Monday, December 04, 2006

Chapter 8 - not much baseball in here

Land appeared out of nowhere. Passengers had been told the descent had begun, but aside from the changing cabin pressure, it seemed as if they were stuck in the sky, for there was no visible land, only myriads of gray clouds floating far beneath them, clouds that had made the world disappear. Those clouds grew closer, inch by inch, ever so slowly, until they swallowed the plane, bounced it around, an eternity of gray turbulence. And then there was green, endless miles of green, emerald green like nothing he had ever seen, more green than any verdant ball field had ever fed to his eyes.

Aside from the wretched deserts of embattled Iraq, Casey’s shoes were caked with nothing but American soil, his lungs full of American air. Dublin Airport felt like the extreme definition of foreign to him, strange and alien, and even though they were speaking the same language, Casey did not understand a word they were saying. It was chaos, an alternate universe where everything he had learned in his life was of no use. He knew enough to realize the first thing he needed was money, colorful, strange money – Euros –the currency of a united Europe, a continent whose history books start new chapters with each new war that had plagued its lands. This is a continent that grew so tired of war, its leaders took an unprecedented measure to design a system that would ensure war would not break out again, for if a country started a war, the economic consequences would be so severe the instigating country would be destroyed by its actions. What a noble concept. It’s too bad all countries on the planet had not grown tired of incessant warring. Peace seems like such a comfortable concept, he thought as the changer handing him the new currency. Now he had to figure out how to get out of the airport to Dublin City, where he would stay in a hotel until he could find an apartment to rent for three months, where he could forget the misery of Midwestern winter and failed relationships.

“Hey pal, need a cab?”

“Yeah, thanks,” Casey responded to the friendly face that had spoken those words.

“A yank, eh? This your first time in Ireland?”

“Yeah, first time anywhere, really.”

“Welcome to the world,” he said with an accent Casey thought was made for the movies. “Where in the States are you from?”


“Oh, the place with the potatoes?”

“No, that’s Idaho. Ohio is a pretty big state with a few big cities – Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton…”

“Ack, yeah, I’ve heard of those. So what brings you to Ireland?”

“I just needed to get away for a bit.”

“A girl, is it?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“You don’t seem to be the type of yank to come here to find his long lost relatives.”

“No, I didn’t even think about that.”

“You look like you have some Irish in you.”

“One hundred percent. Name’s Casey O’Hagan.”

“O’Hagan, eh? Nice to meet you Casey. My name’s Neil, Neil O’Hagan.”

“Ha, ha, what are the chances?”

“You come to Ireland not looking for your relatives, and you found one right away. Say, you want to talk about it over a bite this evening? The missus loves company.”

“Sure, why not?”

Neil proved to be a decent tour guide, pointing out landmarks and monuments and reciting bits of history that made Casey want to learn more about the people of this little island who literally built America’s towering cities. They entered Dublin from the north side, the working class neighborhood, where many of the Georgian brick houses showed the weariness of working class travails. As they drove closer to the murky waters of the Liffey, the signs of what the wealthy call “progress” emerged from the roughness. New paint and sandblasted brick were adorned with shiny new windows and pink and red flower boxes. (Flowers in November? And were those palm trees? In Ireland?) Soon they passed shops full of the excess of prosperity and luxury populated with youthful carriers of disposable income. This was the new Ireland, the offspring of a Celtic Tiger, who had turned Ireland from a poverty-stricken third world country to one f the richest in the European Union. Tales of rotten potatoes and death had become the bad parts of history books, the part that successive generations do not understand, cannot fathom. Even the Troubles in the North were ridiculous enough to drown in the satisfaction of prosperity, at least to some people.

The Liffey came into view and Neil turned to drive along the quays. Casey had decided to stay in the Clarence Hotel, a luxury in which he would indulge as a treat, but he could stay there no longer than a week. Years of frugality had kept him mindful of the short life of a full bank account. Casey saw Neil’s judgment by the look on his face as they pulled in front of the hotel.

“So here’s my address,” he said after Casey’s bags had been unloaded. “If you stop by at about seven, that’d be grand. Do you want me to send a buddy by to pick you up?”

“That’d be great, since I don’t have a clue where anything is.” Casey checked his watch – it was four. That was eleven Eastern Standard Time and gave him three hours to get ready to visit Neil. He wondered when the jet lag would kick in. A porter showed up to carry his luggage, a fact that bothered him a bit. He wanted to carry his own bags and did not feel comfortable with a stranger touching his stuff. Neil and Casey exchanged see you laters and Casey disappeared into the realm of the upper crust, at least compared to the Motel 6’s he had been accustomed to.

The concierge was friendly in a fake sort of way – Casey felt judged by him, too, though it was for the opposite reason as Neil. He was a nobody, a yank with money to blow and the time to blow it in. This yank looked lost, out of place, unaccustomed to nice things. Oh well, it was only a week.

Casey showered as soon as he closed the door behind the porter. What was it about traveling by air that made the skin gross? It was like it was dry and oily at the same time, slimy, pores opened like craters, emitting that strange airplane smell of recycled air, latrines, and the fumes of jet fuel. It was a huge shower, a huge bathroom, twice the size of any Motel 6 room, too big, really. The towels were not the small, coarse white towels of motels, but soft towels that were big enough to wrap one’s whole body in. The shampoo was brand name, the soap, too, and Casey marveled at the other amenities – lotions, hair gels, razors, even a tooth brush and tooth paste. No doubt these things would end up in his suitcase by the time he departed. Besides, for the price of the room, he should have access to unlimited quantities of whatever shampoo he desired. The minibar, too. Why should he have to pay extra for it? He discovered it was stocked with Guinness – the magical draft bottles with the rocket widget inside that made it taste as near to draft beer as any bottle or can in the history of brewing. In a bathrobe – the hotel provided bathrobes – he sat down on the bed and opened a bottle. Ahh…Guinness in Dublin. He could not wait to have a pint of the black stuff from the tap – it was like drinking milk straight from a cow, he envisioned. It was only five, so he decided to fulfill his tasty dreams in the hotel bar, so he dressed himself, finished his bottle, and headed downstairs. His life in Cincinnati never crossed his mind.

The perfect pour takes about four minutes, and a freshly poured pint of Guinness is a work of art. As a pint settles, one can watch the goodness cascading down the glass like a waterfall in Heaven, sending gas evenly through the stout to create the sweetest, smoothest beer on thee face of the planet. The Irish national drink. Even the Liffey looked like Guinness – perhaps that was what the rain was, what created the green. He laughed out loud at the thought. The bartender looked up.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing. I’m just happy to be here, to escape the States for awhile.”

Though a crowd was trickling in for happy hour, it was not full or busy enough for the bartender not to engage in conversation.

“So what brings you here?”

“To Ireland?”

“To the Clarence.”

“I’m staying here.”

“I gather that. But why choose this place?”

“Why not?”

“You don’t seem like the type to stay here.”

“What do you mean?” Casey was beginning to feel a kind of anger at what he perceived as an insinuation that he was not good enough for the hotel.

“I mean, most yanks who come here come in big, obnoxious groups who stay here because of who owns the place, and it’s really out of their budgets, so they skimp on tips and luxuries and they usually get pissed and spill beer all over the place. You’re pretty quiet.”

“Who owns the place?” Casey asked intrigued.

“Wow, you really don’t know?”



“Really? Cool. I love their music.”

“Me too. It’s just obnoxious when crazy yanks come here like religious fanatics.”

“I can imagine.”

Casey drank his pint and another one after, grateful he had decided to travel. Things seemed exciting already. He finished up his second pint and headed out to wait for his ride, Neil’s cab driving friend. He did not wait long, and Casey was off to the suburbs of Dublin before he had even seen the city itself. Neil’s house was a modest two story building with the good fortune of having a bit of space between his house and both the neighbors. There was a palm tree in the yard that Casey found humorous for some reason. The house itself was made of rough, dimpled concrete as gray as the sky above it, and it looked identical to the other houses in the neighborhood, quite different than American suburbs, which existed to put distance between neighbors, to push individualism instead of community, a shame really, considering we are all stuck sharing the same planet together.

Casey like the modesty inside the house, the lack of things to pretend a household is wealthier than it is, the lack of pretense. It was a small house but it fit a family of three. Neil Jr. was eight years old, still young enough to not feel the smallness of the house. He did not know his house was small. Neil and his wife, Eva, knew. They knew every time they ran into each other as they were preparing dinner in the kitchen. Casey felt a bit guilty for making them go through so much trouble, but Eva seemed to revel in the idea of company, even a strange yank with dubious relations to her husband.

The first half of the dinner was characterized by the standard small talk of strangers – what brings you to Ireland, what do you do (in between jobs brought envy), what do you plan on doing here, what do you think so far…It was not until they began to talk about the O’Hagan family that things became truly interesting. It turns out that Neil and Casey were not all that distant of relatives, but second cousins, much closer than either of them had imagined in the brief time they had known each other. It was a relief to Casey to know there was at least one person in this strange land he could count on for companionship.

Casey slept well that night, slept deeply, with none of the troubling dreams that frequently tortured his nocturnal existence. Jet lag had its privileges, he presumed. He woke early the next morning ready to explore the Dublin environs. He would start at a bookstore – he needed to put a destination on the purpose of his wanderings. He also needed to find an apartment.

He did that before noon. It was a sunny apartment with bright yellow walls, provided that there was sun to brighten the. Apparently, there were no pretentious magazines to dictate what colors were acceptable for walls around there. Casey welcomed the color. The apartment was sparsely furnished, but there was a bed and a couch, which were all he really needed. Three months would fill the place with accumulated junk, anyway. He called Neil on a newly purchased prepaid cell phone – mobiles they called them in Ireland – to give him the address, and Neil offered to lend him a couple of tables and chairs he and his wife had stored in their cellar.

Casey picked up a travel book about Ireland that was designed for people with limited means (but apparently enough means to travel to Ireland.) He decided to spend a few weeks in Dublin before adventuring off to other parts of the island, which he wanted to see all of. After his full morning, he stopped for lunch at a deli, ordering a ham salad sandwich, which consisted of ham and cole slaw on a piece of bread called a bap. It became his stable lunch after two bites.

With tour book in hand, he ambled over to St. Stephen’s Green, one of the largest parks in Dublin. It was named after the first Christian martyr, who was a good representation of Ireland, a nation that had been persecuted for its beliefs, left to starve by the British Empire, which exported food from Ireland throughout the course of the Potato Famine. Those Irish Catholics who would not convert to Protestantism were left to starve. But then again, the Brits seemed to appreciate a good genocide every now and then. This information was news to Casey. He had known his family immigrated to America during the Potato Famine, but he had not known that food was plentiful in Ireland during that time. What a crime. What hate. How could one hate a people so much that he would let them starve to death? Hate. Hate leads to war. Ireland was no different, but as Casey thought about it, he began to understand that yes, sometimes war is justified. He decided to contemplate it more over a couple of pints, even if it was only two in the afternoon.

Missing page - a few days later

Samuel Beckett glared down at Casey as James Joyce looked past him. Beckett had reason to glare, Casey thought. I don’t like anything he’s written. What was that stupid play about the tapes and the bananas? And why did he feel the need to write in French? Perhaps it was just too tough to be a contemporary of Joyce. The pictures of the writers gave him company, as he began to feel a bit lonely. It was the first week, he thought. That’s probably normal. He’d write a letter to Anne telling her he was in Ireland, that it was a spur of the moment decision and that’s why he hadn’t called to tell her. He pulled a notebook out of the backpack he had been carrying around all week and opened to a blank page. Would she be angry with him for not telling her he was coming? The pub was a dreary space with red walls, wooden railings, and those portraits of famous Irish writers that came to life in the darkness of his own solitude, laughing as he put his pen to the page as if to say, “Never!” His pen, full of green ink, laboriously hit the paper, soaking it with the four symbols that represented her – A-N-N-E. Why had he not put the standard “Dear” in front of her name? Anne. It glared at him, too, showing its sharp points and menacing lines like teeth. He had printed the letters – writing them would have softened them, given them curves, made them more representative of her. Under the watchful eyes of those writers, he felt the pressure to draft some masterpiece to her, something that could make her understand what he was feeling in some poetic way that would make her melt as she read it, but he could not do it. He just did not have the words in him.

Joyce died before the end of the second world war, too soon to see how he had destroyed literature. He never experienced the recovery, the slow, painful healing, the creation of Israel, American hegemony. No sixties. No Cold War. No European Unity. But his stories, though some of the language had fallen into disuse, were timeless. His characters wore the masks of everything that made humanity human. Casey had just finished reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and thought Stephen Dedalus and Holden Caulfield could have been friends, if Holden were ever capable of having a friend. He was also through a third of Ulysses. Molly reminded him a great deal of Anne. Someone should write a new Odyssey, he thought, one that includes new realities of a world spent – movies, rock music, nuclear weapons. Was the human condition the same as it was back then? Joyce’s pre-war characters seemed to be more innocent. Could it be possible that war, technology, and Hollywood had changed humanity, diluted it, dissolved it?

The bartender, a Polish guy called Julek who had come from Krakow six months earlier, poured the rest of a new pint and set it in front of Casey. “It’s so beautiful,” he said in broken English, smiling and showing a mouthful of yellow teeth. There were so many Poles in Dublin these days, and Czechs and Slovaks and Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Slovenians, harvesters of the fruits of European unity. They were bartenders, busboys, bellhops, and brewers, hard workers who lived in tiny flats and sent most of their earnings back home to countries the West had shamelessly given to the Soviets, who stripped them of their self-determination, their dignity, and often, their lives. As repulsive as the Yalta Agreement was, Casey wondered for the first time if it did not save millions of lives. If Yalta had not happened, would the United States have gone to war with the Soviet Union once the Germans had been defeated?

Casey put down his pen and put his hand on his chin, a thing he did when his brain was in contemplative mode, a frequent occurrence since he had quit the monotony of office life. It had freed his mind, brought thought back to him, made him question what he had taken for granted as a lowly salesman. He wondered if Yalta had not happened if the United States would have dropped an A bomb on Moscow rather than two civilian-populated cities in Japan. Someone should write a good movie about it, he thought. It’s interesting to think about.

He stared down at the glass in front of him and pondered the existence of a substance capable of screwing with the head and eliminating rationality and reason from and evening’s outing. Drinking is simply poisoning the human body with rotten grain or fruit, yet it has been around since the dawn of human history. Dionysus is the true god of the world. There sat a stout, black as night, perfect head, great curves, the conscience of a country, screaming for a buddy to sit next to. Casey wondered how Joyce managed to sit and write in all of those pubs alone while the rooms reeked of voices and laughter. He supposed Joyce’s characters were his company. Too bad Casey could not even write a letter, let alone a good story. He put the notebook back in his bag and pulled out a few postcards. Postcards were easy to write. Hi, having a good time in Ireland, wish you were here. He addressed them to Marin, Sidney, Adam, and A.J., who said he wanted to visit in January and that Freel might come along, too. If there was one thing pure about A.J. Sullivan, it was his Irishness. It would be fun to have them around, have some company, and a January visit left plenty of time for a break from A.J.’s excesses.

The thought of the visit, though weeks away, cheered him a bit. He even wrote a brief postcard to Anne before paying his tab and quitting the bar. He strolled through Temple Bar to the quays along the Liffey and wandered down to O’Connell Bridge. The air smelled of rain and burning hops, smells that were forever ingrained in his memory, triggering thoughts of Dublin with each similar whiff in other parts of the world and other parts of his life. There, at that moment, he felt exhilaration as he inhaled that air over the water and watched the city lights dance in its ripples.

His eyes moved down O’Connell Street, down to the modern Millennium Spire, a hideous thing considered artistic by those who admired it, but most modern art was hideous, he told himself. Symbolic of the confusion and jumbled emotions of our time. He passed a homeless man with so many bags of possessions, he could hardly carry them. The man cursed at him, like Casey was personally responsible for the man’s misfortunes. How many crazies had he run into on this trip? Stumbling around, ruffled clothes, ruffled hair, ruffled alcoholized breath. No art there. The man continued to harass him, so he turned around and said, “Look. My ancestors suffered enough! But instead of drinking themselves out of their homes and begging people for money, they moved to America and worked hard to make lives for themselves! Leave me alone!”

As Casey wondered what had happened to his compassion, the man mumbled something and tossed a rock at him. A few drops began to fall from the sky, Dublin rain. Sometimes there is enough space between the drops to slip between them, like dodging the cares of the world. The rain created different shades of black on the ground below and stretched the colored lights in these black puddles. The night had yet to grow old, but Casey caught a cab back to his flat. He told himself he was tired and would go to bed early, but it was the loneliness, not fatigue, that made him want to slip into a nocturnal state of unconsciousness. He was a little worn out from this week of wandering Dublin City, exploring every corner, every shadow, and many pubs the city had to offer, sleeping little, getting up, and doing it all over again. But his sense of adventure kept him going, and it was only at night when the bitter loneliness kicked in. Suddenly he wondered if it were not Cincinnati, Ohio from which he needed the break, but from himself.

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