The first days on the J1 were like the Gaeltacht with dollars. On the first night, loads of young Irish students from all over the country were thrown together in the New York YMCA with no real idea of what to do next, desperately trying to figure out where to live, who to hang out with, where to find work and how to make the few hundred dollars in your back pocket last until you got sorted.
Even though this was the era before GAA jerseys, the distinction between us Dubs and the culchies was very evident. The culchies seemed to have everything organised. They had aunties in Yonkers and Flushing, we didn’t. They had numbers of friends of their cousins who were landlords in Sunnyside, who would fix them up for a few weeks. They chatted confidently about security guard jobs in Jersey that would pay over $1,000 a week, or friends of their uncle Pascal who could sort them on the site in Hoboken, under the table. Why couldn’t I have a useful uncle Pascal?
The mass exodus to Boston began on day two or three as the rumour mill of jobs aplenty in places like Hyannis Port in the Cape began to filter through, together with horror stories of the price of deposits, even in the well-dodgy Alphabet City.
This was the New York City of Ed Koch – it was alternative, exciting and edgy. It’s hard to appreciate now when New York is a tourist heaven, but back in the mid-1980s crime rates in were peaking. Since the early 1970s, violent crime rates in the city had more than tripled from 325 to 1,100 violent crimes per 100,000 people annually. By 1985, when we Irish students touched down in JFK, the crime rate in New York was over 70 per cent higher than the rest of the United States.
Racial tensions were dramatically heightened by the Bernard Goetz subway killings earlier in 1984.
More than half of New Yorkers surveyed said crime was the worst thing about living in the city; about a quarter said they or a family member had been a victim of crime in the last year and two-thirds said they would be willing to pay for private security for their building or block.
Into this urban dystopia waltzed thousands of nonchalant Irish students. Most of us had hardly ever been out of Ireland, nor seen a black man and had no idea what was waiting for us. But we didn’t care. We lived in places whites wouldn’t dare go, we worked in kitchens with Colombians, Nicaraguans and Jamaicans bonded together by the universal language of football and reggae in the transient, semi-legal world of the temporary visa holders.
We lived 12 to a room in the Village and bedded down where ever we could find a space on the floor in roach-infested dives where one girl had a signed lease and the other ten sublet – kind of.
Some were lucky, breezing into jobs waiting tables on tips of $100 a night with a room over the restaurant thrown in, but for most of us it was a series of hit and miss cash jobs, most of which lasted a few weeks at best.
I actually started as a chambermaid. Yes a chambermaid, you read right, making beds, cleaning loos, hoovering rooms, plumping up pillows – and yes I was called a chambermaid by the other Haitian women whose macho ideas of masculinity were forever damaged by their first encounter with the Irish male.
My stellar career included being the only white, English-speaking dishwasher in Manhattan and then, in September, heading up to the Cape when all the American students had left to turn my hand as possibly the worst gardener in New England.
But the J1 was a coming of age summer. We were on our own in a foreign country, in the most exciting city in the world, far from home, miles away from parents, independent for the first time ever.
We bonded together, worked together, partied together and saw for the first time that life didn’t have to be like it was in Ireland. Even my America, of sweaty kitchens and double busboy shifts, was a land of possibilities. New York was like the movies. As an 18-year-old, just to walk up Fifth Avenue, hang out in the Red Lion on Bleeker Street or even head over to the East Village was freedom.
These were formative months for me and for the rest of us. New York was everything Dublin, Cork and Castlebar was not.
But we Irish travel well, we mix well and we get on with things. At the time you have no idea of how many dodgy situations you are in, how many dive bars you fall into and how lucky you are to get out of them at times. But you develop a sense. This was growing up. From the relatively cloistered world of Trinity College and south Dublin, you end up squatting with a bunch of proper illegal lads from Donegal who are never going home. You hear their stories, listen to their dreams, smoke their weed and rob their pints.
The J1 was one of those seminal, brilliant summers where everything was possible, where a little bit of America was there for the taking. It was a summer of short flings and long nights, of dollar bills, reverse charges telephone calls and of course, the first of many things which seemed to be more, let’s say, readily available on that side of the Atlantic.
Most of all it was about us, a bunch of Irish mates released into the wild, finding our way and growing up in the process. Some of us went back time and again, some of us never left and stayed in the States, coming home for weddings and christenings years later, reminiscing about the scams, the nights and the craic.
The J1, like the Gaeltacht, is what we do. It’s national service for the relatively privileged. Over 160,000 of us have done it. Maybe this is the reason that Berkeley tragedy affects us so profoundly. It could have been us, any of us, on that balcony.