September 26, 1999
(CNN) -- Frank McCourt grew up dreaming of that gold-paved, sunlit paradise across the ocean where he had been born, and to which he would one day return. "'Tis" is literally the last word of "Angela's Ashes," following and affirming the sentence "'Tis a great country" -- referring, of course, to the United States.
When you're Irish and you don't know a soul in New York and you're walking along Third Avenue with trains rattling along on the El above there's great comfort in discovering there's hardly a block without an Irish bar: Costello's, the Blarney Stone, the Blarney Rose, P.J. Clarke's, the Breffni, the Leitrim House, the Sligo House, Shannon's, Ireland's Thirty-Two, the All Ireland. I had my first pint in Limerick the day before I turned sixteen and it made me sick and my father nearly destroyed the family and himself with the drink but I'm lonely in New York and I'm lured in by Bing Crosby on jukeboxes singing "Galway Bay" and blinking green shamrocks the likes of which you'd never see in Ireland.
There's an angry-looking man behind the end of the bar in Costello's and he's saying to a customer, I don't give a tinker's damn if you have ten pee haitch dees. I know more about Samuel Johnson than you know about your hand and if you don't comport yourself properly you'll be out on the sidewalk. I'll say no more.
The customer says, But.
Out, says the angry man. Out. You'll get no more drink in this house.
The customer claps on his hat and stalks out and the angry man turns to me. And you, he says, are you eighteen?
I am, sir. I'm nineteen.
How do I know?
I have my passport, sir.
And what is an Irishman doing with an American passport?
I was born here, sir.
He allows me to have two fifteen-cent beers and tells me I'd be better off spending my time in the library than in bars like the rest of our miserable race. He tells me Dr. Johnson drank forty cups of tea a day and his mind was clear to the end. I ask him who Dr. Johnson was and he glares at me, takes my glass away, and tells me, Leave this bar. Walk west on Forty-second till you come to Fifth. You'll see two great stone lions. Walk up the steps between those two lions, get yourself a library card and don't be an idiot like the rest of the bogtrotters getting off the boat and stupefying themselves with drink. Read your Johnson, read your Pope and avoid the dreamy micks. I want to ask him where he stands on Dostoyevsky till he points at the door, Don't come back here till you've read The Lives of the English Poets. Go on. Get out.
It's a warm October day and I have nothing else to do but what I'm told and what harm is there in wandering up to Fifth Avenue where the lions are. The librarians are friendly. Of course I can have a library card and it's so nice to see young immigrants using the library. I can borrow four books if I like as long as they're back on the due date. I ask if they have a book called The Lives of the English Poets by Samuel Johnson and they say, My, my, my, you're reading Johnson. I want to tell them I never read Johnson before but I don't want them to stop admiring me. They tell me feel free to walk around, take a look at the Main Reading Room on the third floor. They're not a bit like the librarians in Ireland who stood guard and protected the books against the likes of me.
The sight of the Main Reading Room, North and South, makes me go weak at the knees. I don't know if it's the two beers I had or the excitement of my second day in New York but I'm near tears when I look at the miles of shelves and know I'll never be able to read all those books if I live till the end of the century. There are acres of shiny tables where all sorts of people sit and read as long as they like seven days a week and no one bothers them unless they fall asleep and snore. There are sections with English, Irish, American books, literature, history, religion, and it makes me shiver to think I can come here anytime I like and read anything as long as I like if I don't snore.
I stroll back to Costello's with four books under my arm. I want to show the angry man I have The Lives of the English Poets but he's not there. The barman says that would be Mr. Tim Costello himself that was going on about Johnson and as he's talking the angry man comes out of the kitchen. He says, Are you back already?
I have The Lives of the English Poets, Mr. Costello.
You may have The Lives of the English Poets under your oxter, young fellow, but you don't have them in your head so go home and read.
It's Thursday and I have nothing to do till the job starts on Monday. For lack of a chair I sit up in the bed in my furnished room and read till Mrs. Austin knocks on my door at eleven and tells me she's not a millionaire and it's house policy that lights be turned off at eleven to keep down her electricity bill. I turn off the light and lie on the bed listening to New York, people talking and laughing, and I wonder if I'll ever be part of the city, out there talking and laughing.
There's another knock at the door and this young man with red hair and an Irish accent tells me his name is Tom Clifford and would I like a fast beer because he works in an East Side building and he has to be there in an hour. No, he won't go to an Irish bar. He wants nothing to do with the Irish so we walk to the Rhinelander on Eighty-sixth Street where Tom tells me how he was born in America but was taken to Cork and got out as fast as he could by joining the American army for three good years in Germany when you could get laid ten times over for a carton of cigarettes or a pound of coffee. There's a dance floor and a band in the back of the Rhinelander and Tom asks a girl from one of the tables to dance. He tells me, Come on. Ask her friend to dance.
But I don't know how to dance and I don't know how to ask a girl to dance. I know nothing about girls. How could I after growing up in Limerick? Tom asks the other girl to dance with me and she leads me out on the floor. I don't know what to do. Tom is stepping and twirling and I don't know whether to go backward or forward with this girl in my arms. She tells me I'm stepping on her shoes and when I tell her I'm sorry she says, Oh, forget it. I don't feel like clumping around. She goes back to her table and I follow her with my face on fire. I don't know whether to sit at her table or go back to the bar till she says, You left your beer on the bar. I'm glad I have an excuse to leave her because I wouldn't know what to say if I sat. I'm sure she wouldn't be interested if I told her I spent hours reading Johnson's Lives of the English Poets or if I told her how excited I was at the Forty-second Street Library. I might have to find a book in the library on how to talk to girls or I might have to ask Tom who dances and laughs and has no trouble with the talk. He comes back to the bar and says he's going to call in sick which means he's not going to work. The girl likes him and says she'll let him take her home. He whispers to me he might get laid which means he might go to bed with her. The only problem is the other girl. He calls her my girl. Go ahead, he says. Ask her if you can take her home. Let's sit at their table and you can ask her.
The beer is working on me and I'm feeling braver and I don't feel shy about sitting at the girls' table and telling them about Tim Costello and Dr. Samuel Johnson. Tom nudges me and whispers, For Christ's sake, stop the Samuel Johnson stuff, ask her home. When I look at her I see two and I wonder which I should ask home but if I look between the two I see one and that's the one I ask.
Home? she says. You kiddin' me. That's a laugh. I'm a secretary, a private secretary, and you don't even have a high school diploma. I mean, did you look in the mirror lately? She laughs and my face is on fire again. Tom takes a long drink of beer and I know I'm useless with these girls so I leave and walk down Third Avenue taking the odd look at my reflection in shop windows and giving up hope.
Copyright © 1999 by Frank McCourt
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