New York is an ageing movie star that refuses to age gracefully. It is loud, it ‘s obnoxious, it’s too expensive, it’s elitist, and it’s just not the same as it used to be.
I moved back there at the end of January this year. Ready and willing to put my previous (slightly sordid) stint in NY that took place from the ages of 21 to 26 behind me and to make money and make stories. I wanted everything that was the opposite of sticky topped bars and cigarettes smoked outside of them, 3 day benders and arguing with cab drivers who heard an accent and said the fare cost fifty dollars instead of twenty. Of overpriced boxes of Barry’s tea bags from bodegas that had signs outside saying Irish products with a shamrock written in green letters and the neighbourhoods in Queens and the Bronx where everyone sounded like me.
But of course, trouble will always find you.
I got a job in a high-end cocktail bar. It was Irish owned but not an Irish bar: an important distinction to me.
I had two interviews in which they laughed at my jokes and nodded their heads in agreement with my thoughts on hospitality. I went to the bathroom and the brand of toilet paper was my childhood nickname, thirsty for measurement, I took it for a sign.
A few days later I got the start. I got my hair blow-dried and laid my clothes out, checked my jacket pocket for keys, metro card, lighter.
I was far rustier than I thought. I poured measures wrong, ounces to milliliters conversion was my cross to bear I forgot to wash my cocktail tins after I was done, I didn’t put the straws in the box the right way, I threw out credit card slips before they had been adjusted, meaning the other bartenders lost out on money and were suitably overjoyed when I told them.
I couldn’t peel oranges fast enough, I couldn’t remember what was in the drinks, I couldn’t remember regulars ’ names, I didn’t do my cash out properly, I forgot to clock in, I forgot to clock out. I would go home to an empty apartment completely spent and for dinner I would go to bed.
I called home and my Mom says that all is quiet, there is no craic really. My Dad tells me that he was out on the boat and the water was like glass, asks me if I am alright for money?
Stand clear of the closing doors please! Next stop 52nd street, 46th street, 40th & Lowery, 33rd and Rawson this is a 7 train, local service, next stop Queensboro plaza transfer available to the Manhattan bound N and Q lines.
It got easier, time will do that. I began having the craic with the girls in the coffee shop up the road as we made weary knowing eye contact over insensitive customers. I figured out where the swings in Central Park were, the clocks went forward and the days got longer, Summer seemed close even. I got to know customers: regulars and strangers, and I drew their stories from them like wire. I made friends, proper ones and relearned old ones. Every day was different, the drinks were good, the craic was good and the money was even better.
I began to fall back in love with New York as it slowly became unrecognisable, a patient on a table, losing life-force. The coronavirus was affecting the Chinese and the elderly, in the arrogance or ignorance of youth it wasn’t something my peers or I gave much thought to until we had to.
By the end of March, the city was running out of bones. Paddy’s day cancelled let us know we were really in trouble, and even those not easily flustered paled at that one. The bar closed and nobody knew when it would reopen. The owners invited us to come in and raid the perishable stock. Walking into a silent kitchen, no radio no swearing no flashing Spanish no laughter was the most poignant scene of all.
I defended my need to stay, I didn’t want to give up on New York again.
New Yorkers are tough because we have to be. It’s really cold in the Winter and it’s really hot in the Summer. Vices are everywhere and open till 4 am; later still if you know the boys and if it’s not one thing it’s another and it ’s a strange one; a dysfunctional relationship almost, to love a place that you equally despise.
It was with a confusing spreading grief I went to JFK on April Fool’s Day to drink beers that weren’t cold enough and wait for my flight home.
It ’s okay. I am lucky, I am not sick nor is anyone in my immediate family. I am not a nurse or any other front-line worker and I am lucky to have somewhere so humbling beautiful to pass the time and grateful for the opportunity to be present. And some days I am not so rational. Days where I feel like I was robbed of my future and anxious of how to navigate what lies ahead and trapped in the present and I reconcile myself of thoughts of when I’m a bougie old lady, living on the Upper East Side in a dusty apartment that’s exactly like the ones in John Cheever stories and smoke cigarettes that come from packets of gold paper and drink gin from grubby crystal glasses and live off toast with Kerry gold Irish butter and say that only the finest of imported goods would do. And when I make the trip to Queens to get the butter: from the little bodega’s that say Irish Grocer in green letters I am reminded of the time when the city lay unadorned, a time when it seemed as if New York had finally fallen.