I couldn’t reach the overhead storage on the plane and I wasn’t strong enough to lift my suitcase up over my head. After a couple of strangers rose from their seats and helped me, I sat down in a slump, wondering how on earth I was going to survive in New York by myself for the summer.
It’s almost ten weeks into my J1 experience and I feel like there is nothing that I can’t do. I’ve gotten off at wrong subway stops, I’ve spent way too much money in tourist traps, and at times I’ve worked up to 60 hours a week in a Manhattan restaurant where I’ve been yelled at, had a menu thrown at me by a non-English speaking tourist, and had a table of 16 ask for 16 separate cheques just as I was about to close for the night. I’ve also flown around New York City in a helicopter, seen Taylor Swift in concert, and been to Broadway three times. Needless to say, my J1 experience has been the journey of a lifetime.
The Taylor Swift concert in New Jersey has been the highlight of my trip so far. Some 60,000 fans filled the stadium with wristbands that lit up in time to the music, creating a sea of colour and enchantment. Metlife Stadium is massive in comparison to the 3 Arena in Dublin, and watching the crowd alone was spectacular. The fans sang every word to every song and it included guest performances from HAIM, Nick Jonas, and several Victoria’s Secret models, something that would never have been available to a small Irish Stadium. It took me days to accept that the concert was over.
Visiting the World Trade Centre and the 9/11 Museum was an eye-opening experience for me. I was six years old when the Twin Towers fell and while I heard about the tragedy and had grown-up knowing about it, I was too young and too far removed from it to understand it. But as I went through the museum listening to people’s final messages to their loved ones, explaining that their plane had been hijacked and they didn’t think that they were going to make it, it began to sink in how horrific the tragedy was. There were walls upon walls of photographs of those who died, baby clothes and firefighter jackets. Throughout the museum there were boxes of tissues and people were crying watching footage. I work in a restaurant not far from the World Trade Centre, and I pass the streets every morning where I saw people in the footage running for their lives and weeping for their loved ones. As I look up at the new One World Trade Centre building, shinning tall into the sky, I find it impossible to imagine that such a tragedy unfolded in the exact place where I stand.
While New York, and Manhattan especially, are very expensive, there are so many things that the city offers for free. The Metropolitan Museum accepts ‘suggested donations’ which allows you to pay what you want, and has so many amazing exhibitions such as ‘Through the Looking Glass’, an exhibition based on Asian fashion. There are also free outdoor Olympic-sized swimming pools in every borough. After spending a day at the free pool in Queens, we stumbled upon an outdoor screening of Disney’s Frozen in the park, as the sun set over the river in the distance. These are the things I’d never get to experience in Ireland due to the weather.
I haven’t enjoyed all aspects of New York. Times Square is my least favourite place in the whole world. Everyone and their mother is out on the streets, trying to dodge the endless amounts of tourists, tour guides, construction workers and yellow taxis, while bright lights and absurd noises pound you from every direction. You’re positively sure that you’re going to get robbed or lost the entire time. From seven dollar sweets, to a mother washing her naked child in the sink of Applebee’s, it was easily the worst place of New York I’ve been to. There is just no need for that amount of calamity, proximity and chaos.
Among the 8.4 million people in New York, I don’t feel out of place. When standing on the subway you see an array of coloured hands holding onto the pole. New York seems to be home to all kinds of immigrants from Mexicans, to the Chinese, to the Italian, and the Irish. I spend more time serving and mixing with immigrants than I do with Americans. While my very pale skin tone stands out and my red-haired friend and I often get looked at with peculiar stares, everyone fits in the diversity of New York, which I find very different from a homogeneous Ireland. As we all stand together, waiting in the summer heat for the subway, New York really lives up to its metaphor of a ‘melting pot’.
With two weeks left, I’ve a lot left to see and do. It’ll be so strange going home again, back to Ireland where little seems to have changed since I’ve gone. I am missing my friends and family but I never want this amazing summer to end. Although I’m sure my friends are sick of looking at my photos and hearing about my experiences at this stage.
Want to know more about a J1 in New York? You can find Catherine on Twitter.