I love America and I love Americans. I love coming to The US and I’ve been coming here since 1987 which was my first trip away with Ciara – to the great capital of the world, New York City. The heat in Hell’s Kitchen in July was tough. I remember that small room in Brian’s apartment and waiting for the fan to turn again and breathe its sweet momentary coolness over us. But the city blew my mind and I’ve been back many times since. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.
9/11 broke my heart and we were in Manhattan when it happened, staying (again) with Brian and Julie on the Upper West Side. Watching the towers come down with Julie and Evie on their TV was just awful. To see the city so wounded and grieving. The people so shocked, bereft, frightened.
Hearing the sirens rushing down Broadway, Amsterdam and Riverside Drive. The smoke rising in the distance, and then the smell. Of burnt metal and crushed concrete – leaving an aftertaste on the back of the throat that I’ll never forget or be able to untaste.
But you know what? When we went downtown the following day the prevailing emotion was one of peace and support. We didn’t see any recriminations or anger on the streets. People we holding hands and singing around Washington Square and The Village. Lighting candles and crying, putting up peace symbols and comforting those poor lost souls who were wandering around looking for loved ones.
Young people mostly, trying to find some purchase, some way of reaching a path back from the brutal meaningless of the scale of what had happened. That’s my abiding memory of the whole thing – that the response (not reaction) was to look to peace, to avoid war and retaliation. To come together.
That was and is and always will be New York City to me.
As to Americans, what I love most about them is their optimism and positivity. The belief that things can come good and to go for it and see what happens, you never know. We don’t tend to have that as much in Ireland, I think. And I certainly don’t personally have it, though I try my best. Perhaps that’s why I admire Americans and America so much, because they are so different from me – in a good way. I know many Americans and they almost all have that ‘can do’ attitude, which I find inspiring and motivating to be around. My American classmates in my MA in Creative Writing in UCC were all, each one of them, an inspiration to me. And still are.
Eileen told me a great joke once and it captures so well that particular negative element of ‘Irishness’. Some Americans were in a seafood restaurant in Kerry. They noticed one lobster in the big glass tank didn’t have his pincers tied like the others and was slowly working his way out of it. They told the waiter. The waiter said: Oh don’t worry, when he gets near the top the others will drag him back down.
Ciara and I went to a Des Bishop show last year and he told a story. He was in the US when he got the call from Dancing With The Stars that he was picked for the show. He told his American friends and they said way to go, that’s awesome, you’ll ace it, woohoo. He told his Irish friends and they said, ah now, no way, you’ll make a show of yourself, that wouldn’t be a good idea at all now, don’t even think about it.
To dream big and work hard to make it happen is a worthwhile endeavour and I think it’s what we were meant to do.
Zadie Smith writes about this in an essay of hers in Feel Free, called ‘Find Your Beach’. The essay comes from an advert for beer on a wall near her apartment, in Manhattan, which featured the words ‘Find Your Beach’. Here’s what she says:
On the one hand, it means, simply, ‘Go out and discover what makes you happy.’ Pursue happiness actively, as Americans believe it is their right to do.
But the ad goes further than that. After all, this is America; Manhattan, to be specific.
The focus is narrow, almost obsessive … Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if – as in the case of this wall painting – it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go.
The pursuit of happiness, she posits, has always been a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty. It’s taken too far. But she still needs it to find her own beach. When she is in England, all she can see are the limits of her life. But when she’s in Manhattan, it seems that there’s nothing she cannot achieve, there are no limits at all. In fact, it’s expected of her.
Is there a down-side to this? Maybe. Maybe the crazy optimism and ‘yes we can’ spirit that put an African American (an African American, just think about that) in the White House can also be rolled out to put the present POTUS in the White House. What’s the worst that can happen?
I think the reason I’m so angry with this guy (apart from the obvious) is that the Americans I know were all so upset with his election and were so ashamed. Even if he was elected democratically (sort of) I think America made a mistake, like the British have done with BREXIT. And if they had the election all over again…
But then maybe not.
And maybe this guy will transform the country into an idyllic and long lost image of itself where everything was better, everybody was better off, everyone was safer and the USA was greater than it had ever been. Because he loves his country and just wants to serve.
I’m also cognisant of the fact that those kids I mentioned in my last blog in that Greek Café in DC were white, middle class kids in internships or starter jobs in offices in DC. There were no African Americans in the place, and we saw far more of them down in the Metro than on the street. Now I’m in a taqueria in Athens, Georgia and the Mexican food and music is wonderful and full of flavour. But the only Hispanics here are the ones serving the food and cleaning up the tables. I’m aware, too, of my own sense of privilege about the possibilities and opportunities I have had (some scorned, some wasted, some taken), and my own good fortune to have been born when and where and to whom and with whom I was.
What are the beaches that young African American and Hispanic kids can find in the US? And how can they find them, with this administration? Not to mention Muslim immigrants.
Not to mention, too, the fact that I just saw my first Confederate flag flying proudly from the roof of a passing pickup. What’s that guy’s beach, and what will he do to reach it? And how many more are there like him around the country, being goaded on by the orange menace?
Or maybe that’s all just me, walking away from my beach, listening to the rolling waves grow quieter behind me in the distance.
Here’s what I think. I think America will bounce back and throw the fucker out. And even in the upcoming mid-terms, I think we’ll see a big push-back. America, young America especially, will respond to this setback accordingly, and decisively.
I love America, I just love it.