Linda is a shopping planner. Yes, you heard right – a shopping planner. Not only does she organise tours of the great shopping Mecca that is New York City, she organises limos, special spa, nail and wax treatments and books restaurants after a hard day’s spending in the Big Apple.
She has the tell-tale sign of a bad nose job. Her once prominent honk looks as if it has been scooped out, leaving her with a tiny turned-up buttoney thing which is far too small for the rest of her equine face. The hair is layered blonde, expensive highlights and the black cashmere wrap marks her out 100 percent Manhattan – aspiring Upper West Side – but still living downtown.
The four or five weeks before Christmas are her paydays and her best clients are Irish. Not super-rich Irish, but run-of-the-mill folk who boarded Aer Lingus EI 105 bound for New York last Friday morning at 10.30.
The Irish are the seventh largest group of visitors to the Big Apple. Now think about that. We, with our population of four million, are not only the seventh largest group, but we are the fastest growing nation of tourists to New York.
This year, it is expected that over 350,000 Irish people will visit New York – the vast majority to shop. This figure is increasing by over 30pc per year and is up 145pc since 2001.
Given that our workforce is only two million and as much as 14pc of that figure are immigrants (who are unlikely to be splashing out in NYC), it means that over one-in-six of the Irish workforce travel to New York every year to shop.
So, far from being the super-rich-out-of-sighters, the average Josephine Soap is making the pilgrimage.
This development has not gone unnoticed by the New York authorities; and in June, the woman who runs New York retailing, Cristyne L Nicholas, and a man with the rather unusual title of “Chief Adviser for Irish Tourism”, Adrian Flannelly, opened a new tourism office in Dublin. They also run a “Next Stop NYC”, tourism marketing campaign created to capitalise on the booming Irish travel market, currently – according to the New York Times – “the fastest growing among New York City’s top 10 origin markets”.
Judging from the pure Dundalk accents in the upmarket Sephora cosmetic emporium on 5th Avenue, this campaign has been working. Where once the Irish pilgrims went to Lourdes, the new holy of holies is Midtown Manhattan on a chilly Sunday afternoon. Linda swans into the foyer of Fitzpatrick’s Grand Central Hotel on 43rd Street and Lexington to be greeted – like the Messiah – by 15 excited 40-something Irish women in skinny jeans.
She has the assault planned in advance. With military precision, the shopper will take Manhattan. First, there will be a financially, high-risk, quick incision uptown to Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany, followed by a thrust down Fifth to Maceys. Having successfully achieved this mission, our well-armed elite shopping troop will fan out into Bloomingdales on Lexington, to regroup at Fitzpatrick’s at around lunch time. Linda has arranged a late brunch on Third Avenue, before heading downtown to the dangerous, boutique territory of Soho, Chelsea and the meatpacking district – formerly home to the notorious Irish-American Westies mob in the 1970s, but now host to more Irish credit cards than the Westies could have hoped to counterfeit in their pomp.
For the full-on shopper, boutique-land is a minefield. At Marc Jacobs on Bleeker Street, our Irish group – who had been conquering all before them – meet with stiff local resistance for the first time.
Post-op Jewish women are dipping deep into their alimony flashing their “Drop the Debt” Red American Express card (you can never be too virtuous), while second-generation Asian-Americans are vying for the attention of the gay sales assistant in that pushy but polite Chinese way. Anorexic models in comically high boots – which make them look like stick insects in concrete blocks – use their height to stretch over Dundalk’s finest at the counter.
A Mary J Blige lookalike with short natty dreads pushes past Monica from Castlebellingham and makes an unsolicited grab for a pair of half-price wedges. War is declared. The Irish women, realising that their advantage is in small tight formations, hunker down, almost prop-like and cover for each other as they hoover boots, shoes, bags, sandals – anything.
Linda, sensing a crisis, rallies the troops and they head for the relative safety of Gap and Urban Outfitters. As they leave the crowded hell that is Marc Jacobs, an ageing Yoko Ono double with big hair, big sunglasses and adolescent Puma trainers acknowledges Linda. Shopping planners have an almost Masonic ability to recognise each other at 50 paces.
In the late 1980s, Linda remarks, it used to be Japanese shoppers who invaded New York, today it is the Irish. This frenzy is accelerating and it is financed by excessive borrowing.
With one-in-six of the workforce coming to shop in New York and the same number owning second houses abroad, we have turned into the world’s most hedonistic consumers. All the while our debt-to-income ratio is exploding.
In the excited effervescence that is New York City in early December it seems churlish to bring this up, but if the financial day of reckoning ever comes, today’s budget measures by Brian Cowen will seem little more than deckchair rearranging on the Titanic.