Saturday night, two a.m., lost and alone in Dublin. Two of my friends are drinking in Temple Bar, where the music is loud and cellphones buzz in vain. I discover too late that my own cell isn’t working, thanks to an automated message that tells me, in a glacial news anchor’s voice, that I seem to have left the UK. Temperatures hover around forty or fifty degrees, while the wind, fresh off the Irish Sea, rushes at thirty mph or faster. Vacant taxis stream down the muddy street. I flag one down, gloved hands waving, and tell the driver what little knowledge I have: I’m spending the night with two friends at the University College Dublin; their phones and mine aren’t working; I’m not exactly sure what dorm I’m staying at, but I’m sure I can find my way. Can you take me?
“That college is pretty big, you know,” he says, a warning at which I nod. He takes me out of the city.
Fast-forward half an hour. The wind has sped up to forty, and the cold, already unforgiving thanks to the Irish fog, is starting to numb my ears. I start across the grass from the end of an open field. By now, of course, I can see what straits I’m in—I didn’t know where to go but I said I would find my way. How? The dorms line up in the distance as rows of identical tenements, all of them squat and faceless. No one else is around. I ask what else I could do, given the present conditions, and answer the question glibly. Homelessness isn’t so bad.
Twenty minutes later I spot another taxi, a van with a flickering headlight, pulling up to the entrance. Its driver spots me and waves. Ready to drop my bravura, ready to finally admit that I don’t know my ass from my elbow, I lean forward into his window and tell him the story thus far. His face is scored with crags; they rearrange as he laughs. In a quote I am not making up, he tells me:
“Ah, laddie, you’ve had a bad night and you don’t know where you are, that’s fine, Gardner Street’s the place, that’s where the students put up, you know, and you’ve got good manners, sound like a kind-hearted boy, so no fare, no fare. My treat.”
“Last ride of the night anyway. Come on, get in.”
As we’re heading for Dublin, he asks about college finances. Isn’t it hard in the States, where most of your schools are private? Yes, I say, but students have ways to pay. I explain financial aid and various kinds of scholarships. He asks about the Army; isn’t that pretty popular? Yes, I say, I guess it is. He remembers life in the fifties.
“When I was in college they had a system that sent you to school with full pay, but then you went into the Army for nine years. A lot of people did that.”
This leaves me speechless.
He drops me off at the Hostel Heaven of Dublin: five hostels in a row on both sides of the street, all of them cheap and open. The first one I enter is full up for the night. At the desk a short man with a glass of whiskey in his hand informs me of this fact as follows: “We’re all out of spots, you know, but head down there and the Hogshead, I’m sure, they’ll have a room for the night. I’d send you down to the Glen but they’re a little”—he shakes his hand—“you know. Best of luck.”
I find a room at the Hogshead. Eight hours later, groggy and getting hungry, I make my way to an Internet café, where for one Euro I get an hour of service. My friends have sent me an e-mail: they’re at UCD. Can I meet them at a dorm about two hundred feet from the field I crossed last night? I head out, spot a cab at a train station, and ask for a ride from the third taxi driver I’ve met in the past twelve hours. He pulls out of the train station and heads out onto the highway. We start a conversation.
“Must be American. Picked that up in an instant.”
“Always wanted to go but never did. I can’t get out of this city.”
“Well,” I answer, laughing, “that’s not so bad.” I look out the window at overcast skies and dark green grass, miles of brick homes with tiny clay chimneys. For the first time in a countless number of days, I’ve had a good night’s sleep—something about the sheets, or the mattress, or the maid who woke me up, urging me to take my time. My driver brings me back.
“My sister’s in California right now. She likes it. Good girl, smart. Up for an Oscar next week.”
“Yeah, with her team. She worked on the script for ’Atonement.’”