Innocence Abroad: Chapter 4a



London High: Dodging for Lodgings

Airborne, over arctic seas: September 10, 1990...



was wide awake at the first hint of dawn. The earthline was sharp against a soft glow that soon turned brilliant scarlet, and as daylight filtered in I could make out a deep blue world, below, of endless sea pocked by specks of pure white. Hundreds of them. Huge floating icebergs, looking insignificant from this altitude.

The rest of that stratospheric morning between worlds was an immersion in formless white haze, opening now and then to a glimpse of countryside that had to be northern Britain; and then, with the quickness of a dream sequence, we were descending. All at once the unmistakable city of London materialized on a steeply banked turn toward Heathrow airport.

There it was: magical London in a panorama below me, going by so swiftly that I didn't dare rest my eyes on a single one of its multitude of spectacles: Westminster Cathedral . . Big Ben . . the river Thames . . the stately, one-of-its-kind, Tower Bridge - architectural Pomp and Circumstance to greet my arrival, as if it had been arranged from on high. Well, it had, of course!

I went with the herd through the airport routine - waiting for baggage, waiting for customs, getting stamped and certified at immigration - wide-eyed like a kid at everything suddenly British all around me: the billboards, the candy racks, the very looks of people . . . but most of all the strangely elegant way that everyone spoke, even toddlers talking to one another. There was a vast unreality to it, as if I had walked right off the plane into a Masterpiece Theater presentation.

Quickly enough, I was done with the formalities and had next to find my way out to a suburb called Eastcote. I knew not enough, yet, to take the underground - the subway system - which would have been the fastest, smoothest way out. Instead, I went for a big red double-decker, nearly getting run over before I reached it. Loaded with baggage, I looked the wrong way at a crossing. It would be weeks before I'd be able to cross a street without a conscious halt to break a lifetime's orientation. And I never would get used to the echo effect at mid-street - the encore 'wrong way' glance to catch traffic coming the other way.

But my closest brush with disaster on that first day was when I nearly left half my valuables on the red double-decker. I was simply carrying too much. Not only in baggage, but in my head. Things were happening too fast for me to classify and absorb. My focus was on everything at once, and spread far too thin.

I had a map and knew where I was going, and was fairly sure I had the right bus. But I had no idea of its route or how I'd know where to get off, other than what I could learn as I went. Naturally, I had asked the driver to let me know when we reached Eastcote.

"No trouble, lad, it's a station."

"Oh. Will you tell me when we arrive?"

He gave me a narrowing look, at that. "It's a station!"

That obviously was supposed to tell me something about it, but all it did was intimidate me. I sat down. The only thing to do was pay attention at every stop we made. A 'station' - what did he mean by that? A rail station? A police station? A gas station? How was I supposed to recognize it?

I took up a whole seat with my pack and bags, which was just as well for I could watch both sides. London buses have bins for luggage, but I was too fuzzy in the excitement of it all to see that. I didn't dare climb to the upper deck, for I had to be near the door. The bus had no springs and the driver seemed to relish shaking us to bits, but I was too busy trying to track our progress on the map to care - a detailed book of street maps I'd had the sense to pick up before leaving the airport.

We must have gone through half of London's outskirts before I spotted Eastcote Lane and lugged my stuff heavily toward the exit. But the driver stopped me before I could get off.

"This ain't Eastcote, I told y'it was a STATION!"

He fairly yelled it, before he saw my stupefied expression and finally realized I just didn't understand. "Si'down, lad. I'll tell y'when we're there."

It was all I had wanted in the first place. And I wished he'd stop calling me 'lad.' He was twenty years younger than me.

I suppose I expected something fairly magnificent after all the fuss, but it was just a modest little brick structure, a station on the underground line. This was where I very nearly left my jacket behind, with passport and money-belt in an inside pocket. Nobody nearby said a word when I got up and left it on the seat. I was spared by just the barest flicker of a feeling, as I was almost out the door, that something was wrong.

In due time, I reached the home of my first Good Neighbors host and was able to unburden myself of baggage for awhile. Lynne was a momentary anchor point, an engaging young woman who invited me to join her in a night out with a friend, and we saw the film Cinema Paradiso. I was living a dream: out with two women on my first night in London, in the flashing, splashing carnival center called Picadilly Circus. But it was quickly clear that I'd better get some London income in a hurry if I expected to sustain any such nightlife. The £4.50 theater price converted to $8.50 - for a single feature film.

I GOT MY BEARINGS at Lynne's, but it was hardly more than a breathing space; two nights, and then off to another host in another part of town. The three hosts I had arranged for in advance were woefully insufficient. I would be at large in London for the rest of September - three long weeks - lugging a load that somehow kept increasing as I migrated from host to host. Before the ordeal was done, I was listing and lunging along like some hybrid cross between a bird of passage and a lumbering beast of burden.

I had no time to relax. Three concurrent agendas chased each other in ever-tightening circles through my weary head: to find some affordable and decent quarters; to get a job; and to stay at least one host ahead of the two-night limit on GN hospitality. There was also the social requirement of being a proper guest at each household that took me in. It was so maddening that only a vague impression remains, of those earliest of my London hosts.

But it would be difficult to overstate the blessing of having what amounted to friends I could stay with, even if only friends of a brief and shifting moment. The hotel or hostel alternative, had it even been affordable, would have left me lonely and isolated just when the stabilizing effect of a supportive friend was most needed. The GN households ran the gamut from elegant to barely adequate, but I usually had a room to myself, and always congenial hosts.

My days were a steady round of employment agencies, which became a routine of keyboard tests and advice on the British job scene - no referrals. I was quickly disabused of any thought that I could get by on casual charm; it would have to be neckties and a suit, the `uniform of servitude' long since expunged from my wardrobe. And quite beyond my bracket of affordability at this point. In grim determination I canvassed the Oxfam shops, Britain's charity thrift stores, until I found a grey pinstripe that was good enough. It buttoned tight but didn't look half bad, and set me back less than six dollars - plus the cost of a couple pockets sewn in by a cheap and handy immigrant seamstress.

Coloring every aspect of my activity was the impact of London prices and the alarming rate at which my money seemed to be draining away. Somehow, $150 had gone out in the first three days. It included one-time costs, to be sure, like the $68 for police registration, a toll exacted of visitors staying longer than three months. But the pace of outlay hardly slackened. At the ten-day mark, my funds were down $260 - double my Stateside income for the same period, and a scary 15% of the $1870 I had brought with me, to last until I landed a job.

Remarkably, in my fluid state of affairs, I actually connected with a bit of work toward the end of my second homeless week. One of the agencies sent me on a two-day desktop publishing assignment - exactly what I had hoped to find. I had to cope with an IBM/DOS computer, instead of the Macintosh I'm familiar with, which was a bit unsettling, but I carried it off well enough and earned a quick $215, less $65 taken out for British with-holding tax.

The brief but heady taste of success demonstrated a take-home potential that might easily exceed $1500 per month, and set all kinds of winter pos-sibilities dancing in my head. Everything appeared to be happening just as it was supposed to. The truth of it, however, was that I had lucked into a last-gasp bit of employment in an economy that was, at that very moment, turning cold and blue. It served to buoy my spirits - not to be taken lightly - but was no indicator of what lay ahead.

Meanwhile, by the end of that week that saw my finances enhanced, a shelter crisis was taking shape. Everything seemed to converge at once, in a way that left me too little time, with too many threads to keep track of. On the evening of my first day of work, I turned up a short-term rental, for perhaps a month or two, but it wouldn't be available until the first of October - a week away. It wasn't nearly what I wanted, but it seemed the perfect answer for my tentative mid-stream situation. I was lucky, in fact, in London's highly competitive housing market, to find anything at all that someone else hadn't already beaten me to. But in my preoccupation with the house hunt and my temp job, I had not taken the time to find a weekend host.

Now, it was late Friday afternoon and I was up against it, using a pay phone for all I was worth. I mean it literally: British phonecalls are timed, even locally (even from home phones!), and I was running out of coins. Not to mention hosts. Some already had guests, some required more than a single day's notice, some were just indisposed . . . no one would have me.

In the last few minutes before five o'clock, my desperation finally registered somewhere with the gods. I connected with a fellow just as he was closing his art supplies shop for the weekend. Another trudge across town, but it gave me a haven until Monday with a young couple in a crowded attic - so tight and tiny, that it could barely accommodate another body.

In the course of that weekend I joined my hosts in attendance at a small, private Sunday worship service, which favored me with two interesting encounters. One of them was a brief conversation with John Lahr, a writer and the son of Bert Lahr, who played the cowardly lion in that vintage film, The Wizard of Oz. But the day's truly providential encounter was with a wonderfully articulate British gentleman of exactly my vintage, who said he could put me up at his bachelor flat for most of the following week, while I awaited the readiness of my new quarters.

It was instant congeniality. Clark was a retired geologist with still a lot of zest for life, embarking on a second career in homeopathy. More than merely articulate, he had a raconteur's flair for the well-turned phrase. Dining together at a pub, on his generous treat, we seemed to spark each other to a rich recollection or a fresh insight at every turn of the conversation. It was somewhat like having a "Dinner with Andre."

Though charmingly British, with all of the conventions it suggests, Clark didn't fit the generational mold any more than I. On a motor-scooter, he'd buzz me out to a bookshop, or up along Hampstead Heath, the great park-like area behind his home, jockeying through traffic like an unruly kid. When I discovered his passion for Dixieland jazz, matching my own, I knew I'd found a real gem - the first person since my arrival in England with whom I felt a genuine rapport.

I stayed with Clark to the end of the week, when he had other guests due; and I left anticipating a lot of later time together once I got settled. He drove me across town to my final GN host, for the last of my homeless days. This was Marjory, an earlier host, of whom I had asked the privilege of a return visit since she lived just up the hill from where I was about to rent. It meant I'd have a friend as a neighbor, in this suburban section of London called Southfields, which added a further touch of good feeling to the prospect ahead of me.

Marjory, like Clark, seemed also an epitome of British style - though in its more reserved aspect, which set our friendship on a keel of restraint. But as I came to know her better I found a whimsical wit beneath the surface of propriety, along with a very generous spirit. Marjory's home was a kind of boarding house for visiting language students from other cultures, which assured a diversity of interesting dinner guests. She happened also to have a superb library of London and British lore that tempted me to hours of browsing - more, by far, than I ever found time for. Our friendship would grow, and continue to be fruitful even after I left the British Isles. But strangely, I was not to see Clark again at all, though my episode with him was not entirely done.

SOUTHFIELDS, a pleasant little bedroom community south of the Thames, on the underground line to Wimbledon, is one of the literally hundreds of satellite villages that compose greater London, in a patchwork blend that no longer has any visible divisions. They string together along endless heartlines of commerce, often called the High Street, like daisies on a chain - but not like American suburbs, for each has a distinctive spirit, perhaps reflecting its onetime unique townhood in the far, far past. Their community identity, in many cases, goes back a thousand years and more.

The small and cheery cluster of shops that create the Southfields am bience radiates from a century-old underground station hardly a block's distance, down several streets. It caters to a mid-day trade of housewives - a social phenomenon that persists in England - imparting a settled, leisurely quality that instantly overwhelms the mundane, dreary aspect of returning from town after a day's work . . . or, as in my case, after a day of seeking it. Old photographs show that the neighborhood's physical appearance has hardly changed from horse-drawn carriage days, though of course today's street scene has not the same quiet charm. But the old style is not entirely gone. Occasionally, the clip-clop of horse's hooves still echoes up the street, and a quick look reveals a mounted bobby on patrol, or a prim horsewoman on an early morning trot.

The house that would be my home for awhile was a narrow, two-story private dwelling, one of the sardine-packed brick and rococo family units of which there must be a million in greater London, all built just before the century's turn in a building boom of inconceivable energy. For the most part, there are no two exactly alike, which has to say something for the creative Victorian imagination since they are all so very similar.

The one I lived in took sunlight into practically every room . . . except the ground floor one I occupied. For it, there was a narrow north view of sky and yard through tall, glass-paned doors. They opened outward, but not very invitingly in October's chill air. It was a darkside room, not meant to be anything but a place to sleep and dress. I made more of it, though, with a few well-placed lamps and a writing desk.

Being a shared house (more or less) it also provided a decently appointed kitchen, a washing machine and telephone for my use, and a TV set in a miniature living-room just off the vestibule. But the sharing extended only as far as space and costs. Socially, the place turned out to be rather barren. My housemates were two charming young women of whom I saw very little and one man of indeterminate charm who elected to keep entirely to himself.

But it was reasonably priced, by London standards, at £45 per week. I was starting to think in these terms, and preferred not to dwell on the fact of it being $85 -- or $365 per month, a price within penny-pitching distance of my entire Social Security income. It was a place to be for awhile, and that was of paramount importance. In a month or two we'd all be ousted so the owner could begin some refurbishing, and at that time I should certainly be able to afford something more suitable for the winter.

Or so I told myself.


"expunged from my wardrobe..." The last suit I owned had been put to the torch in 1981, at a festive 10th anniversary celebration of my escape from the world of just such habiliments.



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