London High: Yearning for Earnings

London, England: October 1990...




ctober was as fine a month in London as it is in Seattle - crispness in the air, a lot of clear blue skies and an avalanche of color along London's streets and in its commons, as trees gradually shed their leaves. Job-hunting was enjoyable in that aspect, if less so for its lack of encouragement. The agencies generally blamed the shallows on the turn in the economy; but rampant age discrimination also played a part. It wasn't subtle at all. In one instance, I was told point-blank by a young agency interviewer that there was no use even opening my portfolio, as they had no client who'd hire anyone of my age. At another agency, my resumé prompted a surprised question clearly related to age: What ever "had possessed" me to return to school?

The British attitude toward their elderly can be seen in the term by which they are generally referenced. Not seniors, which conveys a positive sense of rank; not elders, which could suggest a level of attainment; they are called pensioners, a term reflecting the sad image of older folks as used-up, burned-out, has-beens. They seem not to realize or care that people generally fulfill the roles in which they are cast.

I suppose the same could be said about roles people cast for themselves, and it had been many years since I last regarded myself as a career-style job seeker. I had become, instead, a forager, and learned to utilize somewhat different kinds of instincts in pursuit of my needs. Eventually, these instincts set me onto a London trail - not a very gainful one, but maybe as good as this dreary winter could offer. It began at a so-called Job Fair that I visited on one of my daily forays in October - a sort of employment lottery sponsored by a temporary consortium of high-profile firms. Long lines of hopefuls, with long faces of career-style seriousness, stood patiently in queue waiting for a few minutes of hopeful interview with glad-handing personnel reps. It was obviously no place for me, and I didn't remain long - but long enough to collect a handful of literature.

Giving it a cursory look-through on my underground way home, I flashed on something that rang bells of recall from many years back: New Ways to Work, a name too distinctive to have been accidentally duplicated. It had been used in California twenty years before, by a pair of women with the unlikely names of Barney and Sidney, whom I had once known. The local address was not far out of my way, and it was still early enough to check it out. If nothing else, the adventure could lift my spirits from the drag of the day's sorry business.

I found the office up a double flight of stairs, a few blocks from Islington station. My guess was immediately verified: they had a solid connection with the California group. The idea of job-sharing had spread from the west coast to the east, and then leaped across to London. It was like running into an old friend, even though I didn't know anyone in this British outpost. But conversational access was what I wanted.

The London office was managed by a fellow named Charlie, an easy-going sort who had received his 'commission' from Barney, herself, in New York. After sharing my memories of how the whole thing began, back in Palo Alto, I asked Charlie if he had any ideas for my job quest. He thought I should try the volunteer organizations. They always had trouble with the going pay scale, he said, for such skills as desktop publishing, and were therefore often in need. He advised me to put an ad in the monthly newsletter of the London Volunteer Services Center (LVSC), which went out to more than a thousand such groups.

So I went the next day to LVSC and met Sean, their slim, soft-spoken newsletter editor, only to learn that even a small ad would cost more than I could afford. But Sean introduced me to Massimo, who handled the computer training for volunteer groups, thinking he might have some ideas for me. Massimo, his dark Italian hair bobbing around as we talked, took a sudden interest in my Pagemaker expertise, wondering if I could impart some of it to their training crew. . . in trade for an ad! He checked with Sean, who agreed that it would be a fair bit of barter.

I didn't see myself as an instructor. I hadn't that level of skill, and certainly not on their IBM-type system. But the entire mood was informal and they were willing to make allowances for my lack of instructional experience; and after all, hadn't I just done a couple days' work using IBM hardware? Besides, this wasn't a hire-for-pay, in the strictest sense. So I agreed to it. I came in on the following Saturday and did a passable job,gaining a bit of teaching experience in the process. My ad would be in their next issue - unfortunately, almost a month down the line.

But Massimo came up with another idea for me. He said I should register with a certain alternative employment agency that I had not heard of before. They were far out of the central area, across the river in a part of greater London called 'Elephant and Castle.' By now, I could see that this was a developing trail and knew enough to stay with it, alert to every nuance of information and possibility it might reveal.

I found the place buried in a security-locked building, which seemed an unlikely location for a job agency. Fatemah, a dark-haired, cheerful and lively young woman of middle-Eastern lineage, was running the small office. There was none of the usual artifice or formality, here, the facade that typically distances agency from client. She soon had me in shirtsleeves helping her with some computer problem as if I belonged there. The afternoon went swiftly by, and then Fatemah and her office cohort, Jay, dragged me off to a free Friday evening jazz concert at the South Bank, an art center on the Thames. Anything can turn up when following a trail.

When I returned, the following week, Fatemah asked if I was ready to learn Ventura Publisher, another kind of desktop publishing software - learn it well enough to teach it to someone, a particular client of hers, for pay! I knew immediately I'd be stepping in well over my head. The program works on a principle quite different from Pagemaker.

"I don't even know how Ventura Publisher works, Fatemah!"

"I have all the manuals for it. You can do it."

"Come on, now, manuals can't teach you to teach something. And I'm not that familiar with your computer system."

"You can work with it here, as long as you need to. You can do it."

"Fatemah . . . it's crazy!"

"You can do it, Irv, I know you can do it."

I hadn't tried to fool Fatemah, and she was not dull about computers - perhaps a bit too innocent, but not dull. And yet, she was prevailing on me to practically lay myself on a stone altar.

I shook my head once again. "Naaa, it's too scary. I'd just . . ."

But my argument faltered as it came back to me that this was, after all, part of a trail. It was totally unthinkable, it was utter madness, but . . . how could I argue with the progression that had already drawn me, step by step, into areas of computer expertise I considered beyond me? This next step, though, was a quantum jump - as foolhardy, from my perspective, as walking into NASA thinking I could program the launch of a space shuttle. But yet, how could I argue with it? This was clearly my Trail!

Within the week, I began putting in the time I could manage, a few hours every day or so, learning to work with Ventura, and taking its manuals home for study. I never became very proficient with it, but I learned enough to get by . . . if no one who really knew the software were looking over my shoulder. I wrote a summary of what I was learning, carefully skirting the area that was still a mystery to me, and then we worked this into a printable format, with the software, so that we were able to produce a 'manual' - (this is so outrageous, I can't even believe I let myself get talked into it) - with the agency's own name on it. This all took place within a few weeks, and then I somehow found the nerve to spend most of a day 'teaching it' to the fellow Fatemah had in mind.

It was almost my complete undoing. He was sharp enough, I'm sure, to see through the whole sham - certainly to see my sweaty nervousness and uncertainty at the slightest glitch. But he was a good sport about it and seemed genuinely pleased to have someone 'helping him' to learn this package. I received $150 for the ordeal - and regardless of whether I taught him anything or not, I earned every penny of it!

After that episode, I didn't even flinch when asked, by the person whose small ad I next ventured a response to, if I were a qualified Pagemaker instructor - making no distinction as to the kind of computer involved. "Yes, sir," I gave it all the confidence I had in me. "Qualified and experienced!"

He operated a small independent computer instruction business, contracting as a broker with all sorts of computer people to offer their instructional services to firms and government agencies with short-term urgencies. He was in need of a Pagemaker pro for occasional assignment. A month before, I wouldn't have dared respond to his ad. Aside from my limited skills, I wasn't supposed to earn any money in Britain outside of regular employment. Contract work was strictly out, on penalty of having my work permit revoked. But times had changed. The trail had led to this, and I was now in a survival mode.

This new connection didn't bring much in, but it kept the winter wolf from chewing on my toes, and my spirits from going completely down the tube. My first assignment was at the DTI, the British Department of Trade and Industry, at a mid-city location near Victoria Station, where I was given a security escort into the bowels of the building. With my somewhat specious credentials, I felt like a hacker breaking into the government computer system. I gave two days of instruction to two very young fellows, who were so subdued through it that I began to think I really was qualified. I got $245 for it - no deductions taken out, but the figure has to be adjusted for the cost of a pair of new shoes ($37.50) that I had to groan into, and wear at the constant risk of callouses, to be business-like presentable or else lose the assignment.

Later instructional episodes, many weeks apart, took me to the British Naval History Museum at Greenwich, and to an insurance company on the south coast, at Bournemouth. All together, they brought in about $650, not very much when spread over the deep three months of winter. But a lifesaver, on the same terms, for I'm not sure my spirits would have held up without that bit of distance from disaster's edge. It certainly validated the wisdom of tracking trails, however irrational they sometimes seem.

There was another trail, too, of an entirely different character. It started back in Seattle with my early round of letters, several of which had been sent to magazine publishers. It might seem that writing would be a natural employment possibility for me, but I don't have an occupational background in it. I did, however, write to a few retirement-age magazines, British and American, suggesting the possibility of an article or two on what I was doing. Only one, in England, responded with any interest at all and it was slight, merely suggesting that I stop in when I get to London.

It was a month after my arrival before I got around to it. I found the offices of Choice situated in a colorful little corner of the city, by St. John's Gate, a remnant bit of ancient London. Editor Wendy James seemed a bit dubious about me at first, but our conversation warmed quickly and she suggested we continue it over a pub lunch that extended for two full hours. Unaccountably, I was in fine form for the occasion, and happily rambled on about the range of my ideas and past projects. And she, being interested in my generation, of course, though in her own youthful forties, was a good and encouraging listener.

Wendy was definitely interested in an article or two; but I, in the moment's uncharacteristic exuberance - probably the lingering afterglow of my first two days of paid hire - was all for doing an entire series of articles! I envisioned a half-dozen segments, starting with my return to college and detailing each stage of the job-search, to finally end with my eventual success (according to the script). Wendy was cautious about it. The magazine had never run a series before. But she was willing to think it over. Afterwards, I was surprised at my own brashness that day; it was as if some hidden spirit had taken possession of me.

I began the writing almost immediately, for I was determined to produce a series and let it speak for itself. On completing each of the first few segments, I'd rush off to the office by St. John's Gate, type it into one of their computers and give it immediately to Wendy. She seemed to like what I was doing with it, but wanted the whole batch in hand before making any commitment. I couldn't finish it, of course, until I actually landed a job - which, as the days moved toward November, was starting to look more and more like less and less of a likelihood.

NOVEMBER WAS ALSO the month I'd have to start looking for another place to live. My landlord, however, a chunky Irishman, had said nothing of it when he took my rent. At least I didn't think he had. His brogue was so thick I could seldom be sure of what he said without having it repeated. Had he had a change of heart? But the following week, my two charming housemates put a deposit on larger quarters for themselves and announced a move at November's end. This triggered the landlord into action, and I received three weeks notice that I must be out by then, too.

Despite his earlier forewarning, it hit hard, for I was in no position to pay for better quarters and dreaded a return to the dreary search - which was still too fresh in memory. London house-hunting is strictly an evening task, as most landlords work in the daytime; and having no car at my disposal meant a reliance on the phone, and then scurrying to check out perhaps one or two while time enough remained for it. Most of the time, someone had already staked their claim with hard cash by the time I found my way to the offering. It was entirely useless to say, "please wait until I get there."

It came as quite a surprise, then, to hit paydirt this time on the second place I looked at. It was not far away from Southfields, perhaps an hour's sturdy walk, located in a more down-to-earth community called Balham. It lacked the pleasant village ambience that I had enjoyed for six weeks, even seemed rather grim at first look. But Balham's lengthy High Street and its offshoots had a certain nitty-gritty realism about them that I could get into, as a London experience, and it turned out far more appropriate than South fields, to the sort of winter I was heading into.

The landlady, Mrs. Firfirey - the only name I ever knew her by - was a small and wonderfully sweet Indian woman who lived there with her two sons, Rahim and Fahim, one a bit over twenty and the other a bit under. They occupied the two lower floors and rented out a small top-floor apartment, self-contained except for the sharing of a mid-level bathroom, for the same £45 per week I had been paying. In Londonese it's called a bed-sitter, a sitting/sleeping room of micro dimensions with a kitchen even tinier. But for me, it was a perfect size; I've lived in small quarters and know how to make the most of them.

North-facing windows, one for each room, offered an expansive view that soared skyward over distant rooftops. A perfect antidote to any possibility of claustrophobia. In the foreground, long and narrow backyards abutted the grounds of a great old brick school building, with trees everywhere. A huge television set was also in the bargain, my pacifier for a cloistered winter. The window in the daytime, the TV at night.

My writing desk looked out on a world of billowing cumulus or somber overcast. Anything at all close to clear skies presented a steady procession of aircraft on the flight path into Heathrow, bearing airline insignia from every country in the world. Once each day, if I could catch the moment, the French Concorde skimmed by on delta wings, a graceful sight never to be seen back home. I was happy as a robin working there (when I wasn't worried as a worm, over what would become of me).

Renting the place put an immediate crunch on me. I had to take it at once or lose it, but the chunky Irishman would not budge a farthing for any rebate on the month's rent I had just given him. It meant a total loss of two weeks rent; almost $200 spent for nothing.

My starting bankroll of $1870 was already down to $720, after two months in Britain - even with earnings added in. The payment to Mrs. Firfirey now cut that by more than half, and red lights were flashing. I could hold out through November, but by then I would need a transfusion from home. Even the exchange rate had been shifting against me in recent weeks, so that my 'same price rent' would actually be $20 more each month, after the new cash came in.

THE MOVE TO BALHAM proved to be the Great Divide for me. I finally had to come to terms with the insistent realization that I was not going to get a regular job at all. Several things forced it on me. For one, I no longer had a home telephone. The LVSC ad, just now coming out, referred inquiries to my Southfields phone number, which was about to be disconnected. I also knew, from many years past, that December is the worst time for job-hunting. And with January's arrival only two and a half months would be left, that I could still offer to a potential employer.

It should have been obvious before the move, but I hadn't wanted to see it. I was too intent on the agenda to read the clear signals. Everything - outside of those brief teaching gigs - had gone wrong, the results often mocking my very efforts, as if they were demanding some recognition that it was a dead-end trail.

There was the interview Lauren had gotten for me, the only real job interview in two months of search. Lauren was my ally in the agencies, the one who had phoned me in Seattle while I was in California, calling because she had come from Seattle, herself, before she married an Englishman and moved to London to start her own computer placement service. Young, blond, refreshingly American in this remote world, Lauren was on my side and I didn't have to play any job-applicant games with her. In mid-November, she managed to set up an interview for a short-term job with a top advertising agency that seemed exactly right . . . and I somehow blew it.

Then there was the wrenching, if also humorous, Que sera incident. On a Friday in October, one of the agencies had called me to come in immediately and pick up a temp assignment for three weeks of clerical work, to begin the following Monday. I raced into town as fast as I could and breathlessly up several flights of stairs . . . only to be told that the job order had been cancelled after I was already on my way. It was a crushing blow, considering how my anticipations had soared. I sagged back down the stairs, seeking something, anything, that could explain this meaningless 'joke' of the Universe, and as I opened the outer door I heard melody above the street rumble. Along the sidewalk came a dignified old fellow in full tuxedo, crested by a magnificent sombrero. He was pumping an absurdly small accordion to accompany the lyric that came forth in a thin, wavering voice . . . "Que sera, sera...whatever will be, will be..."

The message was at once personal and sensible: things are just the way they are, regardless of what I imagine they should be. I put a couple coins in the fellow's cup and blessed him, and really meant it. I just had forgotten one of the cardinal rules of following trail: the doors have to be open. When they're closed, it's the wrong trail.

Now that the picture had finally come into clear focus, I cursed and laughed at myself for having been blind to it for so long. Then I spent the better part of a week trying to assess what was really going on. The surface aspect was obvious, but what did it all mean? I needed some understanding, to know how to proceed. If I was wrong about the job, was I wrong in coming to London? After all, I wouldn't have made the journey had I any idea that I was not to find a job. So I had to know, now, if it was a bad move - in which case, I should consider dropping the whole thing and getting out as quickly as possible. Or was there something more to it than I could see?

I reviewed the chain of circumstances that had set me on this course to begin with - the meaningful February events, etc. - and saw no reason to change my first assessment. I looked back at the unique London trails that had actually opened for me, and saw them as clear messages of encouragement to hang in and not lose hope; and the same could be said of the brief September work that had come along. Despite the financial shallows, nothing seemed to suggest that I had made a mistake. Then I took a thoughtful look at the two weird things - seemingly impossible things - that had happened to me, just before the move to Balham.

The first of these involved a suburban woman I met through a personals ad in a local paper. Before actually meeting, Jolene and I exchanged letters. This was during the time I was using the computer at Fatemah's agency, and one afternoon as I was absorbed in that work, a woman had come in for an interview. Fatemah had few clients, which was probably the only reason I could even recall it later, for there was no interaction between us, and I remembered nothing very singular about the woman: middle-aged, tall, in an overcoat, typically British in her voice and manner. But this woman happened to be Jolene, as we only realized later by a chance reflection, after discovering that we both knew Fatemah. In that brief time before we actually knew each other but were in contact by mail, fate had brought us to the very same room, in all of London, at the same moment!

The other strange instance involved my erstwhile friend, Clark. Shortly before my move from Southfields I received a phonecall - a vaguely familiar voice checking matter-of-factly who I was, then asking for a mailing address, and then hanging up after thanking me. Not immediately realizing it was Clark's voice, I assumed it had something to do with one of my employment applications. But a couple of days later I received a packet containing more than a dozen pieces of unopened mail that were addressed to Thomas Irvin - the exact reversal of my own name - mail that had been forwarded to Clark's address! These were wrapped with a rather curt note from Clark saying he was tired of holding mail for me and more than a bit upset that I had used his address to receive forwarded mail, without ever having asked his permission.

It was not my mail, of course, and it took a bit of investigative work to unravel the mystery. Clark lived on the ground floor of a six-plex and saw little of the other tenants. Apparently, on the first of October, just days after I had left his hospitality, a young fellow named Thomas Irvin moved into an upper-floor unit. Clark, the first to see each morning's mail, had started plucking the poor fellow's letters whenever he spotted one, assuming quite naturally that they were for me. From his lingering irritation, when I called afterward with the explanation, I suspect that some part of him could not quite believe that I wasn't somehow the cause of it all.

And maybe, at some level, I was! I suppose some would consign these strange, synchronous events to chance, with a calculation of staggering odds. But it doesn't really wash, for the odds insist on extreme rarity and I have experienced too many such happenings. This pair, in fact - the incident with Jolene and the other with Clark - occurred within days of each other, which constitutes yet a third 'chance pairing' in time. I find it easier to believe in a world of purposeful pathways behind the agendas we pursue, invisible but for the occasional surfacing of some oddity that clearly speaks of another sort of order, with meaning that only intuition can surmise.

Whatever deeper meaning such a synchronicity may hold, its mere occurrence is a trail marker for me, from a very easy line of reasoning: In order for it to happen, I must be at the right place at precisely the right moment, and therefore it tells me that I am exactly where I should be. This being the case, London was clearly the right place for me; and being there without a job - for that was just as certainly now part of the trail - had to be right, too. With this recognition I was committed to staying, and ready to take on anything a London winter might throw at me.


"new shoes..." Those shoes were truly the price of compromise. They were ultimately given to a local thrift ship on the day I left London, after less than a week of wear.

"rampant age discrimination..." Age discrimination is perfectly legal in Britain. Later during that winter, I would gain entry to a luncheon given by the British Personnel Managers Association, to announce the implementation of a new policy, a staunchly stated opposition to age-bias in hiring. But at the same time, they pointedly rejected any support of legislation to that end, leaving the impression that it was little more than a public relations ploy, done to forestall such legislation.

"And maybe, at some level..." There is a fascinating post-script to this tale about Clark, which took place seven years later on a return visit to London. When you're done with this chapter (which you almost are), you can check it out in Ripening Seasons #X, and then return to Innocence Abroad by hitting the back button of your browser.



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