I'm an Irishman happy in New York
In 2016, I started calling the United States 'home'
‘I will see in the New Year with a man who makes me feel like I am finally home.’
Quentin Fottrell: “On election night, I realised I cared as much about the future as my American friends. Immigrants built this country and, although it sometimes falls short, I want to uphold the ideals on which it was founded.” Photograph: Conor Horgan
The owner of the laundry on my street is one of the most cheerful people I know. She has long copper hair, movie-star red lipstick and blue eyeshadow. Now 62, she emigrated from Israel to New York five years ago.
Two decades ago, while taking money out of an ATM in Tel Aviv, she was caught in a blast by a Palestinian suicide bomber, rained upon by 10,000 shards of glass and spent two weeks in a coma. Her friend and employee is also an emigrant. He is also Muslim and the grandson of a former Egyptian president. This is New York in 2016, the city I know and love.
On many recent trips to this laundry, I have had lively debates with the Egyptian émigré, the scion of a political family, about who would win the presidential election. (He predicted correctly.)
On election night, I realised I cared as much about the future as my American friends. Immigrants built this country and, although it sometimes falls short, I want to uphold the ideals on which it was founded. On November 8th, I thought, “This is my country too”. I resolved to stay and stand up for what I believe in. In 2016, I started calling New York City – and America – home.
It’s easy (and folly) to confuse the two, as the stunning outcome in the presidential election showed. Donald Trump, a reality-TV star, New York property developer and branding impresario, was elected president of the United States, not with support from New Yorkers, but in large part by disenfranchised and often forgotten white, rural, blue-collar Americans in the country’s heartland and south.
Make good on his pledges
Some, or many, want him to make good on his pledges to deport an estimated three million undocumented (or “illegal”) immigrants and to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
The result was not celebrated by everyone in his hometown. Trump Tower is still surrounded by hordes of police for a two-block radius on Fifth Avenue, by regular #notmypresident protests and, unavoidably, by giddy tourists taking selfies. Trump was rejected by an overwhelming margin of voters in every borough – except Staten Island, a predominantly white, working-class borough.
Moving here, I merely wanted to live in the one city in the world that lives up to its reputation in the movies, as a melting pot of colours, ethnicities and religions. It is the cultural centre of America.
Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, interviewing Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart, at the New York Historical Society is one of my highlights of 2016. This year’s Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, with overtones of today’s refugee crisis, and being a judge at the first Irish Theatre Festival were others.
This has been a year to remember personally, too. I received my Green Card. It arrived in the mail like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, almost lost among the flyers, utility bills and the usual credit card deals, offering a low interest rate for the first year. A letter accompanying it read: “Welcome to the United States of America.”
I am now a “permanent resident” and, in another five years, I can apply for citizenship. And I will. I believe in America. It has given me many new opportunities and brought many wonderful new people into my life. I want others to have the same chance.
Today, I close my eyes and imagine recall the life I once had before moving here five years ago. I see and hear a kaleidoscope of voices and faces. I relive domestic moments: the smell of a freshly painted bannister; annual “epiphany parties” where my guests wrapped up what they were thankful for in the previous year and threw them in a bowl; the wails of a boiling kettle drowning out the headlines of bad news on the radio; and the decades-long laughter of friends who see in you what you sometimes neglect to see in yourself.
It’s tempting to romanticise the past. Migrant memories, especially post-Celtic tiger, can be selective and stylised like a TV commercial: toasties in Cake Cafe, cheap flights on Ryanair and Aer Lingus to London, Paris and Milan every other Christmas; the soothing voice of the woman on the Luas announcing each stop. The Luas travels at a leisurely pace that is perfectly in tune with the jealously guarded work-life balance in Dublin. (I have to stop and remind myself of the sometimes frustrating, circuitous side of Irish life: politics, potholes, puddles and pubs.)
There were four sometimes challenging years building a new social existence for myself here in New York. Where to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve? I have always been fortunate enough to have invitations for the first two, but I was asleep before the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve in 2011 and 2012. (I didn’t post those photos on Facebook.)
I took part in the Midnight Run in Central Park in 2013 and 2014, avoiding the throng in Times Square. Last year, I was in Dublin.
And tonight? I will have a romantic dinner and watch the fireworks over the Manhattan skyline.
I will see in the New Year with a man who makes me feel like I am finally home. His parents grew up in Michigan in the years following the Great Depression. When he was three, they drove to California with a few dollars in their back pocket in the hope of finding a better life (and better weather). They got both. But they worked hard for it.
Their son went to college, travelled the world and ended up in New York, where I found him, and he found me. The immigrant spirit gets passed down, each generation hoping against all odds to do better than the one that came before.
That may now be more difficult for some. On a recent Sunday, a blindfolded man named Karim Sulayman stood outside Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle holding a sign. It read: “I am Arab-American. Like many people who are black, brown, women, LGBTQIA, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, immigrants and others, I am scared. We are anxious and uneasy in our own country and it’s difficult to see what lies ahead for us. But I hope that I am safe with you.”
He asked: “Will you embrace me as willingly as I will embrace you?” I hugged him and said, “We are all in this together.”
And we are. At some point over this tumultuous year, I discovered I was no longer a stranger in a strange land. When does a foreign country become home? It happens quietly, over time. Romance helps, of course. As do those connections with my Israeli and Egyptian friends on the street where I live.
Today, I see a new kaleidoscope of faces and voices blending with those I left behind in Ireland. New or old, they all have my back. After five years, the guilt and, yes, sadness I felt upon leaving is gone. For the first time, I look to the future more than I look to the past.
Quentin Fottrell is an editor and writer living in New York.