Confessions of an expat – A transatlantic bum

plane snow

It was a long time ago. 1983 perhaps, and my first adventure outside the British Isles. My girlfriend’s father had moved from South London to New York. Long Island, to be precise. Her mother had gone to Toronto, although the public message was that there was nothing wrong with their marriage. They had both chosen to cross the Atlantic, but had settled in cities 500 miles apart.

I wasn’t privy to the real story, because they didn’t like me. I was a bum, a semi-professional musician working for a chain of wine shops while doing whatever gigs my band could find in south west London. I’d better give the girl a name (but not her real one): Mandy.  Her father was a journalist, successful to the extent of having been the editor of a national newspaper. Now he wanted to be a novelist, and had opted for the relative solitude of a house way out on the island in a quiet town.

Then his beloved daughter had announced that she wanted to move there too, to try a career in the film business, which she had been doing in England. And she wanted to bring the bum with her, because he was her first love and he wanted to try being a rock star in the US. Fathers of daughters being the suckers they are, he went along with it, and so it was that I arrived with his precious offspring in freezing January. It was snowing in London when I left (Mandy had gone there for Christmas), but nothing like it was doing on Long Island. The little town was on the coast, and the water in the harbour was frozen.

The reception at JFK was pretty icy too: my first experience of US immigration officers. I had chosen a line with a female officer at the end of it, banking on my youthful charm to smooth my passage, but my smile and friendly words bounced off her like acorns off an ice sculpture. She let me in, though. There was no reason why she shouldn’t. British, no criminal record, fit and healthy: who wouldn’t have wanted me in their country?

Mandy had use of her mother’s car, so I was spared a trip with a snarling Cyril (not his real name either) as I discovered that Long Island was not one big affluent, beach-oriented idyll, but had real people with little money living there too.

The snarling didn’t start when we reached the house, even. The old man and I were civil to each other.

To be honest, the present me wouldn’t have liked the then me either. I wasn’t cocky exactly, but nor was I humble. They could take me or leave me, and it didn’t really occur to me that I was in Cyril’s house because he allowed me to be there and had no obligation to let me stay. Notice all the personal pronouns in that sentence? Me me me.  Ah well, Mandy was happy and she was the buffer between me and reality.

At that time, a British passport included mention of one’s occupation, and mine said songwriter. It was true, in that I wrote songs and took it seriously. I didn’t earn money from them as such, but they provided the material the band gave people at our pub gigs. I wasn’t going to put “shop assistant” on my passport – that was just temporary.

The first thing I had to do was buy an acoustic guitar, so one day we headed into the city and I found a guitar shop in Times Square. That still sounds good, the Times Square part. The guitar was okay, a Yamaha, but I put electric guitar strings on it, because they are thinner and easier to bend, and I was used to playing an electric. As a result, the tone wasn’t exactly rich, but it sounded like a guitar and was comfortable to play.

The days went by in a pleasant haze. I would sometimes go jogging in the snow in perfect peace until I rounded the corner by the harbour and the locals observed my leaden footsteps. “Run!” they used to quip – well, they thought that was a quip.

sag harbor

We would go for trips in the car and I remember the first time I saw a football pitch in America. A soccer field, they would probably call it, and in those days football was a real minority sport. It wasn’t on TV and I decided that if I stayed, I would have to get into baseball, because a sports fan has to have a sport to follow, and American football seemed like such a numbskull’s game, while ice hockey had no charm. It was indoors, for a start, as was basketball, and at least baseball took place under the sun and you could improvise a game with a few friends and a minimum of equipment.

In the evenings I would work my way through a big plastic bottle of something called Hearty Burgundy, which was cheap red wine and if anything brought out the snarl that was waiting behind Cyril’s blank exterior, that was it. But I couldn’t afford to drink what he did: good imported stuff from France.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The money ran out and  we lifted the burden from Cyril and took it north to his wife.


Next Tuesday: a Greyhound bus, Niagara Falls and Toronto.



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