" Saratoga Springs, "Colors, Belfast, Big, coming to America, Donovan, John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, New York City, Randy Newman, summer camp, Times Square and 42nd Street, Tom Hanks, United States, YMCA
I arrived in America in the summer of 1984, before my final year at Stranmillis College in Belfast. The first words spoken to me in America, “Keep on rollin’, lady,” fell impatiently from the lips of an unwelcoming security guard as I collected my rucksack and proceeded through Customs and Immigration at John F. Kennedy international airport, confirming for me that already, I was too slow for the big city, for the country I had dreamed of for years. Now I’m wondering how it would have benefited anyone in the airport that night, had I walked a little faster.
I spent that first night in America, in the YMCA on Times Square and 42nd Street. This was before the area had been spruced up by the city’s mayor and transformed into the glittering intersection we know today. I think Rudy Giuliani likes to take the credit for the changes, but I’m not sure he deserves it all. On a hot summer night in 1984, there I stood in the doorway of a drug store, my handbag held open, waiting expectantly for someone to search it for explosives, as was the habit of someone who lived in Belfast at the time. Between the jet lag and the scary characters in the street I forgot I was on a New York city street rather than entering either end of Belfast’s Royal Avenue before the promise of peace and urban renewal projects transformed it. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I liked America very much. It was too loud and too big. It was too tall. There were too many unrecognizable languages and accents buzzing in my ears. And, because there was no VAT, the prices marked on things in the store were different from what you actually paid once the sales tax was added.
For the first time in my life, I was both apart from and a part of a rich tapestry of human diversity and experience. Having spent my entire life in a rainy and relatively homogenized country – on the surface – where almost everyone was pale and under 5’8″, this was sensory overload. Nonetheless, the shock of it would soon give way to an enchantment that has stayed with me. I began taking pictures of random people in the streets of New York, to capture forever the color I was seeing for the first time in faces, in voices, in music. True colors I had never seen before.
One of the top floors of the YMCA had been reserved that first night for those of us who were traveling as part of the exchange program. Although I had felt very brave and independent that morning, in another time zone, boarding the plane in Dublin and leaving Ireland behind, watching the tiny patchwork quilt of irregular green fields grow smaller and smaller as the pilot took us high above the clouds, now I just felt scared and small. I imagine I felt a bit like 13 year-old Josh Baskin in the movie Big, who, after a fortune-telling machine grants his wish, begins an adventure in New York city, in the unforgiving world of work and romance and in the adult body of Tom Hanks. His first night away from home, he is as I was – frightened and needing his mother – trying to block out the noise, the shouting, the sirens, the sound of a city that kept on rollin’. Nothing was still. Like little Josh Baskin, I stayed up all night, the dresser pushed against the door, not sure how my dream of America would unfold. Afraid.
The next morning, I found myself queuing for breakfast in the YMCA, trying to look confident but as clueless as the scores of college-aged travelers from all over the world, around me, each of us laden with a heavy rucksack from which a tell-tale paperback book about “doing America,” peeked. In front of me was a beautiful blonde young woman. Until she opened her mouth and a stream of profanity rushed out, I had assumed she was Scandinavian, on an exchange trip. But by some magic, some divine intervention, she was Irish like me. Jackie Patterson. From Carlow. And, we were both Poughkeepsie-bound, to spend a summer working in the same summer camp upstate New York somewhere in the vicinity of Hyde Park. Thrilled to have been thrown together, we made our way to Grand Central Station and eventually boarded the right train out of the city. Soon, we were in Pougheepsie, which neither of us pronounced correctly, and I don’t remember how we made it to Camp Trywoodie. Unsure what to expect, but after a summer together and all these years later, we would eventually know what the Director Mike Symons would later recall of the experience:
We come together for so short a time – a brief moment in our life’s span – and in just a few short weeks, we are different for having known each other. We are young and old, boys and girls, men and women; we are black and white and a dozen other shades of colors and beliefs. We come from the West coast and the East; from the Western world and the eastern. We come from big cities as well as small villages. We are from a dozen different countries and speak at least that many languages. We come to Trywoodie and find a climate which allows us to hold on to what we are, and at the same time, to reach out and learn about what is at first strange and new to us.
It was a magical summer, full of color and music, and it coincided with the 15th anniversary of Woodstock. On our days off, Jackie and I made our way to the Avenue of the Pines in Saratoga Springs which registered with me only because Carly Simon had sung about it in “You’re so Vain,” to see somebody in concert – a young James Taylor and Randy Newman, The Cars Huey Lewis & The News, Frank Zappa, and Wang Chung. Yes. That Wang Chung. Later in the summer, I made it to Boston, to Foxboro Stadium, for the International Harvesters Festival with Neil Young, The Band, and Willie Nelson, and then back to New York for Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. The Boss had just kicked off the Born in the USA tour, and I paid $12.50 for the ticket.
One of the campers, Allie Shepko from Brooklyn, had taught me enough chords on the guitar, well, three (the only three you need), to be able to play a tune or two. I progressed to E minor which helped with the beginnings of so many Neil Young songs. A boy named Andy taught me the beginning of “Here Comes The Sun,” and John the camp photographer and I did our version of “The Weight.” We weren’t half bad and spent the evenings in full song. When we ran out of things to sing, we made up songs about each other. One was devoted to the lovely Alex, ” … of Ceramics,” who reminded me of Sting more so when he abandoned camp and broke his contract to pursue something presumably more exotic. Alex was probably the first “cool” person I ever met. I don’t know what became of him.
My favorite song to sing back then, thanks to John the photographer, and Rick, from England, on guitar, was Donovan’s ‘Colors.‘ To this day, when the sun catches my daughter’s hair, or when I drive past a field of corn or cotton that flashes green, or squint up at an intense blue sky, I think of “Colors” and the times I love the best.
In a couple of weeks, I am making my way back to where my American life started. I’m meeting Barbara “Bee,” in Washington, DC, (we reconnected again on Facebook and in March when I was off being very sensible in a blue suit and talking about formative assessment to a group of policy makers on Capitol Hill. Barbara and I are going to drive from D.C. to Poughkeepsie and then to the site of the summer camp for a reunion.
Barbara is an artist, a writer of songs, and she plays guitar, which I know she will bring. She will also bring plenty of mosquito repellent for me (my reaction to the mosquitoes was legendary and noted by almost everyone who commented in my diary). I still have a song Barbara wrote in my diary, at a time when I was known simply as “Irish.”
Almost thirty years later, I am excited to see those once-in-a-lifetime friends who took up permanent residence in a little corner of my heart and forever changed me, all grown up and grounded, with children of their own perhaps, and to be enchanted once more by fireflies and song and goodwill for a better world.
I can’t wait.
Keep on rollin, lady!