The sun set a deep shade of red over the Long Island town of Montauk last Tuesday evening, and by 7pm the first bonfire was blazing on a beach that stretches for miles and miles of golden sand. A girl with a Dublin accent sat in the courtyard of the Memory Motel, famously immortalised in the song of the same name by the Rolling Stones, Skyping on her iPhone with home. Over her shoulder, a slightly bedraggled Irish tricolour hung in one of the windows. Behind her head, the sign at the office read “No Vacancy”.
Twenty yards farther along the main drag, we happened upon a group of Irish students who explained why there was no room at the inn.
“We’re six to a room down there,” said Paraic McEnery from the Limerick Institute of Technology, as he and his pals stood on the steps outside Wok and Roll, waiting for their Chinese takeaways.
Six to a room in a place where Mick Jagger once reputedly seduced Carly Simon when the Stones were in town hanging out with Andy Warhol.
“The six of us, a double-bed, and a television and nothing else,” said Anthony Slowey, a native of Donegal studying at the University of Limerick. “It’s just as well us lads are very close.”
As if on cue, one of them holds up a freshly-purchased inflatable mattress and they laugh the carefree laugh of individuals here courtesy of the J1 visa that allows students to work in America legitimately for the summer months. They didn’t come to these parts for four-star hotels or for comfortable beds. The dust and sweat caked into their clothes at the end of working days on construction sites and golf courses indicate that.
They came here for the full-on experience, working by day and, by night, well, enjoying all the other delights on offer in a seaside resort that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, 100 miles east of New York city, 3000 miles from home. Ask them why they picked this particular place and they rattle off the reasons. “There’s the sun, there’s the beach, there’s the nightlife, it’s everything we were told it was going to be.”
It’s everything and a little bit more. In recent years, some J1 students have found work more difficult to come by than their predecessors as the recession bit deeper and deeper in to the American economy. Not this year. At least not for these boys. All six were fully-employed within days of taking the long bus journey out from the city.
“Jobs?” asks Micheal Roche. “After a few days, they were practically walking up to you throwing the jobs at you, I’m telling you, they are that desperate for people to work. There’s no shortage around here.”
That a shop on the main street sells Cadbury’s chocolate, Barry’s Tea and Tayto crisps is an illustration of Montauk’s enduring and unique relationship with Ireland. Local legend has it the connection began when two Irish students came to the town one summer in the mid-sixties to work for their aunt on her hot dog stand. By the mid-80s, it was one of the favoured destinations for the J1 brigade. This year, it’s estimated at least 1000 will be knocking around the place (and according to the Limerick sextet’s unscientific research, the ratio is roughly ten girls to every fella).
The Irish are easy to spot all along Route 27 that runs right through the town, not just because their skin is a little more pink and pale than the locals, there’s also the fact they walk everywhere. A very un-American activity. Hazel and Mairead, from UCD via Donegal and Mayo, were trundling along Edgemere Street, baguettes under their arms, and their thumbs aloft. A day working in a seafood store behind them, they were hitchhiking the two miles out to the apartment they share outside the town. They wouldn’t give their surnames but they sang the praises of their hosts.
“Somebody always picks us up,” they chorus. “Americans are great like that. They can’t do enough for you. Our first weekend here, we were sitting on the side of the street, our two big suitcases, and nowhere to stay because it was Memorial Day weekend. We were in real trouble until this woman came along, ‘You’re Irish right?’ ‘Yeah,’ we said. Well, she brought us to this family who took us in for the weekend, fed and watered us and then drove us to our job interviews. We just couldn’t believe how generous they were.”
For those who aren’t beneficiaries of such random acts of kindness, there are other safety nets. Orla Kelleher is Executive Director of the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, a traditional Irish enclave just north of New York city. Three seasons a year, her office helps immigrants arriving to make new lives for themselves in America, assisting them as they seek out accommodation and chase up job leads. A large part of the summer though is devoted to the cause of the J1ers. It’s early yet but this June has been good so far because she’s had no reports of any students sleeping rough for want of a bed.
“You are always worried a couple of them will end up on park benches or on beaches at night,” said Kelleher. “We find every year that one of the biggest problems is students are just not properly prepared. Despite our best efforts to educate them and despite the availability of so much information online on our website, they are still surprised at how difficult it is to get jobs. The first thing I do when they come into my office is tell them to get out of the city and head towards the Jersey Shore and out onto Long Island where there is more seasonal work available. They don’t seem to realise either how expensive it’s going to be get up on their feet.”
The problem is often one of unrealistic expectations. Mythmaking and exaggerating about the lucrative earning potential of a J1 have been staples on Irish college campuses for decades. There is far less talk about the logistical problems of sorting social security numbers, the need for extra cash for security deposits and the inconvenience of having to wait a month for the first cheque to clear. The single biggest mistake made every year is students failing to bring enough cash to tide them over in the first few weeks.
“One of my friend’s sisters came here last year and she made so much money that she came home and bought a car,” said Fiona Kelly, a student of geography at Trinity College, delighted to be swapping summer in South Dublin for the South Fork of Long Island. “So you’d be hoping you could do the same. But even if I don’t make any money, it’s all about spending a summer away from Dublin and getting the experience of living here.”
As a generation of students who spent so many of their childhood years growing up in the maw of the Celtic Tiger, it’s instructive that the dozen or so I meet all downplay the financial motivation for coming here. One or two mention the hope they might save enough to have a blow-out on the West Coast before going home. There’s even ambitious talk of a few days in Las Vegas. Most will be happy to break even though, to spend a few days in New York city, and to have milked every last drop of fun from their stay. Whatever happens, they’ve learned valuable lessons about camaraderie and community not available in any classroom.
“We met two girls on the bus coming out,” said Slowey. “They had nowhere to stay and we had our room sorted already so of course we let them stay with us for a week. You know people would do the same for you. The Irish look after each other around here.”
Wherever in America the students land, from Ocean City, Maryland to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and all points in between, finding accommodation is always the most difficult part of the J1 experience. Witness a group of students from Dublin Business School who were scammed out of $5000 by a landlord in Santa Monica, California even before they set foot on the plane last month. This is why, no matter how cramped and overcrowded the living conditions, nobody ever turns down a request to put somebody up, for a night that inevitably turns into a week, and sometimes even more.
The accommodation shortage is exacerbated by the fact every batch of fresh Irish students is confronted by the sins of their predecessors. There are landlords in Montauk who won’t even consider renting to Irish. Too much damage to the properties. Too many stories of disgruntled tenants smashing up apartments in disputes over security deposits at the end of the summer.
“It only takes a handful of students to cast a cloud and leave a bad impression,” said Kelleher. “Some landlords are happy to let them stay six or seven to a room but others take exception to discovering they’ve rented to one and soon there are seven or eight living there. The vast majority play by the rules but it’s those who don’t that people remember.”
There are bartenders around Montauk who won’t serve Irish because they are too messy when they are drunk. There are employers who won’t hire them either. Not because of their drinking or their work ethic. It’s just that in previous years too many students have started work, promised to stay until Labour Day (the first weekend in September and the traditional end of the busy season) and then departed early, leaving their employers high and dry. They won’t get fooled again.
“You’d think they’d be sick of Irish around here at this stage but they aren’t,” said McEnery. “There are still so many people we meet every day who can’t do enough for us.”
In part, the locals embrace the influx because Montauk is a seasonal town whose population swells from 1200 to 20,000 in the summer. They need the migrant workers and the fact the students spend so much (they can rattle off the nightly drink specials in every pub from Sloppy Tuna’s to The Point) of their income around the place is greatly appreciated.
“This is the perfect spot for a summer if you want to work all day and party all night,” said Hazel and Mairead from UCD. “You can go out every night here if you want. That’s kind of what the JI scene is all about isn’t it? And it’s a lot more fun than spending the summer back in Ireland.”
The internet means it has never been easier for emigrants (even seasonal ones) to be so far away from friends and family. Those without phones sit in the Coffee Tauk café on Elmwood Avenue between shifts and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi to chat with home. Those without their own laptops in tow go to the Montauk Library and queue up to use the computers there for the same reason. Some even complain that the technology means their parents can contact them too easily too often. The words “plaguing me” were used by more than one ungrateful child.
All agree however that this particular summer in America carries a certain extra poignancy to it for these Irish students, as it has for the past few years. Amid all the partying and posturing, these young men and women know that moving to work in a foreign country is a very definite post-graduate possibility for a lot of them. In many ways then, this is a trial run, an opportunity to see if they can cut it abroad.
“We are very aware of the fact we will more than likely have to leave Ireland for work,” said Slowey. “This is our chance, you know, to see if we can survive on our own, this far away from home.”
Listening to them talk, the prognosis so far looks good.
(this piece first appeared in the Daily Mail, June 2012)