London: December 1990...
hen I finally decided to end the whole charade of looking for a job, two things became critical. One was a very careful structuring of budget and money process, for I had to be absolutely sure I could make it through the winter if I was going to hang in. Trust is fine, but there is also peace of mind to be considered.
The other matter was my half-finished series of articles. The theme of the series, after all, was an older job-seeker successfully navigating the hazards in a strange land. What now, if success was out of the picture?
I put the articles on hold for the time being. Something could yet develop. The now-and-then computer instruction might solidify into something more steady; and there was always a chance that Fatemah or Lauren might come through with a job. I wasn't deciding not to work, just quitting this fatuous pursuit of employment. Anyway, three of the articles were already written and the project could mark time for awhile.
As things now stood, I had $3000 back home, and $300 in local funds. My costs, outside of rent, were averaging $110 per week - much too high. But three of my last five weeks had come in below $85 and I felt I could take it down much further, now that I had accepted the idea of a survival winter. I set $70 as a weekly ceiling, with a VISA draw for it every third week. To prevent a solvency bottleneck, I'd pay the rent from my Westminster account, after fattening it with a transfer of $1000 from Seattle. This would assure sixteen weeks of rent without need of another major cash transfer. And my VISA would remain reasonably clear for emergency options.
In many ways Balham was perfectly suited to this exercise in frugality. In hard contrast with Southfields' semi-urban gentility, where mothers navigated infants in prams along sunny sidewalks and little old ladies took time from their morning shopping for bits of street-corner tattle, Balham was a sudden splash of basic-survival reality - a no-nonsense, gritty world of weather-beaten old men and bargain-sharp housewives. It was the proper fit for my prospect of a crusty winter.
Just off the High Street, I found a block-long street market - an earthy institution seen everywhere in Europe but virtually lost in America, to our sanitizing March of Progress. I remember a vestige in the San Francisco of my youth: the Crystal Palace Market near city hall, a cavernous indoor enclosure that sheltered sacks and stacks of every imaginable kind of bulk food. Dried fruits and dates from exotic lands, peanut butter being churned in huge vats, arm-thick salamis that hung in pendulous rows from overhead hooks, bushels of unwrapped breads radiating a bakery-fresh aroma that trapped anyone within nostril's distance . . . a vast bazaar of smells and sights, now only a sensual memory. Seattle's Pike Place Market remains with us; but like so much else of our earthy past it has become primarily a tourist function, a kind of caricature of the real thing.
Balham's street market became my produce resource. Housewares, too, and a variety of local seafood, much cheaper than in the shops. Lines were shorter than in the supermarkets, and those that queued up were a sure indication of good prices or better selection. I'd be saying, "three of those and one of these, and a half pound of. . ." while the fast-moving stall-keeper toted prices in his head. With food fully a third of my non-rent expense, the street market played a vital part in my budget. I even found affordable treats there, like freshly marinated herring; I could get a whole fish for only $1.60. I was a kid, the last time I'd had herring sold in bulk - in San Francisco's old Jewish district, where Mr. Shenson used to pull one out of a barrel and wrap it in newspaper, throwing marinated onion into the 25¢ bargain.
Balham's High Street, in fact, reminded me of nothing so much as my old San Francisco in its Depression decade. It was one of the sweeter aspects of wintering in Balham, especially under economic strains appropriate to the memories it stirred. Here was the same dismal looking architecture - not precisely in style, but certainly in mood - and the same streetside ambience: dreary little eateries with hunched-over locals taking their day's news or working a crossword, over slowly sipped mugs of brew. Sitting over my own, every so often in the gray and wet of that winter, I'd watch the parade of thickly clad people trudge by with sack and hand-cart, at their day's shopping, and it was as good as being back in the Fillmore district of my boyhood. It might seem a strange kind of memory for a sweet glow, but hard times were often good times, in retrospect . . . in deeper ways.
What the street market didn't produce in reasonably priced housewares, I could seek at weekend recycling occasions variously called jumble sales or car boot sales. Londoners come together in a kind of mini-flea market instead of doing it individually, as we do with garage sales. A church would sponsor it, charging an entrance fee of ten pence, and any sort of treasure could turn up. I found a perfectly usable typewriter for five and a half dollars. A practically new crockpot cost me a bit more, almost $15, but I figured it would pay its way in coaxing me to home-cooked meals.
Having my own kitchen made all the difference in the world. In Southfields, the kitchen always felt like someone else's, and I'd just as often go up the street for a takeout serving of fish and chips, letting it go at that. I never tired of British fish and chips - but a single piece over the counter cost about four dollars, close to half of my daily allowance. My new kitchen had only a two-burner hotplate, so the crockpot, or slow-cooker as it's called there, was given a lot of use. I cooked up a weekly batch of what one Seattle housemate used to refer to as my 'stewp' - a stew-thick soup consisting of all the vegies I could cram in, slow-cooked in a tomato-base brew with a generous helping of mussels to jazz-up the flavor. Here in London, though, it was cockles, a cheap and tasty variety of local shellfish.
LIVING POOR IS ACTUALLYa lot of fun once one gets into the spirit of it, because of the creative ingenuity it inspires. There is a satisfying thrill in finding useful things in unexpected places, converting the discard to the triumphant discovery. I could neither afford nor stitch drapes, for example, for the window of my bedroom. I didn't need them for privacy, for the room was situated high and away from curious eyes, but I favor a bit of darkness in the morning so I can ease into daylight as I'm ready for it. I found what had been the flat container of a large framed picture, and when I opened the cardboard to its full size it was a perfect fit for my drapeless window frame. Every night, each time I put this 'shutter' into place, I felt a glow of satisfaction simply because it had come to me with such serendipity.
A similar find was the daily afternoon trove in the trash bins outside the Balham station. The hordes of returning commuters deposited not only newspapers but a great variety of reading matter as they emerged from the station - riches far beyond what I ever had when I could afford to buy a paper or two of my own. London must be the world's greatest newspaper city, with a dozen or more dailies, several of which rank with the best journalism to be found anywhere.
I had to laugh, when the realization hit me that I had travelled halfway around the world to become a street-person, rummaging through garbage bins in neighborhood London. Oh, if my friends could see me now! But they would understand, for I have always been a good forager. Foraging must someday come into its own as a domestic art, making of daily life an adventure in creative recycling - which it once was, before we became captive consumers in the thrall of advertising and obsolescence. Foraging is healthy for the spirit, as it is for the pocketbook; and not less significantly, for the environment as well.
Foraging took me to the libraries, of course; there were several of them in easy reach - book-lovers' delights, to begin with, offering a sudden immersion in a whole range of books seldom found on shelves in America. A free library card gave me access to a half dozen borough branches, whose bulletin boards told me of other local resources. That's how I discovered the Balham Skills Exchange, a community institution nearby that may have been unique in all of London. For the mere price of listing myself as a willing instructor in desktop publishing (services for which I was never called upon), I had free access to the Exchange's word-processing equipment on a bank of a dozen computer terminals. They even had Pagemaker software. Everything at my disposal, for any level of writing that I wanted to do.
I seldom had to leave Balham that winter, but the temptations of greater London were naturally hard to resist. It was the easiest of journeys - a brief rail ride from a station only a short walk from where I lived. I could be in Victoria Station, or Waterloo on the south bank, in just fifteen minutes from home. It is now, and was then, hard to believe that trains came through Balham on a ten-minute schedule all day long!
But the winter fact of it was that I couldn't afford to go into town more often than once, or twice at most, each week. At job-hunting, I'd done it almost every day. My senior discount gave me a full day's transit, on rail, bus and underground, at just a bit over $2. But the screws had since tightened . . . and tightened again at the turn of the year, when the full-day fare for seniors was actually doubled! At four dollars, I reserved the occasion of a London visit for day-long excursions once or twice a week, cramming as much as possible into them - and was thankful that the weather usually made it easy to stay home.
I never got enough of London - but then I'm not sure that I ever could. The streets, an eclectic mix of style and content from all of London's yesterdays, could be wandered endlessly for their endless visual feast: Georgian rows, all white and stately, sturdy Empire classicism, Victorian turreting and filigree, old and silent churches surrounded by their little graveyards, walls still standing from Roman times, wonderfully castellated Medieval gates and towers, quaint pubs of every age and style, even the most ordinary buildings posted with reminders - often several to the block - that here lived or died some notable of British letters or science. And always to be encountered, the tight-turning alley, the unlikely stairway or portico, the unsuspected opening into another vista, another time-warp.
Window shopping, alone, was a whole world of adventure - an ethnic world in miniature, with shops ranging from the tawdry to the untouchably elegant. A world, for me, where all was free to see, nothing free to grasp; an entertainment, an exercise in resisting temptation. But there were ways to ease the pangs of poverty: from streetcorner stands, an apple was a cheap and pacifying chew, or a couple of carrots. Sometimes I'd get a paper cone full of chips, hot from the deep-fry for a dollar or so, and leave the fish for the more affluent. Tea or coffee was only a third-choice alternative, for they don't know the custom of a free refill in Britain.
But any deprivation on that level was more than offset by the great variety of mostly free museums, too rich to be taken in concentrated doses of more than a few hours per visit. I could easily lose myself in the British Museum, the queen of them all, dreaming my way through halls filled with inspiring marble sculpture from the Parthenon, or handwritten documents from all the greats of England's history, or the Rosetta Stone - the very original! London's free museums helped to square the four dollar fee for getting into town.
Other free offerings could be found with a bit of attentive search. There was music at South Bank and also at the Barbican, another multi-cultural center, or at St. James Church, a community center in the very heart of town. I watched the Lord Mayor's Annual Parade from a choice spot right near the grandstand - a tradition of British Pomp and Circumstance, with medieval-clad horsemen and other traditional costumes totally unlike anything ever seen back home. And I had come to London just in time for the half-century celebration of the Battle of Britain, to watch ancient aircraft soaring overhead. I never thought I'd ever see a Spitfire in the air!
WHILE MOST OF THESEexploratory wanderings were done in cheerful solitude, I also had a surprisingly active social life for someone in my circumstances. One of London's less literate journals was a weekly tabloid called Loot, devoted to classified ads of every variety - including free-listed personals. While still in Southfields, I had placed a small bit of personal poesy announcing my availability for amorous adventure, and was rewarded with more response than I had expected. Most of what eventuated were one-time encounters over tea and scones, which was all my budget could handle, but one or two friendships lingered on through the winter. Jolene, who was part of that strange October synchronicity in Fatemah's office, was a real sparkler who briefly brought me into her family circle. She knew the countryside and had a wagon in which to explore it, should a rarely sunny Saturday happen to come along.
A special section for message-ads, in the Loot pages, had become a bulletin board for pseudonym-disguised participants whose curious and tantalizing dialogues went on endlessly. They called themselves Looters, and every so often came together for a celebratory evening in some local pub. I met a strange woman whom I only knew as Witches Cat, through this exchange, and got invited to a Looter evening of 'plonk' at the nearby St. George Inn. About thirty people came, a young artsy and literate crowd with Looter names I was already familiar with: Pink Flamingo, Innocentia, Doctor Q, and others I no longer recall. It was a cheap but special bit of London life, not to have been missed.
For the most part, though, my winter was passed in the sometimes boring, sometimes relaxed ambience of my small quarters in Balham, in comfortable retreat from weather for which a single word will suffice: dismal. Television has never been a habit of mine, but I got hooked on it this winter in London. I became a qualified, card-carrying couch potato. The card was my pocket list of not-to-forget programs, which included among other shameless things a soap opera. Yes, I got hooked on an Australian soap called Neighbors. But my favorite was a free-wheeling weekly current-affairs discussion simply called Questions. A four-sided panel representing all shades of British politics took questions from a participating studio audience, and the display of rapier needling and downright slashing sarcasm was marvelous to observe. It was a ringside seat on British verbal joust, on all the issues of the day.
Considering that my London stay coincided with the entire development of Maggie Thatcher's fall from grace, and her replacement by John Major, it was as good a moment for seeing British politics in action as one could ask. That, and the Gulf War following closely upon it, made for a media circus that was a match for anything the U.S. has to offer. As to the war, of course, the British all along felt it was America's private oil battle, shared generously with the rest of the west. But when the glories were being toted, England had no problem claiming her portion.
THE ULTIMATE TESTof a winter in poverty is how one weathers the holiday season, with its chancey play on the emotions at every level. Thanks considerably to friends - on both sides of the Atlantic, now - I did all right on that score. I had primed the pump, stateside, by drawing up an interim progress report (so to speak), and sending Terry a copy she could duplicate and mail, at domestic postal rates, to all who had sponsored my journey. The mail in return brought a further sprinkling of donations, though none had been requested. One sweet friend in California thought I ought to have a steady angel and began sending me monthly tithings.
Among my London friends, I was invited to several seasonal celebrations and had Christmas dinner at Marjory's - a traditional turkey dinner, of course, finishing with that old English standard: brandied pudding with hard sauce. Taking the severe weather into account, as well as the suspended local transit for the holiday, Marjory even let me stay over that night in one of her guest rooms.
Earlier in the month, I had been invited to an office party at Choice. It wasn't the time for any extended discussion of my dormant article series, but I had the feeling that Wendy wanted to know where I stood with it. And I, likewise, needed to sound her out on the shift in direction. I came away with nothing very clear on the matter except that Wendy was working with tighter space constraints and could give me no more than a page for each article of the series. This called for sharp cuts in what I had already submitted. Though of course, I wasn't yet sure that I could even continue with the start I had made. Her interest seemed undiminished, but there was a kind of 'party gloss' around her energy and cheer that left me still uncertain as to where everything stood.
It turned me once again toward the writing, however. I could see now that the only honest way to work with it was to swing the series around at midpoint - just as I had, myself, been swung around by the course of developments. It gave the project a new twist, with a fresh challenge: to open a series on one enthusiastic course, stumble into its failure midway, and then shift the agenda . . . without diminishing the validity of what had gone before. But I still hadn't a clue as to what the last-half direction should be. The model was me, and I didn't know where my own life was going.
I began at once, tightening what I had already written. I would cut it to size myself, rather than leave it to an editor. I kept the high, confident tone, pointing it ever so slightly toward a change of pace. A new version of segment three would cover the turnaround: my deepening confusion over the consistent failure to find a job, and then a flash of insight - that my work-permit had simply been a 'bridge of confidence' enabling me to come to Britain on trust alone (having no other reason to suppose I could afford it). Part four, then, would pick up the tale with what it means - in practical terms, and in dealing with issues of age and isolation - to approach a winter of dedicated poverty as a positive adventure instead of an unfolding disaster. The writing challenge was not the turnaround itself, but how to make an upbeat experience of it, for Wendy would want no tale of distress and defeat.
My rewrite of the first two parts went out to Choice early in January. Segment three was not nearly as easy. I struggled with it for several weeks, sure almost every evening that I finally had it - even starting, at one point, on part four - only to come crashing down with a re-reading the next morning. When I once or twice found myself suddenly soaring, the 800-word limit brought me down like a popped bag of wind. I began to doubt it could even be done in such brevity.
JANUARY HAS ALWAYSbeen the bleakest, most self-doubting month of my year. I am sustained only by the continual reminder that it's the last hurdle before February. But it's not a hurdle, it's a mire, a morass of sluggish headway that forbearance alone must cope with. My dwindling resources had already put the idea of footloose travel on the continent, at the close of my London commitment, under a shroud of doubt. It would be a pity to waste such a close approach to Europe, but there was nothing happening to indicate that the fates were favorably disposed. And now, in January, the ebb tide of time edged into my energy like a scythe cutting into a field of wheat. The tide of the year, and of my life as well.
Those (usually the under-fifty) who glibly assert that age is in the mind are only right up to a point. Even the best-maintained bodies - and mine is not that - lose their flexibility as the years stack up. Limitations set in, and one never knows when they will next strike. Or how. Slipping on an icy Seattle street, a couple years before, had already cost me half the use of my right shoulder. A crotchety-stiff back was now the first challenge of each day. I slept on hard floors just to ease the morning's creaking pain, but there were still days when I could hardly reach my feet to pull my socks on.
Not to mention various internal things, intestinal and otherwise, that didn't always function as they used to. Or the occasional bout of tachycardia that suddenly set my heart racing at three or four times its normal rate, like it had to get to the end of its run as quickly as possible. I've learned to manage this by quickly slipping into a biofeedback mode, but it has to be done within the first few seconds of onset.
One evening, while leaving a London friend's house after dinner, the heart speedup struck just as I was saying my goodnight. Rather than make a fuss over it at the door, I simply hastened my departure. But that brief delay allowed it to get away from me. I tried every way I knew, then, to bring my pulse back down, but nothing worked. In the daytime, I would have gone to a doctor's office - a surgery, as they call it - or directly to a hospital. I had done it for lesser problems. Treatment received from the British health care system is as good, and quite as prompt, as in similar stateside facilities, notwithstanding the cautionary stories we are told; and the costs, even for a resident alien, are virtually nothing. But this was a weekend evening, a cold night; and in the grip of this condition I hadn't the energy to make such an effort.
It was all I could do to walk to the rail station a few blocks away, and drag myself finally up the double flight of stairs, at home, to my bed. Drained of any further survival concern, I left a brief note on my desk: "In case anyone finds this..." - actually thinking I might not wake up in the morning! I did, of course, wake up - everything was fine and normal the next day. But it's a scary situation, and not one I'd want to confront on the open road in a strange land.
Jolene came up with an idea, around mid-January, for a springtime drive down through France and Spain to visit her aging father, and before long I was seeing it as a fair compromise with my fading fantasy of a more extensive circuit of Europe. The fantasy - once a mere flirtation with such possibilities - had come to assume the proportions of a Grand Tour that would take me all the way into a second and more carefree winter on the Iberian coast of Spain. All through the fall, I had stopped in at consulate offices in central London, spinning dreams. But that was before The Fall. And now I was willing to settle for a couple weeks of safely sterile motor camping with Jolene, in humble recognition of 'reality.'
But it was premature. What could I know of reality, before February's arrival?
When February finally did arrive, it came in with a cold spell said to be Britain's worst in four years, bringing snow nearly a foot deep and great icicles that grew, Jack Frost-like, down the overhang of my windows. The view from my aerie was a lovely fugue in white, and even more beautiful in the haunting pink glow that came with night. It made little difference to my activity, for I was still locked in mortal combat with series piece number three, determined to make it work as I wanted, or see the whole project in ruin at the walls of its resistance.
I hadn't been in touch with Wendy at all, during those weeks of my agony and self-doubt, and rather anxiously tore open the envelope that arrived from her by post, on the 6th of the month. I was on the very edge of success with the tormenting article, and this new input - whatever it could be - sent sudden tremors of dread through me.
The brief letter inside said not a word about the series; it asked if I'd write a short article - a one-pager, again - on something we had talked about at our very first meeting in September. At that lunch, I told Wendy how I'd once spent a full year teaching myself to do left-hand portrait sketching as a likely way of getting in touch with my right-hemisphere potential. She was impressed and thought it had article possibilities, but we had never pursued it further. Here, now, was a solid offer for the article: £100!
Everything about the letter was a surprise. Rate of pay had never before been brought up, by either of us. I was elated, of course; but just as much puzzled by her lack of comment about the series. Was this perhaps intended to soften the blow of a change in plans - like a 'consolation prize'? I was so close to a finish, however, on the troublesome third article that I set the letter aside and turned back to my work.
I finished it that afternoon - finally certain that I had a successful version within the required parameters. It sent me high enough, with the added impact of the letter, to soar right on into part four, which fell into place within the next few days. Whether spurred by Wendy's hard-cash offer, or in the natural seasonal course of things, I had broken through the winter doldrums and the energy was rolling.
Not wanting to chance an interruption in its flow, I continued to hold off on the requested article, and started on the fifth piece in the series. Part four prompted the theme of it: following trails and staying solvent. It rolled out like it had been waiting in my head for the gate to open. I astounded myself by producing a ready-to-go draft in one day! It was the 10th of February, and on the following day, I sat down and encored the accomplishment with an inspired one-draft article on my left-hand artwork.
True to form, February had brought in energy and change. The next few days revealed that it went far beyond the writing, as my whole life suddenly lurched into forward motion. Wendy was now willing, on the strength of what she had in hand, to set a publication schedule for all seven articles, fixing a price for the lot at £700. The dollar's sudden rise during the Gulf War had cheapened that to $1300 in Stateside value, but it was a figure hardly worth complaining about.
The next surprise came when I drew a rough balance on my entire
five months of London living, adding a projection for the sixth that
yet remained. Here's how it came out:
Outlay Income rental costs $ 2200 computer income $ 900 all other expenses 2300 article royalty 1300 Social Security 2400 ______ ______ Totals $ 4500 $ 4600
I was actually out of the red! - as had seemed hardly possible all winter long. It came so close to a perfect balance that one might suppose some hidden orchestrator had arranged it just so . . . almost as if to constitute a trail sign.
Was this my green light to pursue the fantasy-journey on the continent? I was as well-funded, now, as at the point of my arrival in England. True, there was no longer the prospect of enhancing it with employment income, but I knew I could get by on the road much more cheaply than I had been able to live in London. I wasn't entirely sure the old body could handle a European road trip, but the answer to that could be found by a few weeks on the road in Britain, which I wanted to do anyhow.
I knew, now, how to close the series for Wendy. The theme of the sixth segment would be the importance of accepting whatever life brings, even if it isn't what you planned . . . even if it seems the pits. I might have turned around and gone home in November, to cut my losses - it would have been the prudent thing to do. But I hung in, letting fate play out its full hand, and found my trail validated, along with every one of the risks taken and choices made that enabled me to follow it.
"..a small bit of personal poesy..."
Here's the ad I placed in Loot:
My woman loves the heath and lea,
Autumn's hue on every tree;
She's ageless, yes, her soul runs free.
I wonder: is she seeking me?
I'll tarry here a winter season,
Greybeard from across the sea.
Meeting her could be the reason;
If I but knew who she might be.
"...car boot sales." A car boot is an automobile trunk (which is just as odd a term, if you think about it). The first time I happened across a car boot notice, I thought it was for a footwear sale.
"...Balham was..." Balham was an old village - its name can be found on maps as far back as the Battle of Hastings, which took place in 1066, fifty miles to the southeast. It is situated on one of the old post roads that networked the countryside around early London.
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