I’m a girl who loves her space. I like having my own bedroom, my own quiet time to play guitar where no one can hear me, to walk down a street without having to swim through a sea of people, and regular doses of scenic mountains. So, why oh why, you might ask, would I voluntarily come to a place where nearly twice the entire population of Ireland could fit, where I share a bedroom and live in an apartment you couldn’t swing a cat in.
I spent five years of my life in the academic bubble and stepped out into the real world to the bang of a recession in full swing. It seemed like every Tom, Dick and Harry had a degree or a masters and every one of them was in the same boat as I was: unemployed.
When you leave university, you expect some kind of opportunity to be out there for you but a previously booming economy had made sure that by the time the recession hit, I might as well have collected five crisp packets to become a graduate rather than slog through five years of study. It seemed that Ireland was bursting at the seams with educated people with no place to go.
Motivated by my own restlessness and the encouragement of friends and family, I jumped on the band wagon to New York at the last minute with three girls I’d known from university. It did seem like there wasn’t much choice in the matter due to the dead end that Ireland had become but, in the end, it was the temptation of life experience that made my decision for me.
We arrived in the night with our lives packed into suitcases that had eaten one too many pairs of jeans and made our way through crazy traffic and bright lights to Brooklyn, where we would stay for the next four nights. There seemed to be so much to do in the beginning and, due to visa restrictions, we only had 90 days to do it all. It’s a bit of a catch-22 but it seems you can’t get an apartment without a social security number, yet you can’t get a social security number without an address. Thank God for an accommodating broker willing to take a chance on us. After spending four nights with my three friends in a small room in Brooklyn and one night in a hostel, two doors down from a trumpet player who sounded like he was announcing royalty every five seconds, we were relieved to get our own place, though it wasn’t easy.
In Ireland, I’d never been asked for so much as a reference when moving house, whereas over here, we needed recent payslips, a good credit rating and references, whilst also discovering the joys of broker fees.
Having an apartment, no matter how tiny and unfurnished, felt like hitting the jackpot and we proceeded to make it our own with the cheapest that Kmart had to offer (the saucepans rusted through in three weeks and the first blow-up mattress went flat within two).
Being in New York on a strict budget can be pretty depressing when there’s three million things to do and no money to do them. When having a cup of tea in a café feels like splurging, you know it’s going to be a while before you see your first Broadway show. You need iron will power or an unlimited bank account to walk these streets.
Temptation is everywhere from the shops to the theatres, bars and restaurants and the smells that permeate the air are often responsible for emptying the wallet, and sometimes the stomach.
At the beginning it felt like I had left reality to take part in a movie. Even the dirtiness of the subways and the piles of rubbish everywhere seemed to be part of the film set and it took me a while to realise that this was my life now. The search for a job brought us down to earth as we could only take part in the movie if we had the money to finance ourselves.
Looking for work was a full time job in itself and after weeks of generic email replies or no replies at all, it felt like the only opportunity I would be given was to pick between a padded cell or a strait jacket. However, the good thing about all the crazy and eccentric people in New York is that it just takes a subway ride to reassure your sanity.
Since coming here, I have been propositioned by a hot dog stand vendor, chased down 40th street by a crazy man (not the hot dog vendor! different guy) and felt irrational urges to shove trumpets where the sun don’t shine. But I’ve also soaked up the beauty of the New York Public Library, Grand Central Station, Times Square and Fifth Avenue like any other wide-eyed tourist.
New York is a contradiction of grubbiness and glamour with a mixture of the most eccentric, crazy and normal inhabitants that I will probably ever see. One minute, you can be on the subway, about to throw up while watching a man who looks like he could blend nicely into a Tim Burton movie devour half a can of dog food (the first half having been enjoyed by the dog), the next you’re being blinded by the lights of Times Square, trying to absorb everything at once while trying not to crash into other tourists.
It may be a heady mixture of the weird and the wonderful, but in some ways, being in New York reaffirms our Irishness. In the search for familiarity among the sea of unknown faces and unfamiliar places, we gravitate towards Irish bars like we’ve never been in them before and feel an instant connection with other Irish immigrants. It is ironic that home seems to come closer, in that Ireland becomes part of our identity rather than just somewhere we’re from.
Despite missing friends and family, money restrictions and the promised donation of organs to secure some Barry’s tea and Kerrygold butter, I am one of the many to have fallen under the spell of New York City and know that it is an experience I will never forget.