There’s something about hauling an abandoned wooden chair through the back streets of Woodside, Queens, in the middle of the night that makes me feel like I should be wearing a balaclava and my best hoody.
People carting random items of furniture around the place is not an uncommon occurrence on the streets of New York; homeowners regularly leave their undesirables outside their houses incase it might be some poor man’s gold.
At some point during this dodgy operation, I had to wonder how, at the age of 28 with five years of college and several courses in alternative health studies under my belt, I’d ended up helping my roommate carry a piece of furniture through the night and up three flights of stairs to our apartment where it was destined for a place of glory in our sparsely furnished apartment at the side of our wonky table.
When I was little, I always thought that I’d have life sorted at this age, but as my eldest sister informed me the last day - “When have I ever done normal?” - and she has a point. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The memories are too priceless to sacrifice. Moving to another country was just as tough as I thought it would be but if it had been easy then perhaps the good parts would not shine as bright as they do.
‘Broke’ being our middle name, my three travelling companions and I got our first taste of New York in Bushwick Avenue, Brooklyn. We had booked the cheapest accommodation we could find on a website called Wimdue.com where you can find a cheap place to stay anywhere in the world, the catch being that you are staying in the spare room of a stranger’s house.
Half expecting our hosts to perform a reenactment from the “Here’s Johnny!” scene in “The Shining”, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves welcomed with open arms by a sweet young couple with a cute little baby in tow.
Bushwick was a unique taste of New York in itself however, and I remember being struck first of all by how “American” everything seemed, and yes, I know how stupid that sounds but it’s true.
Everyone seemed to drive a car the size of a tank, you could fit a small person into the fast food soda containers, a conscious effort had to be made to say “fries” instead of “chips” and “chips” instead of “crisps” and, although there was a deli every three steps, where were all the supermarkets?
After four days of constant apartment hunting from our temporary base in Bushwick, one horrible night in a hostel in the back arse of nowhere and nearly bursting an eardrum from the 200 decibel level of Spanish music every time we entered the nearest deli in Bushwick, Woodside seemed like a paradise and we wanted to live there.
Only one problem, no landlord wanted four people in a two-bedroomed apartment. In desperation, we convinced our broker that we had all won “The Lovely Girls Competition” of 2012 and please, oh please would she help us - she did, and we became the proud renters of an unfurnished apartment with two bedrooms and a kitchen/living area you could walk across in three steps. As tiny as it is, it holds one gem and that’s the view of the Manhattan skyline.
On nights when we were too broke to go out and losing faith that we’d ever find the jobs we wanted, we would look out our windows and breathe in some hope from the sea of lights that stretched into the distance, lorded over by easily recognisable landmarks like the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings.
We get a badge of honor for managing Christmas dinner in a kitchen that small.
Christmas in New York will forever remind me of sitting on discount store bought seats that reminded me why they were a bargain price in the first place as the legs started to do the splits beneath me before I’d even touched the mountain of food in front of me. The rest of dinner consisted of me merrily swinging my legs from my perch on a bedside foot locker that had been promoted to the honorary title of “seat”. Said foot locker was the first victim of a previous midnight haul by two of my housemates who found it pining for an owner outside a neighbor’s yard. Several streets and three flights of stairs later, it was initiated into our miniature palace.
We were also pretty nervous about the landlord discovering that he had four lodgers instead of two, so every time he made an appearance, the two of us who had not signed the lease would make it look like there was only one blow-up mattress per room and, once, even hid in our closet for fear he was going to do a spot check - it’s no Narnia but it’s quite spacious in there!
When you’re broke and looking for work, blow-up beds are the way to go but they bring their own hazards and come with their own rules:
1. Keep sharp objects away from them at all times.
2. Your elbows are also classed as sharp objects.
3. Make sure you get the one-year guarantee on the blow-up bed, you’ll need it in about a month.
4. Never underestimate the popping, tearing or hissing sounds that you might hear coming from beneath you. Nine times out of ten, your bed is doing the death rattle.
5. If you can’t find your roommate in the morning, check that she does not need rescuing from within the middle of the deflated remains of the blow-up bed that may have engulfed her within mounds of plastic during the night.
In the coming weeks we battled depleting stocks of money and rejection letters from every job we applied to. Our visa status seemed to be a hindrance as a lot of companies aren’t interested in the headache of extra paperwork. Who could blame them, I suppose - going through the visa paperwork process is enough to send anyone to the madhouse. As a friend of mine likes to say, I’d rather chew my own toenails than fill out another form after that.
With 90 days to get a job, or find ourselves back in Ireland twiddling our thumbs, we were three publishing graduates and one construction management graduate with a count-down clock over our heads and the embarrassing prospect of returning home after a mere three months to the questioning faces of those who had sent us off with tears and good luck messages.
Although we were meant to be finding work in the areas that we had graduated in, time and money were not our friends, so we did what most people do and got a job in the service industry working at an Irish bar where we were free to ask everyone “What’s the craic?” without being arrested on suspicion of hoarding drugs.
Life in an Irish bar is a little bit of home away from home but it somehow never loses the horrible waft of green leprechauns and “top o’ the mornin’ to ya” vibes. Nearly every customer has a great-great-great grandaddy that came from the boglands of Ireland way back when and a sixth cousin twice removed named John that came to America in 1803.
Despite my current wariness of the question “Are you from Ireland?”, I do like the way the eyes of the American customers light up and how they sometimes talk of Ireland with a knowledge that pleasantly surprises me and at other times makes me wonder if they’re pulling my leg.
When I informed one customer that it rained a lot in Ireland and that, no, it didn’t always look like the Discover Ireland advertisement posters, I instantly felt like I should have followed up with “but we do have leprechauns and we’re always happy”, he looked so disappointed, you’d swear I just shot a puppy.
Working Saint Patrick’s Day in an Irish pub at the center of New York was a crazy experience. The staff were told to prepare for the onslaught of people dressed in green as if we were troops preparing to do battle, and battle we did, squeezing through crowds that smothered the oxygen out of us, seating people that weren’t sure what their own names were and chopping off hands that got a little too friendly. I also had my other eardrum blown apart by the band of Irish bagpipers that serenaded the pub for several tunes. Still, we hadn’t come to America to work in a pub, we’d come to get experience and no one seemed to want to give us any.
A few weeks before D-day, my sister rang me to say that she had been to a fortune teller who had informed her that she had a sister in America who wouldn’t be coming home and would find the job she needed around two weeks before she was set to return to Ireland. Sure enough, not all fortune tellers are frauds because that’s what happened. Two weeks before D-day, IrishCentral.com took pity on me. My housemates also found jobs in their required areas just in the nick of time.
Our first months in New York were about finding our feet on the slopes of the mountain that is New York, adjusting to life in a different country and falling in love with NYC but, five months on, we have graduated from the “just visiting” pass to become the people that sigh in exasperation at the lunatic tourists who stop dead in front of us to take a picture while we’re trying to get to work in a hurry.
We have learned to accept the craziness of this city and to run from or laugh at it as the case may call for. We’ve also learned that time flies all too quickly. The city that never sleeps will not remember us when we leave, but one thing’s for sure, we’ll remember it.