OWhen I was 19, I lived in Belfast. It was two hours from my childhood home in Dublin and I loved my life there, studying at Queen’s University, living with a bunch of hilarious and brilliant girlfriends and working in cafes and a night club. night on weekends to fund my record-buying habits.
At the end of my second year, I applied for a J1 short-term work visa for the United States, to which any Irish university student was eligible. I was determined to settle in Manhattan.
I landed at JFK in the early summer of 1998 with my friends Aran and Orla. After a few weeks, we secured an unfurnished rental in the grimy countercultural haven of St Marks Place. Our apartment was above an Irish pub called Bull McCabes and between a tattoo parlor and a record store. I had gone from a quiet residential street in Belfast to the same street where Leon Trotsky, WH Auden, Debbie Harry and William Burroughs had lived, where Andy Warhol had run a nightclub in the 60s, where the New York Dolls and Led Zeppelin shot album covers, where the Rolling Stones and Billy Joel filmed music videos and where the 1995 movie Kids was shot. But I was more concerned with finding a bed to sleep in.
We found an old double mattress on the street and borrowed a trolley from a homeless man to take it home. We sprayed it with disinfectant, dried it and it was our bed for the summer.
It was in July. I got a job at a little vegan cafe called Michael and Zoe’s on Second Avenue, serving power shakes and rye bread sandwiches to the local East Village community. I served upstream and my colleagues Samir and Saïd worked in the kitchen. They were Algerians. Samir had a chipmunk face, all cheeks and dimples, and Said had big brown eyes and a gentle manner about him. We sang on Hot 97 FM all day and, as customers, we became friends.
Every morning I sat on the porch of the house and watched the people of St Marks Place. My favorite person to watch was the one I called the Red Cowboy. St. Mark’s Square was his gateway and he paraded there daily, wearing a red cowboy hat, red cowboy boots, a red waistcoat and a pair of matching crimson Y-fronts.
He was lean and muscular, ebony-skinned, imperious in his walk. I was fascinated by him and how he marked himself in a person’s consciousness. Look at me. I am here. You won’t forget me. I wanted to know where all his shame was. I only realized it when I saw it, because that was all I had ever known, but shame was ingrained in Irish culture, a state to live with and measure everything against. Against the backdrop of a childhood where we were told not to make a scene or flaunt our bodies, and where self-promotion was always frowned upon, the Red Cowboy was provocative and outrageous, and I loved it for it.
On my days off, I explored. I marveled at the long swords of light cutting through the skyscrapers on dozens of blocks, people scurrying below like insects. I walked from Union Square to Broadway, through Chinatown and then Little Italy, past the Courthouse and Financial District to the big blue-sky reward of Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty , calmly presiding over everything, that blissful expression on his face saying: everyone is welcome here. You can be whoever you want.
I remember the thick buzz of stale urine as you descended the subway, the seemingly limitless places it could take you. Even the weather seemed overkill, with mid-afternoon rumbles of thunder, followed by big, warm raindrops, the smell of damp dust from the sidewalk afterwards, as strong and powerful as the rain itself. It was an attack on the senses.
On nights when my shifts ended at 1 a.m., I walked to join my friends in late-night bars behind heavy curtains. There were block parties under the stars, trips to the Twilo nightclub, and many nights spent on the roof of our building, drinking and dancing. Sometimes we lay on the tarmac and looked over the edge to see the heat and din of St Marks Place below.
After three months, I returned to Belfast, changed. I was emotional and anxious to be back on the island of Ireland, where you were put in a box, whether you liked it or not. I didn’t want to lose this new perspective I had on the world. Doors had opened in my head. I was bolder, more curious, eager to see the world. Living in Belfast had exposed me to the wonders of late night music shows on BBC Radio 1. For the first time since leaving home, I had found a place where I wanted to work. The following summer, on the eve of a new century, I arrived in London, home of the BBC, to begin a whole new journey.