When I was 19, America took my breath away
An encounter with young Irish women on their way to the US reminded me of my teenage trip there. I hope their long legs tan, the tips are generous and the crickets sing
‘I hope that those impressive daughters have a lovely American summer’
I have no recollection of where the last six months have gone. I can only assume that I was so busy descaling the dishwasher, replenishing the rinse aid and beating myself to a pulp over my personal shortcomings and professional failures that I failed to notice late winter and spring (unlike the tomato skins and lumps of uneaten cat food) gurgling down the drain.
Where does time go, I sighed to a friend, who was tentatively sniffing the heady aroma of freedom, having just dispatched her youngest child, now in her late teens, to work in the US for the summer. My friend’s answer, however, was lost in the rattle of her exhaust and the shake of her rah-rah skirt.
I shared a lift in Dublin Airport recently with a gaggle of leggy young Irish girls, all descending to the US immigration hall, presumably to take their protein-rich bone structures, shimmering hair, ongoing educations and confidence to the US for a summer of waiting tables in Manhattan, bar work in New Jersey, hull scaling on Lake Michigan, or maybe rollerblading cocktails around San Francisco.
It occurred to me that these crop-topped girls were part of a new tribe in this country: capable, resourceful, well-nurtured, knowledgeable young women who can balance on stilt-like shoes, blow-dry their own hair and still pack a first in zoology or engineering into their cavernous handbags.
Maybe, I thought, as a generation of parents we’ve got something right.
When I was a camp counsellor
A long time ago, when bat wings were just wings on a bat, and a packet of Pepperidge Farm cookies seemed a healthy eating choice, I spent my first summer away from home in the US. I might have been minus a hairdryer or much schooling (I certainly couldn’t have spelled self-actualisation), but, like the ladies in the lift, I was young and optimistic.
The job was in a summer camp in Connecticut, working as a carer for children with physical and intellectual disabilities. I was 19. The recruitment for “camp counsellors” (no hint of innuendo was intended) took place in a Dublin hotel, packed to the chandeliers with every unemployed youth still left in our bare country, bar the three who got jobs in the bank and the one who ended up in the seminary.
The remuneration for the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week gig, over two hot months in a leafy suburb of Hartford, was a pat on the back and a return ticket between Dublin and JFK. I thanked the recruiting officer kindly.
I was thrilled; I’d only ever been on a school trip to Coventry before (the city, not the euphemism).
I packed my shorts and my turquoise eyeliner. My boyfriend at the time gave me a bon-voyage card with a picture of Uncle Sam on it and a $100 note taped to the inside. “A buck for every . . .” he wrote. I was on my way.
America, here I come
America. Humid, exotic, extraordinary America.
It took my breath away: walk/don’t walk, squadrons of yellow taxis, the doughnuts, the dreadlocks, the grilled-cheese sandwiches, the whisky sours in dark bars, the laundromats full of beautiful brown-skinned boys.
The slivers of size-zero women being taken for a walk through Central Park by muscular dogs in glittering collars, the rattling subway trains, the neck-sprain skyscrapers piercing the clouds.
The monsoon rains in Connecticut, and my co-workers rolling into camp in convertibles with the roof down. And my dorm-mate in her baby pink cut-offs whispering into the balmy, cricket-heavy night about the joys of rhinoplasty. Christ, even the loo roll had tiny flowers printed on every sheet. Who knew life could be so rich?
The young women in Dublin Airport exited the lift, click-clacked away down the corridor, pulling their hopes, their hairdryers and their embedded belief in the possibility of happiness and success behind them in their glittering wheelie bags.
When I was last in the US two years ago, the sidewalks were choked with New Yorkers scurrying to prepare for a hurricane before the lights went out. Without her neon make-up on, the city looked tired, strained, and her windswept face frightened.
Strangely, I didn’t envy the young Dubliners’ incipient adventures. After all, time moves on.
I hope, however, that those impressive daughters have a lovely American summer. I hope their long legs tan. I hope the tips are generous and the crickets sing. I hope they enjoy their freedom on Independence Day.