In search of the American Dream
An Irishman’s Diary: A Fourth of July to forget
‘Our J1 student visa experience was meant to have been so different. Promised jobs at a summer camp in the Catskills in upstate New York fell through at the last moment. So we ended up tramping the torrid streets of Manhattan looking for work.’ Photograph: Getty Images
July 4th, 1970. I serve pre-dinner martinis to a rich couple living on a delightful isthmus in Long Island. I proceed with due ceremony to serve ice cubes on a silver platter to a beautifully coiffed poodle. My wife of a few months and I are trainee substitutes for a Chinese servant couple who have not had a holiday for years.
Earlier on that Independence Day afternoon we had watched evangelist Billy Graham intoning the glory of the American Dream in Washington on TV. Sitting at a corner in the kitchen was the one fragment of that dream still alive in our Long Island “prison”.
A retired elderly gardener, who lived in a shed in the garden, addressed us graciously in his charming Montana drawl. He was shushed by the Chinese couple with exclamations of “she dirty, she dirty”.
Our J1 student visa experience was meant to have been so different. Promised jobs at a summer camp in the Catskills in upstate New York fell through at the last moment.
So we ended up tramping the torrid streets of Manhattan looking for work.
After several days of fruitless searching we were a little frightened. A certain naivety led us to the Miss Dixie Employment Agency. A crush of black matronly women, with curious and friendly faces, filled the waiting area.
The only white person in the room apart from ourselves greeted us effusively. “Well, hello, come in, come in. What have we here?”
She pounced and ushered us into a side room. Embarrassed at skipping the queue, we presented our CVs and answered a few questions. From being nobodies on the streets we were prize prey.
“I might have just the thing for the two of you,” she said. “A gentleman out in Long Island has Chinese servants who need a break.”
Without further ado we were introduced to the client – a small, wizened man who seemed more interested in impressing us with his credentials as a shaker and mover in the Democratic Party than with our fitness as house servants.
“I met your Bernadette Devlin only a few weeks ago at a fund-raising event,” he told us when he discovered we were from Ireland.
Noting from her CV that Brighid had worked at a school for children with special needs, he came out with a line intended to clinch the deal, “You’ll get along great with my wife. She works with blind children.”
As he described where he lived – sandy beaches to the front and back of the house – visions of our lost “paradise” in the Catskills returned. A snap decision was required – anything to escape joblessness and the inferno of downtown New York.
The introduction to his “charming wife” was the first shock. A very large woman in khaki shorts and a loud check shirt, she took an instant dislike to us. She clearly thought her husband had been hoodwinked; there were going to be no cosy chats between her and Brighid about remedial education.
Our long working days on the Long Island isthmus were full of weird moments. We called it a prison because when we tried walking during our few hours off in the middle of the day, we were nearly killed by passing cars; the roads were not designed for wandering servants.
The wife’s quarters, especially the bathroom, were a shrine to the poodle. The dressing table, hair brushes and toilet seat were embellished with images of the poodle-goddess.
The couple appeared to live completely separate lives apart from the evening meal when the husband returned from the city. The meals passed in silence with the TV news blaring in the background.
I played revolutionary fantasies as I hoovered and cleaned incessantly, imagining the nozzle as a machine gun. I pulled faces as I retired from serving at the dinner table. We later reckoned these had been caught in a mirror. Whatever the cause, both sides agreed to terminate the experiment after less than a week.
The rest of our J1 working experience is a story of the kindness of strangers and happy families. We phoned relatives of a friend of mine in Philadelphia. We spent two months with this open, hospitable couple and their three young children. I worked as a gardener in the leafy suburbs of Chestnut Hill and Brighid as a waitress in a city centre diner. We sweltered but experienced the good and the beautiful in the US after first encountering the fabled grotesque.