turnip dinner to us, none of us were in the least bit worried that there might still be some small pieces of glass in our dinner. We ate our turnip dinner like CHAMPION OPTIMISTS and none of us were ever any the worse for it.
Ti’s no wonder I am still an OPTIMIST to this day…..Life is not so bad at all…..so’r it’s not?
Aaaaaah! to be alive and well.
By Tim Dwyer on Thu, 20/10/2011 – 06:30.
THE ROCKY ROAD TO NEW YORK
My parents emigrated to New York a few years after World War II. The travel restrictions during the War contributed to a relative surge in migration during the late forties to early fifties. Perhaps it was the last large legal cohort to make that journey to Ireland with thoughts that the rest of their lives would be in America. Like many who came at that time, they were single, people who would have migrated in their 20s, now in their 30s, and firmly rooted in their Irish identity.
To some degree, at least for Galway farmers like my father, it was also a journey into the twentieth century. And my mother, a small town Irish girl literally thought that some of the New York Streets were paved with gold. Their images of New York were to be as sheltered by a “little Ireland” as possible. My father’s first American job was tending bar at Duffy’s, owned by an Irishman and frequented by Irish. My parents would meet a dance in Manhattan at the Galwaymen’s Association, introduced by a mutual acquaintance, who was of course and Irishman.
My parents’ generation saw New York from the eyes of permanent visitors. In that time before relatively economical jet flights, when they had left Ireland by ship, they expected they might never see their parents or country again. Think of the song: “Thousands are sailing to the shores of Amerikay”. It is ironic that they departed the south of Ireland just as it was becoming a fully independent republic, on its’ way to membership in the United Nations. It is ironic that many of them became servants to the aristocracy of blue blood New York. Irishmen were favored as doormen to the exclusive buildings, and Irishwomen, such as my mother, were frequently hired as the maids and cooks of the wealthy.
As permanent visitors (and in my mother’s case, she could never bring herself to renounce her Irish Citizenship, thus had a “green card” until her death) they socialized
with those that shared the brogue, and as much as possible, with others from their own county. New Yorkers were foreigners. When my mother’s younger sister, a beautiful black haired blue eyed woman, was charmed by and married the tall, dark and handsome American, there was apprehension that unfortunately turned out true. He was an abusive alcoholic who didn’t hold a job, and her death at a young age from cancer was blamed on him the “lazy American, the bum”.
The ambivalent view of the new country and New York City came out in additional ways. There would be comments of this being “the greatest country and city in the world, but…” –they waste good land, make a mockery of Saint Patrick’s Day, they are rude and reckless. There was the standing contradiction that New Yorkers and Americans were seen as both greater than, yet inferior to the Irish. Perhaps this was an echo of their previous feelings toward the British.
The sense of being a permanent visitor was most poignantly conveyed by how a fundamental word was used, which puzzled me when I was a young boy. It was the word “home”. When my parents were speaking to Irish family or friends, and they referred to “hearing from home”, or someone who recently emigrated from “home”, they were not talking about our city or apartment, but of Ireland. As a child, looking out a window of our Brooklyn apartment, at a bit of a distance, I could see a patch of green, no doubt from the leaves of some trees. I thought that must be Ireland, home.
Being a visitor in one’s own city was also highlighted by the distinction between being in Brooklyn where we lived, and visiting the city, Manhattan. When my sisters and I were children, going to the city to see family or to see a movie at Radio City Music Hall meant being dressed in Sunday clothes. This was perhaps a vestige of the country people not wanting to be embarrassed by their appearance when they would go to Galway City. When I was 12 years old, I rebelled against this. I was going into Manhattan with my older sister to a peace march against the Vietnam War. I was not in my Sunday best. I was wearing bell bottom jeans, and the most hippie looking shirt I owned. When my father saw me, he had a rare look of anger on his face. It became clear that he was not as upset about me taking part in political dissent, but more upset with how I was dressed. He wanted me to change. I refused. During the argument, I spoke to him with the phrase “hey man”! He became enraged, came at me, shoved me, and then pulled himself back. On my way to a peace march, and we almost come to blows.
I believe one of the issues that upset my father that day over 40 years ago was that he felt I had crossed over. I was no longer an Irish boy, but a New Yorker, an American. It was my town now where you could “come as you are”. I had crossed a line over which he would never step, although he traveled through the city every day to work. I had crossed over to that immoral, dangerous (alive, adventurous) world of the City. He had come to this country in hopes of a better life for him and his future family, and now he worried his children would lose their Irish souls.
When I made it to the peace march, I had a striking experience. I met an Irishman who was a popular radio talk show host at the time. This was not an Irishman like my father or his generation. He was younger, had a full head of hair that looked like an afro, a hippie length beard, and he carried himself like this was his town, as indeed it was. It was Malachy McCourt, who demonstrated what it meant to be a bonafide New Yorker and a full-blooded Irishman, although he would be the first to tell you he almost went up in flames along the way, burning his candle at both ends.
I believe that over the years that post war generation of Irish immigrants to New York by and large found their way to become more at home in their adopted city, while still having Ireland as their true home. These are not people in their retirement that went to Florida in the winters, but preferred to visit Ireland in off peak, before the tourist season. Although many of them who are still living have gotten to the point where they can no longer physically or mentally make the trip, I have seen or heard how for a number of them in their last years with dementia or their last days in delirium, New York fades away, and they are back “home” with the family and friends of their youth, the town and countryside of 70 years ago as clear as today, and New York a dream of where they might sometime journey.
By Brona on Wed, 19/10/2011 – 20:38.
“There’s a great new play on at the Irish Arts Center. Why don’t we go on Saturday night?” Joy groaned when she listened to the message on her answering machine. Irish plays in New York tended to be hackneyed, grotesque renditions of the originals which were usually written two centuries previously. She often wondered how they got it so wrong. It wasn’t hard to put on a decent play. Or at least it shouldn’t be. It should be even easier to get the accents right too, there were enough Irish people in New York from what she could see and there had to be a fair amount of actors in the bunch. What she had seen since she’d been there wasn’t very impressive. Granted, she had only been in New York for six months but still, plenty of time to form an opinion. In fact, a lot of things about America surprised her, now that she actually lived there and wasn’t just passing through on a summer work stint. She was constantly amazed at how time seemed to stand still for the average Irish transplant. It was as if those who emigrated in the Forties and Fifties were stuck in a time warp and never ventured past the year they left their homeland. What was even more alarming was that their children were too. Time and time again, Joy met young Irish Americans with beliefs and ideals of generations long gone. Not that there was anything wrong with that, certainly not. It was just that they all seemed so naïve and naivete had no place in Ireland, at least not in Dublin. Maybe that was it, she hadn’t met many uprooted, street-savvy-too-smart-for-their-own-good Dubs. Most of the Irish people she had come in contact with were from rural areas and every true Dub had a certain opinion on them!
She called her friend back and was noncommittal. Ellen didn’t beat about the bush and reckoned she was turning into a neurotic old maid, sponge-painting her living room and furious if the cushions on her couch were not fixed a certain way. Next she’d be getting a cat and worse, having the poor thing de-clawed. It was her theory that single women had to be careful in New York. She though there was too much temptation to hide behind the uniform apartment door and fade into oblivion and late night T.V., complemented by delivery pizza and said so. Joy was irked by this but saw her friend’s point. She hadn’t known Ellen very long but she liked her. They had taken a class together a month after Joy arrived. She had wanted to get her teeth into something and an acting class seemed like fun. It had been a lot of fun and she and Ellen had stayed friends. As they chatted, Joy’s interest was piqued as she realized that the play Ellen wanted to see was the one she had read about in the paper. Not the usual Irish offering but a new play and if the reviews were anything to go by, a good one. She remembered reading about it some weeks back but lost interest when she saw it was on in the Bronx. She didn’t fancy venturing all the way up there. Now that it had moved to Manhattan, it was definitely more convenient. The line of least resistance – that was one of Joy’s great failings. It was written by a Dub too. She started to come around.
Then Ellen mentioned dinner beforehand and she plunged again. No dinner. She was on a diet. She was determined that the pleas of “oh come on, it’s the weekend, give yourself a break, you can start again on Monday”, would fall on deaf ears. Trouble was, Joy was always starting again on Monday. She had to really watch herself in New York. The temptation to give in to too many foods with portions too big was very great and if the tanks of aunts on her father’s side of the family were anything to go on, it wouldn’t be long before she’d join their ranks. But even though her current diet was only in the throes of day two, she thought, what the hell! Life is too short. She agreed to meet Ellen at the theater and they would go from there.
The dinner had been very good. She was glad they had decided to do that. The play was even better. It was a hilarious rendition of life as the Irish underling in New York. That’s what Irish contemporary theater should be all about she thought – the current, tragic yet comedic experience of real people. It was also a pleasant surprise to recognize several of the actors in the show. She watched the leading man quite closely too. He moved well on stage, the audience was drawn to him, not because he had the main part but because he just had that quality that made people want to watch him. She thought his Dublin accent perfect but was convinced he was English – he just had that look – too polished to be Irish. She was surprised to be proven wrong later on when everyone went for a drink in a local bar.
His name was Dave and Joy thought he was gorgeous. She didn’t let him see that though, no way. Besides, he was with someone else. That wouldn’t have been right. She did manage to find out that it wasn’t a relationship as such, or if it was, it was only in its infancy. He lived in the Bronx but commuted to his real job in Manhattan every day. The funny thing was, he was from Dublin after all, not two miles from where she grew up. He was tall, fair and handsome with beautiful blue eyes and a really kind face. He was hilarious too. Joy could have hugged Ellen for persuading her to dump her diet and go out for the night. By the end of the evening, she had agreed to help out with the production for the rest of its run in Manhattan. There was method in her madness. She wanted to know more about this man. There was something about him, something that inspired trust, confidence and a general sense of well-being. It was sort of overwhelming. She was intrigued. He wasn’t though. Well, not yet. The poor man had no idea of what was about to happen. But fate played a hand that night. When they all said goodbye at the line of yellow cabs outside the bar, neither Dave nor Joy knew that the evening was the start of many to come.
By Fiona Stevenson on Thu, 22/09/2011 – 13:31.
” Are you going over for the shopping?” said the woman, plonking down in the seat beside mine yet again,having pulled out an inflatable pillow from the overhead locker this time.
“eh, no. No, I’m not.” I leant over and flipped up the cream plastic blind, feigning interest in the ground crew loading the baggage on to the plane.
“I do it every year,” she said. “There’s me and my sister and her daughter this year, but the taxi was late and so then we were late checking in so we didn’t get to sit together.”
“Do you want me to swap with one of them or…” She didn’t let me finish.
“God, no. You’re grand. Thanks anyway. To be honest with you, the young wan never stops moaning, you know how they are at that age?”
I didn’t, but she continued.
“She was giving out cos the plane was leaving so early, and you know the way they make you be there three hours before? Well you’d swear she had lead in her arse trying to get her out of the bed. I said we were goin to leave her in the house on her own,and there’d be no Tommy Hilfiger hoodies for Christmas, and that got her movin’. My young lad is special needs so he is staying home with his Da.”
“It’s always good to have a break,” I said,then regretted saying it as I hadn’t wanted to suggest she needed or wanted a break from either her child or his father.
“Yeah, we mammies need a bit of time off, hardest job in the world,” she said.
She had buckled and unbuckled her seat belt several times, and her elbows knocked against my ribs each time, no matter how I tried to shrink myself into a ball against the window. The cabin crew were explaining the evacuation procedures as the woman leafed through the Sky shopping brochure, sniffing and reaching overhead adjusting the air conditioning so it now was blowing cold air directly onto my forehead.
“Bleeding freezing, isn’t it?” she shivered deliberately to explain what freezing should look like.
“Mmm,” I nodded,trying to signal my distress via eye signals to the cabin crew guy, but he was too busy tugging on the oxygen mask ‘that you must place on yourself before anyone seated beside you’ to notice. Too right! I wanted to tie a knot in her tubing so she would suffocate at the point of impact if there was one. The man on the far side of Miss Melt my Head ,in the aisle seat,was pretending to be asleep, or he else was dead. Either way, he was fortunate and I gave him an evil look for deserting me.
“Will you have a sweet? My ears always go funny on aeroplanes,” she said pulling at each of her earlobes. We hadn’t even taken off yet, why did she have to act out each statement? Did she not think I understood the meaning of words. I hadn’t heard anybody say ‘aeroplane’ for years. I could hear each sweet being noisily crushed into tiny fragments in her mouth as she crunched and munched each one. We had a dog that used to do that with pebbles I remembered.
I loved the force of being pushed back into the seat and pitting myself to try tear my spine away from it as we take off, it’s a habit I have had since I first began flying, it’s the most exciting part I always find.She grabbed the sleeve of my jacket.
“Oh, Holy God, I hate this bit.” More sweet crunching. “Do you know if it’s far to Woodbury Common from New York? That’s where I have to get most of the stuff. There’s nowhere to get the Ambercrombie at home. It’s a pain in the arse though,the minute you tell people you are going to New York, they start dropping in lists of what they want you to get for them. I have two empty cases with me and I’ll probably have to buy more when I’m there.” She produced a long list written on a piece of foolscap paper.
“I’m not sure, I think there is a bus from Port Authority,” I said.
“Do you live in America or going on a holiday?” she asked. What must she think when she looks at me? Mid thirties, nice nails, good clothes, no wedding ring. Maybe has a kid, but probably not. Career woman, loads of money, great life, no worries. A Culchie done good.
“Yeah, I live there, try to come home twice a year.”
“Ah, its true though about the Irish, they never really settle anywhere else sure they don’t? My uncle is in Australia this past forty years and still talks about coming home. There’s nothing like being back where you came from with your own.” She looked at her list again.
I closed my eyes and realised the tightness in my chest was still present, as it had been since the most recent argument with my brother about the division of the farm,the house. When really it was about the division of loyalties, old hurts, of things left unsaid for years and now it was too late.
The woman tried to order a ham and cheese panini with no cheese, and as they were already pre packaged, she spent the final twenty minutes pulling long streamers of melted cheese out of it with her fingers, and placing them in a greasy little pile on the napkin nearest my arm. I felt sick and tried breathing through my mouth.
“I’d murder a package of Tayto,” she said, wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her jumper.
The plane touched down, and she was first to applaud and cheer. She was also the first to stand up and begin grabbing her stuff from the overhead lockers, despite the plane still moving along the runway. I waited until every passenger had disembarked. I had no baggage to collect, just the small cabin bag which I pulled along behind me. As I headed to the exit of JFK, I hoped he had remembered he was meant to collect me. I was tired and just wanted to get back home.
conor mc manus
By conor mc manus on Mon, 19/09/2011 – 21:55.
Conor Mc Manus
It wasn’t an exceptional day. It was just one of those days that if you looked up the patch of visible sky was off-white. One of those days that, when you showered you never seemed to dry. One of those days when the only place to be was inside; doors and windows hermetically sealed and the air conditioning up full. It was a day like that that Mike Morann found himself in mid-town, 59th and Lex to be exact; an accident had jambed the place. Horns blared, cab drivers screamed, it was humid and nothing had moved for nearly two hours. Mike Morann thought, Manhattan was always hot, thirteen million people nuts to butts, of course its going to get hot.
Mike was getting it in the neck from Fat Howey in the Depot. Fuckin eye-tie. But if Mike had listened to Howey instead of rolling a spliff. He’d have headed downtown and dropped the load on Bleekers and he’d be washin out back at base now. But he was rolling a spliff and thinking how bad could it be anyway and turned onto fifty-fifth and was now caught in the backup on Lex and was heading uptown with a load that was worthless. It was sixty Newton stuff and had gone hard in the mid-town traffic.
So hey, he took a wrong turn. What’s a guy to do? Can a guy not screw up once in a while? Can a guy not spliff up once in a while? Hell, wasn’t it only his first day after all. What does that guinea wop expect?
Mike had two choices, one, he could wait it out and get back to the depot. It was quite relaxing when he turned off the radio and Howey, just sitting there, on his perch. High up above everyone else. But tomorrow he’d have the job of jackhamrin the shit out. The worse frickin job on the planet. He contemplated this and lit up another one.
Or, he could abandon ship. Just bail. Just leave this big yellow mother sitting right here, right in the middle of Lex. Take his lunch, his five Quaaludes, leave the empty bud cans, climb down, swing that big heavy door shut and be back in Mulligans suckin on a cold one in time to catch the whole thing on channel five. Then Howey‘d have a real fuckkin kiniption. He’d like to hear him then, phoney cocksucker. He’d have to get some of the other drivers, put them on overtime, come in, pick it up and put a night crew on hackin the shit out.
And that’s just what Mike did. Left that big Yellow mother blockin up Lexington and got the number 7 at 59th street to Sunnyside and got off at fortyninth street, crossed the Boulevard and straight into Mulligans. None of the guys were in yet and Jimmy Buckley from the county Cork was sitting on a bar stool outside the counter flickin channels.
Mulligans was cool and the ‘Buds’ were cool and the young wetbacks when they came in were cool. And by seven o’ clock Mike had convinced himself once again that the Moranns were no quitters. Howey owed him a days pay and no Wop was going to screw a Morann. Okay, so he could go back, hammer it out and get back in the saddle. Who knows, Howey might even give him a bonus for all the free advertising he got him on channel five.
Though the wetbacks wanted to buy him beers.He didn’t stay long at the bar He wanted to keep the job, he’d go back and hack it out, hard work never hurt a Morann, right, and he had a secret weapon and how hard could it be anyway. Maybe a little therapeutic even.
He got Jimmy Buckley to put a pint of vodka on his tab telling him he pay him Friday when he collected his check. He picked up a dozen oranges at Menzies on the corner. Back in his apartment He injected the oranges with the vodka, and placed them back in their red net bag. That was his secret weapon. When he had the full pint injected into all twelve he crashed.
Next morning he was up and shaved by six – it was a brand new day. He sat in Menzies with his dozen oranges and had a coffee and two cigarettes. He’d prove it to Howey. No eye-tie was going to put one over on Irish.
He was at the depot for six fifty five. Howey was there and didn’t know whether to punch him or hug him.
-Okay so he’s back, what a pair of fuckin cajones this guy’s got to come walking in here, after abandonin 306 with sixty N on in midtown, and gets me all over channel five. Can you believe this guy. Fuckin mick. Let him get this thing hammered out and then I’ll fire his dumb ass.
A team had been jackhamrin through the night before it got really hard. But there was still half of it to get out and it just kept getting harder and harder.
Mike donned the goggles and the earmuffs and the dust mask. He was buzzed, Howey had given him a second shot and he wasn’t goin to blow it. He’d make a burst before the day got hot. Inside would be unbareable in the ninety degree heat. He’d get most of it done and come back in the cool of the evening and finish it off. Pieceacake, right or wrong? Howey shouldn’t have a problem with that. Tomorrow, it would be like nuttin ever happened and Friday he’d be collectin his paycheck with the rest of the guys.
But sure as shit that concrete was already as hard as a grooms cock and after five minutes Mike had his first orange and had one every ten minutes after that. By nine the dozen oranges were gone and he was sweatin like a Suomo in a sheepskin but was flying and thinkin, who needs this shit anyway?
At midday Howey waddled over to 306.
-I gotta see where this guys at, he hasn’t stopped all morning. He didn’t even take his coffee break. Maybe I was wrong about the guy. A little admiration for the mick was beginning to well up inside Howey.
Howey stuck his head through the hatch and was blinded by the dust.
-Hey Irish you in there? You in there Irish?
He shouted but presumed Mike couldn’t hear him. He waited. There was no change in the sound of the jackhammer, it was constant. He pulled the airline and the hammer died. He waited expecting Mike to stick his head out to see what the problem was. He waited, no Mike.
– Thick fuckin Irish Mick, he’s probly after goin an asphyxiatin’
hi’self or somethin’.
When the dust cleared Howey could see the hammer lying on the base of the drum and the handle was tied up with the red net bag that had held the oranges. Mike had bailed.
-If I see that Mick again I’ll whack the fuck..
But by that time Mike was back in Mulligans suckin on a cold one and playing pool with a wetback and given him advice about finding work.
On Friday he rang Howey from Mulligans for his pay check, – after all, he worked what he worked. What howey said I ain’t gonna repeat here.
By Maria Behan on Sun, 11/09/2011 – 02:58.
Transatlantic Thoughts on 9/11
I was driving along the west coast of Ireland with my father, who was visiting me from California, where he’d retired. The weather had been iffy for much of the trip, but that was a sunny, warm day. (Maybe it was the other side of the high front that made the New York weather so perversely crystalline that awful morning.) We stopped for a picnic around two or so, eating late because we’d been holding out for the perfect spot. For us, it was a big flat rock surrounded by fields. In the distance, the Atlantic glistened, seemingly beckoning to us.
After lunch, we returned to our rented white Micra. The radio started up as soon as I turned the key in the ignition. Before I could make any sense of what he was saying, I was struck by the barely contained emotion in the voice of the RTÉ announcer. He was talking about some kind of tragedy in New York. He uttered words I’ll never forget: “and the world may never be the same again” before cutting to a commercial.
I was born in New York, and it was my home for my first 30-odd years. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it was huge and happening to New York and New Yorkers. I started crying, but ever the tough Marine, my father stayed calm.
We reached Leenane, checked into the first hotel we saw, and went into its dingy lounge to watch the TV. There were a few other people there, and like us, they seemed sickened and sometimes uncomfortably thrilled by the real-life disaster movie unfolding on the small screen mounted above the snooker table. None were Americans, but we received many sympathetic looks and comments whenever anyone heard our accents, both that day and in the ones ahead. With glances, nods, or a murmured word, people conveyed that classic Irish sentiment, “Sorry for your troubles”.
That Friday, Ireland declared a national day of mourning—the only other country, aside from Israel, to join the U.S. in that. As far as I could tell, more than half of the businesses in Dublin, and probably three-quarters of the restaurants, were closed that day.
My father and I appreciated the international solidarity, but we were hungry. When we found a hotel restaurant that was open, the staff was apologetic, embarrassed to be caught ignoring the day of mourning by two Americans. But we were grateful to be fed.
My dad flew back to the States a few days later, once the air traffic ban was lifted, and I returned three months later for Christmas. As I stood in baggage claim at JFK, a woman with a Queens accent told me she’d been volunteering at Ground Zero and had seen things she never wanted to see again, things she’d never get out of her head. Instead of asking her what they were, I hugged her. New Yorkers are considered hardboiled for good reason, but there we were: strangers who’d never encounter each other again, weeping with our arms around each another.
It wasn’t until a year later, during another visit back from Ireland, that I felt ready to visit Ground Zero. By that time, the debris and human remains had been mostly cleared away, and the stench of smoke was gone. A friend and I made our way to a wooden fence with lots of flyers on it: photos, tributes, pleas for information–still, even though it was more than a year after the fact. But that wasn’t what got me, what made me cry all over again like I was still piloting that white Micra through the Galway countryside, trying to envision the hell that had descended on my birthplace thousands of miles away.
What got me were the people selling lurid photo booklets documenting the Twin Towers’ destruction. The covers were bright, and all involved dark plumes of smoke, smoke that carried bits of metal, glass and flesh. The disaster porn purveyors were hawking it with the same “check it out” I used to hear from the drug dealers in Washington Square Park.
But that wasn’t what sickened me most about Ground Zero in 2002. The worst was the people posing for photographs. They were crowding each other out as they vied for space in front of the spots where you could see into the gaping hole that had been the towers’ foundation. Some tried to look serious as they posed, but most of them smiled, which was worse.
Following a route dictated by my dark Irish-American nature, we then made our way to the Irish Famine Memorial. It’s just a few blocks from the spot where the World Trade Towers stood, but it feels like a different country, like Ireland. The memorial’s centrepiece is a ruined farmhouse that was abandoned in famine times and seemed to have dislodged from the Mayo coast, drifted across the Atlantic, and grafted itself onto Manhattan Island. The thing that overwhelmed me was the smell. The plot had been planted with flora indigenous to Mayo, and I told my friend, an Italian-American who’d never been to Ireland and likely never would, that he should take a deep breath of the country that had become my home.
The Irish have long known that anything from blight to bombs can suddenly reverse individual lives and national trajectories. Fortunate America’s collective childhood lasted longer than most other nations, but that lesson was finally learned on September 11, 2001. And that RTÉ announcer was right: The world hasn’t been the same since.
By Mary Healy on Wed, 07/09/2011 – 09:04.
By Mary Healy
Ann Quinn rang up, the girls were off to New York for a few days, and did I want to come? Yes, I said, before I gave myself time to make up an excuse. 9/11 was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Some weeks later I closed my eyes as the plane turned on its side to prepare for landing.
The taxi was yellow, just like the ones on television, a big tank of a car. I was in Sesame Street world, the home of Big Bird, Oscar, Elmo, trash cans, and water hydrants. Side walk’s with street traders selling hot dogs, pretzels, newspapers and candy. And signs that said ‘walk’ and ‘don’t walk.’ The biggest surprise was the scale of everything, one of the girls said that you had to lie on your back to see the top of some of the buildings. There were so many people, filing out of the underground, walking fast, eyes focused, confident, street wise. Is this where they all lived or were these office blocks? Where did they hang their washing? Was there a massive yard at the back with clothes drying for 17 million people and if they all came out at the one time I wondered where they would all stand? Black and white photographs of 1930’s construction workers, many of them Irish, eating sandwiches on sixty story steel girders came to life in the shadow of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler building and the World Trade Centre.
We did the sights, went to see ground zero, a gouged wound in the earth that still ached, twelve months on. While we stood there an elderly woman in a wheel chair and a young man held a silent vigil. Tears rolled silently down her face while he gripped the handles of the chair, white knuckled, pale faced, bereft.
The next day was Sunday, two of us decided to see what the big ho ha was about Madison Square Garden. We walked up the steps peered in and found one of the doors open. Wandering inside we wondered at the echoes of it’s cavernous emptiness.
‘Can I help you?’ A man came over to us.
‘Hi there, we’re just having a look.’
Immediately on hearing Ann’s soft Limerick accent, a smile broke out on his face.
‘Where are ye from?’ He asked. ‘Limerick and Kilkenny’ I said.
He turned around ‘Hey Tommy’ and with a wave of his hand Tommy came over.
‘These girls are from home,’ he said.
Again the same softening, the same welcome on Tommy’s face.
They brought us around the stadium, an all access tour through the locker rooms, corridors, staging rooms, down the aisles of seats, across to where a man was machine polishing the ice skating rink.
‘How long are ye here,’ I asked, thinking it was for the summer or a few months.
‘Haven’t been back since 1979. No papers.’ He said ruefully. ‘My father died last year and I couldn’t go home. I was afraid I wouldn’t get back here.’
There was genuine sadness and wistfulness in his face.
‘This is my life now.’ He said. ‘Short term contracts, minimum wage, moving on all the time, from job to job. I don’t exist on paper in this country.
Tommy enquired ‘Did ye go to Mass yet?
We shook our heads.
‘You’ll have to go to the cathedral so.’ He proceeded to give us directions and when he felt we were not paying sufficient attention, became insistent.
‘Ye have to go.’ he said, ‘nobody at home would ever miss Mass.’
‘Will you ever come home?’
He pursed his lips and shook his head.
‘When Da died it was terrible, the day he was buried I sat here in an apartment and spent the day on my own. It was the worst day of my life. Now when I thing of home I think he’s still there, still the same as when I left. I can picture him sitting at the kitchen table like always, drinking tea after the dinner and smoking his pipe.’
Later we decided to take the tourist drive around Central Park. The driver wore a tartan cap and had a varnished black thorn stick beside him. He had a great line of blarney for awaiting customers and spoke with a stage ‘oirish’ accent.
‘What part of the world are you ladies from?’
He asked, as he helped us aboard the horse drawn carriage. He sounded like John Wayne in The Quiet Man.
‘Ireland.’ We chorused, grinning at each other.
There wasn’t another word out of him for the rest of the journey.
We wanted to visit one of those shopping outlets and Woodbury Common was hailed as the place to go. We needed a bus to get there. So we duly arrived at Port Authority and bought our tickets. That was easy enough and we had plenty of time before our bus left. I was beginning to feel very New York, almost like one of the natives as we stood outside on the street waiting for our bus. I must say I was a bit dubious, buying a bus ticket at a place called Port Authority. After about ten minutes waiting we began to wonder, not one bus had passed our way. In fact there was no sign of any buses what so ever. Surely in a city of 17 million people there would be a bus passing? We went back inside to the booth and were directed upstairs.There we found a whole fleet lined up, one after the other, all on the point of departure. Feeling very ‘country mouse’ we boarded the bus just in time and went on our way.
By M. Costello on Thu, 01/09/2011 – 22:03.
Really enjoyed this Leona, very evocative
By Emily Bullock on Thu, 25/08/2011 – 11:00.
On Broadway he ploughs his cart like Columbus across the seas. Legs wrapped in black plastic, hair plaited with dirt. The Stars and Stripes billow around his shoulders, left over from someone else’s party. He keeps his eyes lowered; rescues a rolling Coke from the sidewalk. The tourists, in bright t-shirts, trot out of his way and the office suits, who pass him every day, pass again. But they all bite their lips and hold their breath against the unwashed nightmare of him: redundancy, home repossession. He shakes the last dregs and a cigarette butt from the can, before bedding it down into his collection. The hermetically sealed traffic swerves around him. The hollering horns and the hiss of a thousand yellow sinking taxis can’t reach him.
His fingertips brush the roped-up bags of treasure. He smiles at the tinkle and crunch of aluminium as the cart bumps over hot tarmac. From the red and white of a Friday Bud to the bright green of a Sunday morning Mountain Dew: all the company he needs. No iPhone app to navigate for him; Google Maps can’t plot the route his folks took all those years before when they heard the call of the American Dream. They tried to answer with accents thick as molasses and up-jumbled words. Nobody heard them. He shouts, a single syllable warning, as a truck tramples too close. He shields the cart with his body. The flag catches in the updraft and tightens around his neck.
One day, when he is ready, he will swop those cans for crisp bucks and he’ll be on his way. Until then he keeps the cart moving; one more sail fluttering against the wind.
By Jacinta O’Halloran on Sat, 20/08/2011 – 20:51.
“Always carry a can of hairspray in your handbag in case you get mugged,” my grandmother pressed as she tugged an unwanted cardigan sleeve up my arm. We were half way over the Atlantic. Half way to New York. Half way from Ireland. I wanted to look out the window and feel the weight——and weightlessness——of my twenty-year-old self dangling half way between the New World and my old world. I wanted to imagine St. Brendan paving the way before me on the ocean below me—moody and threatening like an upside-down Irish sky. I wanted to feel the clock skip back for a five-hour do-over. My grandmother wanted me to imagine styling my mugger’s hair.
“Never trust a cabbie,” my uncle offered as he weaved easily in and out of comers and goers at the airport, in and out of Irish and American accents. “If you must take a cab,” he added, while responding in sign language to two cars honking at us, “be sure to look like you know where you’re going, or you’ll be taking the feckin’ scenic route to the bank.” I wanted to take the scenic route. I wanted the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Empire State Building, and the Brooklyn Bridge to welcome me to New York, but they were no-shows on our way to New Jersey. I tried to imagine where I would fit in all the traffic, highways, and noise. My grandmother ducked her head every time we went under an overpass.
“American girls make less of an effort on a Saturday night and more of an effort on a Monday morning,” my boss’s assistant Maureen counseled as she pressed a tube of lipstick into my palm on my third day in the office. Maureen had been in New York for seven years so she pronounced Billy Joel correctly and drank weak tea. When my grandmother called the office to giggle at me stumbling over my good-morning-Howard-Zingermann-and-Associates greeting, she said Maureen’s American accent was the sign of a weak character. Maureen had her own ideas about character: “The boss and clients love that you are just off the boat,” she’d say, wagging her manicured pointer, “but they won’t love that you have the vocabulary of an Irish sailor. You’re not in Ireland anymore; watch your mouth.”
“There are more fuckin’ roaches in this fuckin’ city than people,” my housemates Claire and Angela screeched as they took turns pounding the monstrosity of a bug that had sauntered across our kitchen floor while we were waiting for the kettle to boil. I looked away and stifled a scream, the way my grandmother had looked away and stifled tears when she’d left for the airport the week before. She had been full of nervous chatter that morning at my aunt’s breakfast table, painting a dramatic picture of me spilling silent heavy tears “for old boyfriends and good old days in the bog” as the plane had taxied away from the gate in Shannon all those weeks before. I told her she’d confused the bottom-heavy raindrops rolling across the window with tears, and said maybe she’d read too many of the sappy Loving magazines that circulated——along with The Farmer’s Journal and The Catholic Missions——between herself, Tess McMahon, and Mamie Moroney. She corrected her story to include rain, gave me a tense tight hug, and with a slap told me I was “a right yank now.”
I didn’t know until she left that I had emigrated.
By frank tourmo on Wed, 17/08/2011 – 06:09.
I’d been sent out in search of the green by the old Legend in the mirror, and I don’t mean myself. He had me shaking the tambourine while he applied his mascara, said it brought out the witch doctor in him – the tambourine shaking.
‘Get me a quarter of weed,’ he drawled, baring his teeth at himself. Then he turned to me directly and fixed me with his trademark dead eye. ‘Quality.’
I put on my straw hat and denim jacket and left the building. I headed for Cheeky Girl’s place, who I’d been introduced to on our first night by Freddie, our New York connection. Anything we needed, Freddie was always our man, but Freddie had been hospitalised after a row in a bar the night before. Somebody thought a crowbar would look good buried in his head, and gave it to him right across the brow.
We were on our third night in the Village and the gigs had been brewing up some pretty good word of mouth, though the old Legend didn’t care about that anymore; he didn’t do it for the punters; he was a legend five decades over. I climbed the steps of the old brownstone, through the open hallway and knocked on Cheeky Girl’s door.
‘Who is it?’ she said from behind the lock.
The door opened right back to reveal Cheeky Girl standing there in a pair of dungaree-cut-offs and a tight white T-shirt with her hair in plaits, looking like a Dutch barmaid on her night off. She welcomed me with a wink.
Cheeky Girl brought me down the corridor and into a room full of Native Americans sitting in a circle, passing a bottle attached to a green hosepipe. They were flying while listening to an old Jamaican guy playing the didge in the corner. I was a tippler, not a toker, but I sat down and took a good hit while Cheeky Girl held the apparatus for me. Then while the old guy beside me took his turn, Cheeky Girl took my hand and led me into her bedroom.
My head was rushing and my limbs were weak. She sat me down on her bed while she opened up her stash, taking out two pills, popping one and pressing the other on to my tongue.
‘Wanna make it?’
She had me eating out of her hand, and was feeding me I didn’t know what. She looked delicious with a gap between her teeth, freckles, and the biggest, clearest, green eyes I’d ever clapped lids on. Who was I to deny her?
Five minutes later I was walking out the door with a tightly packed quarter of her finest neatly tucked into the breast pocket of my denim jacket and my hat hung low. Cheeky Girl had given me flight, lifted me clear off the ground, and I had to really focus to keep it together.
I hadn’t taken ten steps when I saw him coming for me: a black guy, maybe six-three, knife in hand and looking right at me. I stepped backwards and swallowed. His intention was clear: he was going to stab me.
The siren behind us did a slow hiccup of a wail. I turned and saw the two uniforms walking from their car towards us. It was so perfectly timed that I imagined the old Legend flicking his tambourine to it. The black guy stopped but didn’t go away. Then the cops asked me would I mind coming down to Precinct 6 with them to the police station to help them with a murder enquiry.
‘Sure,’ I said and got in the back of the car. My gut never felt so good. There’d been a guy murdered five minutes before two blocks away, and the description the cops had was that the guy who did it was wearing a cowboy hat. My hat was straw, spray-painted black and now I had a murder rap to beat.
So there I sat in the station, surrounded by ten cops, all drilling me with questions, and all I could think of was the Legend’s quarter in my breast pocket.
‘Did you do it?’
‘What were you doing there?’
‘Taking a walk.’
‘Where were you going?’
‘To the bar.’
Then a female cop with serious attitude came over.
‘On your feet,’ she said.
I stood up. She started searching me around my ankles and worked her way up my legs, checking me very thoroughly, feeling up my thighs, around my groin and the back of my jeans. Then a plain-clothes cop walked into the station.
‘Hey Jed,’ one of the uniforms said to him, ‘we picked this guy up. This the kind of cowboy hat you’re talking about?’
‘I didn’t say a cowboy hat,’ said Jed, ‘I said the guy was wearing a Dallas Cowboys baseball cap.’
Just at that moment the cop searching me grabbed a hold of the grass through the pocket and squeezed it. Her eyes met mine – she was a cop, she knew what it was.
The other cops apologised and told me I could go. I waited for her clemency. She moved away without a word. In my mind the old Legend’s smile stretched.
‘You need a ride somewhere buddy?’ asked a cop.
‘No,’ I said, ‘just point me to the nearest bar, I need a drink.’
I got out of there and made it to the counter of the bar next door.
‘What’ll it be?’ said the bartender.
‘A whiskey,’ I said, ‘and make it a double.’
By Steve Wade on Tue, 16/08/2011 – 18:55.
Downing Out in New York
Nobody believed me. Most of them ignored me. Just breezed by like I wasn’t there. A few, wearing tentative smiles, listened while I tried to tell them my story. Occasionally, they gave me some quarters or a couple of dollars. The odd one would even give me a ‘hang in there, buddy’ tap on the shoulder or back. And that’s what I did. I kept at it. What else could I do? I wasn’t the one to blame for this.
“Excuse me, sir. Ahem, I need to get to Boston. It’s an emergency. I was mugged. Five or six guys jumped me. Lost everything. I have relatives in Boston.” I cringed at the lies I heard spilling from my own mouth, but the actual truth sounded far too unlikely.
That bitch. I didn’t want to think about it. Futility. Wasted energy. I had to get myself out of this. Track her down. Get back what she took from me. Keep moving forward.
New York’s finest helped me to keep moving.
“But, officer,” I pleaded when I was warned I’d get done for loitering and begging. “I’m Irish. My passport’s been stolen. And my papers. There was a whole gang of them. Puerto Ricans. They had knives and baseball-bats. I was touring the States and –” I liked to change the story. I figured it would help me bide time.
“Well you better get going so,” the cop said. “You won’t see nothing standing in the same place. You’ll get your boots stole right out from under you.”
The cops were funny guys. They liked to joke and stuff. But the thing is, you couldn’t trust them. You couldn’t trust anybody. I learned that fast. Just two days after this thing happened, this old guy starts talking to me in the park. I was trying to tune into the birds’ singing when he sits down right next to me on a bench early in the morning. There were empty benches everywhere, and he sits down on my bench.
“Won’t be long now,” he said. He was looking straight ahead. I thought he was some old crazy talking to himself. “The daffodils,” he goes on. “They’re the first that’ll pop up.” He made a wheezy chuckling sound. “Then the tulips.” He twisted his whole body toward me. My stomach did a somersault looking at him. His face was a net of scabs, and the skin that wasn’t scabby was as grey as his beard.
“Right,” I said. I unfolded the newspaper I’d taken from a bin and pretended to be engrossed in how the euro was faring against the U.S. dollar.
“How long you been on the streets?” he asked.
“Me?” I said. An instant rage bubbled inside my head. “I’m travelling, you know, hitch-hiking across the country. I come from Ireland.”
I stopped myself telling this old git that I had a degree in music performance. Why was I explaining myself to this old man?
“The best thing to do is to stay put,” he said. “Keep your head down. That’s what I do. Nobody bothers you.”
The wind shifted and a vomity, rubbish-bin hum lifted off the old lad. I affected a blank stare at the middle of the pond for a few seconds, and then I dropped my head back into the newspaper. Despite his situation, the bum seemed sharp enough. He’d get the message.
People were beginning to fill up the benches nearby. I half-cupped a hand over my face, like I was shielding my eyes from the sun. There was no sun. If the old lad had confused me for one of his own, ordinary people would too. But how could they? Okay, I’d slept in a skip down an alleyway for the past two nights. In the skip was paper and office stuff. I mean it was a clean skip, and it had a roof and everything. I broke the lock. Just pulled up the lid and got in. I slept alright, considering. And my clothes were no different to every other guy my age on the street: jeans and T-shirt, a dark T-shirt. Was there something obvious about my face? I don’t mean anything heavy or telling in my countenance that gave me away, but something obvious other than a few days beard-growth. Grime maybe. I needed to see my reflection.
“Can you keep an eye on this bag for a minute?” I asked the old man.
He had his head on his chest now and his eyes were closed. He appeared to be asleep. I left the bag on the bench and hurried across to the pond. Leaving the bag sitting there was a way of holding on to my seat. I wasn’t too pushed anyway, because generally people avoided sitting next to homeless guys.
Through the lightly rippled surface on the pond I looked as I imagined I would: tired, five o’clock shadowed and tanned. And my hair looked tidy. I’ve always had a tight cut. Overall I looked like any guy you’d see in the street.
I scooped up some water with one hand and worked my fingers over my face and into my scalp. It felt good. Kind of cleared up a lot of things that had been muzzy. Who needed a jealous girlfriend anyway? Somebody who’d deliberately put temptation in your way, using one of her own friends to test your fidelity, deserved what she got. She’s the kind of bitch who’s only happy when she’s unhappy. How I ever got stuck with her in the first place I can’t answer. It’s as though she had it all planned from the start. Take me to the States to meet her mom and dad, do a road trip, the two of us, manoeuvre things so my visa runs out and I have to stay here, orchestrate the little charade with her best buddy, a girl designed by nature to bring out the animal in any normal man, come upon us unexpectedly and, bada-bing, as they say here, I’m reversing into the night-time with faulty breaks.
She goes hysterical, screaming and shouting and clawing at me with those red nails. Even attacks her friend. And this is all going on in the hotel room. She threatens to call the authorities right there and then. She’ll tell them I’m an illegal alien. It all happens in seconds. She picks up the phone-receiver and starts stabbing at the dial-pad. I kind of lose it and smash the phone off the press, only it catches her in the side. She lets out this extended scream. One of those screams you hear in movies. Now she’s bitching about assault and screaming louder. I pull on the clothes I’d been wearing, grab my bag, and am on the road. No car, no wallet and no violin.
I go back to the hotel the next day, but the guy in reception gets real ticked-off when I keep pressing him about the violin. I figured she’d have taken the wallet, no question, but she knows how I am about my music. She must have left it, I insist. He keeps up this nasty smile and repeats, in this barely-tolerating voice, how the bill was paid and the room vacated that morning. No violin was found in the room. The manager is equally unhelpful.
An adventure, that’s what it was, I told myself before twisting around and heading back to the bench. Something to tell the folks back home, if I ever got back home. And then I saw them, one on either side of my bag. Another iffy-looking character in filthy beige slacks and an angry purple complexion was sitting where I’d been sitting. He and the old bum were engaged in a conversation that sounded like a growling match. And my holdall, they’d shifted it. I stomped over to them, ready for action. The two old grizzlies stopped talking and watched my approach.
“I asked you to keep your eye on my bag, not touch it, didn’t I?” I said, addressing the old bum. The yanks are right. That’s what they are. Bums.
“Take it easy, pal,” the purple one said. He held up splayed fingers and moved his hands the way a conductor indicates a diminuendo.
“Hey, mister,” I said into the gnarled face of the first bum. “I’m talking to you.” Emptied of supposed recognition, his red eyes slid past me and locked onto a flock of pigeons on the ground a couple of benches away squabbling over breadcrumbs.
I ripped open the zip and started rooting inside, making a real show of it. “If anything is missing from here, I’m going to kill you,” I heard myself bellowing. But immediately I was sorry for my outburst. I reminded myself of her and her hysterics. And when I found everything that should be there – the tin box with the few dollars and coins I’d gotten from people on the street, my watch with the broken strap, and an address book – I wanted to apologise to the old guy, but something wouldn’t let me. Instead I shook my head disapprovingly while closing the bag, as though I was still miffed about it being interfered with, and limped away. I didn’t have a limp, but sometimes my body does things without consulting my head.
Not until I was a good forty minutes away from the park and back in the city did I discover that I’d been on the money in my suspicions about the old guy. My water. That filthy hobo had swiped my bottle of water. Almost full it was, too. It never would have occurred to me before just how big a deal it is to have a bottle of water with you when you’re running solo on the streets. I’d taken it for granted, a lot like the way I’d gotten used to having a girlfriend around me.
Apart from needing to wash away the miniature Sahara in my throat, the bottle was a kind of crutch, something to hold onto when I approached strangers and pitched my story. Made me look legitimate, I thought, a beat-up traveller doing his thing. Now I had to break into the few dollars given me on the street. That way I’d never get the fare to Boston to her parents’ house. Once I made it to her parents’ place, even if she wasn’t there, they’d fix me up with a replacement instrument. They’re good people. You could tell that right off. They’d understand. Soon as I had a violin again, I could start busking and make some real money, get myself cleaned up, and maybe even book into a hotel.
After the cop told me to push on, I went to a shopping mall. Two security staff tailed me and openly walkie-talkied each other about my movements. I bought a giant packet of potato-chips and six small bottles of water, before slipping back into the city’s endless avenues and towering skyscrapers. Concentrating on my own tatty white runners, I avoided the faces passing in the streets, and only looked up when, by default, I found the little shop I’d been hunting for. The streets of New York are a maze.
In the large shop window the saxophones and trumpets caught splinters of neon and sparkled. A trio of shiny guitars flaunted themselves like beauties from a Rubens’ canvas. My interest lay farther in at the back of the shop where I could just about make out other stringed instruments. I’d been inside the shop a number of times that week already, but now I hesitated.
The rising smell coming off my body, an oniony-garlicy stink, wouldn’t make me feel any better about myself in the shop’s enclosed space. I belched. A cloying fishy after-taste from the scampi-flavoured crisps was in my mouth. I gulped down a mouthful of water. My vision focused on my reflection in the shop window. Weather-beaten, my skin had turned red, almost purple. The five o’clock shadow was now a full-blown tawny beard, and my hair was already growing. Bits of it stuck up like I’d shoved my finger into a cartoon socket. I moved on into the day.
“That bitch. That stupid bitch,” I snarled at the dizzying pavement.
A group of teenage girls I had to walk around giggled loudly after me. I sensed the eyes of other passers-by slashing at me. I increased my walking-pace. What the hell were they looking at? Dumb-asses. How many of them had been to college? Did they ever play in an orchestra at a national concert hall?
I watched an old woman approaching at a distance. She was shuffling along on a cane and mumbling to a tiny dog she had on a lead. As she came closer I could see what she was doing. Pretending not to notice me, trying to keep her wrinkled old eyes averted, it was so obvious. Who did she think she was with her black headscarf and uppity attitude? Even the dog ignored me.
I stopped and barked, “Hey missus.”
The old woman made a squeak of supposed fright and looked about her as though I were invisible.
“Here I am, missus,” I said, and I flapped my arms like a chicken.
She squinted at me through lenses as thick as a telephone directory, looked me up and down, and then turned into the traffic on the busy road. Cars beeped and drivers roared at her. I joined them.
“It won’t be long now,” I bellowed into cupped hands. “Pretty soon the daffodils will be poking their noses out of the ground.” The sound of my own voice alarmed me greatly. It could’ve been someone else’s voice. There was a rawness in it, a deep gravelish sound like a growl. But I wouldn’t let the old woman get away with her impertinence. I pointed after her retreating old carcase, rocked back and forth on the balls of my feet, and whinnied with laughter.
By Sophia Hillan on Tue, 16/08/2011 – 11:44.
This story, ‘The Cocktail Hour’, inspired by a trip to New York in 1998, was a runner-up in the V.S.Pritchett Memorial Award Short Story Competition in 1999, and published in David Marcus’s Best New Irish Short Stories (Faber: 2005). It’s still my favourite New York story.
The Cocktail Hour
In Virginia she was a princess, a Southern belle by a magnolia tree. Even the waiter ignored the others and made her feel she was a girl again, Daisy Fay before Gatsby. Mostly, she was Scarlett O’Hara: certainly the night they dined in the hotel whose staircase had been used as a model for that in Gone with the Wind. After a day and a half of this, he said it was high time they were going, as he was not travelling with Scarlett O’Hara another minute. He said he didn’t care how many staircases had been used as the model for Gone with the Wind. He said in case she had forgotten there was work to be done. She said: ‘Why, how you do run on, Captain Butler’, he said nothing, and they got on the train for Boston, where her newly-clipped tones gave rise to terse comment from him.
‘Well, ‘she said, ‘you didn’t want to travel with a Southern belle. Right now, I’m as played by Katherine Hepburn.’
‘It’s something of a relief,’ he replied to Harvard Square, ‘but, just for me, don’t be her all the time’.
In the peaceful space of JFK’s glass mausoleum, she did not speak until he said:
‘Please don’t do the Kennedy inaugural at me,’ after which she felt compelled to
recite it from start to finish, while he ignored her, looking out beyond the glass pyramid at Kennedy’s sailing boat and the sea beyond.
Now, increasingly tired, they were on a train to New York. They registered, one to the other, silent recognition when they heard the guard call ‘all aboard’, just as in films. Past them sped magic names — Mystic, New Haven. They were in a Scott Fitzgerald story, silent, imaginary, through a glass. They said nothing for a long time. Then, quietly, without turning, still looking through the window, he said:
‘Do you know where I belong?’
She shook her head. It was not clear that he was speaking to her; it was not clear that speech was required.
‘ I belong in the cocktail hour,’ he continued, barely audibly, almost to himself. ‘In the Thirties.’
‘You’re the Thin Man,’ she said. ‘You’re Nick Charles.’
He gazed a long moment at her, as if he had just remembered her. He nodded, looking down at his folded hands. Then, she said that Nick Charles wasn’t really the thin man, that the thin man was the villain whom Nick and Nora caught, after which the name stuck to the series. The words fell into silence: one moment, two.
‘Could you,’ he said, looking up, ‘just leave it there?’
It happened that she had already left it, because she had begun to hear her own music, Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, soaring and triumphant inside her head. They were pulling into Penn Station.
‘We won’t hang round this place,’ he said. ‘ I believe it’s dangerous.’ They could hear the klaxons of taxicabs: dangerous was exciting too. And now a yellow cab drew up, and from it emerged a jovial, homely black taxi driver who told them his name was Arthur. Arthur and he sat in front, after she was handed into the back , by Arthur, who addressed her as ‘ma’am’.
“Don’t you folks worry none,’ said Arthur. ‘I’ll get you and your wife just anywhere you want to go in this town.’.
To this he replied, ‘That’s not my wife,’ and Arthur cast a reproachful look back at her. ‘I’m sorry, miss,’ said Arthur, and begged her pardon. She thought, Arthur thinks I’m no better than I should be, and the thought made a smile begin. She looked to see if her companion noted this in the mirror, but his eyes gave no answer. Like a dreamer, he gazed at the buildings soaring above them, meeting in the horizon of the sky. He seemed to have forgotten the presence of anyone else in the world. Arthur meanwhile, downcast, kept his eyes on the road in silent dismay. When they pulled up at the hotel Arthur handed her her luggage with his eyes averted. ‘Don’t forget your mittens, miss,’ said his sad old voice, as he gave her her gloves from the back of the seat.
And somewhere between amusement and embarrassment, she was still thinking about Arthur as they passed through the opaque glass door of the hotel. When they were in the lobby, they stopped together. They almost collided. Everything looked wrong, and smelled wrong. They said nothing, but they exchanged glances as, unusually, he took her elbow, lightly, as if they were crossing a busy road. The lobby was cramped and gloomy, its light garish. Apprehension flowed between them as they walked to the reception desk, where a lazy, unwashed clerk looked them up and down. His badge said ‘Hi. I’m Enrico. How may I help you?’ She thought, can this be where they booked us? Yet, even she knew that the Saturday before St Patrick’s they would get nowhere else.
‘You’re lucky we kept these rooms,’ said the clerk. ‘You’re not early, and it’s Saturday night.’
‘Enrico,’ he said. His voice was level, but his hands on the edge of the desk were whitening. ‘We’ve been on a train for six hours. We can’t help the time of our arrival.’
The clerk shrugged and said, ‘ I don’t make the rules’.
There was a long silence. She looked up at her companion, and noted, irrelevantly, that he was a surprisingly tall man. He is not heavy, she thought, but he is tall. Nor, at that moment, could she read the expression on his face. All she felt was the edge of fear.
‘We’ll take a look at the rooms,’ he said, spreading his hands wide on the desk, ‘before we decide whether we stay or not’.
He leaned slightly forward, and she noticed the hands beginning to form themselves into fists. The fear edged further in.
‘Suit yourself,’ said the clerk, with a shrug, ‘but you’re booked in advance, and I’ll have to charge you anyway’.
The two men, one small and lithe, the other long and poised, looked hard at one another. The clerk’s face was insolent, amused; her companion’s, as he turned away suddenly, a shuttered mask.
Enrico did not make a move to help them with their bags. Neither did the heavy, silent porter, slumped in a swivel chair, watching him so far with detachment, watching her with something else. She saw this, and picking up her bags with as defiant a gesture as their weight would permit, moved to the lift, which clanked slowly, endlessly, to the ground. She thought fleetingly of Mary Astor, her face shadowed by the crossed bars of the lift, led down to her execution, while Humphrey Bogart watched her, his face impassive but for the haunted eyes and the mobile, noble, sardonic mouth.
This lift reeked of alcohol and other, worse things. Hospital, she thought. Urine and vomit and sickness. They were silent. She could hear her heart, and thought she could hear his. His upper lip was slightly lifted, as if in distaste. The lift was slow and creakingly noisy, the odour foul. He was white, almost blue round the mouth. For a moment she was sure he would pass out in the rancid, cramped space. Then, as it seemed they could endure not one second longer, they thudded to a lurching stop. Beyond the bars they could see and smell dank walls and mouldy carpets. He took in a long breath, and holding the lift doors open with one foot as he hefted the luggage out, said: ‘Let’s get you to yours first. Then I’ll look at mine’.
He left her bags just inside her room. This was hard, because the heavy door was narrow and geared to automatic, immediate closure. He was breathing hard.
‘ I’ll be back in a minute,’ he said. ‘I want you to bar this door, and not open it to anyone but me. Do you hear ?’
She nodded and, turning in some trepidation, switched on the light. It flickered, clicked, flicked, wavered and finally flashed into white, pitiless light and she saw grimy net curtains above a corroded, flaking radiator; a lopsided, nylon covered bed with greying sheets. Looking in the bathroom, carefully touching nothing, she sensed before seeing that the lavatory had not been flushed. On the dark-ringed bath, a small square of scum-covered soap half-lay in a paper wrapper. A used condom, torn, was placed upon the still-dripping shower-head. She thought, rent apart, rent by the hour.
The door was knocked. Three sharp raps. Two short raps. She let him in, almost taking him by the hand. His face was terrible, a Mount Rushmore profile. He was utterly white and the thought occurred that he been sick in the interim. He looked round the room, and shaking his head, like a swimmer shaking water, moved slowly past her. He leaned against the lintel of the dirty bathroom. His back was bent, his shoulders stooped. Even though the room was chilly, even cold, she saw him wipe perspiration from his face with a handkerchief. He tapped his teeth with the forefinger of a clenched fist.
‘Mine smells even worse,’ he said, and sat down on the filthy bed as if his legs had suddenly given way. He looked so ill that she stopped herself from telling him that she thought the sheets might be alive. He lifted the phone.
‘Whatever about me,’ he said, as though to himself, ‘I can’t have you stay in a place like this.’
In that second her astonished heart took flight, not to Virginia, not to the magnolia tree, but to a place immeasurably beyond, a soaring sky that was now and forever, while the filthy, sordid room fell away like the sea below the eagle. From that light and dizzy place she watched as he replaced the receiver, and put his head in his hands.
‘We’re not connected,’ he said. She thought, what does he mean? How can we not be connected? His voice was low, despairing.’ He won’t connect us until he knows we’re staying.’
Now giddy with understanding , she waved her hand. ‘Oh, he’s charging us anyway. Tell him we’re staying. Tell him anything.’
He lifted his hands from his head, and something that was almost a smile began about his mouth. He said: ‘Is that Miss Hepburn talking, or Miss Scarlett?’
‘ It’s just me,’ she said, ‘just me’.
Still looking at her, he put his hand on the telephone. And sitting in the suddenly magical room, she wondered without anything more than mild surprise how it was that she had never noticed he had the face of an angel. Quite unable to look, she turned away and, as from a great distance, heard him speak into the phone, but did not hear any of what he said. Her heart was too much filled. There was no more fear. The room was music; it was light.
Then gradually, slowly, she floated down from the place where she had been and remembered that they were in a fearful situation, that the room was filthy and foul. She noticed, as one who wakes from a dream, that he had stopped speaking. She heard rather than saw him writing, scratching something with a stubby pencil on a dirty piece of paper beside the bed. He handed this to her
The tension broke. She laughed. ‘Your writing,’ she said. ‘It’s appalling. This looks like Death Club to me. You’ve booked us into a place called the Death Club?’
He reached across, and taking it from her, gently, silently, put it in his pocket. He said: ‘We are going to a place called the Downtown Athletic Club.’
He said: ‘ An athletic club, I think.’
He reached out his hand and raised her to her feet. ‘I understand it’s downtown.’ And, without any further words, they pushed open together the unyielding door.
She did not notice the smells in the lift going down. She did not care that they were charged for rooms they did not use. She scarcely paused to notice the language of the boys in the gauntlet they ran from the door to the kerb to dive into the yellow cab. She felt slightly drunk.
Safely in the cab, he gave the address, and leaned back beside her on the leather seat. She could feel him breathing. Their heads were almost touching. She could smell his aftershave, expensive, subtle, and mixed with it fresh perspiration, not unpleasant, quite the reverse, like that from an athlete. The Downtown Athletic Club. Now she heard her own breathing. Just in that moment, they were completely relaxed, entirely at ease.
And then, without warning, he leaned closer, and very quietly, almost like a lover, began to speak.
‘Here’s a story for you,” he said. “You write it. Maybe it’s a movie. Two people get off a train. They’ve been travelling for many days in a strange and wonderful country. They’re tired. They’re dizzy and dazzled, and they don’t even know what period they’re in. They hardly know who they are. They have quite a bit of luggage. One of them has many books. The other one is carrying them. He has a red mark on his shoulder from carrying them, but he carries them willingly. They are in a taxi, going to an address. They have been very badly frightened, and the address sounds good to them. It sounds like heaven, like home. But they don’t really know where it is, because they’ve never been to New York before.’
They were parked at lights. Stop. Go. Don’t walk. Don’t even think about parking here. His voice dropping almost to a whisper he continued:
‘And where did they get this address? From an anonymous voice on a phone in a sleazy room. Why should they trust this voice? Maybe they’re being set up. Maybe not. Maybe this happens all the time – maybe there is a ring, a group who send unsuspecting tourists to lonely places and murder them. How do they know?
‘Then, suppose they arrive, and to their relief feel the taxi stop in, let’s say, the financial area of town. That’s solid, isn’t it? The financial area? Wall Street? The air is cold. They can smell the sea. They are right down at the tip of the island, at the Battery.’
She interrupted: ‘The Park is up and the Battery’s down’, but he continued, quite as though she had not uttered. His voice was dreamy, mesmeric:
‘There is a large building, covered in scaffolding and plastic. They get out of the taxi, so relieved to have arrived, and wait for the driver to help them with their luggage from the boot. But he doesn’t. No sooner are they outside than he drives away. Nothing but tail-lights and the screech of brakes. Then nothing. Silence. They are alone in the darkness of the New York night with no luggage. It is deathly quiet. Nothing much happens in the financial area at night. Nothing at all, in fact. And then in the silence, the eerie nothing silence, they see a door opening, a slow door, a widening square of light in the scaffolding. Out come one, two, five, seven big guys. All young. Big. Young guys . Black maybe. Maybe Hispanic. Like those guys who taunted us outside the hotel. You remember?’
She nodded. She remembered.
‘Maybe they’re even the same ones. Maybe they took their own taxi. They are holding -no, brandishing – bits of hosepipe, and rubber piping and chains. One of them, bigger than the rest, very good-looking, very threatening, with even white teeth, smiles at the two people on the kerb, wrapping a heavy chain round his big, powerful hand. And he says: “Welcome to the Downtown Athletic Club”.’
Lights again. Stop. Go. Red flashing; green. She thought, could we get out? Could we run? She looked across at him. He had leaned away from her again, head slumped upon his chest. His bones were very sharp. In that second, he looked like the prisoners who survived, or did not survive, Auschwitz. She thought, he means it: this will happen.
And sure enough, the air grew colder. They were down by the sea, and she thought: we are going down to the end of the island; we are at the edge of the world, and no-one knows.
Then, with a lurch, the taxi swerved across the road.
‘Here you are, folks,’said the taxi driver, in a voice surprisingly normal. They looked at each other. Out of the window they could see scaffolding, and green plastic. Her heart began to pound again, but in a low, feeble fashion, like a heart that has died twice and can not make the effort another time. He inclined once more toward her, as if to speak. She thought of the Kennedy assassination, Jackie’s memory of her fatally wounded husband turning, slumping toward her with his hand to his throat. Jackie said later she had only one thought: ‘His mouth is so neat’. It was like that moment, but he was not shot. He was not slumping. It was just a moment, and history could here be changed, if they could do the right thing. She felt between them a final, despairing resolve to rise to the occasion, and to do what had to be done, together, now. His mouth was so neat.
And then, as suddenly as it had come, the moment passed. They stepped out of the cab, and standing on the kerb, in the quiet street they had so vividly foreseen, the dark dream somehow dissipated. The quiet street was only quiet. And the driver, sweet and normal as Arthur, did not speed off, but helped them in quiet courtesy with their bags, and accepted their modest tip with some graciousness. They turned, in near-astonishment, to the door. And they saw it open, slowly, felt themselves bathed in light, and saw a tall, elegantly uniformed doorman came easily down the steps, reaching for the bags which were frozen in their hands. He said: ‘Welcome to the Downtown Athletic Club’.
Through a door of glass, they stepped into the thirties, to the home of the Heisman trophy, to an entrance hall as big as a ballroom, to heavy gleaming furniture and soft lights, to a place which was waiting for them. Momentarily, she closed her eyes, in case. When she opened them, it was all still there. Suddenly weak, she leaned against the edge of one of the deep sofas and said: ‘Have we arrived?’ He said: ‘We have. And just in time for cocktails’.
And looking at him she saw, not a tired colleague in crumpled travelling clothes, but a handsome, austere man in a dinner jacket, a man with style and flair and panache, with just a little, a delicious hint of the reckless, the dangerous. She saw Nick Charles. And in that instant, she was his haughty, sophisticated Nora, somewhere in the thirties, one pencilled eyebrow quizzically raised, a slender cigarette holder in her fingers, a single witty bracelet on her wrist.
For the second time that evening, he took her arm. And finally, utterly themselves, they drifted into their club, an elegant pair, looking for the cocktail lounge.
By Aileen Armstrong on Thu, 11/08/2011 – 12:20.
The woman is dressed in white: small white t-shirt, long white skirt. Like all good New Yorkers she is polished and brusque. She is not what we expected, although if you had asked us what we expected, we would not have been able to say. The woman’s skin is tanned, and she is wearing a pair of the flimsy jewelled slippers you can buy for two dollars in Chinatown. Her hair is blonde, and her eyes – when she comes out of the salon and into the hot Manhattan night to survey us, these two Irish girls who are timidly requesting a palmreading – are round and very green. One of them is a lazy eye, and it gazes out into the street away from us.
‘Sure, I’ll do a reading,’ she says, ‘five dollars each.’
It is late in the evening, almost ten o’ clock. Inside the salon, a small blonde girl is running around with a vacuum cleaner. Outside, Lucy and the fortune-teller sit at an alfresco table and Lucy extends her palm. I walk a few steps down the road, trying not to eavesdrop. I can hear them murmuring as I wait. Lucy sounds defensive; the fortune-teller has guessed correctly that my friend is a teacher. Afterwards, the woman stands up and beckons me over: my moment of truth.
‘Oh no, I’m fine,’ I say. ‘I just came here with her.’
‘Five dollars,’ says the woman, rolling her eyes at me. ‘Sit your butt down.’
And so I sit.
I do not take in much of what she tells me. She turns over my hand and looks at my palm for the briefest of seconds, then closes my fingers over and holds them. She speaks quickly and does not predict that a tall dark stranger will come into my life, or that I will die young. But she does say this: sounding bored and impatient, she says, ‘You like art, you like literature. That is what you like. What’s stopping you from following these interests? These are the things that you like.’
Surprised, I murmur something to the effect of Well, I don’t really know what I want to do with my life. The fortune-teller scoffs. ‘Of course you do,’ she says.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
By Nuala Ní Chonchúir on Tue, 09/08/2011 – 19:20.
People often ask us why we got married in New York, when we are both from Dublin and live in Galway. There were a few reasons; firstly because it was my second marriage and I didn’t want a fuss, but mostly because we just love New York. We brought our three kids with us on a trip that would be both marriage and honeymoon.
There was a bomb scare in Times Square the night before we arrived, which made our then seven year old son nervous. When thunder clapped all through our first night he slipped from his adjoining room into ours to feel safe. Jet lag had, as usual, got the better of us all, so we sat up in bed at 3am, guzzling pretzels and Hershey’s Bars, listening to the rain and thunder pass over the city. We were as giddy as mares, willing the morning to come so we could get out and about. Our other two kids were sixteen years and one year old at the time. New York is a great place for kids; it’s so familiar to them that they feel at home, but it’s full of enough novelty to wow them too.
Getting married in New York is a straightforward affair – you fill in forms online ahead of time and then apply for your marriage licence twenty-four hours before you want to tie the knot. The night before the wedding, our eldest took care of the two youngest in the hotel and my fiancé, Finbar, and me strolled down a warm 6th Avenue. For $20 Bill’s Florists made me a posy of red and white roses, with baby’s breath and ferns. We bought a large carrot cake – our favourite – in Café 28 for $25.
My something old was a wampum bracelet given to me by our witness, Marcella – a poet and native of New York state who I made firm friends with on a writers’ weekend in Sligo. My something new was a silver peacock necklace. Something borrowed: a bracelet of dark pearls belonging to Marcella. Something blue: a half-packet of Airwaves chewing gum, given to me by my Da before we left Ireland – they had belonged to my beloved sister Nessa who died in 2001. I wore a teal blue maxi dress; my husband a dark suit and a peacock tie from Liberty.
City Hall, on Avenue of the Strongest in New York, is impressive: huge, marble, imposing. There were lots of couples there, some, like us, with kids. A cute Japanese couple were dressed Mad Men style in vintage clothes. Our ceremony took a matter of minutes with a pretty stern and humourless celebrant, but we were married and it felt good. We took a big yellow cab to the Village and had lunch for ten in our favourite veggie restaurant, Gobo. Our friends gave us books, champagne and a silver frame as presents. Afterwards we strolled in the gorgeous evening heat to Madison Square where Marcella took photographs.
We couldn’t have had a nicer wedding. The day was relaxing, unpressurised; there was none of the usual nonsense that goes along with weddings. The company was select and interesting; the food and wine delicious. Back at our hotel, I put a vintage bride and groom topper on our wedding cake and we cut it in the hotel library. We fell into bed before 8pm, utterly exhausted by heat, happiness and excitement and, still, jet lag.
New York is irresistible: each time we go we stay somewhere different in an attempt to get to know another little corner of it. It has everything we love in a city: the variety of culture; the fantastic food even in the most ordinary diner; the beautiful, quirky shops and galleries in Soho and the Village; the feisty, interesting people who call the city home. It has the High Line, the Met, the parks, Moma, Coney Island and Radio City.
I’m glad we got married there – it gives us that extra little connection to the place and draws us back as often as we can afford to go. Though neither of us have ever lived in New York, it feels as comfortable to us as home.
Leona Lee Cully
By Leona Lee Cully on Mon, 08/08/2011 – 17:35.
I have a petty argument with my lover on Kenmare Street in Chinatown amongst the fermenting colours of over-ripe fruit, strange vegetables, and the slick black bodies of eels and dead-eyed fish. We laughed at the sign for Kenmare Street, in white lettering on a green background, stuck to the wall above the shop-sign for Lau M. Son Co. Inc. Then argued over where to go next, what to see next, exhausted by the continual need to accommodate each other’s conflicting desires.
I walk away from him and leave him there open-mouthed with rage, half of a New York city map in his hand. It is October, 1996.
I throw away my half of the map and walk the grid of the streets, taking pictures as I go. Yellow cabs, dizzying perspectives of sky scrapers, billowing steam as if the city stages its own clichés afresh each day. The people are disappointingly polite. The streets less crowded than I had expected. I spent the days before my lover arrived with Irish friends, ticking off the tourist trail. Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Twin Towers. Increasing weighed down by the emptiness of the tourist pilgrimage. What masochism lies behind the need to visit places we can only pass through but never really experience? Places put firmly beyond our use, which reduce us to pilgrims without a faith clutching desperately to false relics made up of snapshots and kitsch memorabilia.
A picture of my friend, fresh-faced, smiling, her hair lifting in the breeze on top of the Art Deco dream of the Empire State Building. The city below like a circuit board promising order and elusive experiences to make your holiday a dream of a lifetime. A picture of me dressed in black, wearing John Lennon sunglasses and Adidas trainers, at a flea market on the Upper West Side. A picture of me and my girlfriends, drunk in a seedy bar, being hit on by a pair of beautiful lesbians.
I walk and walk, clicking randomly, a series of shots of strangers walking the streets of Manhattan. And then I reach my destination: the New York Public Library. A photograph of the arrogant, incongruous lion who guards the building, and beneath it a black man reading a newspaper. I enter the grandeur of the building and step into its light-filled atrium. And then the snapshot I missed, or was too ashamed or too respectful to take.
I am looking for directions to the exhibit, The Hand of the Poet, where I hope to see the original manuscripts of poets and writers, the misspellings and mistakes and deletions and stains on the pages touched by Plath and Nabakov and Yeats and Kerouac and Thoreau, and many others. I turn to look for someone who can give me directions to the exhibit. Through the revolving door comes a figure draped in black. In the archive of my memory he wears a flowing black cape, and his trademark floppy black hat. Face powdered a chalky white, lips bright crimson, eyes lined with kohl. And that smile. He floats past me smiling, oblivious, leaving a trail of perfume behind him. I smile for the first time in hours. An Englishman in New York finally makes me feel like I am in New York.
By Neil Banks on Sun, 07/08/2011 – 21:13.
Now That You Ask…
New York? No. Never been. Never really had the thirst. Not that I’ve anything against it; it’s just that I always felt going there might blow away all the images and preconceptions I’ve grown up with from this safe distance. Not to mention that it’s just so big and tall, there’s so much of it to take in; how much of what New York means to me could I even dream of touching on in a short trip? New York, to me, is a mishmash of words and images that float around loosely in my consciousness, it exists for me in my own way and I can keep what I like, ignore the rest.
Names, places, movie scenes, pictures, book titles, authors, singers, song lines; ordinary and extraordinary people, actors, politicians, sports people, events; all of these form part of an incomplete whole. New York, like many places I suppose, is for me the sum of all the things about it I’ve read, watched, heard, and become familiar with to varying degrees over many years, though I’ve never consciously paid special attention to it as a subject: things like the Broadway depicted in Damon Runyon’s stories, the Harlem of Chester Himes and Tony Morrison’s Jazz, Starsky & Hutch, Kojak, those stupid T-Shirts, mouthy cab drivers, Deli counters, Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, Tiffany and all that, The Bronx, Radio City Music Hall, Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square at new year or the end of World War II, ticker tape, bloody Friends, The New York Times, and of course The New Yorker; oh to have a story in there!
“New York is cold but I like where I’m living,” Leonard Cohen says in Famous Blue Raincoat, and of course he remembers me well, he says, in the Chelsea Hotel. Not to mention the taking of Manhattan.
Nights out dancing in the eighties frequently included a circle of eejits linking arms and kicking their feet out in time to Sinatra singing, “I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps…” Now, that’s a line.
Names of city Mayors – Koch, for instance, and Giuliani – even stick in my mind, and the former DA, white-collar crimefighter Eliot Spitzer: there isn’t another city in the world I could say this about.
No doubt Barnes and Noble would love to see me coming, but really, that would be like sending an alcoholic into a distillery for a look around. Novels and stories of course so often feature the city in some way; I love the way Richard Yates depicts New York and its environs, and William Kennedy’s superb novels cover generations of the Irish experience (including the Prohibition years) in Albany. Novels don’t come with much better titles than By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, even if the book itself does nothing for you. Elizabeth McNeill’s Nine And a Half Weeks was set in New York; most people remember the film but not the location, which might well in fact be the ultimate story backdrop. Naming all the books and stories we know of with NY connections could keep us up all night.
Neurosis is a word that springs to mind and goes with New York like cream cheese goes with bagels. Nobody sums New York Neurosis up better than the likes of Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and of course Luke Rhinehart in The Dice Man.
Notable films – films that instantly say “New York,” – to me anyway, include Taxi Driver, Last Exit To Brooklyn, Once Upon A Time In America, How To Marry A Millionaire, King Kong, and all those snowy Christmas classics whose names blur into each other; then there’s West Side Story, Stuart Little, The Godfather, Moonstruck, Ghost, Trading Places, the lists go on and on and on, and someone else’s lists would be entirely different, but I’m just mentioning what springs immediately to mind.
Nouns alone conjure images – exclusively NY nouns like Coney Island, Staten Island Ferry, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street, Giants Stadium (Ray Houghton), Yankees, Subway, Hudson, Chinatown, Greenwich Village, JFK, Bloomingdales, Upper East Side, Brownstone, Macy’s, Central Park (so many things happen in and around Central Park; it stands out most for me as the place where John Irving “deals” with Chipper Dove in The Hotel New Hampshire). Not forgetting Madison Square Garden (Ali versus Frazier, twice, and Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr President”). None of the nouns needs any elaboration, really, it just needs to be said and it triggers some reaction in most people’s minds. Numbers figure, too. Nine, for instance, and eleven, let alone all those streets and avenues.
Not many people would be unfamiliar with that photograph of the men eating their lunch on a girder in the sky, epitomising the city’s history of reaching for new heights. New Yorkers used to have a reputation for ignorance and unfriendliness, but nowadays a different, probably fairer persona is portrayed; maybe they have changed, since the world changed.
New York is, like it or not, the centre of the known universe, as stated in the blurb on Roddy Doyle’s Oh Play That Thing. Nineteen forty-two, that was, but it’s still true. Nineteen forty-two, or before it, or even after the war, might have been a good time for me to visit New York, but none of that stuff is there any more. None of the scenes from my favourite movies are going to be there if I travel. Nostalgic New York is where I’d most want to go – the New York of Dorothy Parker, Debbie Harry even, days of yore.
New trends in language, food, fashion, music, literature, art and so on are spawned in this epic place, some great, some awful, many in between.
Not everyone knows that The World was a newspaper whose sponsorship gave The World Series its name, or that the man behind that paper was a certain Mr Pulitzer, who was also instrumental in the raising of funds for the plinth on which the Statue of Liberty stands on Ellis Island. Now, those are a couple of emotive words. Never have I felt physically closer to New York than when I stood on the quayside outside the Cobh Heritage Centre and read the story of the emigrant Annie Moore, whose statue stands there and also on Ellis Island.
No, I’ve never been to New York, though the better half has at least one eye on a jaunt for a significant birthday some time in the next few years. Never say never, I suppose, and if we do go I hope she doesn’t find anything other than what she thinks she’ll find when she gets there, unless it’s a pleasant surprise. Nearly forgot my favourite NY reference of all – from a song called Anchored Down In Anchorage by Michelle Shocked: it really sums up where I’ve always been in relation to going there. “New York City: imagine that,” she says, and I’m never sure if her tone is laced with real awe, or just sarcasm. No real need to explain the context, but “imagine it” is what I do and I don’t think I was aware of having so many connections to the place in my mind before you asked me. Never been there for real though. Never wrote anything where every new sentence begins with the same letter either – imagine that. Nothing can be ruled out.
By JOHNOMALLLEY on Sun, 24/07/2011 – 17:12.
Humidity and sleep walking — we came up from Boston one night only — stayed at Pickwick – two years earlier two younger men came down from Toronto they had a few beers as you would going and coming – My God the buildings they are awesome… in the previous lads’ case one took to sleepwalking or going for a pee – he stepped to his death. We spent the day around Columbia to find that building to meet the Pastor – pay our respects God it is LONESOME BIG CITY – GLAD TO GO HOME THAT NIGHT TO BOSTON – Remember it Our Lady of the Assumption – an only boy – there is so much I could say about humidity and windows that open only out……
By Stephen Kennedy on Mon, 18/07/2011 – 00:00.
SOME KIND OF AMERICAN DREAM
I’m not exactly sure what the ‘American Dream’ is, but I’ve always thought of it in terms of living in America and starting out with nothing, or very little, and ending up with something – like a better way of life. And if that’s a close enough definition, then the story I’m going to tell you is about the ‘American Dream’. And it’s completely true. Every last word of it. These things really happened.
So this story is about a small group of Irish guys who lived in New York in the early 1990s. There were four of us. There was Tom Garvey from Galway and Mossy Flynn from Limerick. And there was Colm O’Sullivan from somewhere in Kerry, and there was me. I came from Santry on the north-side of Dublin. We all met up while working in construction in Manhattan, and we just started hanging out together in the evenings and at weekends. We were all about twenty or twenty one at the time, and all we cared about was making money, drinking beer, and chasing American girls with straight white teeth.
Well – no – that bit’s not completely true. I mean Colm was different. Colm took things a bit more serious than the rest of us. He didn’t waste all his money on drink, and he didn’t throw away his evenings in Irish bars, staring at neon shamrocks and fake signposts. No – Colm kept to himself. And I have to admit that I thought he was a bit strange back then, and I didn’t really warm to him. I think he was a bit too quiet for me. He wasn’t interested in sport, and he wasn’t interested in girls, and he just didn’t have much to say. He certainly didn’t have the same exuberant sense of fun that Tom and Mossy had, and I’m sure that deep down I was glad that Colm chose not to spend time with us outside work. He seemed happy enough to be left alone in his free time, and I was happy enough to leave it that way.
Then, one Friday evening, straight out of the blue, and just as work was ending, Colm came over to us and said he had something he wanted to show us in his apartment. We had known him for about six months at that stage, and this was the very first time he had suggested anything outside work to us, and we weren’t sure what to do. I mean, on the one hand, we were curious, and we certainly wanted to take a look inside the secret life of Colm O’Sullivan; but then, on the other hand, it was Friday evening, and we were thirsty as hell.
‘What do you want to show us?’ Mossy asked.
‘You’ll see when you get there,’ Colm replied with confidence.
‘Is it a dead body in your fridge?’ Tom asked.
‘No,’ Colm answered – without even a hint of a smile.
‘Where’s your apartment?’ I asked.
‘It’s up in Woodside. I’ll give you a lift.’
‘I don’t know, Colm, it’s Friday evening. We usually go drinking,’ Tom said.
‘Well I’ve got plenty of beer in my place. You can drink as much as you want when we get there.’
‘Well why didn’t you say that sooner?’ Mossy barked with mock indignation.
And Colm walked over to his battered red Ford, and we followed him, like three blind mice.
So we drove up to Woodside – a dishevelled area in Queens with cheap rents and lots of Irish to prove it. (At least that’s the way it was back then. I don’t know what it’s like now.)
Colm’s apartment was on the fifth floor of an old redbrick building. I remember the lift was broken and rusted, so we had to climb the stairs, flight by flight; and then, when we reached Colm’s floor, we had to walk down a dark corridor that smelt of stale Chinese food and cheap weed. It was like a scene from Taxi Driver.
And then Colm opened the door to his apartment, and I saw something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I saw something I could hardly believe.
‘What the fuck is that?’ I asked.
‘What does it look like?’ Colm replied.
‘It looks like a helicopter.’
‘It is a helicopter.’
And it was a helicopter. A blue helicopter. Colm had a helicopter in his apartment. Colm had a full size two-seater helicopter right there in his apartment. The front section of the machine was in the kitchen, facing the street, and the tail section stretched all the way back to the living room; and the double doors that connected those two rooms were held open with stacks of books about flying and aeronautical engineering.
‘What the fuck are you doing with a helicopter in your apartment?’ Mossy asked.
‘I’m studying to be a pilot,’ Colm replied.
‘Well I don’t think you’ve enough room in here to fly it,’ Tom wisecracked – without missing a beat – but we pretended not to hear him. I think Mossy and I were just too impressed to make jokes. We were stunned. There were a million and one questions to ask – and we threw them at Colm like hot confetti.
‘How did you get a helicopter in here?’ I started.
‘I built it here.’
‘I built it here.’
‘It came in a kit and I just bolted it together.’
‘You’re taking the piss.’
‘No, I’m not. It’s easy. You just start with the engine – and then you get a new part with each payment.’
And then Colm explained how the whole thing had cost him $20,000 – and how he had spent the last ten months building it. Then Mossy hit him with a key question.
‘What does your landlord think of all this?’
‘He doesn’t know,’ Colm admitted. ‘I pay the rent through the bank, so he hasn’t been up here for almost a year.’
‘What would he say if he saw it?’
‘I don’t want to find out. He’s a bit of a headcase.’
‘So what are you going to do?’ I asked.
‘I’m going to move it to an airfield in Brooklyn.’
‘Yeah – but how do you get a helicopter out of an apartment?’
‘That’s where you guys come in.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I’ve got a plan,’ Colm smiled.
‘Fuck that,’ said Tom. ‘I’m not listening to any plan until I taste your beer.’
So we had some beers, and Colm told us his plan, and it was nuts – completely bonkers. To be honest, in the beginning, I wanted nothing to do with it. I thought his plan was stupid and dangerous; and I was probably right on both counts. However, as Colm talked, and we listened, it soon became obvious to me that there was a ray of mischief starting to shine in Tom’s eyes; and then I looked over at Mossy, and I saw he was grinning from ear to ear with pure ‘mad bastard’ excitement. And that was the moment I realised I was sitting in a room with three lunatics and my one vote for sanity was probably never going to be heard.
So Colm’s plan, in its most basic terms, went something like this. First off, Colm wanted us to cut the front wall off his kitchen and pull it into his apartment. Then he wanted us to get a crane and lower his helicopter to the street – five floors down. Then Colm wanted us to restore his kitchen wall to its former glory, without his landlord finding out; and then, finally, he wanted us to move his helicopter down to an airfield in Brooklyn. It was that simple.
‘When did you come up with this plan?’ I asked in disbelief.
‘When I was growing up in Kerry,’ he answered. Then he told us that he had wanted to be a helicopter pilot since he was a kid, and he claimed that was the reason he had come to New York.
‘You can become a helicopter pilot in Ireland,’ I told him.
‘Not really,’ he said. ‘The lessons in Ireland are too expensive, and anyway the wages here are much higher. It’s better in America. Trust me.’
‘Well I think it’s a great plan,’ Mossy announced as he reached for another beer.
‘So do I,’ said Tom.
‘When do you want to do it?’ Colm asked.
‘How about next weekend – on Saturday?’ Mossy suggested.
‘Sounds good to me,’ Colm agreed.
‘I can get the crane from work,’ Tom said. ‘It’ll only take a few hours.’
‘Great. Let’s do it.’
And the three of them laughed a nervous laugh – and I had a very bad feeling that they were serious about Colm’s plan.
‘Jesus, lads, we don’t even have permits for this shit,’ I warned. ‘If we get caught for this they’ll kick us back to Ireland.’
‘Ah fuck it,’ said Mossy with the courage of his drink. ‘For something like this it’s worth it.’
And then they laughed again – and I knew a dangerous ball had started rolling down a very steep hill.
And I could’ve walked away from the plan there and then – but I didn’t. I mean you don’t walk out on friends – do you?
When we showed up at Colm’s apartment, on the designated Saturday, we brought along a big box of tools, and a small group of strong friends. I mean it’s always good to have extra muscle when you’re trying something incredibly stupid.
The first thing we did was to remove the glass from the window in Colm’s front wall, and then we got two strong pieces of wood and put them into an X shape. Then we tied one end of a thick rope to the wood and the other end to Colm’s freezer. (The freezer was the heaviest object we could find in the kitchen and we were hoping it would be strong enough to hold the weight of the wall. Insane – I know.) Then I slid the wood out the window and carefully positioned its X in the frame against the outside wall. Then I just tightened the rope and got some of our friends to hold it; and when everything seemed secure, Mossy began to angle-grind the front wall – plasterboard and brickwork; cutting through it like a knife in clay.
Meanwhile down on the street, in front of the building, Tom was blocking off the pavement with some stolen traffic cones – just in case the kitchen wall fell outward. Colm asked me to go down and check on him, and when I did, I saw he was being questioned by two police officers sitting in a patrol car. It was an ominous sight – and my heart stuttered with shock. I briefly thought about turning around and running away, while I still had the chance, but then the police car drove off, and I walked over to Tom with shards of panic in my chest.
‘What did they want?’ I asked.
‘They wanted to see the paperwork,’ Tom said.
‘What did you tell them?’
‘I told them the foreman has the papers and he’s gone for a coffee break.’
‘Did they believe you?’
‘I don’t know. They said they’ll be back later on to check.’
So I left Tom and went back up to the apartment to tell Colm about the police, but when I got there, he was busy on the phone – arguing.
‘Well I don’t care what the neighbours are saying,’ he protested. ‘No – of course I’m not drilling at your windows. Why would I do that? Well – I don’t know either. Look – if you want to come round and check – come round and check. Right – I’ll be here. Yeah. OK – I’ll see you then. Goodbye.’
And Colm put the phone down with a thud and glanced over at me.
‘We better work fast,’ he said. ‘My landlord’s coming over this afternoon.’
So then I told him about Tom and the police, but he didn’t seem to care. He probably didn’t even hear me. He was too caught up in the madness of his plan. Drunk on his own genius.
‘Hey, Colm, maybe we should just try this some other time,’ I suggested – in fading hope.
‘We can’t,’ he said. ‘Mossy has the wall done. There’s no going back now.’
Sure enough, when I went back into the kitchen, Mossy had finished cutting through the wall; so a group of us took our shirts off, and, using the rope, we began carefully pulling the wall towards us – bit by bit. It was a bizarre sight – man against wall in clouds of dust; a surreal tug-of-war with streams of sweat pouring through our skin and running down our backs like warm rain.
While Mossy had been working on the wall, the guys had pushed the front section of the helicopter further into the apartment, just to keep it safe and to make more room; so now we just about had enough space to pull the front wall in and rest it against the side wall in the kitchen.
And it was really strange just standing there. Just standing there and looking at the space where the front wall had been. Looking out over Queens and seeing it all spread out before us; seeing the buildings and the apartments, the shops and offices, bars and restaurants; seeing the trees and parks and railway lines, the cars and trucks and people; seeing the orange cones that Tom had placed on the pavement below us – bright spots – like drops of paint on sheets of grey. And it was strange fighting the temptation to step forward and flirt with death. The temptation to stand on the lip and look down at the ground. Fighting the temptation to tease mortality and run away like a hunted fox.
So we had some cold beers and we waited, and eventually a large yellow crane came slowly round the corner, and Colm ran down to the street to help Tom to set everything up. Then ten minutes later Colm was back in the apartment and his face looked flushed.
‘You’re not going to believe this,’ he said.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Tom has some Mexican working the crane down there and he doesn’t speak a word of English.’
‘Is his name Victor?’ Mossy asked.
‘Yeah – I think so.’
‘Then don’t worry about it. That guy worked with us a few months ago and he can pick a pocket with that thing.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ said Colm. ‘I didn’t spend the last ten months of my life building a wrecking ball.’
Mossy was right. That Mexican knew exactly what he was doing with that crane. It was like part of his own body. And when everything was lined up – the crane arm perfectly positioned next to the hole in the apartment – then Colm calmly leaned out over the edge and pulled some straps from the crane into the open room. Then we moved the helicopter forward in the kitchen and attached it to the straps. Then Colm waved a signal to Tom and the Mexican, and the crane arm began to slowly pull away from us. And it moved up and up – inch by inch – and the straps began to tighten. And then we all pushed the helicopter towards the hole – trying to guide it towards the sky; and we all held our breath and wondered if this was really happening. I mean it felt like we were all in the middle of a bad Hollywood disaster movie.
And then the helicopter went through the hole, and it swung into the sky, hanging from the crane like a heavy pendulum; and we all cheered and laughed – and we punched arms and slapped backs. And this was a moment of triumph. This was victory. This was what life was all about.
But then I heard Colm curse, and I looked where he was looking, and I saw the helicopter swinging back towards us – and it was moving fast. It was caught in the wind and the momentum of our push, and it looked like it was going to smash into the front of the building – just below the hole. And for one crazy moment I actually thought Colm was going to jump through the hole and try to push it away – or maybe cushion the impact with his body – like a human shock-absorber. But thankfully he didn’t try it. He didn’t even move. He just stood his ground and stared.
And then the others looked up – and they saw what was about to happen – and the celebrations stopped. Stopped instantly.
And we waited for the bang. The crunch. The crash. The snap of metal and glass – breaking – like bone through flesh.
But there was nothing. Just silence. The helicopter didn’t touch the wall. Not even a scratch. I mean it came within inches of colliding with the building, but then it paused; and then the hand of gravity tugged at it, and the helicopter swung back into the New York skyline – where it undoubtedly belonged. And we all cheered like children. And the arm of the crane moved further and further away from us – and we cheered again. And we were still cheering as the helicopter was lowered safely on to the back of a flatbed truck which Colm had hired for the day. And we cheered because we knew we were on the last lap. Some of us could even see the finish-line up ahead.
So Colm went down and thanked the Mexican for operating the crane. I’m sure he paid him some money, but I can’t remember how much. Then Colm jumped in the truck and drove his helicopter to its new home in Brooklyn while the rest of us put his front wall back in place. And that wasn’t easy. I mean that wall was heavy and awkward to move – and we had to hold it tight with the rope and the wood. And when it was finally back in position we had it resting on bolts, and that made a gap for us; and, using a grease gun, we squeezed wet cement into that gap like grey toothpaste. And when the cement had set, we pulled in the wood, we re-inserted the glass, and we plastered around the wall. And while we waited for things to dry, we drank some more beer, and we cleaned the kitchen as best we could – sweeping up dust like sand on a beach.
By this stage Tom had collected his orange cones and he was up in the apartment, sitting on a chair, getting drunk, and giving us lots of useless advice. I wanted to tell him to ‘shut up’ – but I was too busy choking on dust.
Then Colm returned from Brooklyn and checked the work we had done on his wall.
‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘A quick lick of paint and that’s it.’
So we painted the wall a very dark blue as the afternoon became evening. Colm was worried that his landlord was going to burst in at any moment – so we speeded up the paint-drying process by turning the oven on and leaving its door wide open. And then Mossy had a brainwave. He plugged in a hairdryer and fanned the wall from top to bottom with warm air – and it worked brilliantly. Everything was crisp and dry in no time.
And I remember that Tom kept giving out about the strong smell of paint; so Colm burnt some incense, but that just made things worse. I mean it smelt like Mass in a DIY store.
Anyway, the whole job was completed by seven o’clock in the evening, and we put away the wood and the rope, and all the tools we had brought with us. Then we sat around the apartment – laughing – eating pizza and basking in the glory of what we had achieved. And Colm’s landlord did eventually show up, and, not surprisingly, he immediately went to the front wall in the kitchen to look for damage; and, although he could smell the fresh paint and see some dust, he couldn’t work out what we had done. I mean he spent five whole minutes tapping the glass in the window with his fat knuckles, but he didn’t for one second suspect the full extent of the stunt we had just pulled in his apartment.
‘What exactly did you guys do here?’ he finally asked.
‘Nothing,’ said Colm. ‘We just painted the wall.’
‘I don’t fuckin’ believe you,’ he growled.
But, to be honest, I don’t think he would’ve believed the truth either, if we had told him.
So the landlord just mumbled something about ‘drunken Irish’ – and then he stormed out of the apartment in a very bad mood.
And I looked out the window, as the lights of the city started to twinkle in the early night; and down on the street I could see a patrol car driving slowly by; and I wondered if the two officers were coming back to check Tom’s paperwork. And I said it to Colm – and Colm smiled. And that was a good smile.
In the mid 1990s I moved back to Ireland with Mossy and Tom. Somehow I ended up working in IT – building servers – and the other two guys set up a small plastering business in Galway. The funny thing is they both made a lot of money during the Celtic Tiger boom years. I’m sure they’re millionaires by now. The bastards.
Colm stayed on in America and eventually got his full helicopter license. He then moved down to Florida and got a good job as a pilot, delivering people and supplies to oil platforms off the coast. I think he was happy then.
But sometimes I wonder if it was worth it. I mean I know the helicopter in the apartment makes a good story, and it’s something I’ll never forget; but I’m still not sure it was worth it. I mean when I think about it now – what we did that day in Queens – it only helped Colm to realise a dream that ended in a ball of fire on a cold sea – in a helicopter crash that killed four people. I wonder if – on the stormy night that took his life – I wonder if Colm thought about that Saturday we had in Woodside – when we were young and high on life. When everything was possible. Even the impossible. Even the ‘American Dream’. I wonder.
By Annie Atkins on Sun, 17/07/2011 – 23:13.
I should be on my way to New York by now. Last time I was there it was Valentine’s Day. That was all very romantic back then, wasn’t it? I was his girl. Or was I? Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Macy cleans the bar in front of me, lifting up my drink.
“New York don’t belong to any one person, you know that, right?”
I know, but I don’t care. I’m not going back there. I don’t want to see hindsight being a wonderful thing on every corner of every square.
“You know something else,” says Macy, pouring me another drink. “New York’s like your favourite record. All those songs you love… but sometimes, when they remind you of too much, well, that’s when you just gotta keep playing them over and over again, til they start reminding you of something else instead. If you don’t go back to New York now then you ain’t never gonna get to listen to your favourite record ever again.”
By Shauna Gilligan on Sun, 17/07/2011 – 20:26.
“I am sorry to inform you…” the man with a shower of dandruff on the shoulder of his uniform begins.
The decorum of public behaviour disappears; people wail and shout. I follow the crowds past airport workers who look at us curiously as we’re herded towards fluorescent lights and baggage carousels.
A Belgian semi-professional athlete spending his third night at the airport shows me where to find crates to make up a bed. He’s got no idea where his twenty-five thousand Euro worth of custom-made bikes are.
“Europe is shut.” The flight attendant’s face is so serious he could be joking. The ash cloud is going nowhere.
Around me people sleep with royal blue blankets like calling cards flung over their shoulders. It’s four-fifty-five in the morning and I shuffle over to the rack of phones and ring the number I think will get me home. I rest my head against the box; watch the empty carousels going around, the paternal voice on a PA system-loop telling me not to accept a ride from an unauthorised vehicle. The airline refers me to the website where I can book flights. I need a real person. I drift; a weary pleasure. I’m sure I hear my father’s voice. But he’s been dead for sixteen years.
“You livin’ here?”
A glamorous black lady in a ruffled dress littered with butterflies, a pale yellow bonnet perched on her head, smiles. She stands by the lift with two luggage trolleys holding huge vases filled with white flowers.
Every afternoon in Penn Station, when I ask for my ticket to Brick Church, I think of going home.
I nod, thinking how lucky I was to find a hotel almost in New York.
“You wanna come to my celebration?” She asks like it’s a statement.
“Sure,” I say trying to hide my confusion.
“You bet, girl,” she says, her high-gloss deep purple lipstick shining. “Seven thirty, the Church on floor two,” she says and begins to hum.
The humming is so deep I feel it in my blood. She glides off.
I run my foot along the mustard-yellow pattern on the thick pile carpet which looks like a remnant. A cleaner passes, bent over, unable to straighten his back from vacuuming twelve floors of remnants.
I practically fall into my room and realise that I’ll have to wait until morning before Al reveals on the Weather Channel what Mother Nature has in store. I close my eyes, stinging for want of sleep.
It’s the singing which wakes me. I’m in a hotel, I reason, there can’t be a choir. A few hours earlier I was convinced somebody had lured me here to steal my organs after they’d maxed out my credit card. I sit up, remembering and feel overwhelmingly relieved that it’s too late to go to the celebration ceremony. It’s past nine.
I pad over to the refrigerator and pour myself a pre-made tea. The sugar coats my tongue but I finish the bottle anyway. The coleslaw that came with the takeout pizza that I ordered tasted funny. Maybe there was poison in it. Maybe she invited me to the ceremony as a way of warning me. My heart starts to palpitate and I read the label. This typical refreshing tea has added caffeine.
On TV they’re debating which part of the US will be hit next by an earthquake. I wonder suddenly if I could stop the waiting. How many red dots on the airplane screen that shows your progress would beep along until death took me? Would anyone realize I hadn’t shown for breakfast? How long would it take for family at home to get more worried than they already were? I flick through TV channels. Nothing’s on that isn’t an advertisement or a murder investigation involving a stalker.
Then there’s talk about how nature affects the disadvantaged in poverty traps. They talk about circles. They don’t talk about being stuck in a box. They don’t talk about helplessness and despair.
Two days later at 3.30am I’m woken by a mobile message confirming that the skies are open.
Safe to fly flashed neon in Times Square the previous day.
There’s movement in the corridors; wheels manoeuvring their way along the carpets, laugher.
Fourteen hours later I’m reclined on a seat.
“Let the stress of the last few days melt away as six highly qualified flight attendants attend to your needs.”
I already feel nostalgic for the place which kept me bedded and breakfasted for cash upfront. I can’t distinguish between New Jersey and New York as they merge, sprawled and fading.
I close my eyes with an image of my 3-year-old son waiting for me beneath a duvet covered in red and blue cars.
Cars the colour of the flag of the place which is most unlike itself: America.
America: New York, to which I will return.
By Martin Malone on Sun, 17/07/2011 – 13:29.
Back in the Eighties I lost three brothers to the Recession. Each found their way to New York and over a period of time got the coveted Green Card. Two have since returned from the States and I wondered about that, why they chose not to put their roots down in NYC. My question was answered with, ‘I prefer to bring my children up back home.’ Simple as…New York was great for work, for a fine standard of living, for opportunities, but as a place to rear kids it didn’t rate above the land of the drowned shamrock. You know, I can’t believe that – not even for a moment.
I’ve never been to New York, but I’m going over in September to spend time with my fire-fighter brother(the one who stayed behind), who recently appeared in an episode of ‘Pawn Stars,’ flogging an old American war Civil War walking cane. He has little left of his flat Kildare accent, some remnant words maybe that steal through, ghosts hanging on to his tongue. Sometimes I like to tease him about his New Yorkishness, how he holds two passports – touchy point, but hey if you embrace the American dream, be American. For sure you’re Irish, but come on…isn’t the carrying of two passports just a tiny bit hypocritical – you’ve only got the one heart. It all smacks of putting the wife and mistress on the same pedestal(we know what happens there). But there you go: I’m sure New York will broaden my horizons – I’ve been all over the Middle East and so it’s high-time to go West, New York, and take in the WTC and dwell upon that horrible and senseless atrocity that tilted the world on its axis. And I’ll pay my respects there to the thousands of ordinary people murdered on 9/11.
New York is also home to an old school friend and former army colleague who emails me photographs of what it’s like to have ‘real’ snow in winter and tell me how everything still keeps ticking over; transport runs, people get to work. I don’t really want to experience such bad weather for myself…two weeks in September is fine. Looking forward to the season’s changing, seeing the sights, and here, let me tell you something, maybe I’ll come away wanting that second passport.
Jeanne I. Lakatos
By Jeanne I. Lakatos on Sun, 10/07/2011 – 05:24.
Living in Connecticut, I’m just an hour’s train ride or car ride through Westchester County to Grand Central Station. Every Christmas, my children enjoyed The Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. We would then walk along 5th Avenue, admire the window displays. view the skaters at Rockefeller Center, and have a lovely lunch at either Kennedy’s or Parnell’s. The children would fall asleep on the way home, most likely with dreams of Santa, bright lights and the excitement of the holidays.
When the horrific event of 9/11 took place, my daughter, Jillian, was in High School. Since many of the students had family members who worked in NYC, all schools were dismissed early in this area. My daughter attended Immaculate High School. Our church is St. Edward the Confessor Church in New Fairfield, CT, and on 9/12, many people had family or friends missing and were completely distraught, so the Church held an ecumenical prayer service. Since my daughter was a lector, she was asked to do a reading and was assigned to sit in a designated pew. I sat in another pew on the opposite side of the packed church. When the service ended, I walked over to meet my daughter. She was consoling a mother who had been sitting with her son next to her. The woman and boy were in tears. They exchanged hugs and kind words, and parted with strained smiles. On the way out of the church, I asked Jillian who the woman was. She responded, “She is Mrs. Wallace. Her daughter, Candace, age 19, was on Flight 11, the first plane to hit the towers. I told her that Immaculate High School had just said a special Mass for Candace, a recent graduate, and she was thanking me. The little boy was Candace’s little brother.” I don’t know how or why Jillian ended up sitting right next to this family, but she hoped her words brought a moment of consolation to their grieving hearts.
By Andrew on Sat, 09/07/2011 – 12:35.
Like it Shines On Me
In the lead up to Rosie turning 30 I tried to tell as many people as possible that she was going to be 40. Or else made sure that everyone knew she’d be 30 before me. She was less than amused, which surprised me at first as she has a very self-deprecating sense of humour and is well used to me. Getting upset over jibes about your age has always struck me as pointless, as it’s a bit like being slagged for existing. But, just as the only birthday freak-outs I ever had occurred as my 24th and 28th birthdays saw me unemployed, so are there expectations and disappointments that can attach themselves to any number. And sometimes these things just remind us that the worms’ll come for us all.
We decided to go away for the occasion; it being preferable to getting drunk in Dublin and raiding the burger vans of Camden Street on the way home, and well-deserved after the austerity of honeymooning on gift vouchers and special deals around the south-east of Ireland last year. New York was the spot we chose, she still carrying a torch for it from a previous visit and me unacquainted. Unacquainted, that is, only in the flesh – for no other city could possibly seem so familiar to a new visitor, rich in both pop-culture and real events. The looming Manhattan skyline as we approached from JFK looked like somewhere I already knew. Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun I hummed . And – Bleecker Street, Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, Grand Central, SoHo, Times Square, Madison Avenue, Broadway, Harlem – Jesus, the weight behind them! The neon, the subway, the hotdog vendors, the yellow cabs, the showy screaming at each other on the streets, the pancakes for breakfast: it’s all there like they said it was. There were a hell of a lot less white people than TV and movies would have you believe, but I’d heard that before. I quickly came to feel that New York, in the same way that cities like London, Paris and Rome were the epicentre of past epochs, was the city that embodied the 20th century. But it’s a century that, for me, began with the arrival of a young Vito Corleone on Ellis Island in 1901 and ended on September 11th 2001.
We had ourselves a time, of course. When you come home everyone seems to have a list of things you ought to have done in NYC, and there’s every chance that you did none of them, and they’ve done none of yours. We saw museums and parks and skyscapers and shops and we ate ourselves silly and slept like sweaty logs every night as it blustered and dusted snow outside.
On our last night there, Rosie’s birthday, we wandered up Eighth Avenue uncharacteristically late looking for a decent spot to chow down when Frankie and Johnnie’s Steak and Chophouse lured us in with an unprepossessing exterior before we choked over the numerals on the menu. If the sexagenarian waiters in tuxedos hadn’t tipped us off that this wasn’t just any old steakhouse then the woman coming in to book a party of ten for Tom Selleck soon did. We shared the Porterhouse Steak For Two over an agreeable, affordable Malbec, with sides of cream spinach and fries. I may never eat a finer meal.
“We should come back to New York for all significant birthdays,” said Rosie.
“Mmmfffyeah, and eat here” I gulped through a mouthful of medium rare.
“I suppose if they’ve been going since 1926 they’ll still be here in ten years.”
“So, 40, then,” I said wistfully, “Just think, we’ll be sitting here having dinner and we’ll remember this conversation.” It is, invariably, me who injects a note of sentimentality into such moments.
“Stop,” she said, “you’re making me cry.”
I was in danger of the same. Because making plans for ten years up the road is the most married I’ve felt yet, because life feels so good lately that ten years away can surely only be worse, because the future is always terrifying. Because the worms suddenly edged that inch closer. Because I do not want to wait ten years.
(Originally posted here: http://chancingmyarm.blogspot.com/2011/03/like-it-shines-on-me.html)