IN May 2000, I was one of the lucky ones selected to go on a Customer Care course through Springboard and went to work in Cleveland, Ohio.
The programme put together ‘caffleeks and pratestants’ from Belfast and Tallaght. Together we would become friends and come back brimming with ideas for the new Odyssey Pavilion and W5. With us as its staff, the project was doomed from the start.
Those from Belfast, got on like a house on fire but hated the Southerners. The feeling was mutual. They called us Nordies and we called them ‘gypo’s. I know it’s wrong now but at the time I was 19 and a fiery ball of angst. I could have given Eminem some writing material.
In workshops we discussed what was important to our communities. Not one of us was religious but stood by the catholic protestant divide of ‘you’s get more than us’.
Before our journey we were made aware of the over 21 drinking laws and a ban on football tops. We would be sent home if caught drinking or winding up the other side. The first things that went into my case were a fake ID and a Celtic top.
We were allocated an apartment to share between four people. Ours was 500, an easy number to remember when staggering home snattered. The apartments were lovely on the inside but looked like Divis Flats on the outside.
Across the road we had a Seven-11. We called it the Kwik-e-Mart and its Pakistani owner, Apu. He called us ‘the alcoholic Irish’ and always accepted my ID. Apu was sound.
We started working as interns in the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
I loved the Science Center. One day someone from HR came down to me and said: “Your father is on the line upstairs”. I was so busy enjoying myself that two weeks had passed and I still hadn’t phoned home to say I had arrived.
Cleveland and Belfast are alike with social deprivation. We were known as ‘the white folks’ in the mostly black city, made famous recently by the three women who were held hostage for a decade. Yes, it was that kind of place and I was not at all surprised by the news.
After about a week of being there, I bagged myself a black boyfriend. I told a relative about my newbie and she said “don’t be telling your Granny and don’t be coming home pregnant to him”. Nice.
And that’s the thing. You can take people out of a sectarian situation but you can never get rid of prejudice.