Foreign youths storm our shores

June 20, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

OCEAN CITY — It's a small room, crowded with hopes, dreams and a lot of new American tennis shoes.

Presiding is Lois Popp, office manager of the Downtown Association. At her left is Charles Smith of the Salisbury Social Security Office, and today he will process 66 applications for Social Security cards.

"The Irish kids seem to get out of school first, and get here first," says Mrs. Popp, whose tiny office this is, down at 1101 Philadelphia Ave.

They're the first wave in an estimated 900 young people from other countries who have come to Ocean City through New York's JFK Airport, looking for a summer of adventure and American dollars.

"They'll be on the floor, they'll be on each other's laps, writing on each other's backs," says Mrs. Popp, in her second year of providing a Social Security officer for the students, who make up nearly 10 percent of Ocean City's seasonal work force.

At 10 a.m., half an hour after the office has opened, 18 college students are busily writing their Gaelic names onto American forms. They murmur to each other in the soft brogue instantly recognizable as Irish, consult on minor points, then dig through knapsacks and fanny packs for passports as they wait their turn with Mr. Smith.

Even without the accents, they're instantly identifiable as European by their pale skin, matched by the gleaming whiteness of the new tennis shoes many of them wear.

"Half our college are here," says Deidre O'Shaughnessy, a 19-year-old from County Roscommon who is a student at Dublin's College of Marketing and Design. Like many of the others in the room, she arrived a few days ago, taking a Greyhound bus from JFK Airport -- and she's already found a job in an accessory store, whose name she can't recall.

She has already spelled her name (and pronounced it) for Mr. Smith, shown her passport and had her form approved. Now she's waiting for herfriend Aine O'Brien, who's encountered a little trouble with the American custom of writing dates with the month first.

"What's today?" she asks. "The eighth," says Ms. O'Shaughnessy. "Six-eight-ninety-four," says Mr. Smith.

"Oh, it's the sixth?" she responds. No, the eighth; just a tiny cultural barrier that she quickly grasps and hurdles.

Like their American counterparts, these students will live six and eight to an apartment, sharing rooms and costs in a town where apartment rents can be $7,000 for a season.

"A lot of the accommodation is terrible -- you wouldn't put a dog in it!" says Paul Moran, an 18-year-old from Dublin. He's already encountered the security deposit favored by landlords here and says they don't have those in Ireland.

"We don't have two or three thousand dollars with us when we come over," he says. "If you don't have work, it leaves you very short!"

But work won't elude them for long -- "Anything and everything," is his smiling answer to what kind of work he'd like.

As they wait in line, a kind of spontaneous networking develops: You live on Robin Drive? So do my friends. One girl warns another that a T-shirt shop is not what she wants.

"Don't work there -- the guys who own the place keep hassling women," she says, and her comments are echoed by another student who's been there and had the same experience.

For most, this is their first trip to Ocean City, although many have been to the United States before. They've come through international exchange organizations in Europe, which allow them to work, and most of them have heard about Ocean City from friends.

"There are so many jobs," says Ciaran Foster, 20, from Dublin. "You put up a 'help wanted' sign at home, you're going to have a queue around the corner!" He has found a job already, working at McDonald's, and is sharing an apartment with two friends from Dublin, Gerard Carr, 18, and Joanne Byrne, 20.

"We had friends who stayed here last summer, and they said it was a great place -- work was easy, a good beach," says Keith Bracken, 22, from County Cork.

"I'm just sick of the weather at home -- and the women!" jokes Leo O'Leary, 20, also from Cork.

Mrs. Popp, who persuaded Social Security to put someone in her office to process forms every Wednesday through August, says her role just evolved. Many of the students would come to her office looking for help, or job information, and she would offer assistance.

Now, the arrangement is more formal: The Social Security cards will be mailed to her office, and the students are told to come back there to pick them up.

She tells them to come back in two weeks and suggests to several that Trimper's Amusement Park is hiring if they're interested. "If they turn you down, go back in two weeks," she tells several students. "We don't get really busy here until mid-June; just keep going back."

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