‘My mother laughed when she heard I was heading across the Atlantic to tidy bedrooms’

Emigrant Marie-Therese Keegan mourns the loss of the J1 visa in the US

Marie-Therese Keegan and her husband Don West

Marie-Therese Keegan and her husband Don West

 

Originally from Sligo, Marie Therese Keegan lives in London with her husband Don and teenage children, Amber and Sawyer. She works with Age UK Richmond helping older people “love later life”. She spent the summer of ’85 in the US on a J1 visa, where she worked as a chambermaid.

Since its conception in the 1960s, tens of thousands of Irish students have made the summer pilgrimage to the US on a J1-visa. They’ve waited tables and served behind bars. They’ve found work as drivers and cleaners. Often taking jobs the American students didn’t want.

How my mother laughed, when she heard I was heading across the Atlantic to be paid to tidy bedrooms given the state of my own. She made it clear I would not be getting a reference from her.

I knew what chambermaiding involved because my older sister had cleaned in the same resort of Montauk, a hamlet in East Hampton, New York, the year before. I had a younger sister who’d be looking for the job a couple of years later, so I needed to be a good caretaker. That’s how it worked then. Addresses of sponsors and employers got passed around campuses. Although I was at university in Dublin, my older sister was at UCG and Montauk was where most of their US-bound cohort ended up. Maynooth was also well represented during summer holidays in the fashionable fishing town on the tip of Long Island. My sister saw Billy Joel and his uptown girl in a bar there. I’d be keeping my eyes peeled.

Marie-Therese Keegan in the towel cupboard during her J1 stint in the US in 1985
Marie-Therese Keegan in the towel cupboard during her J1 stint in the US in 1985

Accommodation came with the job. While we cleaned luxurious spacious beach condos, we crawled out of cramped clapboard buildings that housed bunks and little else. In lieu of air con we had a soda vending machine, luminous and positioned outside our door. Chilled Pepsi and Dr Peppers on tap for a quarter. Day and night. Many’s the time I guzzled a soda, straight back in one, to quench the heat.

Early each morning, to the soothing and familiar sounds of the Atlantic ocean, we gathered at the laundry to receive our duty list, along with towers of dazzling white fluffy towels and crisp linen sheets. Our cumbersome trolleys creaked under the weight of the accoutrements required to provide a quick daily service or a thorough checkout clean.

The resort skirted the coastline, with wealthy guests having access to a private beach. A fair share of the strand ended up back in the condos, an aid for scouring as we got down on hands and knees to wash floors

The resort skirted the coastline, with wealthy guests having access to a private beach. A fair share of the strand ended up back in the condos, an aid for scouring as we got down on hands and knees to wash floors and scrub shower cubicles and toilets. Checkouts meant you got to be the maid to pick up the tip envelope. I’d received a tip of a different kind from my sister who suggested I draw a shamrock on the envelope to net a better return. My mother was right. I didn’t find the work easy, but it was 1985 and, with the dollar matching the pound, it was a good time to be earning in the US.

There was no rule to say you couldn’t clean with the telly switched on. I felt a pang of homesickness watching Bob Geldof telling folk to “dig deep and feed the world” during Live Aid. Dr Ruth, the diminutive sex therapist, hosted a daily TV show that proved popular with us Irish maids.

One morning, I walked into a vacant condo, disappointed to find the tip envelope empty. I was somewhat consoled to discover a giant carton of fresh orange juice and boxes of sugared doughnuts the departing guests had left behind. I beckoned across to the other maids and soon five of my pals abandoned their stations to breakfast with me. We’d had these sneaky gatherings before, but this was the first where I was host. We tore into those supplies like locusts, sitting on the sofa watching Dr Ruth wax on as only she could. The condo faced the sea. The French doors were open and the blinds danced in a gentle breeze.

American employers will miss their industrious guests this summer, although I’m not convinced that I would be a great loss to the hospitality sector

Next thing a man and woman entered. New guests already? It was too early. That’s when I realised that this couple were the current occupiers and they hadn’t checked out. Both clearly shocked (as were we, I might add). The woman burst into tears. My fellow maids made the quickest exit, out the French doors and back to their carts. I wanted the ground to swallow me up. We were eating their food. The man bellowed “Out” as he went to comfort his wife. I sobbed that I was sorry and ran to my next condo, but not before noticing their suitcases, packed and positioned by the bedroom door. How had I overlooked them?

I was upset fearing instant dismissal. Fortunately I didn’t get the sack. Instead I was demoted to showroom cleaner. There was no opportunity for tips (or breakfast feasts) as I was driven alone to new developments around town to dust and Hoover. My poor judgment had broken the family chambermaiding chain in Montauk. A couple of years later on her J1, my sister headed to Nantucket, Massachusetts and a job as a shop clerk.

American employers will miss their industrious guests this summer, although I’m not convinced that I would be a great loss to the hospitality sector after my misadventure in Montauk.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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