Thursday, September 27, 2007

 

In Which A Friend is Treated like A Dog...


Some time ago, when I had nothing better to write about, I did a quick review of several books I was reading at the time. One of my favorites was an advance copy of John Grogan's Marley & Me, which later became a New York Times best-seller (it was on the list for over a year). What I didn't tell you in that blog entry was that John and I actually worked for the same company for a few years, although at that time we'd met maybe twice and certainly didn't know each other well. But I wished I'd made a better effort to know him then. His book--and his columns for the Philadelphia Inquirer--were just the best.

So you can imagine my delight when, not long after that particular blog post, I got the nicest e-mail from John, which turned into a cordial exchange. I can't say we're exactly fishing buddies now, of course, but we've done favors for each other over the past couple of years and I consider him a friend.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the bookstore to pick up Garrison Keillor's new novel when I spotted another new book. On the cover was the picture of an impish dog and the title, Bad Dogs Have More Fun. It was a collection of Inquirer columns by John. We hadn't spoken in a while, and I knew John had amicably departed from the Inquirer to pursue other projects, but I didn't know the next project was going to be a collection of columns, so I was surprised to see it. Surprised but pleased, of course. I quickly snapped the book up and bought it.

It was only when I got home that my surprise turned to astonishment, then flat-out anger, when I saw a little tiny disclaimer on the back cover, which read:

"The money-grubbing executives of the Philadelphia Inquirer slapped this book together without so much as talking to John Grogan about it--even though we rather prominently put his name on the book in order to cash in on his success. He was not involved with our scheme at all and receives no compensation for it. Why? Because we're assholes."

I may be paraphrasing a little, but I can't give you the verbatim version because I no longer have the book. I couldn't get back to Barnes and Noble fast enough to demand my refund. And when I was asked the reason for returning it, you better believe I told them in a loud and ringing voice what I'm telling you. Of course it was just a small gesture, and I likely didn't dissuade one person from buying the book. But I have a slightly louder voice over here at the Masthead, plus good friends like all you fine people, whom I know I can trust to spread the word and do the right thing. Which is not to buy this book.

Now, it's true: the Inquirer is well within its rights to do whatever it wants with John's columns. As John himself explained when he wrote about this over at his blog, his work at the paper is what we in the biz call "work for hire," which means the company owns all rights. I was a work-for-hire hack myself (still am, actually). The three books that I wrote, I wrote as a salaried employee. Even though one of them is still in print here in the States (and another still enjoys life abroad as the infamous I Am the Sex Man!), I have not received a dime for those books since 1998. And I'm fine with that, really. I knew the rules of the playground going in.

John did too. So we're not arguing what's legal. And it's not about the money (I can't speak with any authority on this point, but I'm pretty sure that if you've had a book on the best-seller's list for a year and change, money's not an issue). This is one of those ethical deals. The Inquirer put this book together without so much as an FYI e-mail or phone call to John. Everything about its creation and production smacks of being a parasitic attempt to make a fast buck off another man's good name and hard work.

And it's such a stupid effort besides. I mean, how hard would it have been to call John, to offer him even the courtesy to choose which of his columns would form the book? If they'd done that, I think they'd have had a much more successful book on their hands. Instead, what they have is a work of forced prostitution, a hardbound whore.

If you think I'm being melodramatic about this, I would ask you to imagine how you would feel if you had something you worked on--worked hard and well and brought to bear every God-given talent and tool of your trade upon it--and then saw it taken away and used--or misused--without so much as a by-your-leave.

And here would be the worst part: The people who took that work from you would make sure your name was all over it.

That's what they did to my friend John Grogan. And there's nothing he can do about it.


But you all can.


Thanks for letting me vent. My spleen feels much better.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

 

Major (and minor) Figures...

Here's more of the London log, although I think we'll take this in multiple-excerpt form. Incidentally, after my last entry, in which I mentioned that my Mom was forever predicting someone's death by crash (be it air or auto), a few people emailed me to wonder gently if ol' MM was just being foreshadowingly dramatic or whether my late mother--who died in a car crash--really was having some kind of weird premonitory thing going, even 20 years ago. The answer is: you don't know the half of it, brother, but you will, if we ever get through this. And for extra weirdness, note the date on the first entry:



11 September 1987

So there's a pounding on my door at the crack of dawn and it’s the miserable prick at the front desk of King's College, telling me I have a phone call. And it's my mother--first time I've talked to her since I arrived in London. She hasn't heard from me in days and is freaked out. I'm not sure why at first: I mean, I did call and leave a message the moment I had my stuff stashed at the College--otherwise how did she get the number?

But then it turns out she had a dream last night that I was flying in an airplane somewhere--to London? To home?--and it blew up or crashed into a building--I still wasn't fully awake and didn't get all the details. She tried to extract a promise from me that I won't fly anywhere while I'm here. I promised I'll take trains (whenever I can). But I was looking at brochures about student travel over the October midterm break and there are some awfully cheap flights...

I must tell you, by day's end I was wishing I was in a plane crash. I started with a trip to the school where I'll be taking classes, over at Kensington Park Gardens--a place I will hereafter refer to as "the Centre." The area was a bit crowded with tourists--some folks insist Shirley Maclaine is in the neighborhood [and she was, filming this]. Others say director Brian De Palma was skulking around [and he was there at the time, too, promoting the London premiere of this]. But I got into the Centre, got my Barclay's Bank account info and was astonished to discover that I will be expected to live, eat, pay rent, on a paltry 725 quid. I'm pretty sure that won't even cover my rent til December! Surely this must be a mistake.

So it was with some trepidation that I bought a London Streetfinder--after all, that's juice and a roll right there. But I'm sure it will be indispensable in the days to come.

Then it was time to register for classes, and my, what a shock. The professor who was going to be teaching the two journalism course that I'm qualified for has quit. Two of my classes--six key credits to my major--are not being offered. What the fuck am I going to do now?

I'll tell you what: I switched majors on the spot. I've decided to become an English major. After all, I've already got 12 more credits in Lit. than I need stacked up from my first two years at college. And, well, this IS England, so there's no shortage of English classes. Also, no waiting lists. So I signed up for:

English 256--Major Figures in British Literature--Austen, Blake, and Wordsworth, in other words.

English 342--Shakespeare--For four credits, it comfortably covers my last arts-and-sciences core credit requirements. Plus we get to see about six plays and get a field trip to Stratford thrown in too.

English 440 -- Restoration and the 18th Century--I think I can happily spend half my time wandering around London reading from Pepys.

English 465--The Realistic Novel (as opposed to the, um, fictional novel?) According to the syllabus, the course is being taught by someone I've actually heard of--William Cooper, a British writer my grandmother greatly admired in her youth (and will no doubt be surprised to find is still alive). Mr. Cooper includes one of his own books among the DOZEN we will be reading. Twenty pounds for his book. Christ--it better be signed!

Writing 315--Expository Writing--Already met the teacher--a woman from India who was ripping on the program director (who apparently had the temerity to criticize her accent). Seems like a pistol to me. Aside from an interesting reading list (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole sounds like fun), we'll also be required to keep a journal. Hey, I'm already at the head of the class.

Jesus, six more credits and I'll have a BA in English.

But that realization was the high point of the day, which, really, just got worse. Spent the whole rest of it on the subway--excuse me, the London Underground--no, excuse me, the Tube. With Betty and Veronica. We were a sadly silent and mismatched trio--Veronica in her stylish Laura Ashley coat, Betty in her photojournalist's vest and me, wearing my battered black jacket and an unfortunate salmon pink t-shirt (the only clean shirt in my duffel) that has earned me more jeers from skinheads than I ever hope to hear again.

passport

[oh god!]


We got lost a lot. But at least we saw some flats. Okay, three of them. All holes. One of them, on Peter Court, was as close to third-world squalor as I ever hope to see. The walls were seeping. There was some kind of animal skin hanging over the one window (which looked out over a ventilation shaft) and it was crawling with bugs.

The other two were not much better. All of them were characterized by a distinct odor of curry and diapers, which I have come to call London Funk.

The ride back to King's College that night was a desperate one, I can tell you. Betty seems to blame me for failing to find a decent flat and spent most of the ride tearing me a new ass. Veronica is a stone. I sense this will not end well.

12 September

Well, that was fast. Last night, upon our return to the College, Veronica announced we were on our own (it was very dramatic. She delivered the line like a wounded actress, then turned on her heel and fwapped me in the face with the tail of her Laura Ashley overcoat. God, I love her), and by this morning at breakfast, we found out she was one of four flatmates in a second-floor place over in Bayswater somewhere. I loved her a little less, then, but not as less (least?) as Betty thought of her--or of me, for that matter. I thought she was going to reach across the table and stab me in the eye with her fork. But...how is this MY fault?

Let's be clear: I am not Betty's father. Or husband. Or even her boyfriend. At this point, I'm barely her friend. Plus she's a grown woman--she's almost two years older than I, to tell the truth--why can't SHE spend her evenings making phone calls and setting up appointments to view flats (did I mention I've been doing that? I have. I'm almost totally out of change. And that was my food money)? I swear, I have all of the mental and emotional turmoil and obligations of a relationship here, with absolutely no physical paybacks.

Ah, maybe it's just as well. I'm too hungry these days to think about sex.

Much.


13 September

Today was the day the Centre offered a field trip to Stonehenge, one of the top five places I have promised myself I would visit before I die (the other four include Paris, the Great Pyramids, a little place in France called St. Vinnemer, and my grandfather's cousin's butcher shop in County Cork, Ireland). Leaving at 8 AM, the bus journeyed to Salisbury (home of Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge is located, and perhaps even of the famous steak so often featured in frozen dinners and high school cafeterias). And there it is. Stonehenge. Holy shit.

The area is roped off, but you are still more than close enough to stand in silent awe, beholding this ancient mystery, this work of stone and human zeal.

Or so I imagine. Because I didn't go.

Instead, Betty and I decided to stay behind looking for flats. Forfeiting 5-pound deposits each for our seats on the bus, I might add. We found nothing--certainly nothing within our price range. In defeat, we trudged back to the Centre, hoping some new notices for flats-to-let had been posted.

But the Centre was closed, of course. Everyone had gone on the field trip.

Betty plonked herself on the steps, studiously ignoring me, which is why I don't mind telling you that while she was sitting there, she smoked her way through half a pack of cigarettes (that she smokes at all is something she doesn't want ANYONE to know, and I was appalled to discover it myself. And I'm going to ROOM with her?).

I wandered around the neighborhood. Walking is what I do when I need to gather my thoughts, although the noisy, dog-shit-strewn pavements of London were a far cry from the hills of New Hampshire, where I prefer to do my ruminating. Classes start day after tomorrow and we'll have almost no time then to find flats. Yet, King's College will kick us out in four days. Also, I'm starving, having avoided spending any money so I can afford rent. Assuming I can ever find a place. What to do?

I finally resolved that tomorrow I would go see the director of the place--she has office hours tomorrow morning--and throw myself on her mercy. I guess I'll plead Betty's case too. Because I'm a total fool, is why.

And just to prove that Fate is, like, this person who has her thumb up my ass, when I came back, Betty was hopping up and down on the Centre steps. She had just seen Shirley Maclaine walk by, say hello to her, then grab a cab and roar away. Not that Shirley is exactly the first celeb I'd like to meet--I'd prefer Kim Basinger--but still. After the excitement died down, I told Betty about my plans to see the director of the College and get our stay extended so we wouldn't be tossed on the street in a few days. Incidentally, my stomach was growling as loud as my voice. I think Betty took pity on me then, and offered me a cigarette, claiming it would curb my appetite. I have never smoked a ciggie before in my life, but...what the hell?

Well, of course, I took in a big lungful of smoke and gagged so expansively that Betty began laughing and couldn't stop. In fact, she laughed so hard, she farted--loud--and then I started laughing. I haven't heard a girl break wind since fifth grade. That's what I like about Betty--very down-to-earth, and charmingly one of the guys. But also very much her own woman. God, I love her.

I think that's when things really turned around. Because as we were recovering from our assorted fits, the bus from Stonehenge pulled up. Veronica popped out and came over to talk to us. She hadn't planned to go to Stonehenge that day, but it turned out there were a couple of seats open, so she went. Lucky, eh?

She was in high enough spirits--and I guess we looked pathetic enough there on the steps--that she told us there was a flat open in her new building. It was a basement flat and needed three roommates, but it was a nice enough place (nicer than most everything she'd seen with us), and if we could find a third person, we'd be set.


14 September

Boy, was it my day for meetings. First, I stopped in at the director's office and got her to let Betty and me stay for another week for 50 quid--including room and board (my stomach growled a hallelujah). I handed over my money and promised to have Betty come by with hers.

I learned something else very useful--starting today, about 200 more US students will be coming in to use King's College as their base of operations til they find flats. I talked to Betty and she volunteered to do up a notice asking for our third roommate--and she managed to convince the prick at the front desk to copy it for her so she could post it around the college.

Then, I was off on the Tube to the Bayswater stop, where I found my way to 20 Craven Hill Gardens and the basement office of the imposing Tasmir Ismail.

craven

[My place was the second balcony in. Behind those gates on the pavement. Then down a flight of stairs, past a laundry room, through a sort of hallway/tunnel. See it?]

As I waited for my appointment, I couldn't help but notice that the door next to his office was partly open. I peeked in and discovered what I'm sure is the basement flat. It's clean enough, and only one wall is seeping. But it's just one bedroom (with two of the narrowest twin beds I've ever seen, and yet they take up half the room), the only closet is locked for the good reason that it contains all the guts of the building's elevator. There's one common kitchen/living space and one bathroom. How the hell will we fit three people in here?

I'll figure it out later (and I have a feeling that "figuring it out" means I'll be sleeping on the tiny, sagging couch in the common area). I met with Mr. Ismail. The flat was being cleaned and wouldn't be ready for occupation til Saturday; he agreed to hold the place for me for 48 hours. I raced back to King's College to update Betty, and found her in the main hall, having a conversation with what appeared to be a pile of laundry but actually turned out to be the most rumpled young man I have ever seen. And coming from me, that's saying something.

The fellow's name is J. He's from Manhattan. The upper East side. At my university, there are a lot of kids from that part of Manhattan. And while I don't want to get into stereotypes here, it's my experience that kids from that part of Manhattan have rather a better--or at least better-pressed--wardrobe than J. They also don't have slobby ketchup stains up and down the front of their shirt--and yes, their pants too. Also, they tend to have their heads jammed firmly up their asses. But J smiled warmly enough when Betty introduced me--actually, I thought he was going to try and hug me, but then it turned out he was just going in for a close handshake.

"I'm your new roomie, bro," he announced brightly, as Betty left us to get acquainted. "I need a place to crash when I'm in town and it might as well be with you guys." As I found out, J's international-study program seems to be a lot more focused on travel than actual study. Over the next 12 weeks, he'll only be spending about four of them in London. I understood immediately why Betty thought he was such a great catch. For two-thirds of the time, we'd be living in a two-flat. Good thing, too. I hadn't yet told Betty about the size of the place.

I hemmed and hawed for a moment, but then raised my one salient concern: money. Specifically, I'd need to deliver something over 1,200 pounds to Mr. Ismail--covering security deposit and first-month's rent for three people--in order to take possession of the flat. Jay smiled and produced a multi-colored wad of notes from a particularly deep wrinkle in his clothes. "Don't worry," he smiled. "I'm not just a student, you know. I'm a working man!"

This struck me as awfully strange. Before leaving, I had looked into the possibility of getting a part-time job in London, but work visas were virtually impossible to get.

"Er, and what is that you do?" I asked.

J suddenly got all cagey, looking this way and that, then lifted his ketchup-stained shirt to reveal a plastic baggie containing what looked like mashed chocolate cake.

"Need some hash, bro?" he asked.

Note to self: Do not tell Betty about this. After all, one smoker in the flat is bad enough.

But still...Oh my God. I HAVE A FLAT.

I am now a Londoner.


We'll be back soon with more London misadventures. Trust me, there were plenty of them.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

 

Mind the Gap...

Well, so much for that.

Last week and this I meant to get you far enough along in my London adventures that we would sort out my living situation and get me settled, then I was planning to post entries from my London log about once a week thereafter, so we'd have room on the blog to talk about other things.

But work, as always, has intruded. I had back-to-back photo shoots last week--one session actually featured my own photogenic offspring, the little hams.

bro and sis


And now this week I've been tapped to attend magazine focus groups, which are always interesting, as you get to sit behind a two-way mirror and spy on a small sampling of your readership as they tear apart (and very occasionally praise) all your hard work. The first group was earlier this week in Atlanta. And now I'm off to Kansas City, then back home just in time for the weekend.

Next week should be loads of fun, catching up on all the work I've been forced to blow off. But with any luck I should be able to steal a lunch hour or two to bring us all up to speed on my exploits of 20 years ago...and begin to clear the decks for a new round of October Moments.

Thanks as always for your patience and we'll see you next week.

Unless you happen to live in Kansas City or environs. In which case--who knows?--you just might see me tonight.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

 

Going Flat Out...



10 September, 1987

My God! England rises up from the mist below!

We are approaching Gatwick Airport through a curtain of grey rain. Then the curtain parted and a great green field stretched to the horizon.

How wonderful that I can be as drag-ass fucking tired as I am and still enjoy the view.

Have not slept in 36 hours. Feel like I have not had anything to drink in 36 days. My back is killing me, although not from the cramped Pan Am airplane seats, but from the insistent jabbing by the knees of my seatmate, Betty.

Betty is one of my great pals from school. We met in French class and have hung out together ever since. She is one of several photojournalism students attending the program, a distinct honor. Apparently, getting chosen for the London photo program is like getting into the Iowa Creative Writer's Workshop. The London photo program is one of the top in the world, headed by one Bob Gilka, a former photo editor for National Geographic. Betty is head-over-heels about being one of a dozen students picked to go to London, and I can't say as I blame her. Myself, being a journalism major, I didn't have to go through a grueling entry process. The school offers several journalism courses that are open to pretty much anyone. How special am I?

Folks are stirring to life here in the ass end of the plane, and a last few cigarettes are being hastily lit up (coff coff). If we're going to crash, it'll likely be now, over the water, before I actually get to be over British soil. Morbid thought, I know, but I blame my mother. Ever since I was a kid, she was quick to predict our deaths in car or plane crashes--when she drove us to school, she used to drill me and my brother in exactly what to do if we ever slid off an embankment, or got rolled over, or if the car caught on fire. Made for lively drives to school, I can tell you. Later, when we started flying, she went through the same thing. She was like a one-woman emergency broadcast system. She did her job well, though, because now here I am, noting where the emergency exits are, seeing where the fire extinguishers might be, giving an experimental yank on my seat cushion to see if I really can pull it free, should I need to use it as a flotation device (it seems really stuck).

We're on final approach. Better stow this. I'll let you know whether we crash or not.

MUCH LATER...

Well, we didn’t crash. Although I feel like I could.

We spent an awful long time in Customs, pushing our luggage around on giant trolleys that look like nothing so much as industrial shopping carts. Betty had to answer a lot of questions about her photo equipment, but I sailed through without a problem. I was surprised, because I have some gear of my own--specifically an RCA camcorder. It's an older VHS model, which I bought second-hand from the guy who runs the video rental store in our town. These jobbies retail for over a thousand big ones, but I got this one for $500, nearly all the money I'd saved for the summer. Extravagant? Maybe. But I'm still not sure if I want to be a print journalist or a broadcast journalist and I thought it would be great to have the camera with me on my travels. I even got a really nice bag for it, with plenty of room for my battery pack and extra VHS tapes. Yeah, it IS a big large--the whole kit weighs out at around 25 pounds--but it'll keep me fit, that's for sure.

On the way through Customs, I bumped into Veronica, my best college buddy. I've known her since before college, actually, when we first competed in a scholarship contest, but we became fast friends from the first day of classes onward.

As soon as she saw Veronica, Betty grunted that she would see me outside in the terminal and took off to go see her fellow photo students. To say she and Veronica don't care for each other would be gross understatement, like saying those Nazi chaps were deucedly unfond of the Jews.
Veronica and I chatted briefly--she had to get her bag and meet a friend out in the terminal--but as soon as we get settled in the city we're going to sit down with a map and a newspaper and start looking for flats together. Yeah, that's right: we're staying in a dormitory for the first week--a place called King's College, in Kensington, wherever that is--but after that we're on our own. The school figures looking for a flat will familiarize us with the city and breed in us a heightened sense of independence. All I know is I'm totally stressed about not having a place to live, and only having a week to find a place before I'm booted out on my ass.

Anyway, Veronica asked me if I wanted to be roommates with her. Would I? Yes, yes I would. So we're going to begin our search tonight, as soon as we get squared away at King's College.

Which is where I am now. I just spent a few minutes looking at the notice board at the front desk--already the school has helpfully posted some notices of bed-sits and flats to let. But my! All of the two-bedroom places seem awfully expensive. On my budget I can't afford more than 55 pounds a week for a place--Veronica's in the same boat too--but from the few listings I saw, rates for two-bedroom places are more like 60 or 70 quid. What to do?

While I was pondering this, I bumped into Betty, who was exploring the grounds of Kings College and looking for the laundry room. She too had noted the high cost of one- and two-bedroom places. When I mentioned my "roommate" and I were likewise appalled, she brightened and said, "Well, hey, what if we all go in on a place together? There were plenty of three-bedroom places that were much more affordable on the bulletin board."

"Sure!" I exclaimed. But at the same time, a little voice inside me was saying, in the softest, squeakiest little teensy voice:

WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!?

Because, see, I hadn't told Betty that Veronica was my roommate. And I hadn't bothered to check with Veronica first. Which I really should do because Veronica totally reciprocates every negative feeling Betty has for her. But...well, maybe it'll all be okay. I mean, it's only for a few months. And I have to admit, I personally wouldn't mind sharing an apartment with two fine ladies such as these. In fact, it's pretty much a win-win situation for me, especially if things go my way.

I must be jet-lagged. What am I saying? Things like that never go my way.

AND LATER STILL...

Okay, back at my room. Hiding back at my room, really. The three of us met about 30 minutes ago and the looks on the girls' faces made it pretty clear that this whole living-together thing is going to put the "ass" in "disaster" (hmm, that works better when you say it than when you write it down). When Betty met our third roommate she looked like she'd just swallowed the contents of the lint tray of a dryer. Veronica hid her distaste only a little better, her only betrayal of emotion being the way she started crushing the can of Diet Coke she always carries with her. I'm trying to be Captain Optimist here, but something tells me I'll be better off the less I say. Still, what options do we have? Everyone else seems to have paired up with assorted roommates and we need a three-bedroom flat. None of us can do without the other.

Hmm. Someone's at the door.

--

Well, that was Veronica. She came by to tell me that I'm an asshole. So that's nice. She's pissed because I invited Betty to room with us without running it by her (not strictly true. Betty sort of invited herself, but again, we DO need a third person) and she's tempted to just drop us both and go room with some of her other friends.

And here's the best part. Total proof that my life is the worst kind of sit-com: While Veronica is covering me with invective and Diet Coke-laced spittle, there's another knock at the door and it's Betty. She looks furious--and furious at me in particular--but stops short of calling me an asshole in front of Veronica. Instead, she announces that she's going to find a place of her own, since it's "obvious" to her that Veronica and I want to room together.

But Veronica says no, oh no, no, no, no, she'll go find her other friends and Betty and I can be on our own. And for a few minutes there it's kind of a pissing contest about who is going to be the rental martyr and go off on their own (and really, I would LOVE the job right now). And then weirdly, the girls decide at the same time that we're going to try living together after all. We start looking tomorrow. They both just left together. Glaring at me!

My first thought: What the hell did I do?

My second: Guess there's no way I'm getting a threesome out of this, huh?

And I've been in London for 12 hours, walked down to Kensington high street, strolled through a park or two, managed a little window shopping and even bought my Tube pass for the London Underground, but do you think I managed to include one word of description in this entry?

Of course not.

Maybe tomorrow, once we've found a place to live. I'm so tired I could fall asleep right n


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Sunday, September 09, 2007

 

In Which We Hear London Calling...

As we celebrate our 3-year anniversary here at the Masthead (can you believe it?), I'm tempted as always to write some kind of summation of life to date and round off with a bluff manifesto for the future. But frankly, I just can't be bothered. We all know what a bitch the past year has been for me and mine, and while it's certainly had its bright moments (the Éclair is truly the light of our days), mostly I'd just as soon move on.

Or, if I'm going to look back, I'd rather look WAY back.

See, this week not only marks the blog's anniversary, but also the 20th anniversary of my arrival in London to live and study abroad for a semester. It was one of the great defining trips of my life, and certainly one of the most adventuresome things I'd done to date. Of course, I was only 19 at the time, a shockingly naïve youth. I constantly put it in perspective now by reminding myself that Thomas will be 19 in just about 10 years, which is, really, no time at all. I can't imagine letting him go do something like that, so hats off to my parents for not only letting me, but encouraging me, a fact that will become both amazing and prophetic when we finally get to the epilogue of this thing. But I digress...

I've never been one for journals, but I managed to keep a fairly long travel journal of this trip. I haven't looked at it in years, but in going back over it recently, I'm amazed by two things:

First, I was a real grade-A whiner. Or at least, I had a great gift for using my journal as a bitch log. Most of my entries are snide screeds about my living situation, or classes and teachers, or my shocking (to me, anyway) lack of a sex life, or my similarly appalling lack of money (which became even graver when the crash of '87 ruined the exchange rate and my travelers checks--most of them in dollars--lost value by the minute).

Second, my journal has a startling lack of detail. I say "startling" because I went to a lot of places--not just in the United Kingdom but to France, and even to Egypt on my mid-term break--and certainly did not lack for things to write about. But it's also startling because even as I read the sparse entries, I'm reminded of everything I did or was doing as I wrote those words. I occasionally have a really great memory--not for recalling what my wife sent me upstairs for just two minutes ago, but for other things, and two decades has scarcely dimmed my recall of some of the things I saw on my trip, and the words in my journal act like hyperlinks to the very core of my being, bringing it all back: that first moment on the plane when the green fields of England loomed up out of the mist; the great beery, smoky camaraderie of my many nights spent at the pub with my fellow students, some of whom became my dearest friends and even lovers, if only for a while; my visit to the Tower of London and the mother of all October Moments when I went into a certain chamber and my camcorder just conked out (or so I thought); seeing Anthony Hopkins play King Lear, and getting credit in my Shakespeare class for doing it; getting mugged in Scotland; going to France to find the woman who had lived with my family as an exchange student when I was a boy; climbing up through the pitch-dark center of one of the great pyramids of Egypt and feeling, really feeling, the weight of the age of the place upon me; my last mad cab ride to the airport and saying goodbye to the city, promising to be back soon.

That was 20 years ago, and I haven't been back since.

But rereading my old journal takes me there in a way no airplane or Underground or black cab ever could. And I won't be going alone.

For the next few months, I'll be inflicting selected entries on you so that together, with our trenchcoats and our Tube passes and our pockets weighted down with those heavy British coins, we'll go to the London I lived in in 1987 and see what it was like.


September 9 -- 10 September, 1987


I nearly spit the Coke out the moment I sip it.

"Gawd! This sucks!" I gasp to no one in particular.

As it turns out, this observation will quite literally be my first taste of things to come.

Maybe the soda wouldn't taste so bad if I wasn't so thirsty, but I am. Airplanes always do that to me, although this only the third one I've ever been on. It's also the biggest. It needs to be. It's carrying me and 290 other of my classmates--plus our luggage--across the proverbial pond. I'm going to London.

Ever since I started college, I've always wanted to spend a semester abroad. I came awfully close to doing so last year. I was within just a few weeks of going to France, but I backed out at the sort-of last minute for two reasons. Maybe three.

The reason I tell everyone--the excuse reason--is that my mom freaked out and didn't want me to go. I was too young, she said. Well, no, Ma. For one thing, I was 18--lots of people travel abroad at that age or even younger. And I was pretty sure that France was safe for 18-year-olds. Why, I bet the country was full of them.

But I abandoned my plans because it turned out that a few of my friends were planning to travel abroad. Only instead of France, they wanted to go to London, and instead of sophomore year, they wanted to go junior year. I looked into it and it turned out that the London program offered a lot more journalism and communications courses than the French program did, so I could go and still be on track to graduate in 1989 as I'd always planned.

This shut Mom up. Apparently, 19 is okay to be traveling abroad, although Mom made me promise I wouldn't travel to any trouble spots during my breaks and three-day weekends (of which I have a surprising lot--the course week only runs Monday through Thursday). I'm not sure what trouble spots Mom had in mind: Libya? Belfast? Soho? But I think it's okay to tell you now: I'm going wherever I damn well please.

It's high time I got the hell out of my old life. I mean, what did I have to look forward to back in the States? Most of my friends were going abroad. The two women on campus on whom I have the biggest crushes are going to London (did I forget to mention that Betty and Veronica are Reasons 2 and 3? Well, there you are). It occurred to me that the biggest thing I had to look forward to in the fall of 1987 is that they're finally doing a new Star Trek TV show and really, when that's the high point, it's time to re-evaluate your priorities. It's time to live a bigger life.

Also...not long ago one of my best friends killed himself--Jesus, I just realized that his birthday was the other day. He was a nice guy, a good person, but obviously felt trapped in his life. When we were kids, he had all sorts of grown-up responsibilities put on him and by the time he was 20 he felt so trapped by his life that he only saw one way out. Killed himself, and so far as know he'd never traveled to more than three of four states in his life. And travel was big for him--we used to talk about it all the time as kids. It was something he wanted to do when he got out on his own.

Understand, I'm not doing this for him. I'm pretty selfish as these things go. I'm totally doing this for me.

The flight attendants have just told us to shut the viewports, creating a night atmosphere here in the ass-end of the plane. We are now over the Atlantic and will be meeting the sun much sooner than usual. Everyone is encouraged to get some sleep. Yeah, right.

A moment a later, a garbled voice over the intercom--helpfully translated by a passing stewardess--informs me that it is now 5:45 a.m., London time, and we are encouraged to adjust our watches accordingly. So it's official: I have left the land of 110 volts, 24-hour hot water, and Twinkies. God have mercy I think to myself, as I slide the viewport closed. When next I open it, I hope to see England...


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Monday, September 03, 2007

 

Smiling in Chicago

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On our way home, we spend the night in Chicago, our one luxury of the trip. We're staying in a nice hotel downtown with a decent view of the lake. The kids get drunk on the sheer altitude of it all.


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The Brownie LOVES hotels, mostly for the fact that you get tiny soaps and you can jump from bed to bed and towel off with the bathrobe that comes with the room (the same reason we all love hotels, I guess). This time, she discovers the wonder of room service, so much so that I almost regret showing her the in-room menu.

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We don't spend all our time in the hotel, of course. We wander the streets, catch up on our window shopping, and bore the kids senseless with tales of the adventures of Mommy and Daddy when they were not yet married and living in Chicago.

Our last day of the trip, we go to the Field Museum, then down to the lake to walk around.


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While Her Lovely Self nurses the Éclair on a quiet bench, I get the kids some Chicago-style hot dogs, celery salt and poppy-seed buns and all. Standing near the bike path, munching on my hot dog and drinking in the city, I am filled with a powerful urge to stay. I always forget how much I enjoyed my time here. I was in my early 20s, a bumpkin from the sticks, making his way in a big city where he knew no one. My time here, my struggles, my acts both stupid and brave, made me the man I am today. I have no doubt that if I hadn't come out here, separating myself from every safety net and support I had, forcing myself to get along (and, it must be said, reaching some measure of success in the doing of it), well, I'd probably be back in New Hampshire in not much different circumstances than my brother. Little wonder then that being in Chicago always makes me feel 35 percent more capable and confident (not to mention handsome and dashing and likable) than I actually am.

As if in proof of this, at that moment, two gorgeous young women in their early 20s--all legs and sports bras--come cycling around the back of the Shedd Aquarium. I'm the first thing they see, just off the path, standing there like God's own gift. The wind off the lake blows through my hair and I give them a winning grin. They smile right back--real wide smiles, like we're in on the same joke--and flash by in a whir of giggles.

Did I say 35 percent? Try 80.

Just then the Brownie walks up. "Dad?" she asks. "What the heck is in your teeth?"

I don't even need a mirror. In a flash it comes to me: the hot dog bun. The poppy seeds. When I smiled at those girls I must have looked like I had dental lice.

I sag, a lumpy guy in his late 30s with a bad back and three kids and memories of his youth in Chicago, and let my wise daughter lead me back to the car.

And on to home.

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