Spinning the Guinness Bottle in America
Later this month I will celebrate the 30th anniversary of that day when I landed, terrified and wide-eyed, in America.
On the public and political front, this has been the very worst of those 30 years.
For many of us, this has been the year to chide ourselves for our heretofore simplistic and deluded understanding about who and what this country actually is ( the "United" States? I think not).
Still, as artists in America, it's our job to offset some of the damage done and being done today, as I write this. Even in bad old 2016, there's still time. Today and tomorrow and on Christmas Day and for all eight days of Hanukkah and on New Year's Eve, write like your life depends on it.
Because in many ways, it actually does.
Write for those who are too scared or too voiceless or too persecuted or too busy working three low-wage jobs to have the luxury of writing.
Also, for local protest events near you, check out PEN America's Writers Resist.
Despite the political schisms and our scary headlines, there were many days this year when I pinched myself at my good fortune. I'm not just healthy and alive and with a roof over my head; I'm able to do (and teach) what I love to do and teach.
In my three decades here, writing has brought me my closest friends. Writing and books have put me in the very best company I know.
You know who you are. Thank you.
In the spirit of nostalgia and milestones, below is a fun little story about my first Christmas in America. It's part of the Advent virtual blog tour, in which a group of us writers and book bloggers share memories or vignettes from our Christmases past.
The American shoe shop assistant took me all in--from my waitress's black trousers and matching Reeboks, to the whiff of the french fries I had just served up during my lunchtime restaurant shift.
"Can I help you?" She asked, with a little sniff. The sniff, the head-to-toe look and the tone all said, Probably not, but I have to ask.
I pointed at a twinkly display shelf. “Those black ankle boots second from the right. Have you those in a size 9?”
“Oh! I’m afraid they’re not included in our winter sale. Size 9? Let me bring you some you can try on.”
She disappeared into a back room while I browsed among the other displays and listened to the store's Christmassy muzak.
Back then, 1987, I lived in a small resort city in upstate New York, where this boutique was tucked among the art galleries and shops and restaurants in the city's Victorian-facade main street. In winter, the entire downtown looked like a real-life Dickens village.
Eleven months earlier, I had immigrated there from my native Ireland and got myself a dish-washing job and then a waitressing gig in a popular pub and restaurant.
That day, I had cashed out my lunch tips and grabbed and paid for a bottle of Guinness from the pub's beer shelves. After my shoe shopping, I planned to go home and use my mother's recipe--and the Guinness--to soak and boil a traditional Christmas pudding.
In this, my first Christmas in America, I was going to wow my new boyfriend (who had invited me for his family's Christmas dinner). I was going to do the whole ceremonial thing with the holly sprig on top and the flaming brandy.
Oh, yes, I was going to out-Cratchit the Cratchits.
So here I was, my bottle of Guinness tucked in the bottom of my tote bag as I waited for this shop assistant to return with some leather dress boots.
Waitressing in America was shockingly democratic—at least back then, and compared to my previous stints in the U.K. and Ireland. In those countries, a food server in the 1980s had no face, no corporeality other than being the pair of hands delivering up hot meals.
By contrast, most of my upstate New York customers were chatty and interesting and kind, and some didn’t hide their concern about a 24-year-old kid let loose in a new country.
“Aw, sweetheart, you must miss home,” some of my regulars said as I stood there in my black apron, reciting that day’s lunch specials. “Especially at this time of year. Hard to be away from family at Christmas.”
I always gave a smile-ey, non-committal response and, with one eye on my other restaurant tables, I diverted those nice folks back to their lunch order.
The other shocker about waitressing here? The money. On busy days, I left work with a pocketful of cash to add to my rapidly growing savings account. Plus, between now and Christmas Eve, the restaurant had booked some group Christmas parties (Cha! Ching!).
Lonely? Really, like, between working and shopping and partying and boyfriend-ing, who had the time? (In future years, once the new-country novelty wore off, I would change my tune.)
Ms. Shop Assistant was back now, with three uncovered shoe boxes cradled to her chest. “Try these; they’re all on our 20% off sale.”
“What about those,” I asked, pointing again at my display pair on the shelf.
A pitying look. “Oh, they’re over $100. They’re actually (insert an Italian brand name here).”
She led me to the bank of armchairs where she opened the first shoe box. “These might work for you. They’re from last year’s stock. Very good value.”
I pointed to another pair on the display wall to my left. “I like those, too. Do you have those in my size?”
“Those? Hmmm ... No ... They’re not on the clearance sale either.”
What was all this chat about clearance sales?
Ping! The penny dropped.
The waitress’s outfit. The french fry whiff. The foreign accent. Based on these, this woman couldn’t be bothered to show me boots she assumed a girl like me couldn’t afford.
My hackles rose. If America was making me cash rich and spendthrift, it was also making me outspoken.
She set the second shoe box in my lap. “Try these on; they’re also on our winter clear—“
“--No. I will not try them on. Look, I’ve asked you more than once to show me the boots I want, and all you’ve done is quote the bargain price of boots I don't want."
“I’m just trying to—“
“—No. You’re not trying. You’re just assuming I cannot buy Italian-leather boots.”
She sniffed. She fidgeted. I stared her down.
“Bring. Me. The. Boots. I. Asked. For."
Then, to show I meant business, I swung my tote bag off my seat to set it on the carpet between us. The tote fell over on its side.
No. No. Oh, hell, no.
The bottle of Guinness escaped, then rolled across the shop. Just before a rack of sparkly cocktail shoes, it did a festive little spin-the-bottle turn.
Then it stopped.
I turned back to Ms. Shop Assistant, watched her as she mentally connected the dots: Guinness. Irish. Uh-huh.
"Do you need to go get that?" She asked, smirking.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to insert your questions or comments below.
P.S. I married that boyfriend. This Christmas will be our 29th one together. I'm still wow-ing him (heh!).