The Irish community, which I was part of, harbored a deeply held belief that it was the victim of systematic job discrimination in America, and that the discrimination was done publicly in highly humiliating fashion like the sign I was reacting to that announced "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply." I had walked past the sign for several days, trying my best to disregard it. Occasionally a long queue of hopeful applicants was lined up outside the establishment on the corner of Walker and Centre Streets in New York's Fourteenth Ward. So many applicants had come and gone. In spite of that, the sign remained. By the fifth day of that week and after having refused to allow the sign to get my dander up, I was intrigued. My attention was drawn to a house down in the Bowery which I believed I might be better suited for, one that didn't offend: "No Irish Need Apply". Then again when I was forced to walk past the blasted advertisement once more, I could no longer ignore it.
I entered at the end of the procession and looked at the line of applicants. They seemed identical with the gentlemen I had witnessed from the previous days. I am sure that many of them were better qualified than I, and that none were Irish, although no one was as desperate. That morning had marked nearly a week since my last ample meal; the room I occupied was, unfortunately, several days in arrears of my rent; yet with no money to my name, this would undoubtedly be my final day of hunting for a position. I was tired of standing in interview lines.
A major economic reversal had begun in Europe and reached the United States a few months before. The signal event on this side of the Atlantic was the failure of Jay Cooke and Company, the country's preeminent investment banking concern. The public blamed President Grant and Congress for mishandling the economy. The causes were much broader, on the other hand. In addition to the ruined fortunes of many Americans, myself included, there developed bitter antagonism between workers and the leaders of banking and manufacturing. It was extremely difficult to find a job. If I was not gainfully employed by this evening, I planned to take one last tour of the country which my parents had emigrated to after being forced out of Ireland some years ago, then take my pistol and the one bullet I had and end my miserable existence.
Though I did stand in line, pushing my Irish feet forward every minute or so, my hopes were not secure. There is a look, which comes into a prospective employer's eye when he glances over your appearance and comes to think to himself or herself 'why should I hire this person, who is no doubt Irish?' We Irish were categorized as angry, alcoholic beings, stemming from a stereotypical belief in the volatile Irish temper; that we drank all the time in saloons and had regular bar brawls and parties filled with revelry and debauchery. That we were illiterate, greedy, therefore desperate to make it 'Micks on the Make', our families were too clannish, we bred like rabbits, and were entirely figured to be a dim-witted servant race by most of "native" America. It's not a happy look, though an interesting one: first the eyes trace your entire body; then the brows knit together in a solid scowl; finally one brow raises scathingly, as if wondering how you have the brass to go on breathing after they determine you are Irish. There may be further optical calisthenics--all the same I was usually out the door by that time, one step ahead of the boot. At first I agonized over these dismissals. Lately I'd mostly grown numb to them. One can only go through so much brow knitting before it begins to go sour.
There was a lofty brick wall beside us, and unlike the other applicants, I took the opportunity to shelter myself from the cold November wind. Somewhere on the other side, I heard the soft sounds of someone humming. I thought it bitterly ironic that not five feet or so away someone was enjoying his or her life, whereas I was so close to forfeiting my own. I was beyond the stage of anger, however, and just prodded my feet forward another few inches. As I reached the steps of the building, the knot in my stomach became tighter.
Ultimately, I squeezed my thin frame through the door, into a kind of waiting room. Inside, the applicants were seated in a row, across from a bored-looking Englishman behind a desk, his face buried in today's edition of The New York Times. He took my name and asked me to be seated, as if the request were a complaint. I had spent much time in such offices before, although the room looked like several antechambers of bureaucrats and lawyers that I had visited in the area, during my long search for work. When I entered I felt a tension in the room beyond the mere trepidation of waiting for another interview.
"I'm afraid there is no alcohol here," an older applicant said to me in a rather miserable voice, as soon as I sat down in a newly vacated chair.
"I'm not here for a drink, thank you," I said, trying my best to remain cordial.
The older man began to sing:
I'm a simple Irish girl, and I'm looking for a place, I've felt the grip of poverty, but sure that's no disgrace, 'Twill be long before I get one, tho' indeed it's hard I try, For I read in each advertisement, "No Irish need apply."
I knew the song well as it had come from Philadelphia about eleven years ago. It had been initially from an advertisement that ran in The London Times in which a family was looking for a housekeeper but with one stipulation that "no Irish need apply."
"No wonder you're lookin' for a job," I said. "Your singing is pretty awful."
I saw another seat open and took that one immediately. I had no desire to enter into a fight at a prospective employer's office.
Each applicant went through the wooden door behind the desk with the fatalism of a gentleman about to face a firing squad. Some were ejected immediately, indignant at being dismissed with a fleeting glance. Others returned after a few minutes, with a grimace on their faces, and after a longer wait, one fellow stormed through the office and amid a torrent of curses only a sailor would have known; slammed the outer door, making everyone left inside jump. I watched as the older gentlemen who had thought it necessary to serenade me earlier standing ready to take his turn. As he stood he turned to me and winked, then ambled in. He returned a few minutes later, waved his hand at the rest of us left waiting, silently cursed, and spat on the floor.
"McKay," the bored Englishman behind the desk announced, consulting the list before him. It was my turn to face the firing squad. I wiped my hands on my trousers, swallowed with some difficulty, and then walked through the door.
The chamber I entered was well furnished and dominated by a large desk and chair. Bookshelves lined the majority of the wall space, but the heavy volumes shared the space with vases and paintings. As I entered, the tall chair swiveled around to face me. The occupant of the chair stood and pointed to a place in front of the desk; I moved to the spot like an obedient child would have responded to its parent's unsaid request.
My prospective employer came from behind the desk, without bothering to offer his hand, and began to walk in a slow, clockwise circle around me.
The light streaming in from the bow window behind me served to illuminate any patches, repairs, or weaknesses in my clothing and boots. He came about in front of me, having completed his tour, and I was prepared from immediate dismissal and the knitting of brows. Instead, still silent, he began a second revolution, counterclockwise this time. I had a different sensation now, as if I were a valued horse being appraised at an auction. I would not have been surprised to hear a price offered for me.
"You're a small fellow, aren't you?" he asked at last, in a low, raspy voice. "And Irish, without a doubt."
There it was, the final nail. I took no offense. I had known to expect this; after all the sign out front said as much. He held out his hand, palm upward, and I gave him my entire history laid bare in print. I waited for his brow to knit, yet it did not. He dispatched my list of references and took my hand instead, turning it over, and inspecting it rather curiously.
"Frank McKay. Um, I'm guessing the sign out front put you off," he said with a slight chuckle.
He walked around his desk again and, turning his chair away from me, he sat. That was it. I was dismissed. At least there was no knitting of the brow, no songs, and no harsh words spoken. Thinking about a bullet, I gathered my list of references, which he had knocked to the floor.
"Can you describe me, Mr. McKay?"
"I'm sorry, sir?"
"I understand that you have come from Ireland more or less, whether directly or through your parents, but you do speak English, yes? So, can you describe me?"
"Certainly. You stand just under six feet in height, weigh most likely about one hundred and seventy pounds, have brown hair with close, brown eyes, an angular...um...forgive me...weasel-like, clandestine and cunning looking face, sport heavily greased side-whiskers that curl back to, or over the ears for the display like that of a philosopher's brow. You also require the assistance of a cane."
"Is there anything else?"
"Yes, you're also English."