Mr. Modest didn’t come all the way from County Down to break up fights on the Lower East Side. He came to play soccer on a college scholarship.
Actually, he hoped to play professionally, and he was selected in the draft, but the American pro leagues were disintegrating in the early 80s. And anyway, teams were limited in the number of foreign born players they could carry on their rosters. It didn’t work out.
So Mr. Modest put his soccer dreams on hold and went to work as a bartender. He just wanted to earn some money so as to avoid having to go back home. Thirty years later and Mr. Modest is still behind the stick. He hates his job. And for the same reason he’s hated all the thousands of other bartending jobs he’s had: the late nights, the petty stuff with waitresses and other bartenders, the fights. He especially hates breaking up fights. Sometimes he even gets dragged into them. It gets old.
But what else can Mr. Modest do? It’s not like he hasn’t tried to get away from the bar. He’s toured the country as an actor, performed on Broadway, and, occasionally, worked in film and television. But this has all been sporadic, to say the least. Without the bartending work, it would be the streets. Or home. And Mr. Modest couldn’t imagine going home.
“When I finally get somewhere with this acting thing, then maybe I’ll go back,” he’ll say.
Of course he visits Ireland when he can afford it. But each time he feels less and less at ease. Over there they say he talks like a Yank. Over here they say he talks like a Paddy. It is a strange limbo: Paddy but not a Paddy; Yank but not a Yank; home but not at home. It is all very exhausting for Mr. Modest.
Then the thing with the strawberries happened.
Mr. Modest likes to make fruit smoothies. But a very recently purchased box of fresh strawberries in his kitchen turned out to be not so fresh after all. He marched the strawberries back to the corner store. He had justice on his mind.
“You see this?” Mr. Modest barked at the store’s owner, an Egyptian fellow. “These strawberries are no good. I’m going back there and I’m going to pick out some new ones.” Mr. Modest may be small, but he’s good at projecting menace when he wants to. It’s a byproduct of growing up in the North, he says.
With his new box of strawberries in hand, and satisfied that a terrible wrong had been righted, Mr. Modest left the store without saying a word to the chastened Egyptian.
Later, back in his apartment, Mr. Modest manfully recounted the story to his girlfriend, taking care to emphasize that the Egyptian could be in no doubt about just what kind of man he was dealing with.
“That’s great,” she said. “But I didn’t buy those strawberries there.”
Mr. Modest, being an honest sort, knew he had to make things right. He returned to the Egyptian and paid for the strawberries. The next time his girlfriend went to the store, she apologized on Mr. Modest’s behalf.
“Your boyfriend is very angry,” said the Egyptian.
“Oh, he’s not angry,” she replied. “He’s just Irish.”
Thereafter, the Egyptian and Mr. Modest became somewhat friendly. When Mr. Modest shopped, he knew to expect a strawberry joke. He didn’t mind. He deserved it.
Then one day, in the course of conversation, the Egyptian revealed that he had recently become an American citizen.
“How long have you been here?” asked Mr. Modest.
“Only six years,” the Egyptian replied. “But this country has been so kind to me. It has given me so much. Soon I will go home, get married, and bring my wife back here to live.”
This triggered a sudden and unexpected reaction in Mr. Modest. Six years? That was only a fraction of the time that Mr. Modest had been here. How could the Egyptian be so certain he wanted to stay?
Mr. Modest felt ashamed. If he thought about it, he had a very nice life in the U.S.A. He’d done so many incredible things, things he’d never have had the opportunity to do had he stayed at home. And he wasn’t getting any younger.
“I’ve lived in the States longer than I lived at home,” Mr. Modest thought to himself, and not for the first time.
Could his Irish friends be right? He did talk like a Yank. In a lot of ways he thought like a Yank. He certainly dressed like a Yank. Maybe it was time to face facts: He was a Yank. And he wasn’t going back to County Down.
So on a cold day this past February, with more snow on the ground than falls in a decade in Northern Ireland, Mr. Modest stepped out of the U.S. Eastern District Court building and into Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza on his first day as a naturalized American citizen.
He never felt more at home.
From the July 21, 2011 issue of The Irish Echo.