An Irish Girl in New York

Joanna Bell fled London for a new life in the Big Apple and found kindly nuns and a surfeit of Bud Light

By Joanna Bell

July 5 2023

The headache was bad. So bad. But I had to getout of bed and attend a New York City courthouse. A glamorous divorcee was applying for a restraining order against her ex-husband because she believed he had hired a Russian hitwoman to sit outside her Upper East Side townhouse. I was so glad I’d moved to the Big Apple.

My lust for America began back in London. It was an authentic summer’s morning, the air sweetly scented, the sun tickling the trees in Kensington Gardens; the sort of day when you beg to be unchained from office and computer screen. But there was no chance – the tyranny of an 11am deadline for the gossip column I worked on at The Evening Standard saw to that. An invitation dropped into my in-box. An invitation to a party dripping with stars. In the Hamptons. I tapped out a reply, regretting that, being in the UK, I’d be unable to make it. But the seed had been sown.

The Standard was moving from Kensington to the cold depths of the City and I’d have to face the Tube. Unthinkable. And there were some other scrapes.

Nothing to do with throwing one’s toys from the pram, after a social crucifixion for the simple crime of heckling an ambassador during his speech at the annual Irish Embassy Christmas do and thus becoming somewhat of a pariah. “Boring!” I had yelled and then found myself swiftly frogmarched out of the embassy.

Perhaps New York could offer a clean slate.

The White Tavern, Dylan Thomas’ favourite NYC bar
The White Tavern, Dylan Thomas’ favourite NYC bar

Fast forward to the week before Thanksgiving, and I was there, traipsing through the West Village, searching for my friend’s fifth-floor walk-up on Jane Street. It didn’t work out, so I did what any self-respecting Irish girl does when newly arrived in a city: I joined a convent.

Mother Teresa’s Catholic Missionaries of Charity was in a large townhouse nestled between Christopher Street and 10th Street. “You can stay here for six weeks,” said Mother Eva, handing me the keys to a single bedroom that I shared, I kid you not, with Mother Teresa’s wheelchair.

My duties included heavy lifting (frozen turkeys to give to disadvantaged families on Thanksgiving), and cleaning, preparing, and serving meals for the residents. Each day began at 5am, with the nuns ringing the morning bell – the call to chapel.

With dinner served and all the dishes cleaned by 5.30pm, I hightailed to the local bars, with Dylan Thomas’s watering hole, The White Tavern, becoming my regular hang-out. Time was short. Mother Eva and the nuns operated a 9pm curfew. Fascinating what a curfew does for your social life. You’ve heard about speed dating. If you really want to floor the accelerator, subject yourself to a nightly 9pm curfew.

The guys in New York seemed starry eyed and innocent in comparison to their emotionally redundant or, as others describe them, stiff upper-lipped, British counterparts.

Joanna’s digs – at the Convent of Mother Teresa’s Catholic Missionaries
Joanna’s digs – at the Convent of Mother Teresa’s Catholic Missionaries

New Yorkers are the wokest I’ve met in my life. As I learned to my chagrin, it is not a good idea to even pretend you are a fan of Trump here! On one date I joked, “The Don makes for a better president because at least he’s entertaining.” My date, who happened to be a professor at NYU, got up and walked out, leaving me and the bill at the bar of the Morretti Tavern in the West Village. The things I miss about London are the laughs. People here are très serieux.

Meanwhile, Thanksgiving drew near and along came an invitation from a childhoodhood neighbour, James – an Irish Venture Capitalist. I decided to bake my specialty dessert: banoffee pie. Condensed milk, digestives, ginger nuts… And Godly duty to make three of them: one for the sisters; one for the residents; and one for the party. Thanksgiving dawned with a crisp nip in the air and the city was flooded by beaming sunshine. After hand-outs to the homeless I was free to go. Shedding my skivvies, I decked myself out in my finery in a leopard-print shirt and leather mini skirt, scooped one of my three banoffee pies from the fridge, and made my way to a different universe.

The party was in a beige apartment with a geometric marvel of charcuterie – irreproachable Iberico ham; perfect pork terrines; spicy salami sausage; home-made chicken liver pâté interleaved with opulent figs and pears, all of it presented on a glass-topped wicker coffee table.

Later, soothed by food and wine, I retrieved my banoffee from the fridge and presented it to our host, Jen, who managed a mouthful and then said, “I don’t like bananas”, and shoved it onto the undershelf of the coffee table.

The next day, nursing sore heads from the evening before, my friend James and I were grabbing coffee when Jen messaged him. It was brief. And unforgettable. “You both owe me $68 for the turkey”, it began, in a strange interpretation of the spirit of the season.

Joanna samples the local talent; Thanksgiving supper
Joanna samples the local talent; Thanksgiving supper

With work picking up and money starting to roll in, it was time to vacate the convent. My new landlady was post- menopausal Kelly, who bent my ear about her family being Irish “all the way from County Cork” and who had a rent-controlled apartment to spare in the East Village. During our initial conversation, Kelly arranged to give me a viewing of the apartment. But on the day I was meant to view her Second Avenue apartment, Kelly stopped returning my calls. I went over there anyway, thinking perhaps she’d keeled over. When I rang the intercom she answered and explained her radio silence: “I Googled you and saw you got kicked out of the embassy and I don’t want any party people living here.”

And then there’s the Hamptons, where I went for Memorial Day weekend for the 25th anniversary of the Southampton Inn. I imagined an environment where there would be great brains, smoking cigars over snifters of brandy putting the world to rights. However the reality of an American garden party is that everyone is tee-total or drinking from flat kegs of Bud Lite. And as with every Yankee soirée thrown, I’m confronting revellers enthralled by Irishness, hanging on my every word as they wait to tell me they too are connected to Ireland. This type of phenomenon rarely happens in England. If anything, Brits prefer to hide their Irishness!

Back to the Hamptons and I’m chatting to the fragrant Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin, who is confessing that she’s split with Raphael, her husband of 20 years. As I drank in her every word and gesticulation, a squat blonde woman butted in. I half-heartedly admired her Chanel pearl necklace before she ripped it off her neck and festooned it around mine. “You can have it for $200,” she barked, and in seconds
was on the phone to her boutique, telling them, “I made a sale.” “Just hurry up and there’ll be no tax,” she agreed, before I handed her my credit card. Later, having retrieved my card and retired to the terrace with Consuelo, my phone pinged. “You have paid $288.81 to Biba boutique.”

The difference between life as an Irish girl in New York in contrast with being an Irish girl in London is stark. There wasn’t a month that went by in London when I wasn’t asked if I’d “brought my balaclava” or would have someone asking me if I was selling lucky heather. Over here, Irish people are almost given hero status. But, Oh! for the joshing and deadpan sarcasm of my British friends.