Ciara Kenny

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In the land of Harvey Milk and money

It is true: the hardest part about emigration is saying goodbye, writes Quentin Fottrell from New York.

Fri, Mar 2, 2012, 07:10


It is true: the hardest part about emigration is saying goodbye, writes Quentin Fottrell from New York.

Quentin Fottrell before leaving Dublin. Photographs: Annie Atkins

THE DAY BEFORE I left for New York, I woke up in the same bedroom I slept in as a child. It was February 27, 2011. I lay there listening to the bamboo rustling in the garden below. They were the last mournful whispers of the Celtic Tiger: those plants once stood outside my own home in Dublin 8, which I bought in September 2006 at the very peak of the property boom.

On this, what would be my last day in Dublin for some time, I dragged my carcass out of bed, went downstairs, poured myself coffee and crawled back into bed.

It’s true. The hardest part about emigration is saying goodbye.

The same question (“You’re moving to New York?”) and answer (“Yes”) go on for months and months. A few days before I left, I met my ex-boyfriend Tony in Chez Max restaurant, in the building adjacent to the former Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society – an appropriate location. After, we reached for each other’s hand for the first time since our break-up two years earlier. There would be no more trips to the Cineworld and pick’n’mix for us. When would I see him again? I got into a cab and drove away. The Best That You Can Do, by Christopher Cross, was playing on the radio. (That’s the theme music from the movie Arthur: “If you get caught between the moon and New York City.”) Either someone up there was having a laugh, or the universe was telling me that everything would be okay. But the timing was too much: I sobbed (loudly) all the way home.

Leaving everything behind is not easy, but I needed to break new ground, and it would be an adventure: Where else to go but the land of Harvey Milk and money? The week before I left, I was invited on Marian Finucane’s radio panel. She asked me why I was emigrating. There were many reasons, I told her: the economic climate, the actual climate. I wanted to live in a society that had same-sex marriage, or was closer to getting it.

“Would you really leave because of that?” Finucane asked. Yes, I said. I would. Plus, I wasn’t 30 any more and I was running out of time. I didn’t mention the binge drinking and the violence on the streets of Dublin.

The streets of New York feel a hell of a lot safer.

Dana Rosemary Scallon was on Finucane’s radio panel, too. She leaned over during the ad break and said, “I disagree with your views, but I respect your opinion.” We bonded over our differences. Imagine that. Afterwards, a friend emailed me to say that I was cosying up to Dana on-air, deserting a sinking ship and, when I urged my friend not to vote for Fine Gael, she said there were “more difficult” issues than same-sex marriage. For me, that was like telling a suffragette to shut up and vote. Was unemployment the only acceptable reason to emigrate?

Quentin Fottrell in New York

On February 28th, 2011, the day of my departure, I woke up early. It was a beautiful day. My aunt, my mother and I ate breakfast together.

Most of my personal belongings – my last treasures of the Celtic Tiger – had been shipped. My teardrop-shape coffee table I gave to my mother.

My aunt tied a rainbow-coloured belt around my big black suitcase, so I’d recognise it coming out of the cargo hold on the other side. The rainbow is a symbol of the gay rights movement, but my aunt did not realise the significance of that.

The Irish emigrant’s transatlantic lunch: apple, banana, cheese sandwich and packet of Fig Rolls. I was lucky, I had people waiting for me on the other side – the wave of Irish emigrants who left in the 1990s when I left college and some dear American friends, too.

Since then, I have made many more. New Yorkers have a refugee culture; if they know you for five minutes, like you and invite you for dinner, they really mean it. We Irish, still clinging to our postcodes and school ties, don’t always follow through.

But like Dublin, Manhattan is a village. Having lunch in the old Empire Diner, now the Highliner Diner, on 10th Avenue last summer, I noticed a man with grey hair staring at me. It was an old school friend from the Institute of Education. The last time I saw him he was washing car windscreens in Booterstown to earn his airfare to New York. I remember him saying, “Thank God for the pound coin.” Now, he takes photographs for W and Esquire , has teenage children, and a young daughter. He was moving back and had just bought a grand house in Monkstown. And me? I was going in the opposite direction as a single man.

This past year in New York, I threw myself into dating. One man I met was in a cult; he wanted me to sign up to a $10,000 (€7,435) self-development course. I’d made enough bad investments already. Another was auditioning for a reality TV show. “Wanna come up and see my sizzle reel?” he asked. Is that what they call it? Dating here is a leisure activity such as hill-walking: an Irish-Mexican cowboy from Nebraska, a Filipino actor from Alaska and a Cuban dancer from Rhode Island are among my favourite new friends.

New faces aside, of course I miss the old ones back home, but I’m not exactly homesick. Social networking helps. I am now a ghostly observer of my old life online. Hilary and Andrea, two of my oldest friends had babies – both boys. We talked on Skype and they held them up in front of the webcam.

I follow many others on Facebook. Their status updates, pictures, check-ins (“Tony is now in Cineworld”) and Tweets quietly follow me around wherever I go. Like footsteps, they are always behind me. But, when I turn around, there is no one there.