I didn’t mean to work at an Irish bagel shop, homesickness made me do it

This article is part of The Age’s My First Job series, where Age writers and columnists share their humorous, poignant tales of finding their feet and receiving their first paychecks.

I didn’t mean to get a job in an Irish bagel shop.

I was in my second year of uni in Dublin, a New York transplant who was desperately homesick, when I stumbled upon a small bagel shop on the side of the River Liffey I rarely visited.

It’s hard to know if I was fired for caring too little or too much.
It’s hard to know if I was fired for caring too little or too much.

“Irish bagel,” I sniffed dismissively. Then sniffed again. The scent of yeasty, chewy dough felt like home. But surely these were, as legendary New York delicatessen owner Eli Zabar once famously dismissed McDonald’s attempt at the bagel, “Wonderbread in a circle”?

But there was a sign in the window that intrigued me: “Flown in from New York”. I went in and discovered that these were H&H bagels, frozen and overnighted by plane from one of New York’s most famous bagelries, an upper West Side institution I had visited many times.

The story of H&H was the most New York of stories: Puerto Rican Helmer Toro and his brother-in-law Hector Hernandez, the eponymous Hs, bought Midtown Bagels in 1972 for $5000 in cash and $50,000 of borrowed money and turned it into a great success, opening further stores across the city and a New Jersey manufacturing plant. Then, in 2009, Toro (who had by then bought out his brother-in-law) was indicted for tax evasion, ended up doing jail time, and the marshals seized and closed their Upper West Side store.

But this was 2003, the halcyon days when Toro still had control, and I was across the Atlantic Ocean and feeling a sharp nostalgia. I entered and bought a toasted plain bagel with a schmear, trying to stop my left eye from twitching when I clocked that they were offering to top kosher bagels with cream cheese and bacon. But, absolute bagel purist I was not. I’ll happily admit to being a cinnamon raisin fan, which those more pure of heart than I would consider more doughnut than bagel. But bacon. Bacon and cream cheese, just to add basar bechalav (mixing of milk and meat) to the entirely forbidden pig. On a bagel. Not to be all “this would never happen in New York”, but, well, this would never happen in New York.

But, I was very much not in New York, and this bagel was the closest thing to it. It had exactly the right texture: chewy and doughy on the inside, with a perfect snap on the outside. “This is fantastic!” I enthused to the woman behind the counter. “It’s exactly like in New York! I’m going to come here every day! Are you hiring?” This last was meant as hyperbolic praise of their bagels, not an invitation for her to pull a job application out from under the counter, but that’s what happened.

Not for the first and not for the last time during my five years in Dublin, I gritted my teeth and went with it, rather than trying to cross the cultural impasse and explain, further emphasising what a stranger I was in a strange land.

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And so, I found myself in an ugly baseball cap and a brown apron, toasting and filling bagels (yes, even with bacon). My coworkers did not like me, probably because I was an arrogant New Yorker with my own ideas on how to serve my city’s unofficial totem. The work was fine, if repetitive, but food service is only enjoyable if you have camaraderie with your co-workers, which I very much did not.

The only real perk I could see was limitless bagels. These I took home each night and put into my own freezer, so I could enjoy what I’d actually wanted in the first place: a bagel and a cup of coffee in peace.

I only lasted two, maybe three weeks. But my boss didn’t tell me directly I was fired, that would not have been the Irish way. I looked at the roster for the following week and saw I wasn’t on it. I asked him why, and he looked uncomfortable.

“Well, I didn’t roster you for next week.”

“OK,” I said, “Do you know what the week after will be?”

“Well, you’re not rostered then either… actually you’re not rostered any more at all. We think maybe you don’t care enough about bagels.”

I had a freezer full of pilfered H&H and a host of strong opinions on their proper fillings that suggested that perhaps caring too much, rather than not enough, was the problem, but that seemed a distinction without a difference.

At least until my stash ran out (and I was too embarrassed by my ignominious termination to ever return as a customer), I could have a small taste of home at breakfast time.

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