My J1 2015: The Many Goodbyes,the Fond Farewells and the Journey Home

“When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t know why”- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

It’s been over four months since I arrived back to Ireland after a summer in America, but now at long last I find myself ready to say goodbye. This is my fifth blog about the J1, but is probably the only one that ever really needed to be written. The rest were a story, a highlight reel and a very brief summary at best. They weren’t my summer, or at least not how I remember it. But perhaps they were necessary. It’s like finishing a really great book. Sometimes, you want the story to go on, even if there is nothing more to say. You don’t want to say goodbye, and so sadly you find yourself reading the last page a couple times, hoping in vain you’ll find something you’d missed. But you haven’t missed anything. Your problem is what isn’t there, or what could have been there, if only the pages kept turning.

It’s why saying goodbye to this summer has been so hard. I don’t want the J1 to be just another memory, locked away in the imaginary filing cabinet alongside birthdays and Christmas. But if four months back home have taught me anything, it’s that the summer isn’t in the past. It’s not in the 23 kilos of belongings that came home on that plane, or in photos that were taken. I’d like to think it’s something I’ve held onto. Yes it is finished, but I’m not, and so even if the pages of this book have come to and end, we know the story doesn’t really end here for those involved.

I suppose this entry in my blog is like all cups of coffee. You might wonder where I’m going with this, but stick with me. Those last four blog posts have been the cup, the coffee and the all important hot water. They were substance. Without them, we wouldn’t really have anything. But anybody can make coffee. What sets this summer apart for me is all the extra things thrown in. The little things, like the private jokes, the lazy days or the forgotten stories are what made this story worth telling. They were the cream, the flavouring etc. Sure, they might not be necessary, but looking back God I wouldn’t trade them for all the world. That’s why this last post, where I finally say goodbye to it all, is reserved exclusively for them.

Saying goodbye to Toby Wells YMCA

It might have only been two months that I worked at the Toby Wells YMCA, but in that time I guess it mattered enough to me to make it hard saying goodbye. For myself and Adam, it was our lives five days a week. It was of course tough to say farewell to Dylan, Ronan, Conor, Sarah, Roisín and Ciara, who for weeks had been the Irish cohort we’d shared the dreaded morning shifts with. I guess there was a camaraderie in catching a tram at 5.30 am together, heading up to Overland Avenue on the 40 minute commute to be ready to go at half 6. Every morning, without fail, Adam would borrow my phone so he could clock in, while I dodged into 7/11 for breakfast after promising myself for the 40th time I’d just get up earlier and have it. By the end, a French Vanilla coffee was a staple of my morning shift, when the fatigue of early morning starts really hit home. In the evening, the Irish gang would head off into the sunset with a Big Gulp in hand and another day’s work behind us. But saying goodbye to Summer Camp was more than just losing the Irish friends I’d made. I must have met fifty different staff members working there, as well as hundreds of kids aged 5 and up. Some will be more memorable than others of course, but on my last day I made a note of saying goodbye to the Senior Fun kids. For weeks we’d endured each others company, and to their credit they’d made it easy for me, and by the end I guess I’d warmed to them. It can be tough working in a Summer Camp where you’re expected to be bright, fresh and rearing to go everyday, and so having a group of kids who were active, funny and up for a little adventure made the job a whole lot easier. Every morning before morning circle they’d gather around to tell me a million stories, or try beat me at Pokemon, or just listen to what was to them a funny accent. We had a sort of mutual respect for each other, a kind of unspoken agreement that if they lined up when I told them to I’d overlook the occasional misdemeanor and allow them practice their gymnastics in the grass when they asked me. We were nearly a generation apart, me and those kids, but we were fast friends. I had to say goodbye too to my colleagues, like Kristen, Nick and Amanda, who were also placed in Senior Fun. We’d seen everything from Belmont Park to a Britney Spears Lip Sync battle performance, the latter clearly captured on video but not surfaced as yet.

Even outside of Senior Fun, I was on first name basis with so many others that the last day was a bit of a panic not to miss anybody. There were so many memories of the place, of trying to sneak a few extra Sun Chips, of inventing rules to make Capture the Flag more interesting, of wall monsters in the gaga pit, water fights on the soccer field, dance parties during Spirit Circle, making hotdogs for the barbecue, trying to stay upright at the San Diego Ice Arena, baking from the heat on rotation in the playground, playing 20 vs 20 soccer matches, holding onto the Spirit Stick like your life depended on it, designing boats covered head to toe in glitter, learning magic and building functioning rockets. It’s so easy to picture it, with Mr.Tim co-coordinating Golden Pineapple on a Friday, or DJ playing keep-away with a basketball, or Jerrod saying “later dudes” as we rush to make the bus home. I’m happy to be back in Pharmacy, where I suppose I feel I “belong” but sometimes I’d give anything to be hanging out at the AM/PM desk back in Toby Wells YMCA, looking at the clock saying “6.25 am” wondering how I’m going to go face a hundred kids screaming on a soccer field. I guess if the YMCA taught me anything, it’s that nothing is really that embarrassing, or cringey or stupid. Everything can be a little fun if you throw yourself into it (especially the foam pit in the gym, now those were the days). Working with kids all day made me inventive, resourceful and maybe just a little more optimistic about the world. That summer camp, along with those camp songs gave me, Adam, Katie and Aine something to talk about back at 2130. One day it might be me regaling the famous tale of the Pokemon Thief, while the next was might be me explaining how I’d controlled 30 kids by telling them the story of King Arthur and his knights.

As I walked out of there on my last day, I turned and took one last look back from the car park, so I could see the soccer field, the tents, the playground, the water fountain-all of it. It was just gone half 5, and the sun was dreaming of sleep in San Diego and I walked out of maybe the best job I’ll ever have. Farewell Toby Wells.

Closing the door on 2130

If saying goodbye to Toby Wells was tough, then finally leaving our apartment 2130 was crushing. Before we knew it, our time in the apartment (which was over two months) came to a swift end. On one of our last nights, we caught the tram to Gaslamp Quarter and made the journey up to 8th Avenue, where months before a gang of clean, respectable young pharmacy students dragged their suitcases up the stairs of the Lucky D’s hostel. This time, we were a tad less clean and the only thing we were lugging was ourselves. Fiona Dillon had a swipecard still and so we all bustled inside (as a note, that swipecard had bought us more than its fair share of free wristbands to McFaddens). Once inside, we went to the main lounge, where for a week we’d gathered night after night for beer pong, a host of nationalities and four loco like it was going out of fashion. It was strange to be back, where only two months prior I remember showing a German man the wonders of hurling on Youtube. From there we went up to our rooms on the third floor. I’d almost forgotten how weird Lucky Ds was, with all its mismatched colours and knick-knacks on the walls. We posed outside 314, where myself, Katie, Eimear and Fiona had spent our first week in San Diego. There we had started our summer-long tradition of our secret knock. “Issues” by The Saturdays is not a song of note in any context for me, but for all of time it will now always be the secret knock of the J1. In time you really perfected it, though I do wonder what the neighbours thought. We stopped by the kitchen on the way out, where we’d gathered for pancakes, cookie crisp and what I never considered good tasting milk. The gang of us sat at the table where we had first met Adam, even remembering the seats we were in when a rather hungover lad from Celbridge struck up conversation with Aine and Fiona all the way back in May.

To be fair, we tried hard to make the apartment clean when we left. I still have memories of dragging that half-working hoover across the carpet sucking up God knows what on the morning we were leaving. We had to do a massive job on the kitchen, which though we operated on a “Clean as you go basis” usually became a dump in the post-night out hours of 4am or so when clothes, food, drink etc would be heaped up onto the counter. On top of that we had to make the bathroom mirror reflective again, a task that took about four or five of us while the others drowned the floor in Walmart all purpose cleaner. The day we moved out was a hangover day, but was also the day we had to collect our cars and the day most of the cleaning had to be done, so it’s fair to say it was an ordeal. With all of it going on, we probably failed to appreciate our final, precious few moments in the apartment. I guess maybe the writer in me makes me look back on it now and try to describe it, even though back then I knew it was special.

A lot of people think of a home as something that is lived in. A house can be grand and beautiful, but it seems a little hollow on the inside when there’s no memories sleeping there. If somebody walked into 2130, they would know it was lived in. OK, it was a little messy by the end. If someone had showed me that on June 1st I would have said no thank you let’s look elsewhere. But that mess was our home. Every stain probably had a story, like on the first night when I’d spilled Fiona Meade’s drink and she’d got the blame, only for her to spill another minutes later and frantically try to cover it up. If I described a place full of dirty clothes, eleven suitcases, ants, rubbish, empty beer bottles, cans of four loco, mould, gun range posters on the wall and an American flag flying from a fan on the ceiling, you’d probably call it unbearable. But that’s not what I’d describe. I’d talk about a place with ten great friends, music, conversation, laughter, beer in the fridge and food to be shared. 2130 was a happy place, even if it looked a little under the weather.

That’s why it is the hardest thing to let go of. I loved Yosemite. I thought New York was great. Vegas was amazing. But those were fleeting glimpses at best. They were minute thrills, once in a lifetime sort of surreal experiences that I’ll always remember. But they weren’t 2130 Promenade at Rio Vista. That was home, where no matter where our journeys in San Diego took us, whether it was Coronado, Pacific Beach, Old Town, Morena Linda Vista, Sea World, Downtown, Seaport Village, Mission Valley, Clairemont Mesa or beyond, we always had a familiar door to come home to, where if you stopped just on the threshold you’d hear laughter inside. The stories and lives of that apartment are too numerous to count and tell, but here I will do my best, especially for those for who it was real.

I think a lot of us probably forget what 2130 even looked like. I’m sure we could see the outline, or the main features, but all of the little details are a blur. I can still remember the tall black door, with its God awful lock. Just inside on the left was our notice board, where after every night about six different uber receipts would get tacked detailing amounts to be owed. On the right was our bathroom, where inside we had a very large mirror (surprisingly not the biggest in the apartment). We had a clothes heap on the left (as standard) and then a shower we only managed to break on two occasions (one I was able to fix, the other required maintenance who showed up unexpectedly and had us all running to the bedroom to hide amid army-style hand signalling). For a while there the toilet had a page taped onto it, where I outlined in length my tale of how I vanquished the mould king and if I remember correctly “all his minions”. Everyone had their own space for toiletries, though in general the sink was covered in toothbrushes and our communal shaving foam. Myself, Fiachra, Adam, Paul and Mark had communal shaving foam, shampoo and conditioner in what was a suprisingly efficient setup. Out in the kitchen the only clean area of the worktop was an odd square outline of duct tape (of the Star Wars variety to be precise), where every morning instead of finding three FOBs and three keys we’d find one Fob, no keys and two hair clips. Ideal. The sink was equipped with a draining board (i.e. a towel we used for pretty much everything) and was at the best of times filled with only half of the plastic plates, cups, bowls and cutlery we owned. We also had a garbage disposal, which none of us really knew much about, but the argument stood “we’re not supposed to put water down it”, but then again it alone must have swallowed roughly 20-30 knives and forks during our two month stay. The counter was generally a place for important items, such as Sea World hats, hair clips, plastic sunglasses, coins, Four Loco cans, 7/11 pizza boxes etc. On the ground between it and the bathroom was where we kept our mop and washing powder (again communal but lasted about a fraction of the time the shaving foam did). Then of course we had our wonderful appliances, such as a Microwave and toast master (trash room finest). The Microwave was a great place, where I would basically make microwave popcorn and if in a rush Taquitos. They never tasted great, unlike my popcorn chicken which was a great staple. We all had cupboard space, where basically every shelf was pasta, noodles, rice, bread and other carbohydrates. We had tea bags (rationed), Dairy Milk (extra rationed) and Ants. The ants didn’t start in the cupboard more so next to the washer and dryer which was a space we had for our rubbish. Next to it was the fridge freezer, which was by far the most complex storage space. We had to label everything, because of course nearly everybody had meat and frozen food. Cheese was also popular for some reason with up to 10 bags just lying about in there sometimes. We also of course had to fit in our drink (which should not go in the freezer which we found out to our dismay in the infamous Bud Light Lime disaster).

Out in the main room were two blow up mattresses (which pretty much deflated after week one and were useless after), a pile of clothes, a lot of suitcases and the ever organised area of Mr. Paul Green. I took up home on the far left of the apartment, right next to Katie’s mattress. There I had my Ramen Bookshelf my friends had made for me, my Padres towel, my sunglasses, my pillow, my duvet and my work bag. In my work bag I had pretty much every important item, such as my Passport, my DS2019, my insurance etc. Nothing ever happened to that bag fortunately. Of course protecting the DS2019 was tough, as Katie found out at the first Pool Party where hers became basically liquid. Off the main room we had the bedroom, which shifted between being the room for people getting up early, to the room for people not going out, to at some stages, the room for those home early from the nightclub. In there was the largest mirror known to 2130, which was where every night the girls all lined up to do their make-up while outside in the main room me and the lads drank to Justin Timberlake on repeat, Chris Brown’s “Loyal” or Post to be. OK, our playlist was a little unusual but by August we’d listened to it so many times we had it all off.

We had a patio too, which at first seemed like a great place to eat or drink but quite quickly became a giant area of drying clothes and phone calls (within the apartment, which sported thick concrete, we had no phone reception or Wifi). Next to it was a small sort of outdoor cupboard, which was deemed “The Love Shack”. It was a joke mostly, but by the end of the summer The Love Shack had earned its title well.

And that was just 2130. We also of course had the whole complex in Promenade, which had a gym (we went there for like two days for real then used it as a backup shower in shame), a computer room (the hottest place that isn’t the Nevada desert with the world’s slowest computers), the space on the ground near the computer centre used for Wifi, the Clubhouse (where we went to get free coffee, watch the NBA finals once and play rounds of pool), the shop (used for food/drink emergencies or when I just wanted M & Ms and a Vanilla Coke) and the pool. Considering we were a dot in the ocean of Irish people at Rio Vista the pool was flooded most days but was still one of the places I did most of my reading.

Even with all this, most of our time was spent above in the apartment when we weren’t at work. Somehow the cooking of 11 dinners (and the taking of 11 showers) did not cause a lot of conflict, though I will admit I did enjoy the luxury of the Wendy’s, In N’Out Burger and Sombreros close by on many an occasion. In the apartment, with no Wifi, reception or basically any technology, our forms of entertainment were far more basic, old-fashioned and enjoyable. Night time was always a good group conversation or a round of spooky stories. I can’t picture “individual conversations” as such in 2130. It always seemed like a real-life group chat of 11 people, all vying to be heard above one another drawing knocks on the walls from the neighbours and a round of “shhhhh”. It also drew noise complaints and visits from the wardens, who were posted outside apartment blocks like federal security. That meant we had to get inventive with access (insert relevant private joke hand gesture here) going in through the car park, other residents etc. One of my favourite nights of entertainment was Hide and Seek in the dark. That night, for whatever reason, only myself, Adam, Katie and Mark were at home (may have been Paul, there was more than one game of this). For whatever reason, given how clustered the apartment was, we considered it would be good fun. Whoever was on had headphones in, and by God was it terrifying having someone jump out of the dark at you to the tune of Michael Buble.

As a group amalgamated we quickly gelled in 2130. Soon, we had family roles assigned. I was Dad, for whatever reason. Michaela was my wife, though I believe the story paints us an unhappy couple in a tumultuous time. Aine was my sister and aunt to the kids (and rather “loose” in the head it seemed) while Paul was my brother (also a bad influence on the kids and on my wife). I had a lot of children, including my eldest son Mark (a role model son it seemed), two sets of twins (one was Adam and Katie, a pair constantly at each others throats, while the others was Fiona and Niofa (it seems arriving at the hospital drunk I accidentally named both my daughters Fiona and then spelled one wrong on the birth cert)) and then the youngest Fiachra. We had that kind of craic a lot in 2130. I bought a phone a week in from a dodgy shop in Downtown, and turning it on realised it must have came from across the border as it was all in Spanish. I decided to keep the names of everybody in Spanish predictive text, so instead of Adam, Paul, Mark, Michaela, Eimear, Katie, Fiona, Aine, Fiona and Fiachra we had Afanado, Greco, Mejico, Miami, Dinero, Latido, Finos, Cinetico, Diego and Diablo. It was quite usual for me to ring up outside to get let in and open the phone call with “Ola Diego!”

And of course not only did we have our own aliases but also a host of background characters. People such as “Trash Room boy”, “Manta Jack”, “Quiet Hours”, “Ms Tiff”, “Mare” and “my friend Kim” were regular features in many stories. Perhaps everybody’s favourite was a man who came to be known as Dave Craigid. Across the way from us lived another group of quite friendly Irish people. One night, we invited them over for pre-drinks, so all in all a total of 5 or so landed on at our door. We let them in, greeting the two girls we knew by name. At the back, a tanned lad who we’d never met came in, sizing up our apartment immediately. He burst into the conversation with something like “Our kitchen is way nicer than this. So we’re going to Sinbads tonight ya?”. Sinbads was a notoriously poor establishment on Pacific Beach with a reputation for letting in those under 21. We were all a bit taken aback, and the next day I commented “who the hell was that guy last night. The fella who looked like Craig David”. Now, let’s be clear, this guy actually didn’t really look like Craig David at all, nor did I believe he did, but everybody clicked with it, and it was born. Over the coming months we came to loathe Craig David (which became the more outrageous Dave Craiiigid) for no reason whatsoever telling funny stories of our encounters and never finding out his true name.

And even outside of these we had our own cast in the apartment. In total we had four fish, the most notable being Senior Tippy, who lived only four or five hours (we may have put him in the wrong water). However, in that time he had an effect on us all as we held a funeral for him, where the lads dressed up in shirts, some of the girls sang hymns, we had candles an each of us said our goodbyes in turn aloud. This literally took like half an hour of our time. Our other three fish were less notable even if more long lived such as the aptly named My Fish Kim.

I guess a lot of our fun in that apartment was private jokes. Even in our final picture, we were all allowed hold up one “piece” of the apartment, such as the American flag, the beach ball, the shower curtain etc. Our wall was covered in random artifacts like some of the gang’s posters from the shooting range (where notably Fiona Dillon had the best shot). I feel I had the best shot in what was one of our stranger forms of entertainment. It involved a set of jenga blocks, a jar and an exercise bench. I came upon this scene after a hard day at work so as can be imagined was a little bewildered.

Even the ordinary acts in San Diego were luxuries. On two occasions I went to the cinema, which felt brand new after months without TV.

But, all in all, it was the people that made the J1. Through flooding bathrooms, ants, eviction notices, trash room furniture and no beds we braved it all. Better yet, we enjoyed it. I think removed from everything material, relying on a questionably safe iron to get my night out clothes ready, I found on my first time living away from home the type of room mates I’d have dreamed of. Yes, there were fights, and smelly pot bandits and milk thieves and people who would get you Peach when you asked for Strawberry Lemonade, but there was far more random acts of kindness, like someone taking out the rubbish just as you’re about to get up or finding your work uniform neatly placed out to dry after a wash.

So here’s to the 10 of them, who taught me there’s far more to a J1 than what’s peddled to you, that getting in 3 hours before you start work is “good timing”, that IKEA do a solid breakfast, things will always turn up at some point and that doubling down and then going bust is one very unlucky player.

And so we came to it. As the cars waited outside, it was time for us all to leave 2130. One by one, we took a look around. With the suitcases gone, and a good cleaning done, the place was unrecognizable. But there we had spent two whole months together, often with five or six more people to boot. It was a goodbye to green apple floor lights and Fiona Meade’s muffins. It was farewell to Californian burritos as we chilled out on the floor and to having a bag of rent money taped to our wall. The fish tank was gone, along with the office chair and everything else we’d salvaged at some point.

We closed out the door, and for one last time Mark, in what was a very “Friends” moment, asked “So, anyone have a FOB?”

We went to the fountain in the middle of Promenade to take pictures together, after which we had to say goodbye to our Celbridge friends. It was odd, knowing the next day was the first we’d wake up in over two months and not have them around. I suppose a bit of me thought anybody we lived with on the J1 would always be “the other crowd”, but for Adam, Greeney and Mark, that was never the case. And I’m sure a change of flight here or a hostel cancellation there might have changed all that, and I might be writing a very different blog now or worse, none at all. It was a sad farewell, but also a very fond one. The eleven of us had come along way from home, and still found the very best of friends we made were those of our own. Perhaps one day all our paths will cross again, some time far off, or in a distant place we haven’t come to know yet. Until then, I’ll live on the promise that though this was a goodbye to San Diego, it doesn’t have to be forever. It may be, but perhaps I’ll find my way back there again. I would board a tram, see the doors close like it was yesterday and hear the very familiar words.

“Next stop: Rio Vista. Rio Vista is next”.

EpilogueHome

I arrived home from my J1 on a Friday, and was immediately (though happily) whisked away from Cork to Ballyheigue in Kerry, where I have spent most of my summers. Only two days before, I was sitting in a hotel room in the biggest city in the United States. Overnight the population of my world dropped from millions to roughly a thousand, and instead of a sprawling urban jungle I was on the wild coast of Southwest Ireland. When we arrived it was dark, and as was much of the summer, cold. I had been used to 30 degree heat as standard, so the harsh winds of the Atlantic coast came as a sort of shock to me. After a car journey I enjoy a good walk, so at around half ten I headed down towards the beach. It was late august, and the place was practically deserted. I must have seen at most five people on my walk. Down at the beach, only half the streetlights were on, and the wind was stronger than ever. I felt real “cold”, not the sort in a Californian forest at night, but the kind that rushes at you and pulls the air out of your chest. I stood there a long while, looking out onto the black water which kept Ireland’s coast from America half a world away. A week earlier, I was sitting on a porch in San Francisco, sipping a beer and listening to the crickets out in the grasses as I looked up at the moon. Now I was back, still looking up at the same moon even if the scenery was a little different. For all the adventure of the three months, I had come full circle at last. I was home.

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