This article was published recently on www.realcityny.com, an online magazine for whom I am writing a series on immigration.
The first time I ever came here it felt like I was walking around a Woody Allen movie. Even those who’ve never been to America have seen New York on their TV screens, read it in their novels and heard it in their music. I went unabashedly about my tourist business, paying hard cash to go up tall buildings to take bad photographs and buying a hot dog from a man on the street even though I wasn’t particularly hungry. Sometimes you have to accept that you’re not at home and welcome the fact that you may as well be carrying a sign saying “Tourist.”
That was 2008, and I only stopped over for a few days while returning to my native Ireland after a summer spent working as a soccer coach in California. Now I’m back, but in a much altered role. I moved to Washington, D.C. in January but decided within days to get a one way bus ticket four hours northeast. I’m an accidental emigrant; I didn’t even know I had emigrated until after someone told me I was an emigrant, and an emigrant is, by definition, also an immigrant. There are over three million of us in this city, all searching for a piece to call our own. I’m lucky in that I love my home — an island tucked away in the Atlantic, spooned by Britain (though our history is anything but cuddly). Other immigrants to the city know they will never see home again or have no wish to; I know I’ll see my dearest friends and family for Christmas.
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Regardless of background or legal status, we must all take part in certain rituals here. Using the few contacts, if any, that one may have to unearth some sort of job come close to the top of the list, but something we all experience is the fabled apartment hunt. While I was not writing cover letters or perching myself on a stool at the East Village bar my Irish cousin works in, I was looking for a room.
I started the search on the source of every good, bad and ugly thing in modern urban life — Craigslist. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted, but I knew what I couldn’t have — a place to myself. Supply and demand economics saw to that. Via the power of the Internet and a touch of blind trust, a man let me have his room in an East Williamsburg fourth floor walk-up while he was touring Europe and Australia with his band. That gave me a month to look for something more long-term.
It was around mid-February when I started seeing places, the first being in Bushwick. I’d e-mailed Simon, the man who posted the ad, and he told me to meet him there the next day. As he turned the key into the door, I asked, “Do you live here too?” “Yes,” he replied. We went in and I was waved in the general direction of the room I entered alone. “I’ll be in here,” said Simon, as he strode into the kitchen, which doubled as the common living space. The room was adequate. It was sort of soulless and bare, with furniture that looked like it might fall apart at any moment — but not a cockroach or bedbug to be found. If you were to put a sign on the door it would say “meh.”
On entering the kitchen I pointed toward the other room and asked, “Is that your room?” I already knew the answer, of course, given that it was a two-bedroom place. It was just an icebreaker, an effort to get him to talk. “Yes,” said Simon. I should point out that at this stage I’d told him my basic background, nationality, route to New York, where I was staying and why I was here. I’d probably even thrown in a bad joke or two for good measure. Simon had murmured a total of five words and not looked at me once. I knew he had good English from our phone conversation, so this was just creepy behavior. Goodbye, Simon.
February was gathering pace, and I needed somewhere to live. Next up was a railroad-style place near the Myrtle-Wyckoff L/M stop. I had already spoken to Francois on the phone and could tell he was the jovial sort. We flickered between English and his native French, at which I had become pretty useful while living in Montreal. Icebreaker dealt with. I met him at the place and, in contrast with Simon, this man could talk. However, there are two things that drive me slightly gaga when talking to someone for more than a minute: when they don’t remove their sunglasses or when they leave their earphones in their ears. Francois had his earphones in the whole time, so I didn’t know if he was listening to me or music. If it was the former, why not take half second to pull them out so I can stop wondering? If it was the latter, I don’t know where to start. I should add that the room, which was advertised as having a bed, contained a semi-deflated air mattress and a closet held to the wall with gray Duct tape.
Then I saw a gorgeous little place in Greenpoint. It was near perfect, with a backyard where, in my mind’s eye, I saw my friends and I sinking a few beers under the late afternoon summer sun (this daydream ignored the fact that those friends didn’t exist yet). Amy, who oozed sense and hospitality, seemed like a person I’d like to live with and we shook on a deal whereby I would move in with her and a man from China in a few weeks. I didn’t hear from her for a few days so I sent her a text. “Worst case scenario,” she replied, “I’m leaving the apartment.”
It turned out that she’d posted an ad for a room that wasn’t actually available because she wanted a couple living in it to leave. She then told them that I was moving in but had forgotten the key elements that make up democracy, power and basic human numbers. She was outnumbered two to one and was asked to leave. I was roomless once again. The world was welcoming the birds to share the spring, and I had to beg the man from whom I was subletting to let me hang around for another little while. I was getting a real lesson in the pervasive flakiness that undercuts a large proportion of this city and this world.
Those are just a few of around a dozen rooms I saw, but eventually I found three men in Bushwick around my own age who enjoy the same things as I do. We have guitars hanging on the wall, a piano, a projector for watching sports and whatever else 20-somethings might need. Plus, every night the dishes are washed and put away. It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears — you have to find the one that’s just right.
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It’s not that I don’t care about those Manhattan buildings that sucked me in four years ago, but rather that I can’t afford to. Real life, as opposed to the temporary life of the tourist, is an energy sapping experience where one is often left fatigued and frustrated, even if things ultimately end up in good order. As John Lennon sang in a song released just before he was shot dead in this very city, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I barely notice the buildings now. They’re a fixture on the horizon like the Dublin Mountains where I grew up — a playground in the distance if I ever find the time for that sort of thing.
New York has the dual status of being a fantastic (in the original sense of the word) tourist destination as well as a global immigration hub. Arriving as an immigrant is strange because one can’t help spending those first few days in the mindset of a tourist before the fantasy departs and the reality of city living takes over. Between 1970 and 2007, the number of immigrants living in the United States quadrupled from 9.6 million to 38 million. Via accident of birth, I am one of the few lucky ones. I have a nice, shiny work permit glued into my Irish passport — a passport that is, due to a history of emigration, hard work and subsequent good will, one of the most valuable in the world. All I had to do to get here was be Irish, and all I had to do to get a work permit was be a recent graduate. I didn’t pay anyone to smuggle me through a desert and I don’t live in fear of the police (any more than the average American).
Despite my apartment struggles, I still have it relatively easy. Others do not. Legal and illegal, wealthy and destitute, young and old, male and female — we all live among the mostly wonderful people who were born and raised in this land. Right now the phenomenon of international migration to this city and country is just numbers. I’m going to get out there and start talking with people to find the faces and lives behind them.