My first St. Patrick’s Day in New York, I was fired. Or rather, the day after my first St. Patrick’s Day in New York, I was fired.
I was fired from my waitress job because I didn’t show up for work on St. Patrick’s Day. But in all fairness to myself, it was an unjust firing. I had asked, and been granted, the day off but at the last minute my manager, the cigar-chomping Mr. C, reneged and said I had to work.
He liked to play favorites and “Jackie” was getting the day off instead of me. The fact that Jackie was sitting on his knee as he told me this, and the fact that she had only just joined the staff, didn’t sit well with me.
I didn’t say anything but I took the day off anyway.
When I came in the following day, Mr. C told me I was fired.
I hadn’t even enjoyed the day off. All my friends were working. What a greenhorn I was, not to know that St. Patrick’s Day was the biggest tip-making day of the year.
I remember making my way downtown and watching the parade, but there was no fun in wandering the city on my own. I made my way back to the Bronx and waited for my friends to finish up their waitress jobs so we could have a drink in the local pub.
After the firing, I spent a sleepless night pondering my dilemma. I didn’t dare tell Nora my roommate. She was the one who had insisted I take the job in the first place.
Fed up with my attempts to find a nice office job for myself (well nigh impossible since I didn’t have a green card), she issued an ultimatum. “You better have a job when I come home this evening, or else –” she said handing me a copy of The Daily News, and adding for good measure: “And what’s wrong with waitressing, anyway?”
(This was sometime in November of 1972. I had spent the summer working in Atlantic City and then three months touring the country on a “90 days for $99” bus ticket. My summer friends had returned to Ireland and I’d decided to stay on with Nora whose brother Tony shared a flat with my brother).
The Brew & Burger in Manhattan were looking for waitresses according to an ad in the News and off I went for an interview. The hiring office was somewhere in the West 30s. I remember that I had to climb stairs so it must have been in one of those old brownstone buildings. I remember also that the waiting room was kind of dark and old fashioned and that when I was called in for my interview a girl not much older than myself was seated behind the desk.
Do you have any waitress experience? she asked.
No, I said.
Do you have a green card?
No, I said.
You have experience and you were born in New York but brought up in Ireland, she said.
I’d been so nervous that everything sounded kind of muffled (something in my inner ear tightens up when I’m nervous). I think my vision must have been off too, because it was as if she only just then came into focus and I realized two things, that she was Irish and that she was heavily pregnant.
Where are you from? I asked.
Clare, she said.
She scribbled an address on a piece of paper and told me to turn up for work the next day.
Nothing else was said.
Nora took me down Fordham Road for an apron and waitress shoes.
She told me I should get a half size bigger but I didn’t listen.
Later I would wish I had.
I won’t regale you with my first day’s waitressing except to say that I really thought that a customer was having me on when he asked for a “Rusty nail.” And that the hostess took me at my word when I said I had experience and put me on the second-busiest station. My uniform consisted of a blue and white dirndl shirt and top with a Peter Pan collar, and a sort of half hat that refused to stay pinned on my hair.
Four months later, I had learned the ropes, the shoes were broken in, I’d earned my stripes, and I was out of a job.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, as the saying goes. The morning after the firing, I arose as usual and took the train downtown with Nora. I waved as she got off at her stop to head to the John Barleycorn and continued on to the 34th Street stop. I made my way along to 35th Street and Fifth Avenue with no real plan in mind.
“I told you you were fired,” Mr. C said as I walked through the door, the cigar clamped tightly between his teeth. I don’t remember what I said, if I said anything at all. I just remember standing there. I think he was astonished at my audacity, which wasn’t audacity at all but fear that I’d not get another job and have to go back to Ireland.
He shook his head slowly. “All right,” he muttered, after what seemed like an age,
“Go down and change.”
This St. Patrick’s Day 2010 as I enjoyed a pre-parade bacon sandwich at Langan’s on 47th Street owned by Des O’Brien from my hometown, and chatted to a couple of firemen and some subscribers to Irish America (hello ladies), I watched a waiter try to make his way through the crowd. “You have to hold the tray up over your head,” I instructed him “and kick them in the shins if they don’t move.”
Once, on another St. Patrick’s Day in a bar and restaurant called Chauncey’s that used to be on 44th Street, I did just that. Tired of pleading “excuse me” and being ignored as I tried to get through the crowd to serve “Cocktail Lady” as I called her because she always said, “I’ll have a cocktail” and you were supposed to know that she meant a dry martini straight up, I kicked a fireman in the shin as my hands were busy holding my tray over my head with Cocktail Lady’s martini.
The fireman let out a yelp (I didn’t know my own strength) and Danny the bartender (the Irish American son of the owner, who I still see once in a while) called me a donkey.
I took great umbrage at Danny’s remark, and fled back into the kitchen where I broke down in tears. Roberto, the chef from Santa Domingo who had the most beautiful big brown eyes framed with curled up long lashes (I mean no disrespect but Roberto’s eyes always made me miss my favorite cow back home on the farm) gave me a glass of cooking sherry. “Drink this, Flaco,” he instructed. (He always called me Flaco, the Spanish word for skinny, which I was back then). After a few minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I threw back the sherry and went back out into the fray.
It’s a long, long way from there to here.
This recent St. Patrick’s Day, I had lunch in Bergdorf’s looking out on the parade from the heights of fashionable Fifth Avenue. I went on to the Adrian Flannelly radio show (a good friend of the magazine, is our Adrian), and later I moved on to the magnificent American Irish Historical Society building to watch the end of the parade (The Society, which was founded in 1897 to inform the world of the achievements of the Irish in America, is where on March 15th we [Irish America magazine] honored our Irish American of the Year John Fitzpatrick and the Irish Voice honored the 30 Top Irish Americans in Media).
I had a great St. Patrick’s Day. But I look back with fond memories on those early days, especially at the end of the night when a bunch of us girls would take a Checker cab to the Bronx. We would be tired but happy after our day of work and our pockets full of dollars.
“Do it off the meter” we’d request and usually the cabdriver would comply for we’d make it worth his while. We laughed the whole way – you could easily fit six in those old Checker cabs with the two drop-down seats -- to the Ranch or the Bunratty or Durty Nelly’s. The end of the night would be ours, and maybe Mary Lydon (if it was the Ranch) would sing The Cliffs of Duneen, or someone else would offer up a tune and a sort of quiet would descend and we’d all miss home in Ireland a bit. I’d think of my younger brothers and sisters and shamrocks picked from the front field, and those green ribbons with a gold cardboard harps that we wore to Mass.
The Cliffs of Doneen
You may travel far far from your own native land
Far away o'er the mountains, far away o'er the foam
But of all the fine places that I've ever been
Sure there's none can compare with the cliffs of Doneen.
Take a view o'er the mountains, fine sights you'll see there
You'll see the high rocky mountains o'er the west coast of Clare.
Oh the town of Kilkee and Kilrush can be seen
From the high rocky slopes round the cliffs of Doneen.
It's a nice place to be on a fine summer’s day
Watching all the wild flowers that ne'er do decay.
Oh the hares and lofty pheasants are plain to be seen
Making homes for their young round the cliffs of Doneen.
Fare thee well to Doneen, fare thee well for a while
And to all the kind people I'm leaving behind,
To the streams and the meadows where late I have been
And the high rocky slopes round the cliffs of Doneen.
You can watch Paddy Reilly sing “The Cliffs of Doneen” on youtube.