Before leaving Clifden to drive my American companion to Dublin Airport for her return flight home, I had tried to settle my account at the Clifden hotel, but to no avail.
I lacked the cash to settle the bill, which had been refused by my credit card providers, and was unwilling to leave the amplifier I had offered in ample payment with the hotel receptionist. I had asked for the manager but was told he was ‘away’ and so told the receptionist that I was only willing to leave the item with him in person.
So we set off with the bill unsettled and the amplifier in my van. Some 30 miles from Clifden we pulled in to the side of the road to make some coffee. I was in a strange state of mind. My companion had told me that she was suffering from a form of leukemia that required regular hospital treatments and I was doubly unhappy as a result at our coming parting.
As we sat in the back of the van at the side of the road, someone knocked. It was the hotel owner. Apparently he had not been ‘away’ as I had been told and accused me of eloping without paying the bill. After putting him straight on my actions, he declined to accept the amplifier but relented when I said it was all I had, that it was worth more than what I owed and that he would get nothing else anyway as I had nothing else to offer. He packed it into the boot of his car and drove off. I later learned that his name was Burke and he was in fact related to my companion.
We made Dublin and booked into the Airport Hotel on the city outskirts, after paying a visit to my friend's relatives who lived in north east Dublin. It was a night of mixed emotion. When she parted from me at the flight boarding gates, I was surprised to see tears in her eyes, though was never certain just why she cried.
I drove from the airport in a kind of blur and headed up into the Wicklow mountains for a few days in a bid to lose my blues. It didn't help much, and I worked my way down to Youghal in Cork, a place I was familiar with and felt easy in. There I teamed up with an American singer songwriter and we took part as a duo in the town’s summer busking festival, surprising ourselves by clinching the third prize under the name of Phoebe, the English version of the Irish for ‘freedom’. After traveling up towards Ballybunion, my music partner then went his own way. He intended heading on to Prague.
A few days later I was back in Youghal and had made up my mind to fly to the US. I was not sure if I would see the woman I considered a friend again if I didn't—she had convinced me that she was quite ill.
To pay for the flight, I'd decided to sell my van and anything else of value except my guitar, which I could use to earn money. I found buyers, and several days later had booked the flight. I had tried without success to contact the woman at the numbers she had given to me and was angered when a guy answered at one and in an English accent rudely told me not to ring that number again. Because of his rudeness, I told him where to shove his head and hung up.
Eventually, after booking into a b&b in Youghal for my final two nights in Ireland, I made contact. She was nonplussed at first but then said she would travel from New York, where she lived, to Boston to meet me at Logan Airport. Yet I nearly didn't make it.
On the final night I was invited to a farewell party by some friends I had made in Youghal, one of whom had offered to drive me to to Dublin for my flight, and was at their house, close to Youghal beach. A phone call I was expecting from my friend in New York failed to materialise and before I realised it the time had slipped on to 3am. I said farewell to my friends and set off in a rush back to my b&b, in case the call went through there.
The streets from the beach were deserted and I sped along a little too fast for comfort but in control of my vehicle. I had forgotten a hump in the road and when I reached it the van leaped into the air and was momentarily airborne with all four wheels off the road—at precisely the same time as a gardai patrol car approached from around the bend in front of me. When I reached the end of the promenade road—a steep hill leading to a T junction, the patrol car was behind me. They followed me almost to the center of Youghal and pulled me to a stop, just yards from the gardai station.
"Going a bit fast, aren't you?" the burly garda asked after approaching and then asked for my ID. I explained the reason for my hurry but saw doom ahead when he asked if I had been drinking. I had supped a good few at the party.
When he produced a breathalyser and asked if I would blow into it, doom became Apocalypse Now.
“I will if you insist, officer,” I said, “but I’d rather not.” He gave me a penetrating, hard look, pushed his face up close to my nose and snarled: “You'd fail. Go home.”
I had been reprieved. They watched me drove away, in less of a hurry now and I made it back to the b&b. A few minutes after going in, the call came from New York. She would be there to meet me at Logan.
It was an unusual trip. The first leg from Dublin to Heathrow cost me half the price of the ticket again for ‘excess luggage’ and a hostess plonked a young girl in the seat besides me, asking me to ‘look after her’.
She was hardly older then eight, was on her own and had been put on the plane by her parents to visit her grandparents in London, who were to collect her at Heathrow. She started crying several times on the flight and there seemed little I could say or do to stop her tears, but she eventually fell asleep.
Then I found that my ticket was useless. It turned out that I had a one-way ticket, no different then in price to a return, but it was useless as short term visitors were not permitted to enter the US without a return ticket. Buying a new ticket at the check in counter robbed me of a much needed £500 from the cash I'd been banking on to help me to get established in Boston.
But the fun wasn't’t over yet. On arriving at Logan, I watched my fellow passengers breeze through customs but when my turn arrived I was asked to “take a seat and wait”. A few minutes later I was collected by two immigration officials and escorted to an office deep inside the airport, then escorted to collect my luggage and taken back to the immigration center. They simply didn't believe I was on a visit. I had too much baggage.
I explained that I might travel up to Canada when my visa expired, as I had no reason to return to Ireland, or the UK for that matter. After much searching of my bags and many questions, I was finally allowed to enter the US, almost two hours later. I had been allowed to pass a message to the airport announcements when I explained that someone was awaiting my arrival at the airport.
As I crossed the almost empty airport foyer, I thought she had left and I was beginning to panic. I knew no-one in the US. I left my luggage with the porter who was assisting me and headed for the information desk. But before I reached it, my friend ran at my from the foyer entrance. She had been having a cigarette outside.
Three days later I was down to just $200, despite having been booked into a Boston hotel by my friend who paid the $200 plus bill for my stay. She'd returned to New York after spending a few days with me and showing me around central Boston. I was suddenly faced with being alone in what to me then was the unknown city of Boston, not to mention a strange land.
After spending almost the whole of my last day at the hotel telephoning accommodation advertisements without success I was about to drop into deep despair when I received one telephone call in response to a message I had left somewhere. My caller proved to be something of a savior and after a long chat on the phone agreed that I could take the room he was renting without seeing me, though I did go out that evening to meet him at the house in Revere. It was astonishing to me that the street was named Harris Street, my surname, and I was further astonished when I later discovered the zip code for the house was 010250. My date of birth is 2 January, 1950.
A taxi-driver collected me from the Boston city center hotel the next morning and helped me pack the six large bags, rucksack and guitar in his taxi before running me to the bus station. I'd packed practically everything I'd had with me in the camper van except the tool kit and various other large items as I'd not intended returning to Ireland and was uncertain just where I would eventually end up.
The chatty black taxi driver had questioned me on the way to the bus station and so learned a little of my story. As we unloaded the bags from his taxi he asked how I intended getting all the stuff to where I was going. I didn't realise that the bus would stop about half a mile from the address I was heading for and yep, it would have been a problem.
"I'll manage," I told him. I would have too, though I would have been like a triple loaded packhorse and the trip from the bus stop just might have all but killed me.
As he took the last bag from the taxi, he suddenly shrugged and started loading everything back into his cab.
"Hell, look, I'll take you out there for nothing. I play music too, and buddy, you'll never carry all this stuff, believe me."
He was right of course. We had a good talk on the way to the Harris Street address in Revere and though he tried to refuse it, I pressed one of my last valuable $20 bills into his hand and would not let him give it back. He wished me well and we parted.
I gave my new landlord, with who I would share the large upper floor apartment in the detached house, $150 of the $275 he wanted, promising to repay him the debt as soon as I could. I was left with just $10.
Talking by telephone to my friend in New York later that day, she suggested I went down to the Kells Bar in Boston's Irish quarter and let it be known that I had newly arrived from Ireland and desperately needed a job.
"Grab a seat over there, there's a fella coming in soon I can introduce you to," the barman said when I told him my story. I'd also bought a beer with my last few bucks, having traveled in on the T.
The 'fella' did come in, and after the barman introduced us my new acquaintance immediately bought me a drink before asking me: "What can you do?"
"I'll do anything," I said, meaning it. I was fit then and felt able to take on any task.
"Okay. We're renovating a bar in Brighton. Its called The Irish Village. Be there at 8am tomorrow. You'll get $100 a day in your hand," he said, and after shaking my hand and buying me another drink he was gone to talk with someone else.
I traveled home on a cloud of good feeling. I'd only been in Boston four days, had run out of cash but I had enough to get the subway to work the next morning to start earning money.
My new landlord, who'd once been a DJ on a west coast radio station and had also been a frontman singer in a band was surprised and pleased to hear I'd got work and generously lent me $20 to get me through the next day. "You gotta have some cash in your pocket buddy," he said.
After several cups of coffee at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts I was getting worried the next morning when by 9.45am still no-one had turned up at the Irish Village. It didn't look as if any work was in progress and I started getting suspicious that maybe I'd been taken in on a sick prank. But no, shortly after 10am my new employer arrived, with two other workers and we began our job of stripping the external varnished woodwork before re-varnishing it.
That lunchtime we sat in the pub and our boss bought everybody beers, something he did every day at lunchtime and also at the end of the working day. That evening I was given $100, just as he'd said. "Start at 10 tomorrow," he said as I left for home.
Traveling home high with the cash, I heard several proficient buskers working the T stops and the idea of trying my own hand began to germinate, but I didn't get around to starting until the job I had was finished seven days later.
After speaking with several busking musicians I felt I had a good idea of the lay of the land, which stations were among the better, and also knew about the busking potential around Faneuil Hall and Harvard Square. I also had a list of venues where sessions or 'open mic' evenings took place.
The day after my job ended with the completion of our work on The Irish Village, I took time out to buy a microphone stand and microphone for my small battery amplifier and set off for my first Boston busk. I made my start on the outbound Blue Line platform at Government Center It had good acoustics and would be a good testing ground for the amplifier and sound balance.
It soon became obvious to me that the small Yamaha amplifier was not able to handle a guitar and vocal input, and although I used a pre-amp pedal the sound left much to be desired. I did find a working level, but the volume was very low and I knew I'd need a better amplifier. I made several dollars, moved on to another station and made several more and by the end of my first session I was carrying an extra $40 dollars home. I knew then that I could do better.
Daddy's music store in Massachusetts Avenue had a bargain basement but the Mouse street amps where just above my budget. I asked the guy behind the counter what he'd give me for my small and for my needs relatively useless amp.
"No more than 15 dollars," he said. "What are you looking for?"
I told him I needed a street amp for busking and after giving me a quick scrutiny he went off with the words 'hang on'.
When he returned he was carrying a brand new boxed amplifier, not a Mouse but an equally good sturdy piece of equipment with twin inputs. "$120," he said.
I told him and didn't think I had enough and he told me to put my money on the table. It came to $95 and I took $10 back to have something in my pocket.
"I owe you $15 for your Yamaha, that makes £100. That'll do," he said and passed the new amp to me. I thanked him sincerely for his generosity and that night with the new amp I made $70.
Busking was to prove an invaluably entertaining lifestyle, introducing me to a vast range of people, skills and small talk talent. At a busy time at the busier stations, buskers had just a few minutes to entertain their audience of perhaps a hundred before the next train arrived to whisk them away and the process started over. They had to like what they heard in the short time if you were to see their dollars and quarters.
Slacker times were easier, you could get around to performing several numbers in between each train. The Boston subway also proved to house a wealth of talent. Musicians traveled from distant states for the rich pickings and the quality of performers was astonishing. I saw and heard everything from keyboard players, solo bass artistes, flute, harmonica, string and percussion players including a Jamaican kettle drum, and guitarists and just plain singers. Henry, a black flute player was an enigma.
A former Berkelee College instructor, he lived wherever he found himself and spent most of his earnings on beers and cocaine. One day seeing I lacked a trolley for my gear, he took me out to a storage unit in west Boston where he had enough stuff to fill a house. "Been here a few years now. Got nowhere to put it any more but I hang onto it," he said, giving me a luggage trolley that I still have to this day. He wanted just $5 for it, so I took him off to breakfast after.
I had few actual meetings with my woman friend, despite spending huge amounts of money on telephone calls. She traveled to Boston just twice to see me in the 12 months I was there and I began to feel something was not right. I had several jobs, and traveled to New York to visit her for a few days when I had a few hundred dollars free. We stayed in a hotel off Times Square, but the visit was just too short.
Then she went ‘missing’. I couldn't reach her at the Rodeo Bar, where she worked, or at home. Thinking she might have become ill, I called her mother after nearly two weeks had passed and all other avenues of contact had failed, to ask if she was OK.
‘What do you mean, is she OK? Has she got AIDS?"
I was perplexed and stunned by her reaction and question. My friend had read a poem at a mass at the chapel in the UN building in New York for a close friend of hers who had died of AIDS whilst I was in the US, but she had not confided anything to me that indicated she might be in danger from AIDS.
“No, but you know she is not well,” I said. It was getting odd. Her mother seemed genuinely baffled and was shocked when I explained what I believed I knew about her daughter. It turned out I had been misled, blatantly fooled, though why I still have little real idea.
I was not the rich English musician mother had thought me to be, and I was no longer a welcome person with her or with her daughter. The story ended when I ran into difficulties in the US and my visa ran out. The girl I had gone to see, who I believed was ill, wished me gone and away, as did her mother. I had planned to travel down to Mexico and live off the land, but had grown despondent.
Perhaps feeling guilt at her lies, my ‘friend’, who had in other respects been quite generous in a material way, offered to provide me with a plane ticket to any destination in the world that I might choose. None appealed and she bought me a ticket back to where I came from — Ireland. And it is from there that I finish this strange tale.
K. Harris 2004
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