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Irish Birthdays and a Wallace Stevens Kind of Life

Soundtrack: "Love at First Sight" by Kylie Minogue. Unfortunately

After two weeks of substance abuse, hedonism, sleep, and police rioting, I realized I'd overstayed my welcome at Ger's in Dublin. I wasn't being paranoid, I really was getting dirty looks from Ger's flatmates. It was time to find a new place to live. Even more important, I was running out of money. Dublin City is a tremendous drain on resources--even more expensive than Paris (the previous Most Expensive City in Europe to Me) to drink/eat/smoke/breathe. I couldn't live there anymore; no wages could cover how incredibly expensive the Irish capital is. I'll never understand how nearly a third of Ireland could afford to live in the place.

So I decamped to Cork. I knew nothing about the city beyond the basics: It's Ireland's second largest city, with a population of about 140,000, which makes it about the size of Fargo, where I grew up. Also, before she started greeting me with icy silence, Ger's flatmate Sinead told me Cork had a number of good bookstores, while the Lonely Planet guidebook told me Cork was a pub and club town, with Blarney Castle sitting only ten miles out from the city centre. As a deciding factor, Murphy's Stout is brewed in Cork, and is nearly a euro cheaper than a pint of Guinness in Dublin.

My traveling luck held true for my trip to Cork. Starting out the voyage by promptly losing my zippo at Ger's (for the fourth time this trip), I caught the express bus from Dublin. The bus expressly got stuck in Dublin traffic, taking over an hour and a half to wind it's way ou from the tangle of the city. The four hour trip was already an hour behind schedule, which wouldn't have been a major concern for me except for the guy sitting directly in front of me, who didn't seem to have showered within my lifetime. Perhaps he was following the medieval method of avoiding the Plague by not bathing. The bus was further delayed by getting stuck behind a tractor for half an hour in the middle of County Tipperary. While we could have gotten out and walked past the slow moving vehicle, the bus didn't quite have the umph to pass safely through the reasonably heavy oncoming traffic.

Northern Cork, looking across the north branch of the River Lee, towards the Shandon area of town (that lone clocktower in the middle).

Still we did at least get to Cork without a major accident, delay, or getting lost, which is more than I can say for most of my long haul journeys. My first impression of Cork was not all that favorable. To be honest, Cork appeared to me like a rainy version of Duluth, sans Lake Superior (or a small version of Gary, IN, or Glasgow without Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or whatever crowded rainy industrial wasteland you prefer). The main part of the town lies in a bowl of sorts, with residential area climbing the gentle low hills surrounding the city centre. The centre lies on a football (American Gridiron, that is) shaped island created by the Lee River forking and rejoining itself. The ultimate effect is that Cork city is shaped like a cupped hand pouring the Lee west into the ocean.

The view directly south from the Shandon hill of town, looking across at the 19th Century St. Finbarr's Cathedral, and a modern brick church so ugly it doesn't even deserve to have it's name known.

Aside from a couple grey church spires stabbing scattershot out of the multicolored landscape, there was nothing immediately inspiring about the vista of Cork that isn't dwarfed by what appears to my Great Plains eyes to be a grain elevator, or the small but unreasonably decrepit dock area. Even more worrying was the smell that greeted me as I left the bus. Thankful to finally be away from Pigpen the passenger, I took a deep breath, expecting fresh air, or at least gasoline and exhaust. Instead, I got the faint but definite odor wafting, it turns out, from the Beamish brewery located just west of the city centre (Beamish is a stout, similar to Murphy's or Guinness, except while Dublin is proud of Guinness and Cork is proud of Murphy's, no one's proud of Beamish. It's the stout you have when the only money you have for a pint was what you scraped out from the couch cushions). When the wind is right, the entire city is permeated by a smell much akin to overcooked ramen noodles, not overwhelming but vaguely nauseating.

That foul wind made my decision on where to live a bit easier; I'd been looking at the guidebook, trying to decide if I should go to the hostel closer to the center of the city but more expensive, or the one out near the rim of the city but "the cheapest in the city." The rim of the city being the opposite direction from the ramen smell, I decided to go to the cheapest hostel in the city: Aaran House Tourist Hostel (swiftly breaking my personal rule of not frequenting anything that has the word "tourist" in the name). It was, according to my map, only ten minutes walk from the city centre. Of course, the map didn't take into account that I was still hauling around the Trailer, slightly damaged and duct taped, but still belonging in myth or philosophy (to wit: if an all-powerful god could create luggage he couldn't lift, it'd be the Trailer). Also, what the map didn't show was the walk was slightly uphill on uneven pavement. Still, problems with hauling around the Trailer are de rigeur now, so I can stoically manage with only occasional Tourette's outbursts.

Aaran House Tourist Hostel has 32 beds, which makes it less than a third of the size of Prince's St. Backpackers. They don't sell alcohol (though they don't disapprove of it either), and there are only a half dozen long-termers. Cork isn't really the type of city that travelers stay for long periods of time in. Most people spend only a night or two at the hostel, giving them just enough time to go out to see Blarney Castle and the docks of Cobh, the last place Titanic docked before she went out to meet her doom. I wound up the only person in an eight bed room, which only sporadically fills up and just as sporadically empties out again.

This was my new home.

As much as I needed a job, I just felt too drained and lazy to go out to find one. I'd arrived in Cork on a Wednesday night, so I declared myself a four day weekend, and did nothing more than walk the town and see "Star Wars: Episode 2" on opening day (thus fulfilling a geek obligation to see each Star Wars movie the day they open, no matter how bad they are). Once I'd seen Cork in the sunlight, I started to realize that it's not as bad a city as I initially believed. The guide books are right; it really is a pub and club town, with a thriving nightlife. Like any Irish city, the nights are filled with drunks, but as a whole they're much less violent or messy than those from the Temple Bar area of Dublin (nicknamed by some "Temple Barf"), where I saw more drunken violence in one week than in the rest of my time abroad combined.

On Monday I set about getting a job. The day was a surprisingly nice day, with clear blue skies right in the middle of one of the rainiest summers on record in Ireland (which is one of the rainiest countries in the world). Monday, 20 May, 2002, was also my 23 birthday.

As far as birthdays go, 23 is one of those blank years. After over a solid decade of momentous birthdays--starting when you turn 10 (double digits), 13 (now a teenager!), 16 (driver's license), 18 (can be drafted, vote, buy cigarettes, porn, or buy alcohol in nearly any country other than the US), 20, (second decade on earth--give or take nine months), to 21 (can buy alcohol in the US or any country not ruled by a Prohibitionist theocracy--there's a snide comment about the US hidden in there somewhere just waiting to be said)--turning 23 is a bit of a letdown. The closest excuse for significance I can find is that it's a prime number, and I already used that excuse for 17 AND 19.

Granted, turning 22 isn't all that significant either, but what my 22nd birthday party lacked in significance it made up in sheer insane exuberance, since it came on the same day I graduated from university. The joint graduation/birthday/end-of-the-school-year part that went on for over 24 hours and covered at least four locations.

Anything would be a letdown after that. I almost didn't even try, though. Despite the beautiful blue sky and calm cool day, the signs were not all that good for the day going smoothly for me. Mostly it was just an accumulation of little things making me feel apprehensive, but one thing does stick out more than the other problems. As I was out looking for one of the temp agencies I'd seen over the weekend, I rounded a corner. Because I was paying attention to a busker off to one side, I didn't see the person standing guard on the corner and ran right into them. To be more precise, I ran into their gun. To be even more precise, I ran chin first into the man's loaded Steyr Aug.

[The Steyr Aug: I'm going to go against my anti-militaristic pacifism for a second and say that the Steyr Aug is a very odd but cool weapon. Those of you who play "Counter-Strike" already know the weapon, but for those of you who don't, the Aug can also be seen in the movie "Die Hard" as the special assault rifle the long-haired Fabio-looking terrorist uses when he's trying to kill Bruce Willis and avenge his brother's death. Also, this raises an interesting philosophical question for me: Is it geekier for me to know this weapon from an online computer game or from an 80s action movie?]

So, in the middle of the day, I ran into a man who was close to seven foot tall, with an assault rifle strapped across his chest. He was dressed in camoflage, and my normal American panic at running into a lone gunman gave way to relief when I realized he was military, and there were other's in the alleyway behind him. I have no idea what they were doing, and the man I ran into didn't say anything beyond, "I'm sorry, but you're not allowed down this alley right now." He was remarkably gracious and polite, even keeping his finger resting on the trigger guard rather than the trigger itself, which was nice and more polite than I'd be if someone ran into me and started gibbering like an idiot.

I backed away, and went on to find the temp agency, feeling my confidence was shot (okay, probably a bad choice of words), but needing to find a job nonetheless.

And find a job I did. The first temp agency I walked into had a position they were trying to fill; within ten minutes of entering Grafton Recruitment, they'd arranged a formal interview for me at Smurfit Corrugated Cases, and a half an hour after finishing the interview, I was offered a position. The position at Smurfit is pretty close to my dream job, actually. For the highest pay I've ever earned, I work forty hours over the weekdays, from 5pm to 1am, working as the night dispatch for a cardboard box company. Aside from light filing work, most of my job consists of waiting. I wait for the shipping trucks to be loaded, am given a list of what's on that particular truck to enter into the computer. Within five minutes, I print off a computer docket, give that to the driver, and go back to wait some more. Over the course of an eight hour day, I spend maybe an hour at the most filing and sorting, along with another half an hour doing the computer work for the dockets. The remaining six and a half hours are spent writing, listening to the radio or my CD player, reading, or staring at a blank spot on the wall. I call it my "Wallace Stevens kind of life." (For those who don't know, Wallace Stevens was an American poet who did most of his work while running a successful insurance company).

To celebrate both my birthday and getting this miraculous job, I decided to splurge and buy a bottle of bourbon. Drinking the bourbon was a bit of an anti-climax, however. There were only a half dozen people at the hostel when I got back, and most of them spoke the bare minimum of English necessary to survive in Ireland. The only person I could talk to was an English guy with no front teeth who spent half the time bragging about how good he was at telemarketing and the other half telling me he didn't know how I could come from a place like Fargo (which, at least, he knew wasn't a fictional town) in the US with all the "Red Indians" from around there. I stopped talking to him fairly quickly, and left while he was hitting on a stunning Polish girl who was holding her boyfriend's hand at the time.


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This page last updated on 21 June, 2002.
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