Saturday, December 16, 2006

Palms, Poles, and a Shoeshine

We had a brief stop in Dublin on the way from the farm to Chicago. For more than 30 years I have had tucked into the back of my mind somewhere the factoid that palm trees can grow in Dublin because of the moderating influence of the water. It is true that there are palms in Dublin, whether as a result of the Gulf Stream I can't say. The palms in the front gardens of the houses I can see from the bus are not the grand palms that grow along the avenues in the heart of Florida, the shrubby palmetto of South Carolina, or the coconut palms so common in the Caribbean. They look more like the plants commonly sold in garden centres as houseplants, which to me always seemed reminiscent of the trees in Dr. Seuss stories. They are, however, members of the Draecena family, and hence, qualify as palms.

Because we are only very briefly in Dublin, I hesitate to generalize from little sample, but the second thing I noticed about Dublin was that, like Scotland, most of the people you see working in the restaurants and hotels are not Irish. The manager of the pub next door to our hotel was Irish, as was one of the bus drivers, and one of the hotel clerks. The waiter in the hotel's restaurant was from Poland. We didn't have a chance to ask which part of Poland. We recently made friends with a waitress near our farm, Magda, who is from a little place in Poland. Magda's brother is in Chicago. Poles, like Scots and Irish a genration or so ago move for the economic opportunities. Sometimes they stay; sometimes they go back. But where will people go when there is no longer a land of golden opportunity in the west?

The American/Idealist in me struggles to believe that opportunites can be found even in post modern industrial global economies for the simple virtues of hard work and honesty. The Dublin airport has shoe shine stands. I have heard that this is a project funded on the idea that a little entrepreneurailsm will go a long way. In my mind I make it into a re-importation of the ideas behind the little loans to desperate people in what we formerly called third world countries.

I have passed several shoeshine stands in the airport with time to kill and 5 euros plus change left in my pocket. I decide to get a shoeshine. My middle aged low tech black leather sensible walking shoes look silly on the pedestals with the young man kneeling at my feet. I lean over and talk with him as if to reduce the social distance. I almost wish that I hadn't. He is Irish and angry and sad. He tells me that last week it was really slow in the airport and he was accused of stealing. He tells me this in response to my comment that I want to belive that hard work and honesty pay off. He is not convinced. I persist polyanna like and my words sound increasingly hollow as they fall on the floor around him. Just the accusation, he asserts, is enough to linger like a bad smell around him.

I pay him the last of my euros and move to the last gate before we get on the plane to the US. Someone has gotten a grant to decorate the airport with large composite text and graphic stories of the Diaspora--all the Irish who have left their country behind. My ancestors were among them. I don't know when or how they got out, but they let the sea salt air wash away old accusations along with the comfort of familiy ties and familiarity. In type large enough to be read from across the room, I read the letter of a young man who emigrated in 1930. He wrote unabashedly of the pain and loneliness of the first year and then, he said, "I settled down."

That may be as close as I can ever get to the story of my own great great grandfather who first shows up in a Chicago census as having come from Erie, New York. I guess he was a navvy--one of many sturdy laborers who helped dig the Erie canal. His son was a skilled craftsman who created an invention that earned him some recognition and enough money that his son, my father, could squander in a life of too much spending and too little studying in college. Was the weight of the expectations of all those Irish immigrants too much for him or was it too far away to have any power over him in his America?


At 10:34 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

I'm convinced that there will always be want, and there will always be opportunity for some of those willing and able to chase it. But I don't believe that working hard is always enough, there is also luck. It isn't an optimistic view, perhaps, but the evidence is as old as history itself.

The US has had a good run as land of opportunity, but I can't imagine it lasting another hundred years.

At 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A little complacency sets in... ossification... then decay....

But I hope we're not there yet!

And landgirl -- My daughters have been in Ireland recently and I heard about the Poles particularly -- which just makes it more like Chicago all the time!

Enjoy the trip.

At 3:53 AM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

Because of globalization, I think the opportunities will occur more widely over the world, as we see happening now in India and Argentina in the computer industry.


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