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When the MS Irish Oak sailed from Cork in October 1949, we expected to be in New York City in a week. Instead, after two days at sea, we were told we were going to Montreal in Canada. I told the first officer all I had was forty dollars and would Irish Shipping pay my train fare from Montreal to New York. He said, No, the company wasn't responsible. He said freighters are the whores of the high seas, they'll do anything for anyone. You could say a freighter is like Murphy's oul' dog, he'll go part of the road with any wanderer.
Two days later Irish Shipping changed its mind and gave us the happy news, Sail for New York City, but two days after that the captain was told, Sail for Albany.
The first officer told me Albany was a city far up the Hudson River, capital of New York State. He said Albany had all the charm of Limerick, ha ha ha, a great place to die but not a place where you'd want to get married or rear children. He was from Dublin and knew I was from Limerick and when he sneered at Limerick I didn't know what to do. I'd like to destroy him with a smart remark but then I'd look at myself in the mirror, pimply face, sore eyes, and bad teeth and know I could never stand up to anyone, especially a first officer with a uniform and a promising future as master of his own ship. Then I'd say to myself, Why should I care what anyone says about Limerick anyway? All I had there was misery.
Then the peculiar thing would happen. I'd sit on a deck chair in the lovely October sun with the gorgeous blue Atlantic all around me and try to imagine what New York would be like. I'd try to see Fifth Avenue or Central Park or Greenwich Village where everyone looked like movie stars, powerful tans, gleaming white teeth. But Limerick would push me into the past. Instead of me sauntering up Fifth Avenue with the tan, the teeth, I'd be back in the lanes of Limerick, women standing at doors chatting away and pulling their shawls around their shoulders, children with faces dirty from bread and jam, playing and laughing and crying to their mothers. I'd see people at Mass on Sunday morning where a whisper would run through the church when someone with a hunger weakness would collapse in the pew and have to be carried outside by men from the back of the church who'd tell everyone, Stand back, stand back, for the lovea Jaysus, can't you see she's gasping for the air, and I wanted to be a man like that telling people stand back because that gave you the right to stay outside till the Mass was over and you could go off to the pub which is why you were standing in the back with all the other men in the first place. Men who didn't drink always knelt right up there by the altar to show how good they were and how they didn't care if the pubs stayed closed till Doomsday. They knew the responses to the Mass better than anyone and they'd be blessing themselves and standing and kneeling and sighing over their prayers as if they felt the pain of Our Lord more than the rest of the congregation. Some had given up the pint entirely and they were the worst, always preaching the evil of the pint and looking down on the ones still in the grip as if they were on the right track to heaven. They acted as if God Himself would turn His back on a man drinking the pint when everyone knew you'd rarely hear a priest up in the pulpit denounce the pint or the men who drank it. Men with the thirst stayed in the back ready to streak out the door the minute the priest said, Ite, missa est, Go, you are dismissed. They stayed in the back because their mouths were dry and they felt too humble to be up there with the sober ones. I stayed near the door so that I could hear the men whispering about the slow Mass. They went to Mass because it's a mortal sin if you don't though you'd wonder if it wasn't a worse sin to be joking to the man next to you that if this priest didn't hurry up you'd expire of the thirst on the spot. If Father White came out to give the sermon they'd shuffle and groan over his sermons, the slowest in the world, with him rolling his eyes to heaven and declaring we were all doomed unless we mended our ways and devoted ourselves to the Virgin Mary entirely. My Uncle Pa Keating would have the men laughing behind their hands with his, I would devote myself to the Virgin Mary if she handed me a lovely creamy black pint of porter. I wanted to be there with my Uncle Pa Keating all grown up with long trousers and stand with the men in the back with the great thirst and laugh behind my hand.
I'd sit on that deck chair and look into my head to see myself cycling around Limerick City and out into the country delivering telegrams. I'd see myself early in the morning riding along country roads with the mist rising in the fields and cows giving me the odd moo and dogs coming at me till I drove them away with rocks. I'd hear babies in farmhouses crying for their mothers and farmers whacking cows back to the fields after the milking.
And I'd start crying to myself on that deck chair with the gorgeous Atlantic all around me, New York ahead, city of my dreams where I'd have the golden tan, the dazzling white teeth. I'd wonder what in God's name was wrong with me that I should be missing Limerick already, city of gray miseries, the place where I dreamed of escape to New York. I'd hear my mother's warning, The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.
There were to be fourteen passengers on the ship but one canceled and we had to sail with an unlucky number. The first night out the captain stood up at dinner and welcomed us. He laughed and said he wasn't superstitious over the number of passengers but since there was a priest among us wouldn't it be lovely if His Reverence would say a prayer to come between us and all harm. The priest was a plump little man, born in Ireland, but so long in his Los Angeles parish he had no trace of an Irish accent. When he got up to say a prayer and blessed himself four passengers kept their hands in their laps and that told me they were Protestants. My mother used to say you could spot Protestants a mile away by their reserved manner. The priest asked Our Lord to look down on us with pity and love, that whatever happened on these stormy seas we were ready to be enfolded forever in His Divine Bosom. An old Protestant reached for his wife's hand. She smiled and shook her head back at him and he smiled, too, as if to say, Don't worry.
The priest sat next to me at the dinner table. He whispered that those two old Protestants were very rich from raising Thoroughbred racehorses in Kentucky and if I had any sense I'd be nice to them, you never know.
I wanted to ask what was the proper way to be nice to rich Protestants who raise racehorses but I couldn't for fear the priest might think I was a fool. I heard the Protestants say the Irish people were so charming and their children so adorable you hardly noticed how poor they were. I knew that if I ever talked to the rich Protestants I'd have to smile and show my destroyed teeth and that would be the end of it. The minute I made some money in America I'd have to rush to a dentist to have my smile mended. You could see from the magazines and the films how the smile opened doors and brought girls running and if I didn't have the smile I might as well go back to Limerick and get a job sorting letters in a dark back room at the post office where they wouldn't care if you hadn't a tooth in your head.
Before bedtime the steward served tea and biscuits in the lounge. The priest said, I'll have a double Scotch, forget the tea, Michael, the whiskey helps me sleep. He drank his whiskey and whispered to me again, Did you talk to the rich people from Kentucky?
Dammit. What's the matter with you? Don't you want to get ahead in the world?
Well, why don't you talk to the rich people from Kentucky? They might take a fancy to you and give you a job as stable boy or something and you could rise in the ranks instead of going to New York which is one big occasion of sin, a sink of depravity where a Catholic has to fight day and night to keep the faith. So, why can't you talk to the nice people from Kentucky and make something of yourself?
Whenever he brought up the rich people from Kentucky he whispered and I didn't know what to say. If my brother Malachy were here he'd march right up to the rich people and charm them and they'd probably adopt him and leave him their millions along with stables, racehorses, a big house, and maids to clean it. I never talked to rich people in my life except to say, Telegram, ma'am, and then I'd be told go round to the servants' entrance, this is the front door and don't you know any better.
That is what I wanted to tell the priest but I didn't know how to talk to him either. All I knew about priests was that they said Mass and everything else in Latin, that they heard my sins in English and forgave me in Latin on behalf of Our Lord Himself who is God anyway. It must be a strange thing to be a priest and wake up in the morning lying there in the bed knowing you have the power to forgive people or not forgive them depending on your mood. When you know Latin and forgive sins it makes you powerful and hard to talk to because you know the dark secrets of the world. Talking to a priest is like talking to God Himself and if you say the wrong thing you're doomed.
There wasn't a soul on that ship who could tell me how to talk to rich Protestants and demanding priests. My uncle by marriage, Pa Keating, could have told me but he was back in Limerick where he didn't give a fiddler's fart about anything. I knew if he were here he'd refuse to talk to the rich people entirely and then he'd tell the priest to kiss his royal Irish arse. That's how I'd like to be myself but when your teeth and eyes are destroyed you never know what to say or what to do with yourself.
There was a book in the ship's library, Crime and Punishment, and I thought it might be a good murder mystery even if it was filled with confusing Russian names. I tried to read it in a deck chair but the story made me feel strange, a story about a Russian student, Raskolnikov, who kills an old woman, a moneylender, and then tries to convince himself he's entitled to the money because she's useless to the world and her money would pay for his university expenses so that he could become a lawyer and go round defending people like himself who kill old women for their money. It made me feel strange because of the time in Limerick when I had a job writing threatening letters for an old woman moneylender, Mrs. Finucane, and when she died in a chair I took some of her money to help me pay my fare to America. I knew I didn't kill Mrs. Finucane but I took her money and that made me almost as bad as Raskolnikov and if I died this minute he'd be the first one I'd run into in hell. I could save my soul by confessing to the priest and even though he's supposed to forget your sins the minute he gives you absolution he'd have power over me and he'd give me strange looks and tell me go charm the rich Protestants from Kentucky.
I fell asleep reading the book and a sailor, a deckhand, woke me to tell me, Your book is getting wet in the rain, sir.
Sir. Here I was from a lane in Limerick and there's a man with gray hair calling me sir even though he's not supposed to say a word to me in the first place because of the rules. The first officer told me an ordinary sailor was never allowed to speak to passengers except for a Good Day or Good Night. He told me this particular sailor with the gray hair was once an officer on the Queen Elizabeth but he was fired because he was caught with a first-class passenger in her cabin and what they were doing was a cause of confession. This man's name was Owen and he was peculiar the way he spent all his time reading below and when the ship docked he'd go ashore with a book and read in a café while the rest of the crew got roaring drunk and had to be hauled back to the ship in taxis. Our own captain had such respect for him he'd have him up to his cabin and they'd have tea and talk of the days they served together on an English destroyer that was torpedoed, the two of them hanging on to a raft in the Atlantic drifting and freezing and chatting about the time they'd get back to Ireland and have a nice pint and a mountain of bacon and cabbage.
Owen spoke to me next day. He said he knew he was breaking the rules but he couldn't help talking to anyone on this ship who was reading Crime and Punishment. There were great readers in the crew right enough but they wouldn't move beyond Edgar Wallace or Zane Grey and he'd give anything to be able to chat about Dostoyevsky. He wanted to know if I'd read The Possessed or The Brothers Karamazov and he looked sad when I said I'd never heard of them. He told me the minute I got to New York I should rush to a bookshop and get Dostoyevsky books and I'd never be lonely again. He said no matter what Dostoyevsky book you read he always gave you something to chew on and you can't beat that for a bargain. That's what Owen said though I had no notion of what he was talking about.
Then the priest came along the deck and Owen moved away. The priest said, Were you talking to that man? I could see you were. Well, I'm telling you he's not good company. You can see that, can't you? I heard all about him. Him with his gray hair swabbing decks at his age. It's a strange thing you can talk to deckhands with no morals but if I ask you to talk to the rich Protestants from Kentucky you can't find a minute.
We were only talking about Dostoyevsky.
Dostoyevsky, indeed. Lotta good that'll do you in New York. You won't see many Help Wanted signs requiring a knowledge of Dostoyevsky. Can't get you to talk to the rich people from Kentucky but you sit here for hours yacking with sailors. Stay away from old sailors. You know what they are. Talk to people who'll do you some good. Read the lives of the saints.
Along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River there were hundreds of ships docked tightly together. Owen the sailor said they were the Liberty ships that brought supplies to Europe during the war and after and it's sad to think they'll be hauled away any day to be broken up in shipyards. But that's the way the world is, he said, and a ship lasts no longer than a whore's moan.
Copyright © 1999 by Frank McCourt
The priest asks if I have anyone meeting me and when I tell him there's no one he says I can travel with him on the train to New York City. He'll keep an eye on me. When the ship docks we take a taxi to the big Union Station in Albany and while we wait for the train we have coffee in great thick cups and pie on thick plates. It's the first time I ever had lemon meringue pie and I'm thinking if this is the way they eat all the time in America I won't be a bit hungry and I'll be fine and fat, as they say in Limerick. I'll have Dostoyevsky for the loneliness and pie for the hunger.
The train isn't like the one in Ireland where you share a carriage with five other people. This train has long cars where there are dozens of people and is so crowded some have to stand. The minute we get on people give up their seats to the priest. He says, Thank you, and points to the seat beside him and I feel the people who offered up their seats are not happy when I take one because it's easy to see I'm nobody.
Farther up the car people are singing and laughing and calling for the church key. The priest says they're college kids going home for the weekend and the church key is the can opener for the beer. He says they're probably nice kids but they shouldn't drink so much and he hopes I won't turn out like that when I live in New York. He says I should put myself under the protection of the Virgin Mary and ask her to intercede with her Son to keep me pure and sober and out of harm's way. He'll pray for me all the way out there in Los Angeles and he'll say a special Mass for me on the eighth of December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. I want to ask him why he'd choose that feast day but I keep silent because he might start bothering me again about the rich Protestants from Kentucky.
He's telling me this but I'm dreaming of what it would be like to be a student somewhere in America, in a college like the ones in the films where there's always a white church spire with no cross to show it's Protestant and there are boys and girls strolling the campus carrying great books and smiling at each other with teeth like snow drops.
When we arrive at Grand Central Station I don't know where to go. My mother said I could try to see an old friend, Dan MacAdorey. The priest shows me how to use the telephone but there's no answer from Dan. Well, says the priest, I can't leave you on your own in Grand Central Station. He tells the taxi driver we're going to the Hotel New Yorker.
We take our bags to a room where there's one bed. The priest says, Leave the bags. We'll get something to eat in the coffee shop downstairs. Do you like hamburgers?
I don't know. I never had one in my life.
He rolls his eyes and tells the waitress bring me a hamburger with french fries and make sure the burger is well done because I'm Irish and we overcook everything. What the Irish do to vegetables is a crying shame. He says if you can guess what the vegetable is in an Irish restaurant you get the door prize. The waitress laughs and says she understands. She's half-Irish on her mother's side and her mother is the worst cook in the world. Her husband was Italian and he really knew how to cook but she lost him in the war.
Waw. That's what she says. She really means war but she's like all Americans who don't like to say "r" at the end of a word. They say caw instead of car and you wonder why they can't pronounce words the way God made them.
I like the lemon meringue pie but I don't like the way Americans leave out the "r" at the end of a word.
While we're eating our hamburgers the priest says I'll have to stay the night with him and tomorrow we'll see. It's strange taking off my clothes in front of a priest and I wonder if I should get down on my two knees and pretend to say my prayers. He tells me I can take a shower if I like and it's the first time in my life I ever had a shower with plenty of hot water and no shortage of soap, a bar for your body and a bottle for your head.
When I'm finished I dry myself with the thick towel draped on the bathtub and I put on my underwear before going back into the room. The priest is sitting in the bed with a towel wrapped around his fat belly, talking to someone on the phone. He puts down the phone and stares at me. My God, where did you get those drawers?
In Roche's Stores in Limerick.
If you hung those drawers out the window of this hotel people would surrender. Piece of advice, don't ever let Americans see you in those drawers. They'll think you just got off Ellis Island. Get briefs. You know what briefs are?
Get 'em anyway. Kid like you should be wearing briefs. You're in the U.S.A. now. Okay, hop in the bed, and that puzzles me because there's no sign of a prayer and that's the first thing you'd expect of a priest. He goes off to the bathroom but he's no sooner in there than he sticks his head out and asks me if I dried myself.
Well, your towel isn't touched so what did you dry yourself with?
The towel that's on the side of the bathtub.
What? That's not a towel. That's the bath mat. That's what you stand on when you get out of the shower.
I can see myself in a mirror over the desk and I'm turning red and wondering if I should tell the priest I'm sorry for what I did or if I should stay quiet. It's hard to know what to do when you make a mistake your first night in America but I'm sure in no time I'll be a regular Yank doing everything right. I'll order my own hamburger, learn to call chips french fries, joke with waitresses, and never again dry myself with the bath mat. Some day I'll say war and car with no "r" at the end but not if I ever go back to Limerick. If I ever went back to Limerick with an American accent they'd say I was putting on airs and tell me I had a fat arse like all the Yanks.
The priest comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, patting his face with his hands and there's a lovely smell of perfume in the air. He says there's nothing as refreshing as aftershave lotion and I can put on some if I like. It's right there in the bathroom. I don't know what to say or do. Should I say, No, thanks, or should I get out of the bed and go all the way to the bathroom and slather myself with aftershave lotion? I never heard of anyone in Limerick putting stuff on their faces after they shaved but I suppose it's different in America. I'm sorry I didn't look for a book that tells you what to do on your first night in New York in a hotel with a priest where you're liable to make a fool of yourself right and left. He says, Well? and I tell him, Ah, no, thanks. He says, Suit yourself, and I can tell he's a bit impatient the way he was when I didn't talk to the rich Protestants from Kentucky. He could easily tell me leave and there I'd be out on the street with my brown suitcase and nowhere to go in New York. I don't want to chance that so I tell him I'd like to put on the aftershave lotion after all. He shakes his head and tells me go ahead.
I can see myself in the bathroom mirror putting on the aftershave lotion and I'm shaking my head at myself feeling if this is the way it's going to be in America I'm sorry I ever left Ireland. It's hard enough coming here in the first place without priests criticizing you over your failure to hit it off with rich Kentucky Protestants, your ignorance of bath mats, the state of your underwear and your doubts about aftershave lotion.
The priest is in the bed and when I come out of the bathroom he tells me, Okay, into the bed. We've got a long day tomorrow.
He lifts the bedclothes to let me in and it's a shock to see he's wearing nothing. He says, Good night, turns off the light and starts snoring without even saying a Hail Mary or a prayer before sleep. I always thought priests spent hours on their knees before sleeping but this man must be in a great state of grace and not a bit afraid of dying. I wonder if all priests are like that, naked in the bed. It's hard to fall asleep in a bed with a naked priest snoring beside you. Then I wonder if the Pope himself goes to bed in that condition or if he has a nun bring in pajamas with the Papal colors and the Papal coat of arms. I wonder how he gets out of that long white robe he wears, if he pulls it over his head or lets it drop to the floor and steps out of it. An old Pope would never be able to pull it over his head and he'd probably have to call a passing cardinal to give him a hand unless the cardinal himself was too old and he might have to call a nun unless the Pope was wearing nothing under the white robe which the cardinal would know about anyway because there isn't a cardinal in the world that doesn't know what the Pope wears since they all want to be Pope themselves and can't wait for this one to die. If a nun is called in she has to take the white robe to be washed down in the steaming depths of the Vatican laundry room by other nuns and novices who sing hymns and praise the Lord for the privilege of washing all the clothes of the Pope and the College of Cardinals except for the underwear which is washed in another room by old nuns who are blind and not liable to think sinful thoughts because of what they have in their hands and what I have in my own hand is what I shouldn't have in the presence of a priest in the bed and for once in my life I resist the sin and turn on my side and go to sleep.
Next day the priest finds a furnished room in the paper for six dollars a week and he wants to know if I can afford it till I get a job. We go to East Sixty-eighth Street and the landlady, Mrs. Austin, takes me upstairs to see the room. It's the end of a hallway blocked off with a partition and a door with a window looking out on the street. There's barely space for the bed and a small chest of drawers with a mirror and a table and if I stretch my arms I can touch the walls on both sides. Mrs. Austin says this is a very nice room and I'm lucky it wasn't snapped up. She's Swedish and she can tell I'm Irish. She hopes I don't drink and if I do I'm not to bring girls into this room under any circumstances, drunk or sober. No girls, no food, no drink. Cockroaches smell food a mile away and once they're in you have them forever. She says, Of course you never saw a cockroach in Ireland. There's no food there. All you people do is drink. Cockroaches would starve to death or turn into drunks. Don't tell me, I know. My sister is married to an Irishman, worst thing she ever did. Irishmen great to go out with but don't marry them.
She takes the six dollars and tells me she needs another six for security, gives me a receipt and tells me I can move in anytime that day and she trusts me because I came with that nice priest even if she's not Catholic herself, that it's enough her sister married one, an Irishman, God help her, and she's suffering for it.
The priest calls another taxi to take us to the Biltmore Hotel across the street from where we came out at Grand Central Station. He says it's a famous hotel and we're going to the headquarters of the Democratic Party and if they can't find a job for an Irish kid no one can.
A man passes us in the hallway and the priest whispers, Do you know who that is?
Of course you don't. If you don't know the difference between a towel and a bath mat how could you know that's the great Boss Flynn from the Bronx, the most powerful man in America next to President Truman.
The great Boss presses the button for the elevator and while he's waiting he shoves a finger up his nose, looks at what he has on his fingertip and flicks it away on the carpet. My mother would call that digging for gold. This is the way it is in America. I'd like to tell the priest I'm sure De Valera would never pick his nose like that and you'd never find the Bishop of Limerick going to bed in a naked state. I'd like to tell the priest what I think of the world in general where God torments you with bad eyes and bad teeth but I can't for fear he might go on about the rich Protestants from Kentucky and how I missed the opportunity of a lifetime.
The priest talks to a woman at a desk in the Democratic Party and she picks up the telephone. She says to the telephone, Got a kid here...just off the boat...you got a high school diploma?...na, no diploma...well, whaddya expect...Old Country still a poor country...yeah, I'll send him up.
I'm to report on Monday morning to Mr. Carey on the twenty-second floor and he'll put me to work right here in the Biltmore Hotel and aren't I a lucky kid walking into a job right off the boat. That's what she says and the priest tells her, This is a great country and the Irish owe everything to the Democratic Party, Maureen, and you just clinched another vote for the party if the kid here ever votes, ha ha ha.
The priest tells me go back to the hotel and he'll come for me later to go to dinner. He says I can walk, that the streets run east and west, the avenues north and south, and I'll have no trouble. Just walk across Forty-second to Eighth Avenue and south till I come to the New Yorker Hotel. I can read a paper or a book or take a shower if I promise to stay away from the bath mat, ha ha. He says, If we're lucky we might meet the great Jack Dempsey himself. I tell him I'd rather meet Joe Louis if that's possible and he snaps at me, You better learn to stick with your own kind.
At night the waiter at Dempsey's smiles at the priest. Jack's not here, Fawdah. He's over to the Gawden checkin' out a middleweight from New Joisey.
Gawden. Joisey. My first day in New York and already people are talking like gangsters from the films I saw in Limerick.
The priest says, My young friend here is from the Old Country and he'd prefer to meet Joe Louis. He laughs and the waiter laughs and says, Well, that's a greenhorn talkin', Fawdah. He'll loin. Give him six months in this country and he'll run like hell when he sees a darky. An' what would you like to order, Fawdah? Little something before dinner?
I'll have a double martini dry and I mean dry straight up with a twist.
And the greenhorn?
He'll have a...well, what'll you have?
A beer, please.
You eighteen, kid?
You don't look it though it don't matter nohow long as you with the fawdah. Right, Fawdah?
Right. I'll keep an eye on him. He doesn't know a soul in New York and I'm going to settle him in before I leave.
The priest drinks his double martini and orders another with his steak. He tells me I should think of becoming a priest. He could get me a job in Los Angeles and I'd live the life of Riley with widows dying and leaving me everything including their daughters, ha ha, this is one hell of a martini excuse the language. He eats most of his steak and tells the waiter bring two apple pies with ice cream and he'll have a double Hennessy to wash it down. He eats only the ice cream, drinks half the Hennessy and falls asleep with his chin on his chest moving up and down.
The waiter loses his smile. Goddam, he's gotta pay his check. Where's his goddam wallet? Back pocket, kid. Hand it to me.
I can't rob a priest.
You're not robbing. He's paying his goddam check and you're gonna need a taxi to take him home.
Two waiters help him to a taxi and two bellhops at the Hotel New Yorker haul him through the lobby, up the elevator and dump him on the bed. The bellhops tell me, A buck tip would be nice, a buck each, kid.
They leave and I wonder what I'm supposed to do with a drunken priest. I remove his shoes the way they do when someone passes out in the films but he sits up and runs to the bathroom where he's sick a long time and when he comes out he's pulling at his clothes, throwing them on the floor, collar, shirt, trousers, underwear. He collapses on the bed on his back and I can see he's in a state of excitement with his hand on himself. Come here to me, he says, and I back away. Ah, no, Father, and he rolls out of the bed, slobbering and stinking of drink and puke and tries to grab my hand to put it on him but I back away even faster till I'm out the door to the hallway with him standing in the door, a little fat priest crying to me, Ah, come back, son, come back, it was the drink. Mother o' God, I'm sorry.
But the elevator is open and I can't tell the respectable people already in it and looking at me that I changed my mind, that I'm running back to this priest who, in the first place, wanted me to be polite to rich Kentucky Protestants so that I could get a job cleaning stables and now waggles his thing at me in a way that's surely a mortal sin. Not that I'm in a state of grace myself, no I'm not, but you'd expect a priest to set a good example and not make a holy show of himself my second night in America. I have to step into the elevator and pretend I don't hear the priest slobbering and crying, naked at the door of his room.
There's a man at the front door of the hotel dressed up like an admiral and he says, Taxi, sir. I tell him, No, thanks, and he says, Where you from? Oh, Limerick. I'm from Roscommon myself, over here four years.
I have to ask the man from Roscommon how to get to East Sixty-eighth Street and he tells me walk east on Thirty-fourth Street which is wide and well lit till I come to Third Avenue and I can get the El or if I'm anyway lively I can walk straight up till I come to my street. He tells me, Good luck, stick with your own kind and watch out for the Puerto Ricans, they all carry knives and that's a known fact, they got that hot blood. Walk in the light along the edge of the sidewalk or they'll be leppin' at you from dark doorways.
Next morning the priest calls Mrs. Austin and tells her I should come get my suitcase. He tells me, Come in, the door is open. He's in his black suit sitting on the far side of the bed with his back to me and my suitcase is just inside the door. Take it, he says. I'm going to a retreat house in Virginia for a few months. I don't want to look at you and I don't want to see you ever again because what happened was terrible and it wouldn't have happened if you'd used your head and gone off with the rich Protestants from Kentucky. Good-bye.
It's hard to know what to say to a priest in a bad mood with his back to you who's blaming you for everything so all I can do is go down in the elevator with my suitcase wondering how a man like that who forgives sins can sin himself and then blame me. I know if I did something like that, getting drunk and bothering people to put their hands on me, I'd say I did it. That's all, I did it. And how can he blame me just because I refused to talk to rich Protestants from Kentucky? Maybe that's the way priests are trained. Maybe it's hard listening to people's sins day in day out when there's a few you'd like to commit yourself and then when you have a drink all the sins you've heard explode inside you and you're like everyone else. I know I could never be a priest listening to those sins all the time. I'd be in a constant state of excitement and the bishop would be worn out shipping me off to the retreat house in Virginia.
Copyright © 1999 by Frank McCourt
When you're Irish and you don't know a soul in New York and you're walking along Third Avenue with trains rattling along on the El above there's great comfort in discovering there's hardly a block without an Irish bar: Costello's, the Blarney Stone, the Blarney Rose, P.J. Clarke's, the Breffni, the Leitrim House, the Sligo House, Shannon's, Ireland's Thirty-Two, the All Ireland. I had my first pint in Limerick the day before I turned sixteen and it made me sick and my father nearly destroyed the family and himself with the drink but I'm lonely in New York and I'm lured in by Bing Crosby on jukeboxes singing "Galway Bay" and blinking green shamrocks the likes of which you'd never see in Ireland.
There's an angry-looking man behind the end of the bar in Costello's and he's saying to a customer, I don't give a tinker's damn if you have ten pee haitch dees. I know more about Samuel Johnson than you know about your hand and if you don't comport yourself properly you'll be out on the sidewalk. I'll say no more.
The customer says, But.
Out, says the angry man. Out. You'll get no more drink in this house.
The customer claps on his hat and stalks out and the angry man turns to me. And you, he says, are you eighteen?
I am, sir. I'm nineteen.
How do I know?
I have my passport, sir.
And what is an Irishman doing with an American passport?
I was born here, sir.
He allows me to have two fifteen-cent beers and tells me I'd be better off spending my time in the library than in bars like the rest of our miserable race. He tells me Dr. Johnson drank forty cups of tea a day and his mind was clear to the end. I ask him who Dr. Johnson was and he glares at me, takes my glass away, and tells me, Leave this bar. Walk west on Forty-second till you come to Fifth. You'll see two great stone lions. Walk up the steps between those two lions, get yourself a library card and don't be an idiot like the rest of the bogtrotters getting off the boat and stupefying themselves with drink. Read your Johnson, read your Pope and avoid the dreamy micks. I want to ask him where he stands on Dostoyevsky till he points at the door, Don't come back here till you've read The Lives of the English Poets. Go on. Get out.
It's a warm October day and I have nothing else to do but what I'm told and what harm is there in wandering up to Fifth Avenue where the lions are. The librarians are friendly. Of course I can have a library card and it's so nice to see young immigrants using the library. I can borrow four books if I like as long as they're back on the due date. I ask if they have a book called The Lives of the English Poets by Samuel Johnson and they say, My, my, my, you're reading Johnson. I want to tell them I never read Johnson before but I don't want them to stop admiring me. They tell me feel free to walk around, take a look at the Main Reading Room on the third floor. They're not a bit like the librarians in Ireland who stood guard and protected the books against the likes of me.
The sight of the Main Reading Room, North and South, makes me go weak at the knees. I don't know if it's the two beers I had or the excitement of my second day in New York but I'm near tears when I look at the miles of shelves and know I'll never be able to read all those books if I live till the end of the century. There are acres of shiny tables where all sorts of people sit and read as long as they like seven days a week and no one bothers them unless they fall asleep and snore. There are sections with English, Irish, American books, literature, history, religion, and it makes me shiver to think I can come here anytime I like and read anything as long as I like if I don't snore.
I stroll back to Costello's with four books under my arm. I want to show the angry man I have The Lives of the English Poets but he's not there. The barman says that would be Mr. Tim Costello himself that was going on about Johnson and as he's talking the angry man comes out of the kitchen. He says, Are you back already?
I have The Lives of the English Poets, Mr. Costello.
You may have The Lives of the English Poets under your oxter, young fellow, but you don't have them in your head so go home and read.
It's Thursday and I have nothing to do till the job starts on Monday. For lack of a chair I sit up in the bed in my furnished room and read till Mrs. Austin knocks on my door at eleven and tells me she's not a millionaire and it's house policy that lights be turned off at eleven to keep down her electricity bill. I turn off the light and lie on the bed listening to New York, people talking and laughing, and I wonder if I'll ever be part of the city, out there talking and laughing.
There's another knock at the door and this young man with red hair and an Irish accent tells me his name is Tom Clifford and would I like a fast beer because he works in an East Side building and he has to be there in an hour. No, he won't go to an Irish bar. He wants nothing to do with the Irish so we walk to the Rhinelander on Eighty-sixth Street where Tom tells me how he was born in America but was taken to Cork and got out as fast as he could by joining the American army for three good years in Germany when you could get laid ten times over for a carton of cigarettes or a pound of coffee. There's a dance floor and a band in the back of the Rhinelander and Tom asks a girl from one of the tables to dance. He tells me, Come on. Ask her friend to dance.
But I don't know how to dance and I don't know how to ask a girl to dance. I know nothing about girls. How could I after growing up in Limerick? Tom asks the other girl to dance with me and she leads me out on the floor. I don't know what to do. Tom is stepping and twirling and I don't know whether to go backward or forward with this girl in my arms. She tells me I'm stepping on her shoes and when I tell her I'm sorry she says, Oh, forget it. I don't feel like clumping around. She goes back to her table and I follow her with my face on fire. I don't know whether to sit at her table or go back to the bar till she says, You left your beer on the bar. I'm glad I have an excuse to leave her because I wouldn't know what to say if I sat. I'm sure she wouldn't be interested if I told her I spent hours reading Johnson's Lives of the English Poets or if I told her how excited I was at the Forty-second Street Library. I might have to find a book in the library on how to talk to girls or I might have to ask Tom who dances and laughs and has no trouble with the talk. He comes back to the bar and says he's going to call in sick which means he's not going to work. The girl likes him and says she'll let him take her home. He whispers to me he might get laid which means he might go to bed with her. The only problem is the other girl. He calls her my girl. Go ahead, he says. Ask her if you can take her home. Let's sit at their table and you can ask her.
The beer is working on me and I'm feeling braver and I don't feel shy about sitting at the girls' table and telling them about Tim Costello and Dr. Samuel Johnson. Tom nudges me and whispers, For Christ's sake, stop the Samuel Johnson stuff, ask her home. When I look at her I see two and I wonder which I should ask home but if I look between the two I see one and that's the one I ask.
Home? she says. You kiddin' me. That's a laugh. I'm a secretary, a private secretary, and you don't even have a high school diploma. I mean, did you look in the mirror lately? She laughs and my face is on fire again. Tom takes a long drink of beer and I know I'm useless with these girls so I leave and walk down Third Avenue taking the odd look at my reflection in shop windows and giving up hope.
Copyright © 1999 by Frank McCourt