Joyce’s Ambassador

I wrote the first version of this essay about ten years ago, and revised it recently. This harkens back to my college days at San Francisco State. Photos by Peggy Sue Amison, 1984.

Whenever St. Patty’s Day rolls around, I think of my old boyfriend Patrick Quinn. Sometimes I am irresistibly drawn to the type of man I call the angst-ridden genius, and Patrick was that. He was a meth addict, although he wasn’t using when I knew him, and he was obsessed with James Joyce. He watched me from a distance for a long time, coming home and moping, his roommates later told me, about his Mengan’s Sister. He called me  Mengan’s Sister because of Joyce’s story “Araby”, in which  the boy loves the girl he’s never met, and watches her from his window. But one day, feeling talkative and outgoing, I marched right up to him after class and started talking about how much I liked Noam Chomsky’s grammar theories. Within moments we were in love. He took me home to his flat on Fulton Street–right up the block from where Grace and the guys used to hang out–and introduced me to Peggy Sue Amison and Joe Carli and other roommates I’ve forgotten by now. We don’t believe you’re real, they said. We don’t believe that you are Mengan’s sister.

Months went by in a blur of literary Irish Americanism. We hung out at the Plough and Star tossing Guinnesses, shared Marlboros on our way to class–we were both seniors in college, studying English literature. Patrick work black wing tips, dress pants, and dress shirts with every button buttoned.  I took to wearing black combat boots with frilly dresses and worn out leggings. Patrick quoted James Joyce every waking moment, and knew Molly’s soliloquy, the end of Ulysses, by heart. We spent hours reading Joycean texts in the Ecumenical House cafe just off campus, and, for the first time in my life, I started seriously writing. He would listen to my poems and stories, nod thoughtfully, and say lyrical. Quite lyrical. We had parties in the kitchen of his flat we called hooleys and listened to that Clancy Brother’s song “Courtin’ in the Kitchen” almost every day.  Poor bloke, Patrick would say, lighting a cigarette and taking a swig of his black coffee, bet he wishes he’d found his Mengan’s Sister.

The last time I heard from Patrick Quinn, I was married and had kids. He phoned in the middle of the night, out of his mind on meth, from Chelsea, Massachusetts. He kept repeating: Have you seen my obituary?  Did you know I’m dead?  My oldest son–now in his 30s–came in, rubbing his eyes, and my then-husband followed, wondering whom on earth I was talking to. Patrick was quoting Molly and asking me why I’d left him. I can’t do this, I said, I have kids now.  I can’t talk in the middle of the night like this. Later, I spent hours looking for him long distance, but his common name made the search futile. I began to figure he was dead.  I  still don’t know for sure.  But I like to imagine he got through that time and is now looking forward to throwing back a Guinness this St. Patty’s Day.  I hope he’s nudging the man next to him on the bar stool, saying, Hey, this reminds me of that time in Ulysses where….

Joe Carli (left) and Patrick Quinn: a hooley in the kitchen.



Filed under Essays

4 responses to “Joyce’s Ambassador

  1. I have always loved the this essay.

  2. I love this … a wistful, poignant looking back. I can see you then, in your boots and frilly dress! (I knew a Patrick much like yours – he was Finegan, though.) Thank you for your beautiful words, for your story-journeys…

  3. If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed him up. What he needs is education to turn him around. Jim Rohn

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