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A Young Lad in America #4 December 10, 2007

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Part 4 – Long Island

We pick up the story as the “tourist thing” has been done, I haven’t been murdered by the radio seller and I set out for a summer of debauchery on Long Island …

Our destination was Montauk, right out on the eastern tip of Long Island – at least it was the destination of some of our party. I still had a couple of days to fill and those greenbacks were burning a hole in my pocket ! I had a job prearranged at a country club which I estimated was “close enough” to Montauk but which in reality was actually closer to Washington DC (almost !) …

Having wound our way through Grand Central Station and caught the LIRR – the Long Island Rail Road – we set out for the end of the island and passed through towns with some great names like Mineola, Babylon, Hicksville and passed close enough to the legendary golf course Shinnecock Hills – nobody but me seemed impressed with the facts that I reeled off about the great things that had happened there.

Montauk didn’t strike me as anything more than the end of the island where New Yorkers came to holiday and drink beer on the beaches … I much preferred the Hamptons but never, I’m afraid, made it to any of those fabulous parties seen so regularly nowadays on reality TV. The only real experience I had in Montauk was my first American diner experience, served by the typical waitress in short pink skirt, hair in a bun and chewing gum as she poured watery coffee for us.

I ordered eggs done some special way or other and was quickly asked “Howdeeya wannem kid ? In their shells ?” I quickly realised that she wanted to know what way I liked my eggs cooked ! I suppose the fact that in Ireland the only way you get eggs is fried, wouldn’t have had much impact on her. I also remember having to shell out $50 dollars for a motel room when one of the “friends” I went with said, right before bedtime, that in fact I couldn’t stay in his house and I could make my own way, thank you, bye now, door closed – all in one action ! Ronjoe’s was the name of it and it was a dump as far as I remember … next morning I set out all alone for Garden Ciddy City with all I had in the world in a worn rucksack with a teddy bear good luck charm hanging out of one of the zips !

I certainly wasn’t in Kansas anymore … [sic]

A Young Lad in America #3 December 4, 2007

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Part 3 – Rambling round Manhattan

We pick up the tale as the J1 visa company left us to our own inexperienced devices in the city that never sleeps …

It’s hard to put down on screen what goes through one’s head when you are, really and truly walking through the imagined places of your childhood … to the outsider I was like the usual star struck tourist wandering about Manhattan looking like prime robbery real estate but to me I was coming across places and images I had kept in my head as a child and watching in awe as they came to life and sucked me into them !

New York is iconic – it’s the scene for so many great movies and books and TV shows and all the rest of it … we knew more about stuff like Diff’rent Strokes and Friends than we did about the shows in our own country … and here we were on the greatest movie set in the world. So it might not come across in a piece of writing but to say that we were as comfortable (and yet not !) in New York as we would’ve been in Dublin kind of explains it …

Anyway – there were tourist things to be done and a whole city to explore before we and by that I mean ” I ” set out on our own. We went to all the usual places, punctuating our couple of days only to rest a little and eat and drink a lot at Manhattan’s plethora of Irish bars – cringe ! God why do these places attract exPats ? most of them are about as Irish as Skippy the Bush Kangaroo !

I remember being dumb struck in Wall Street as the bell gonged and mayhem ensued on the floor – how in the hell they all knew who was shouting at who and what they were saying was beyond me … we were worried that by us waving our arms they would think we were trying to sell shares in some frozen orange juice company in Namibia or somewhere … so we kept quiet ! I was reprimanded by a bum for taking a picture of another bum asleep on a park bench – again this was something the folks back home would never believe – people sleep in parks !  We also went to Liberty Island and Ellis Island and over and back on the Staten Island ferry to see what we could see … and that metal bull at the end of Broadway, just before Battery Park – yes, we had to get our pictures taken in front of that because it had the biggest you know whats  we’d ever seen !  Find a funny statue of a bull with its balls out and click – God we were such kids !

I saw my first hypodermic needle on the ground under a bridge in Central Park – we were sheltering from the rain and while staying in the NYU run youth hostel on Amsterdam Avenue I came within an inch of being murdered – ruthlessly so … by a guy who was actually just trying to sell me a radio ! But he was dark and 7 feet tall so in my naivety I thought I was doomed … those kinds of fellas were always bad news in the movies !

One of the more real “head pictures” * I have still is of some cops on Amsterdam Avenue and the hot pursuit and top secret job they surely found themselves in. Two plain clothes officers ran from block to block, walkie-talkies in hand, in pursuit of a no doubt serious criminal while I just stood on the corner, looking for my youth hostel, and watched in excitement. I think I might even have had a meatball sub in my hands – I mean come on …

And so I asked them for directions ! in the middle of an obviously very important police chase – a life and death matter no doubt about it. And the fat one just looked at me in disbelief and muttered “Throo the praaajects ’bout 3 bloacks – and watcchhit in dere kid !” as he threw his head in the general direction of a series of tower blocks heading west.

As far as I knew a project was something we were given in school like a science project but I found out what that particular term meant in relation to low cost housing soon enough. On my trip through “the praaajects” was where I met our radio toting friend mentioned above … my pace needlessly but instinctively quickened and I delighted in my close shave when I met my friends later at the hostel …

* Head pictures  are pictures that immediately jump into your mind’s eye when someone/somewhere/something is mentioned and is my brain’s profile pic, if you will, of that person, place or thing !

A Young Lad in America #2 November 21, 2007

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PART 2 – Manhattan

When I stepped out of Newark airport and was hit by American air for the first time I took quite a gasping breath almost immediately … this was New Jersey heat and I had never experienced the humidity before. I am, after all, one of the most pasty looking people from one of the most pasty looking races on earth … Ireland just doesn’t do heat !

Our initial destination was a fairly reasonable looking “youth” hostel on the lower west side of Manhattan – Chelsea to be exact. 21st and 9th, if I am not mistaken. And so we holed up in the hostel for a while until the representative of the visa company came and gave us our itinerary for the next 2 days of orientation ! It was great, we thought, that there were some real Americans who were going to tell us the lie of the land and not let us come to any harm in the big, bad city …

And so we went out exploring, with fellas I didn’t really know and fellas I haven’t seen since. We did like every respectable and patriotic Irishman does the minute he gets the chance abroad- went to the pub ! And a tacky Irish pub with fluorescent shamrocks in the window at that – even the waitresses wore tacky tartan skirts and a couple had roller skates ! What is it that goes off in our Irish heads that activates a homing beacon in the nearest watering establishment ? Several pints later – and much braver – we decided to go looking for some more trendy bars and ended up not being let in to Hooters ! We didn’t even know what they did in there but we wanted to get in all the same.

Next morning, the J1 company had arranged a local beat cop to come to the youth hostel’s common room to give us a safety demonstration … what to do if approached by “a hood” sort of thing ! We had one day in Manhattan and then we were on our own ! Going to Virginia to work on a farm ? Tough – make it there yourself !

Anyway this cop was a class act – typical rotund, khaki panted, beer gut kind of guy who gave us a run through of what to do and not to do. Two things I remember – it was the first time I have ever heard a bag or backpack referred to as a “pocketbook” – I mean WTF ? It ain’t a book and it doesn’t go in your pocket ! but hey, as the man said, “summa yoo guys might notta bin to this state befoa – heck I think summa yoo might notta even bin to this ciddy befoa !” I didn’t tell him this was my first time in the country !

Anyway one of my most favourite photos of myself was taken on this day. See from when I was very young, I always wanted to be a New York cop (still do !) – don’t know why, just did. I even took the pre-qualification tests online and filled out forms and everything. You had to be an American citizen though – so close ! The picture shows me leaning against a NYPD pickup truck and simultaneously jumping up from its scalding hot bonnet such was the heat of the surface … the look on my face is priceless and my arms bear the marks still.

One of my favourite head images – you know the ones that pop into your head whenever someone mentions that they were in New York or wherever – is of a crosswalk near Chinatown. We had gone out for a gander and at this particularly busy street we had seen the typical New York crowded street scene where every other vehicle is a yellow cab and the streets criss-cross off into the distance. It’s an image that I still keep fresh.

Intersections, yellow cabs, beeping horns, steam billowing from gutters, strange smells and sounds – I was on the film set of my youth … cop shows and murder mysteries – all happening in front of me !

It was close to this street that I had the famous Linguine alla Sinatra  at an Italian restaurant in Liddle Iddly  … the restaurant was just a small, musty tableclothed but homely looking room with a mammoth chef working away behind the counter and an annoyed waiter hurrying customers along – just the way it should be. So I had the linguine and asked the waiter why it was called Linguine alla Sinatra  … his curt reply without even looking at me was “cos that’s how the guy liked it when he was heee !” Imagine – my arse and Frank Sinatra’s arse might’ve even been on the same chair, fifty years apart ! 6 degrees of separation and all that !

Now on my own and with two days left before I had to be in Garden City, Long Island, I would soon have to forage for myself.

A Young Lad in America #1 November 19, 2007

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A Young Lad in America #1 – Departure

In the early summer of 1998 and at the tender age of 21, I set out for a summer of fun in America, hoping to tread the many paths that generations of students before me had done. If I could pave the way with my happy tales and stories of (mis)adventure, maybe I could encourage the kids from the future to do the same.

I was recently bereaved having lost my father and felt as though I was standing on the precipice of adulthood without him, really wanting to jump. I wince now, looking back on the way my mind worked at that age and the way I reacted to being put in some strange and wondrous situations …

Suffices to say that I think everyone should try and spend some time abroad when they are young and impressionable and where better than the self styled “Capital of the World” – New York City. Its popularity has somewhat since been overtaken by the beaches and bars of Australia … but not for me … plonk me in the middle of Manhattan or on New Jersey’s south shore and I’d live there forever !

PART 1 – Departure

America is such a great and diverse country. Whilst waiting in the lounge in Shannon airport, homemade tinfoil covered sandwiches in hand, myself and my travelling companions were already immersed in its modern culture, way of life and even the way we talked. Except to us it was “our” culture too … we grew up on Huckleberry Finn, KnightRider and eating candy covered popcorn in badly lit Saturday night movie theatres.

The first unfamiliar hurdle we had to jump was the immigration at Shannon airport. We couldn’t believe that yes, the Americans came over here and set up an immigration bureau in our airport, just to save you the plane fare home if you were found to be in breach of some law or other …

I was ushered up, now stone faced for fear that laughing would immediately disbar me from entering the US, to the next available booth, where I presented the immaculately uniformed gentleman with my passport and visa documentation. I noted he had a cool looking handgun in his holster and I wondered did he ever have to use it in Shannon ? and jump out and shout “Freeze” at some poor unsuspecting (and very dangerous) Irish octogenarian … I actually believed such things happened and that they would throw you in the cells for looking crossways at them !

So my turn came and I chatted away to the immigration guy – all my paperwork was in order of course and I had a job prearranged to go to as well as a return ticket and so he was happy that I didn’t present a threat to national security.

I remember him asking me “Where ya headin’ fawa son ?” in something approximating a New York accent …

– “Long Island, sir” I replied, having been reared to call respectable members of the community sir or madam …
– “Where bouts ?”
– “Garden City, Long Island … I’ve a job in a country club”
– “Gaaden Ciddy huh ? Gonna scoa yesself a nice Jewish chick !”
– “Erm…”
And so that broke the ice and we chatted some more … we were buddies now !
And then he asked :
– “Whatcha got in de bag ?”
– “Oh just some travel stuff … walkman, book, sandwiches ..”
– “Any beeea in there ?” says he with a more serious tone
(Why would I bring beer on to the plane ? Those were the days you could get free beer on the plane itself)
Cue laughter from me at the question …
– “No sir, no beer !”
– “Why yoo laughin then ? Gimme that baeg !”

And so I hand him the bag when he bursts out laughing and hands the bag back to me with a nod to me to get out of his way and through the gate onto pseudo American soil.

– “Look out faa dem Jooish broads now kid, hear ?”

You couldn’t make stuff up like that but to me it was like water off a duck’s back … I couldn’t wait ! On to the plane we went for the longest journey of any of our lives so far – a whole 6 hours. Destination Newark and then to a youth hostel on the lower east side of Manhattan. The orientation company had agreed with that hostel that we could stay our first 2 and last 2 nights with them as part of the whole J1 visa package … and so we did.

A Young Lad in America November 16, 2007

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“A Young Lad in America” is my attempt to serialize part of my (mostly) misspent youth, 5 months of which was spent in the United States on a J1 visa. I thought – as all 21 year olds do – that I knew it all and that this summer was going to be nothing but thigh slapping bouts of alcohol fuelled merriment, joyous womanising and life changing experiences.

Some of those things happened and more didn’t but what sure did happen was that my eyes were opened to the wonders and strangeness of the grown up world, into which I was unknowingly about to make my first real foray !

So keep an eye out and I hope I don’t bore the pants off you with my ramblings – they are sure to be coated with large amounts of hyperbole, a little melancholy and a whole lot of rose-tinted American goodness … sure the pavements of New Yawk City haven’t been the same since !