Nineteen Sixty Three (By Joan Wahl Countryman)

The small, elegant dress shop where my mother worked making alterations was about to close for the day. I sat by a long mirror on one of the pale green slipper chairs as I waited for her to finish tidying up for the day. Wind and rain blew into the shop as Mammy’s coworker, umbrella at the ready, said goodbye and left for the day.

“It’s so cold and wet outside. Why don’t we go have a cup of tea or coffee at Bewley’s Café?” she said.

“And maybe a scone?” I asked.

Bewley’s Café on Dublin’s fashionable Grafton St. was cozy and inviting. We slid into a corner nook and placed our orders. The aroma of roasting coffee and baked goods filled the air.

“Sure isn’t this grand, I’m glad to be off my feet” my mother said in her soft voice.

Her workday was long and hard. She described some of the haughty ladies she had to satisfy with dress alterations, and how her bunions hurt. My mind went searching for solutions.

“Sure they want to look like the queen, but they don’t have the figure.”

I mentioned a grey coat I had seen at Cleary’s department store on O’Connell Street.

“Would you take a look at it on me?” I asked.

“Sure I’d love to see it—grey you said. Grey is a good color, my dear.”

“You know Mammy,” I said, “I think it is time for me to go back to New York and piece together a life for myself and maybe help you out where I can.”

“My dear you will need a good warm coat there in January—I hear it is awfully cold. I can loan you some money and you can pay me back later. This sad country just does not have much to offer young people these days—sure it’s a vale of tears,” Mammy said.

“Thanks” I said. I knew she was feeling sad at the thought of saying goodbye to me once again. But she would never hold on to us for selfish reasons.

“Sure, we can look at that coat tomorrow, and if it needs any alterations, I can get that done. Go move on with your life my dear,” she said.

I was wearing my new grey wool coat when I said goodbye to my mother at Dublin airport for the second time.  As I went to the plane, a news photographer from the Evening Herald snapped my picture—Mammy sent me a copy from the newspaper later. I took the window seat so I could shed my tears and look down on the patchwork of green beauty below. As I left this beautiful land that had held such love and misery for me, I reflected on my mother’s unselfish courage and generosity of spirit. I felt torn between two worlds.

Back in New York I slept on my sister’s living room couch and went looking for a job, post haste. As luck would have it, I found a job at an advertising agency down around UN Plaza. The office manager, an unfriendly older lady, was very demanding and I did everything I could to learn the advertising business. Connecting up with old friends on the weekend, I headed out to a dance where I met a charming, tall and good-looking man with piercing brown eyes that seemed to see into my soul. His name was Richard: Good manners blended with an educated mind were impressive to this just-off-the-boat immigrant. Authors’ names like Joyce and Keats rolled off his tongue. I was impressed.

He had been in a Catholic seminary, taught at a Catholic boy’s school in New York and I found out later, had been fired.

After a few dates, I realized he was a troubled soul. He wanted to argue with everyone he met. His heated arguments about religion and the shooting of President Kennedy were constant and out of line. I told him I would not be able to see him again, but he would not take “no” for an answer. He called on the phone at all hours of the night and arrived at the apartment wanting to come inside.

My girlfriends advised me to call the police or move out. I warned my friends not to give Richard any information about my whereabouts. Someone gave him my work number. “I didn’t think he would find you,” she said later. She didn’t know Richard as well as I did.

I was typing away at my desk when the phone rang. The office manager was speaking to someone. I heard her giving directions to the office, the business hours, etc. My heart started to pound. It was my first week on the job, the manager was looking at me and I just knew it was Richard on the other end. When she got off the phone, I told her I was trying to avoid this guy, but could not get rid of him. Suddenly, the door opened, and there was Richard with a broad smile on his face.

“Joan, I just want to talk to you.”

“You will get me fired,” I protested.

“Just see me one last time,” he demanded.  Next thing, the door opened and my two big bosses came in. I begged Richard to leave. He left. But I knew he would be outside. I confided in the office manager, who understood my fear and promised to stay with me after work. He was outside when we left to go home.

“Joan, I just want to talk.”

“I can’t see you anymore.”

Sitting on a bench at The UN Plaza, I tried to convince him to leave. My manager told him she would call the cops if he refused to leave me alone. He left.

I took the bus home to Queens. As I was walking down the street to the apartment, I turned around and looked back at the elevated train track. Richard was watching me. He started running, and by the time I got to the apartment building he was there. Luckily, two neighbors came home from work and convinced him I did not want to be bothered. They stayed outside with me until he decided to leave.

Two Irish friends, Colette and Deirdre knew of my dilemma and invited me to join them on a bus trip across country. Their plan was to hit Chicago, Denver, and Salt Lake City, staying at a YWCA or other hostels along the way. I felt this was an opportunity to put many miles between Richard and myself. Digging deep to find the courage to move out west, I reflected back on my mother’s courage and perseverance. My journey was nothing compared with hers— surviving a truly bad marriage with our alcoholic father and working as a seamstress every day to keep the roof over our heads. She always encouraged her children to forge better lives for themselves.

Leaving New York meant saying goodbye to my sister and a few good friends I had made there. “You’ll be hearing from me,” I said as I hugged them goodbye.

All my earthly goods were in a small brown suitcase. We traveled light on a Continental Trailways bus, using the lockers at bus stations to store our suitcases as we found a place for the night. First stop Chicago, then Denver. In Denver I asked a cowboy if I could have my picture taken with him. I had never seen a real cowboy before. In the picture I am wearing my Irish sweater and my tartan kilt skirt. He was happy to pose with three Irish colleens, and we were starting to love the open spaces and beauty of the west. When we stopped in Salt Lake City, Utah we viewed the Mormon Temple but could not find a bar to save our souls.

Arriving in San Francisco, I remember thinking: You are going to have to dig deep girl, find the courage it will take to succeed here. There was no turning back now.

Deirdre and Colette were both from Dublin. Deirdre was a typical Irish colleen with fair complexion and striking red curly hair. Colette was a leader who kept us out of trouble. We hit the town south of Market Street the first day and night, picked up the San Francisco Chronicle and found a place to stay. It turned out to be a seedy hotel where we pulled the covers over our heads to keep from hearing the noise going on behind the bedroom wall. We bought a map of the city and discovered Herb Caen’s column in the Chronicle. Herb’s column was where I went every morning to learn all about life in San Francisco.

We found a one bedroom, one bathroom with a living room with a pull-out couch at 757 Sutter Street. It was fully furnished and had a little kitchen in a good area of town. Colette opted to sleep on the couch, giving Deirdre and me the two single beds. We picked up our food from the hot counter at Manning’s cafeteria and stuffed our bags with the leftover food and a fork or two.

Our landlady lived one floor up. She regularly met us in the hall and asked about our welfare and how we were settling in. On one of those occasions, she asked us if we would have time to escort a business-man or two to dinner or a show—nothing more. Sure, we said. I soon found out that the business-man who took me to dinner at the Fairmont Hotel had plans for a much longer evening. He was very nice and warned me to stay away from the landlady, who was really a madam. It was time to find respectable work.

Deirdre found a job at the Irish Tourist Board, Colette got a job at Spreckles Sugar and I landed a clerical position in the accounting department at P&O Orient Lines, a British shipping company. Typing and clerical work combined with a pleasant attitude got us in the door. Hard work, no money and nowhere else to turn kept us on the job. We were all within walking distance of work. Deirdre’s eye-sight was not the best. One morning she and I were walking down Post Street and I looked down at her feet. She was wearing one brown shoe and one black one. Fifty years later, I still remember how we laughed.

We didn’t waste a minute on the weekends and soon discovered the charming men at the Catholic dances in the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and the St. Francis Hotel.

Colette met George at a dance. Then Deirdre met Don at the Irish Tourist Board (he was returning to Ireland for good). They were both dating when I met Larry at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. We Irish girls were not messing around. We came to San Francisco in April 1964 and were all married by the end of December. I was the last to marry on December 26, 1964.

George, Larry and Don named our little apartment “The 757 Club.” We were on the same block as Trader Vics and the Fleur De Lis restaurants. We cooked dinner for them on weekends, making Irish stew with lots of potatoes and gravy. Colette made the jello for dessert. We didn’t always do what our mothers instilled in us, but we sure knew the best way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.

My dreams came true as I forged a better life for myself in California. I returned to Dublin many time to share that joy with Mammy at Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street.