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J1 summer: 'I could be making more of my privilege, but I'm having an incredible time'

Is it wrong that I’m loving it, this hedonistic holiday lifestyle, writes Donal MacNamee.

Donal MacNamee J1 student

THEY SAY YOU’RE never more than six feet away from a rat. In Boston, you’re never more than six feet from a homeless person. I mean this not as a slur, but rather as a statement of empirical fact.

People lie everywhere, faces ashen, hands outstretched, a tired metaphor for an America long broken by the time Donald Trump decided he wanted to scratch “Become President” from his ham-fisted bucket list.

A quick Google search will tell you more than 33,000 families – families – have spent at least a night in a homeless shelter in Boston since 2008. It will tell you that the number of families with children experiencing homelessness has increased by nearly 29% Massachusetts since 2010. It will tell you nothing your eyes and ears already haven’t.

A privileged Irish student

As a privileged Irish student just over a month into an expensive summer J1, I can well appreciate the absurdity of writing an article decrying inequality and injustice, in America or anywhere else.

I am acutely aware that I am here with the financial aid of my parents, that this, as with so many of the opportunities I’ve been given, is the fruit somebody else’s money. In short, I do not have a leg to stand on. But I do not know how else to write this most conflicted of tales.

On the one hand, there are the nights out. Rapidly ascending towers of empty Four Loko cans, piled high in our basement-level apartment, offer blurry reminders of genuinely great nights spent with other J1-ers in Irish pubs and clubs.

Perhaps it is not the most culturally immersive of scenes, but it’s ours and I can’t help but love it. Admittedly, Boston’s draconian approach to youth drinking has proved a challenge to those of us as yet under the legal age, but we twenty year-olds are nothing if not resourceful and we have dealt with the problem in much the same way as every American of the same age: a fake ID, a straight back, and vast reserves of charm and persuasion. Bouncers don’t always agree.

I spend long days cleaning tables

By day, I work in a restaurant on the waterfront as a busser. The staff is comprised overwhelmingly of Irish J1-ers. The work may be dirty and often thankless, but there is a great atmosphere and the air is usually thick with laughter. Long days cleaning tables bleed into longer nights; the following morning’s alarm clock is cast firmly to the back of the mind.

Indeed, the back of the mind seems clogged these days, full of things too taxing to think about. It is a mindless fun we’re having, but it’s fun all the same – and therein lies the conundrum. The nagging guilt slithers.

The second weekend after I arrived in Boston, my mother sent me a strange text. In it she tentatively suggested that, being in Boston, I should consider doing other things, things I wouldn’t normally do, rather than just “doing what you’ve always done.”

She ended the text by saying “Could b (my mother is still a slave to cringe-inducing text-speak) that this is just fine but could also b that there’s an alternative.” I was baffled initially. I didn’t understand what she meant.

Should there be more than this?

Now, three weeks later, I know exactly. Since arriving in Boston, I have climbed the Bunker Hill Monument (the spectacular views at the top robbed me of breath even more than the 291-step ascent), drinking in the richest of historical tapestries. I’ve been to a baseball game (glorified rounders, but well worth experiencing as a raucously patriotic demonstration of American culture).

I’ve walked the 2.5 miles of the Freedom Trail. And, perhaps most enjoyably, I’ve sat on the sand of Carson Beach with friends watching the last embers of the day’s burning sun melt into a glittering sea.

But still there is the feeling that I should be doing more, that for the most part I have done what I’ve always done: I’ve had a laugh, drunk too much, lost half the day to late nights and lie-ins. Should there be more than this?

Is it wrong that I’m loving it, this hedonistic holiday lifestyle where – some days – the mere act of washing my clothes becomes an achievement, evidence of a productive day’s work?

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The fourth of July has been and gone. I worked solidly through the day, missing out on the fireworks. At half eleven, after the last loved-up American couple finally awoke from their doe-eyed reverie and realised that everyone else had cleared out of the restaurant an hour previously, we finally escaped into the American night.

I headed straight to an American Frat Party on a rooftop where I entered into a drunken debate with an American Tea-Party Republican about the merits and evils of American free-market capitalism. Happy fourth, eh?

I could be making slightly more of this privilege

How easily I can justify to myself the lifestyle I appear to be embracing depends largely on how much I work in any given week. This fluctuates. I worked twenty-eight hours last week; this week I am on course for fifty-five. The latter regime leaves me – genuinely – drained on my days off, good for little but eating and sleeping and sitting on the couch (and chipping away at sub-standard articles about my travels). It is in the barren weeks – which have been mercifully few – that the nights of drinking and the late morning lie-ins begin to seem wilfully self-indulgent.

Today is my one day off this week. I had planned on risking a haircut – American barbers are notorious for eschewing the traditional razor in favour of a lawnmower – and celebrating the weight taken off my head by going hiking, but Murphy’s Law ensured that it is raining for the first time in two weeks. So instead I sit indoors, staring at interspersing rivulets snaking down the window pane and trying to write the story of my J1 so far.

And I’m quite happy to do so. Because for all that the sight of people less fortunate than me acts as a guilt-inducing reminder of the privilege of my position, for all that I know I could be making slightly more of this privilege, I am still having an incredible time in an amazing city. And that will do for now.

Donal MacNamee is a third year student of English Literature and History at Trinity College Dublin. He is originally from Limerick and is in Boston for the summer on a J1 visa. 

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About the author:

Donal MacNamee  / J1 student

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