Excerpts from my travel letters
:: Bermuda, 1977 ::
My girlfriend made the arrangements; all I had to do was get on the plane. She even arranged for mopeds. Because I had never been on a moped, I drove it up and down the parking lot, just to be sure I could stay upright, and then off we went, with me trailing. We came to a hill and in the carefree spirit of the day, I elected to pass. At the top of the hill, the road turned sharply to the right. I did not.
My front tire grazed the curb and a moment later I jumped up, dusted myself off and reassured everyone that I was fine. This was not an easy sell, however, since my left pant leg had been torn off at the knee (instant Bermuda shorts!), only the cuff remained from my left shirtsleeve, and I was dripping red like an extra in a pirate movie. At that moment, a large, beautiful brown man leaned out of the cab of his truck and boomed, “Hey mon, you autograph the road!”
Another gentleman appeared and said he would take me to the hospital. I clambered into the cab of his truck and he placed his handkerchief on my shoulder, saying, “Don’t look at your shoulder.” I looked at my shoulder, which appeared to be a piece of steak that had been rubbed on the road, then shot. Through the hole I could see some of its inner workings. I thought I’d better not look at my shoulder any more.
The gentleman was Newton Adcock, a British Airways employee; I have never forgotten his name or his kindness. He drove me to the hospital. I signed in, and sat down with a group of wide-eyed seniors, holding my helmet and feeling every inch the idiot tourist.
A nurse came over and said, “Oh, you don’t have to wait here,” and took me to a small room where we removed what was left of my vacation outfit. I laid under a sheet for a minute and then the doctor came in. She was about 40 years old, British, stunning. She ripped back the sheet like a magician, looked me up and down, and said, “You’re young. You’re fit. You’re going to live.”
She left and the nurse returned, pushing a tinkling trolley of bottles of antiseptic cleansers, with which she began daubing me from shoulder to shin. “Do you read?” she said. “Yes,” I said. “Do you read between the lines?” she said. I didn’t quite follow, but gathered eventually that it was a question about whether or not I followed the inner meaning of whatever I was reading, or if I was as superficial as my scrapes that day. She looked at my shoulder and said breezily, “No need for stitches; there’s nothing left to stitch,” and put on a large bandage, telling me to keep it clean and dry.
A Buddha-like cabbie gave me a ride back to my hotel, cheered me up, and even called me later that evening to see if there was anything I needed. I wasn’t able to swim in the ocean for the rest of the week, but I was able to dine – Tom Moore’s Tavern, the Henry VIII, the Hog Penny Pub – as well as visit a library and marvel at its ancient collection of cricket annuals, ponder future patterns in china shops, buy a Queen’s Silver Jubilee necktie from an older gentleman in Bermuda shorts, recline in the sun while drinking Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, and listen to the tree frogs sing at night. All in all, if you have to recover from something, Bermuda is as good a place as any.
:: England, 1983 ::
Whenever I calculate the tip in a restaurant, I inevitably recall the evening in London when my powers of calculation and concentration were challenged as they may never be again. It was June 23, 1983, a Thursday.
A friend of Laurie’s had recommended that we dine at Langan’s, a “brasserie” owned by a colorful but wayward genius named Peter Langan and his business partner, actor Michael Caine. She said to start with the spinach soufflé with anchovy sauce, and when the waiter echoed her advice, we fell into step. At the next table were half a dozen gentlemen from British Airways, in white shirts and loosened ties, celebrating a co-worker’s good fortune. He was getting married and going to Africa to head up the airline’s office in Botswana. This was his bachelor dinner and send-off, and they were a festive yet gentlemanly crew.
The appetizer was excellent, as were Laurie’s rack of lamb and my Scottish salmon. When the last of the dishes were cleared and the waiter was returning with my credit card, the gentlemen at the round table were receiving a visitor as well, a very attractive blonde woman in a silvery fur coat who had just glided into the restaurant and walked confidently up to their table. As our waiter placed the credit card receipt at my right hand for my consideration and signature, the woman was asking who the lucky groom might be. He was identified, and the woman let her coat slip from her bare shoulders, revealing a black silk Merry Widow bustier, with lace and laces, to go with her black stockings and black high heels.
Now some people might think of black as a somber color, but I assure you that was not the effect. A few well-placed scarlet ribbons accented the ensemble and gave it a distinctly upbeat air. Having garnered everyone’s rapt attention, she smiled, produced a small sheet of paper, and began singing a lyric of her own creation to the tune of “My Favorite Things.” The Sound of Music indeed.
“Now you are going to go to Botswana,” she began, in a beautiful voice that suggested experience on the London stage. Meanwhile, our waiter stood waiting. Overcoming the desire to hang on every note, I bowed my head and began calculating the tip, in pounds sterling. I did the addition, signed, and smiled at the waiter, who nodded and shimmered away.
Laurie looked at me and said, “That was very impressive, Kihm.”
The song was over. The groom got a kiss, his mates all applauded, and the applause rippled throughout the restaurant. The songstress slipped back into her fur coat and strode smiling to the door, collecting smiles in return from everyone along the way.
I wish I could have stared the whole time, but sometimes one has to show a little self-discipline.
:: Asilomar, 1992 ::
In 1992, I went to a conference at Asilomar on the Monterey Peninsula. The chuckles started when we flew to San Francisco with Tony Bennett. He breezed up to the gate at O’Hare just at boarding time. I informed a fellow traveler we were flying to San Francisco with Tony Bennett. A woman on my left, an attorney, looked up from her work and said, “Tony Bennett?” And I said, “Yes, he’s right over there.” She looked, smiled and said very carefully, “Thank you.”
On the plane, I noticed the woman in the next seat was reading Proust in Italian. She was a pharmacist from Milan, wrapping up an exchange program with a hospital in Chicago, and flying to San Francisco for a few days before returning to Italy. She was almost aggressively plain, blunt cut dark hair, no makeup, but had fabulous clothes, a wafer-thin watch; I imagined her an heiress, and we had a nice chat.
Early mornings at Asilomar, I went for a walk. It was dark when I set out, and one morning I came upon an eight-point buck standing in the path. I stopped and he stopped, and then he strolled away. Following the boardwalk over the dunes, I threaded my way to the shoreline, and the clouds threatened, and the waves pounded the beach. There was no horizon so I couldn’t tell how high the next wave would be, and I was right on the edge of the continent, alone. Startled birds flew up out of the dead kelp strewn in long heaps across the sand.
But I made my way carefully until sunrise and by 6:30 it was glorious. Sun up, the surf hissing like club soda, sandpipers at the breakfast bar, millionaires playing golf, retirees walking dogs, and young women gliding by on roller blades up on the road while young men surfed out in the waves. I was in heaven every step of the way.
I strolled by one man who looked like he was right out of The Great Gatsby. I said, “Good morning,” and he said, “Good morning,” in a voice that echoed through a vault that had held banknotes for five generations.
Another morning, I was walking past a cottage when, just ahead of me, a huge black bird alighted on a fence post, looked me squarely in the eye and called out to me. I had no idea what to say in reply, so I just stopped and stared at him for a moment, and he called again. I had this feeling that somewhere, someone was either feeding or conversing with this bird, and I was a disappointment. He flew away.
I waded in the surf after lunch each day, shoes in hand. The water was like cold crystal; the sun was warm.
I missed all the parties, because I fell asleep at 8:30 each night, which is just as well as my roommate arrived at midnight and fell into bed snoring, in all different pitches and rhythms, punctuated by sudden bursts of flatulence, some like the reports of automatic weapons, others like warbles or jungle calls. I felt like I was living in a bear’s den.
:: Los Angeles, 1994 ::
My favorite was the men’s room in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Polished mahogany paneling showcased the urinal, with a crystalline mirror directly ahead into which one could gaze and check one’s head and shoulders during the quiet, oddly ennobled moments. Around the corner at the marble sinks, white linen hand towels were neatly stacked in baskets, to be used once, then tossed into the hamper. I felt under-dressed, framed in the mirror wearing my green hat, not having had a haircut since October, but still dignified enough to wonder how much to tip the crisply uniformed attendant. But he vanished and so I was spared the embarrassment of tipping too little or too much, and I returned to the sun-soaked streets with a spring in my step, and a sense of having truly lived the good life.
Sunday morning, we ventured to the Crystal Cathedral, the Rev. Robert Schuller’s legendary church as seen on TV. It was wild, Church Lite, easy (all the words to the hymns appear on the SONY Jumbotron, and they only did two or three verses), visually spectacular with towering walls of glass, a huge pipe organ, huge choir, even a chamber orchestra. And because one of the hymns contained the line, “Swift as the eagle cuts the air/ We’ll mount aloft to Thine abode,” they had a live eagle appear for the children’s sermon, flown in from Alaska. The eagle was followed by Al Denson, minister and recording artist, flown in from North Carolina. (Glen Campbell was coming for Mother’s Day.)
In L.A. freeway moments when we were not looking at traffic, the license plates and road signs were very entertaining. As plates went, we liked TV HAIR, VISION and RAUL, ESQ. (he was on the phone, of course). My favorite sign was “The Sword of the Lord coming soon. Sponsored by Tim Bickers.”
:: Los Angeles, 1994 (2) ::
I was in the closet-like restroom of a 757 over the Rockies when a bell rang and a little light came on showing a stickman figure walking back to his seat. I took this to be a suggestion, a desirable future, a visual hint to the wary. If they had a series of lights, the next one would have shown the stickman bent over double trying to pull up his pants while the plane bucked wildly. And then one with the stickman washing his hands while braced against the bulkheads with knees and back. Just opening the door – follow the jumping knob – was a challenge, but I did get back to my seat where my family laughed heartily at my sense of timing.
Shortly thereafter, we went down into a cloud bank and really rocked. I was holding a glass of ice and Sprite, which rose three feet straight up. My hand followed it so that when it came down I stayed dry. Abbie, however, soaked herself with a cup of water, grinning the whole time, and Laurie just closed her eyes and white-knuckled the arm of the seat.
Friday morning, we enjoyed the Hampton Inn’s complimentary continental breakfast, “featuring Rita Haynes,” according to the sign outside. Rita was 71 and kept a sharp eye on the muffins.
We went to the Arboretum in Arcadia, the former estate of California millionaire Lucky Baldwin, founder of Santa Anita race track. We saw acres of wonderful plants, plus a Queen Anne style cottage that took the breath away. I especially wanted the elk horn chandelier with Tiffany glass shades in the shape of flower petals. At age 55, Lucky built it for his fourth wife, who was 16. Isn’t money wonderful? The stables were nicer than most houses, paneled with redwood and cedar, and the dog’s house matched the cottage.
Abbie thought she’d be bored at the Arboretum, but she stepped inside and saw the brilliant blue peacocks roving the grounds and flipped out. They came to our table while we ate lunch and waited for a handout. One perched on a railing; a peacock is a very big bird to have perched on a nearby railing when you are eating.
:: Japan, 1995 ::
A gene travels diagonally through my family. Its recipients tend to be a tad eccentric and creative; they collect clutter; their imaginations leap and their attention wanders. In my mom’s generation, the gene found a home in her sister, my Aunt Rhea. In my generation, it fell to me. In the next, to my brother’s son, my nephew, Sean. He is very much himself, but also like me in too many ways to number.
It had nothing to do with environment. I barely saw Sean in his childhood. Over long distance, I would ask his mother how he was doing, and she would say, in tones of mystification, “He’s buying books.” So, driven by DNA and excited at the prospect of an adventure, I recently flew to Japan, where Sean lives and teaches English. I hate to travel, but some times you have to see if you’re still alive.
The flight got in an hour early, which meant I had to wait for Sean. I wasn’t in a hurry, which was nice because I had to clear customs with a ponytail and I didn’t want to appear agitated. I got the language down right away. The young woman checking my passport at ‘Immigration’ said, “Hai,” and I said, “Hi.” Of course, she was saying, “Yes, come” and I was saying, “Hello,” but it worked out, and suddenly I was in the lobby.
I watched people, like a young Japanese mother who had come in from Toronto with a beautiful Eurasian child. She was waiting for her parents, and when they arrived I watched the wonder in the new grandchild’s eyes as she was being introduced. Grandma had brought yogurt for her, and a thermos of coffee for her daughter. I imagined the handsome Canadian husband back in Toronto, missing his beautiful family.
I saw a daughter carry her mother on her back to the Ladies Room, and back again, and passing her to her father, who carried the woman away on his back through the terminal, without embarrassment or any sign that this was out of the ordinary. The mother had a bandage wrapped around her left wrist. Her wrists were very thin.
I saw a column of school children go by, holding hands, two by two, giggling in bright red caps. I saw a column of young women go by in very stylish black dresses, but still two by two.
As evening fell, we went to the izakaya, the neighborhood bar. You know they’re open when the flags are out. It was small, with a bar in the front half, and past the bar was a raised room with low tables and tatami mats and shoes left at the steps. Sean’s fellow teachers at the language school, and some of their students, gather there, and at the head of the table we found Heather Chilton, a Dionysian younger sister of Bacchus, ginger-haired party girl from England, who was entertaining her mother and sister who were visiting from Kent, the heart of hop country, and you can guess what we talked about.
The waitress bowed and delivered an appetizer, something chewy, like a small knuckle in a spicy red sauce in a cup, and someone asked me what it was and I said, “I think it’s from the ocean.” And Heather said, “The bottom of the ocean.” But it was followed by a very tall glass of Sapporo, and fried squid (yum), octopus, chicken yakitori and French fries. Even in Japan they ask you if you want fries with that.
Kamakura is the home of The Great Buddha, a huge statue cast here in 1252, coincidentally the same year the Spanish Inquisition began using instruments of torture. Which brings to mind the time Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western Civilization and he said, “I think it would be a good idea.”
You climb some steps, purify your hands, using a ladle to pour water over them from a small fountain, turn the corner and there is the Great Buddha. If it doesn’t stop you in your tracks, there’s something wrong with you.
He sits, hands in his lap, eyes cast downwards, silhouetted against a green hillside, unmoving, calm and hugely peaceful, a soft, weathered green/gray, the folds in the clothes catching the shadows. It’s more than 40 feet high, and weighs more than 210,000 pounds, although I’m not sure how you’d weigh it.
When it was cast, the bronze sheets were finished with chisels, and the whole statue gilded. Originally it was enclosed in a large temple, but a typhoon and tidal wave destroyed the temple in 1495 and since then the statue has sat outdoors. Lafcadio Hearn noted in 1903 that no westerner should miss it, and right he was. It is truly beautiful, in the very fullest sense of that word.
I put ¥20 in an open box at a little gatehouse at the side, and went down some stairs, inside, and then up more stairs into the hollow interior of the Buddha, where people have written their names by the dim light from the back windows, and you can reach up and place your hand against the bronze and feel the heat of the sun and the statue’s warm immensity.
The Lion is a beer hall owned by Sapporo, a German-style beer hall in Tokyo’s Ginza district. As German accordion music played, we shared a table with two Japanese matrons who ate pizza with chopsticks. The main floor of the Lion is one room with high, arched ceilings, broad pillars and peaked rafters. The pillars and ceiling are tiled in green and brown, and small mosaics are set in alcoves along the side walls. The heart of the Lion is a vast mural that dominates the far end of the room. It depicts women in togas, draped and undraped, out in the fields gathering sheaves of grain. The sun glows on the horizon and a lush grape arbor frames the scene. The mosaic is made from 30,000 individual tiles, and it is quite spectacular.
All of the mosaics, and the building itself, were designed by Eizo Sugawara, who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel and was greatly influenced by him. His other works in Japan include an artist’s studio, a theater, and a university library. Built in 1934, the Lion has miraculously survived earthquakes and the Allied bombing of Tokyo in WWII.
Some things never change – old Japanese men made grabs for the dirndl-clad waitresses. We visited the upper floors briefly and saw a man passed out but still standing, having jammed himself between a cigarette machine and a pillar. Too polite to fall down.
For a day of sumo, we rose at 4:15 a.m., showered, and caught a train headed for Tokyo at 5:05. One of the many beauties of Japanese trains is that they come every five minutes so it’s very hard to be more than five minutes late.
The Kokugikan (sumo stadium) is next to the Ryogoku train station; we were in line at 6:15 a.m., pumped because the line was short and we were a sure thing to get tickets. Sean went off for a few minutes and found tuna and egg salad sandwiches for our breakfast, and we watched people. The stadium is beautiful, with long, colorful banners outside and a tower with drums at the top that are played to announce the opening of the ticket office. At 8 a.m., the young drummer rode the elevator up and hit the skins, and the line began to move. I think at least four people were poised to help us at the ticket window; they practically knocked one another over to see that the English-speaking person had some help. Such was our good fortune that we scored reserved seats (just ¥4000 each), enabling us to wander off and see more of Tokyo rather than go right in.
One of Sean’s favorite districts is Shibuya, so it was back to the trains. As we piled in and more and more people continued to pile in, I said, “Sean, would this be rush hour?” And he grinned and said, “Yup.”
How tightly were we packed? I was pressed against a businessman shoulder to shoulder, buttock to buttock, calf to calf. When a muscle twitched in his butt, I could feel it in mine. In another direction, I was just four layers of cloth away from starting a new family. Sean said, “Look,” and let go of his backpack; it hung suspended. He grinned. I grinned back; it was tremendous fun made all the more amusing because no one was looking at anyone else, making a sound, or suggesting in any way that this involved a loss of privacy or a violation of one’s personal space.
Which is not to say the trains are without their unsavory characters. Sean said they had a real problem with dirty old men positioning themselves next to school girls in the crush. There was even a poster campaign cautioning school girls, and the man in the poster was portrayed as a wolf. There was also a nose-picking poster, asking men not to pick their nose on the train. Sean said it was quite common, and indeed, on the way in from the airport I noticed one gold-miner at work, removing the occasional nugget and holding it up for inspection, twirling it, flicking, and then going back for more.
And a “be polite” poster that showed other bad things you could do, including playing your Walkman too loud; the young man shown in the poster was obviously western and wearing a “New York” t-shirt while the notes from his earphones were biting the head of the Japanese man next to him. (Which reminds me: All the signs forbidding shoplifting were in English.)
And then the train rolled into our station and the real fun began. It was like rugby with the sound off, and I was very intent on staying within hailing distance of Sean, regardless of the consequences. As we exploded out of the door like so many champagne bubbles, I was pushed to my right, raised my forearm from my side to keep from falling and hit a young woman squarely in the ribcage. She was about five feet tall, short dark hair, wearing a nice green business suit, soft wool, and the shot to her ribs startled her, but she looked straight ahead and showed no disapproval as she reeled to the right. She would have gone down for sure, had she not hit the man next to her with a well-planted shoulder, sending him reeling further off to the right and out of my field of vision because I was being swept along to the stairs, where everyone looked down, placed their feet very carefully but swiftly, and then we were upstairs and at the last possible moment I heard the sound of the ticket machines and turnstiles, produced my ticket and found myself in the lane, ticket in, gates open and we’re outta here.
Back at the stadium, we looked at the trophies and took in the sumo museum, which has some really neat stuff. And then the concession stands with sumo playing cards, towels, banners, chocolates in the shape of fat little wrestlers, watches, postcards, books, boxes of cold yakitori chicken, cold cans of Sapporo Black Label, cans of sake with a cool sumo label, potato chips, chocolate raisins, et al.
We shopped and feasted like kings, held forth in our reserved seats with a commanding view of the contests below. Sean had been sending me sumo on videotape from the evening’s “Sumo Digest” telecast, but it was no preparation for the real thing. The light was so much better, the room so much more spacious and beautiful, and the crowd so much more a part of it. Sean had the line-up in Japanese and I in English, and because it was our day, all of our big boys won, including Konishiki. I even saw Mitoizumi send his trademark fistful of salt up into the rafters and heard the crowd roar in response.
:: San Diego, 1997 ::
On our way to a wedding, we boarded the plane for San Diego and found our seat assignments had been dumped by the computer; we were now in the last row, next to the toilets, which enabled us to mingle with the travelers waiting in line. Every time someone left the toilet, those waiting in the aisle leaned back, thrusting their butts into Laurie’s face prompting her to reel backwards and throw up her hands like the female lead in a horror film.
I was safe in the middle, next to Tim from Pittsburgh who worked for Calloway Golf and was a native of San Diego, a charming fellow. We talked about John Daly, P.G. Wodehouse’s golf stories, and Tijuana (which is not on the Alamo Car Rental map because DRIVING AN ALAMO RENTAL CAR INTO MEXICO IS NOT PERMITTED).
Laurie’s father was across the aisle in a middle seat between two women. The woman in the window seat sported spiky hair, purple nail polish, toe rings, a tattoo on her shoulder, and a black lace bra under her oh-so-tight filmy blouse. The woman on the other side was a blonde in jeans who worked for Calvin Klein Underwear. For a guy in his eighties, Dad was doing really well. And they took very great care of him, helping him to adjust his headset and listening attentively to his stories of crossing America by train during World War II.
The woman from Calvin Klein was reviewing resumes; she insisted on handwritten cover letters because she had once hired a woman whose handwriting was illegible, and she wasn’t going to let it happen again. It also showed who could follow instructions; typed letters went right into the trash. She winnowed the prospects from 75 to 45 by the time we reached San Diego.
Far below, there were brush fires in the hills of Mexico, and gray plumes of smoke rising into the clouds looking volcanic until you followed them back to the ground, and there you could see a razor-thin, wavy orange line separating the hillsides and the billowing clouds of smoke. San Diego itself had some haze, smog that had drifted down from Los Angeles.
The wedding was at the Klauber house. Laurence Klauber rose to be the Chairman of San Diego Gas & Electric, but history remembers him as the author of Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories & Influence on Mankind, still the authoritative text. And like any avid hobbyist, Laurence brought his interests home — 35,000 specimens of reptiles and 8,000 snakes.
His wife, Grace, must have been an exceptionally good sport. And of course, as might be expected, over the years, one or two went astray in the house. So 25 years after the death of the owner, snakes were still alive in the house and one day, Bob, our host, saw one coming up the basement stairs. The house had already been tented for termites, but our host and hostess had it tented again for snakes.
Indoors, the house had gorgeous wood, Roycroft and Craftsman touches, and beautiful windows to let in the San Diego sunshine, a home surrounded by porches and arbors, and just off the kitchen a butler’s pantry that I would happily kill for, if the victim was a bad person.
Grace Klauber gardened until the age of 102, and given the climate of San Diego, it’s easy to believe. I would happily live in a shed on this property, and do nothing but weed. Hummingbirds live in exotic trees. Palms sway. And palm trees make me happy. Even if I’m watching Guadalcanal Diary and there’s a sniper in the palm tree, I’m happy.
And these palms swayed in a way unique to the neighborhood, which is directly under the flight path of jets landing at the San Diego airport. As the jets flew over, they created a vortex. The plane went by; you saw it land down at the runway. It was quiet again. And then there was a ghost of a sound, a slicing of the air, like Hemingway’s description of passing artillery shells as a ripping of cloth, and you looked for something that must be making the sound, and there was nothing there. That was the vortex. I spent the entire afternoon listening for the vortex; it was so cool. And our hostess said, yes, you can see it blow through the tops of the palms that front the house, one after another, left to right in a neat row, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
We ate in the dining room, which has a built-in sideboard with leaded glass windows that I would happily kill for, if the victim was anything less than a really good person. And as we dined, Phyllis played piano. Her regular gig is at Nordstrom’s, but tonight she was ours. The bride and groom danced. Dad’s hearing aid went bananas. And then Phyllis sat down with us and described her years with Lawrence Welk as Norma Zimmer’s accompanist.
After dinner, the hostess gave us a house tour, including the basement. She let me scuttle under the living room, on the dirt floor, right down to the hillside where this house lived. That’s generosity. “Don’t bother turning out the lights; I’ll get them later.” The House has four small furnaces that come on briefly once or twice a year to dissipate the morning chill. And we saw the old laundry room with an Easy-Washer made in Syracuse, New York, a company where Laurie’s father once worked, a fine ‘small world’ coincidence. The original brochure, still tucked inside the washer, depicted a housewife and the washer flying together on a magic carpet. Those were the days.
Upstairs, the office and drawers of Mr. Klauber were intact, and our hostess said, “Go through them.” We did. There was a wonderful old rubber stamp alphabet set, and drafting materials, and maps, wonderful maps, some of which had been used for wallpaper in the room. Our daughter had done so much in California — trips, Planet Hollywood, Universal Studios, Rodeo Drive — and later when I asked her what her favorite part was, she said, “Going through the drawers in the old house.” I beamed with pride.
:: Seattle, 1998 ::
Before the Underground Seattle tour, we had a cup of tea at the Starbucks across the street, and smiled as a Japanese tourist took a picture of his wife seated next to us. Once more, I wondered how many photo albums I am in as a bystander.
The tour was great fun. There was a time in Seattle’s history when they decided to regrade and raise the level of the city to create more flat land and allow the sewers to drain more effectively. But merchants who had already built their buildings didn’t want to move, so the city just built walls at the curb and raised the streets between them; ladders at every intersection enabled pedestrians to climb up to the street and then back down to the sidewalk on the other side. Horses that fell off the street onto the sidewalks below didn’t climb back up.
Eventually, new sidewalks were built at street level, and former first floors became basements. The neighborhood, the home of the original Skid Row, deteriorated and no one thought to tear anything down and rebuild. Thus there are scores of wonderful old buildings that have survived and an underground world of long forgotten sidewalks, entrances to nowhere and tattered rooms with traces of pressed tin ceiling, stenciling on walls, and weathered wainscoting.
The guides had wonderful stories of early Seattle, of people like Henry Yesler who was known as The Bastard, a title he earned both naturally and by hard work. The early politicians were corrupt in an open and amusing way; Mayor Yesler once sued the city as Henry Yesler, private citizen, and as Mayor Yesler settled out of court with himself. He made his niece the City Secretary, and mailed her checks to Ohio, where she lived.
The census revealed the city had 18,000 lumberjacks and mill workers, and 3,000 seamstresses. One dim bulb of the era suggested that Seattle tax sewing machines; after several weeks of looking, he couldn’t find one. Another industry was springing up around the, ah, seamstresses, however. These working girls had lots of money, but no time to shop, so messengers began accepting a small fee to take their money and a shopping list to merchants and return with small parcels. As the parcel service thrived, it began to branch out. Today, it is UPS.
From Pioneer Square, Laurie, her sister, Lee, and I headed towards the International district, a.k.a. Chinatown, and the House of Dumplings. I have often heard of, and seen, the fabled Oriental reserve, the masking of emotion, the self-control for which the Japanese and Chinese are justly famous. But I have never seen it tested so dramatically as when Laurie’s sister picked up her chopsticks and began to stalk her suddenly elusive dumplings.
Watching the two sticks as they bobbed and weaved, each seemingly guided by a separate intellect, I was reminded of a child with her first pair of stilts. Surely this Chaplinesque display was visible to other tables; surely the other diners could not have been faulted had they quietly cleared their throats, raised their napkins over their faces and barked like hyenas. I know I wanted to.
:: Big Sur, 2005 ::
Laurie began the month of April with one of those spa viruses that just melt away the pounds while you recline and feebly acknowledge the comings and goings of your uniformed attendants. The chauffeured limo with swirling red lights had swept her off to Community General hospital at 4 a.m., and I brought her home five days later. She was 10 pounds lighter and as weak as a kitten, and we weren’t sure if our trip to California, to celebrate our 25th anniversary, would happen after all. But I read aloud to her from Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, our friend Melissa sent a box of See’s candy from California, the St. James’ prayer chain worked overtime, and by April 20th, Laurie was ready to go, and certainly in need of a walk on the beach.
We flew to San Francisco on a Wednesday, after putting Gus in dog-jail the day before. His whimpers had torn my heart out, but I reminded myself that he is a dog and we are people, and sometimes, in extreme situations, you have to put people first. A woman I saw in the Philly airport must have been similarly traumatized because at 7:24 a.m. she was drinking a martini.
The flight to San Francisco was more than five hours long; I had just settled into my middle seat and congratulated myself on not sitting next to the very, very large woman across the aisle when a very, very large man came down the center aisle, working his way toward us hand over hand on the seat backs. A small woman was seated next to me, on the aisle; she looked up at the large man and said, “Which seat would you like?” He looked at the vacant seat next to the very, very large woman and then at the seat next to me and said loudly, “That one! There’ll be more room.” So up she got and as he settled in next to me he lifted the seat arm and said, “Do you mind if I lift the seat arm?”
I was trying to be a good person, so I said, “Go right ahead.” He said, “There are advantages to being big, and disadvantages.” He called for a seat belt extension, took a hit off an asthma puffer, and Laurie wondered quietly what the advantages were. I spent the next five hours leaning to the left. At the end of the ride as people rose to get their carry-on bags, the man’s wife started to stand and he said, “Sit down, we’re waiting.”
Waiting for the plane to empty. Completely. After five hours of leaning to the left, I was not such a good person any more. I must have groaned because he turned and said, “Do you want to get up??” And I said, “I would love to get up.” And he replied, “Well, okay, if you want to stand there with all the other jerks.” Yes, we certainly did, and a minute later we filed off the plane with all the other jerks, thrilled to be free.
The Hotel Cornell de France on Bush Street is next door to a theater which hosts the World Famous Nude Review, so it is easy to find. We checked in, patted Noel the Golden Retriever on the head, and settled into a familiar room, happy to be back in San Francisco. I was being a good person again, so I offered to take care of the rental car, which needed to go to the garage across the street.
At the curb, I unlocked the car door with the key, hopped in and started the car. Almost. When I turned the key in the ignition, the engine did not start. Instead, the horn began honking and the lights flashing. I did not panic. Surely there was a simple explanation, a button somewhere marked “Stop the Car Alarm.” I hit a lot of buttons, flailed around at levers and dials, but none of my actions yielded the desired result. The wipers, however, started wiping at a leisurely interval.
After a minute or so, the horn stopped. I had not been arrested for grand theft auto; I assumed the crisis had passed, and the car would now accept me as its rightful occupant. I turned the key in the ignition and the horn burst into song again. I did not welcome the encore, and I was sure that there were many people within a block or so who felt the same way. Perhaps it was disbelief or denial that prompted me to try the key a third time, and I did, but the car responded as it had twice before. Now I was certain that arrest was imminent, with a news photo to be wired back to the Skaneateles Press showing me in handcuffs under the sign for the World Famous Nude Review.
While the horn blared its third chorus, I decided to brush up on the operations of the Hyundai Sonata. I found the owner’s manual in the glove compartment and flipped through the pages to the soft beat of the windshield wipers. There was an index, but it had been created by someone who had chosen unusual names for everything in the car. Terms like “car alarm” or “alarm” were too intuitive and thus absent. But eventually I found my way to the desired paragraph that told me how to turn off the alarm: I had to depress and hold down a button on the little black battery-powered thingee attached to the key ring. I did this, and there was a short beep to signal my success. I returned the key to the ignition, and was rewarded with the gentle rumble of the engine.
Because the garage is diagonally across the street from the hotel, and the street is one-way running away from the garage, I had to drive around the block, or a few blocks actually, since intervening streets are also one-way. I set out on my journey, the wipers periodically sweeping across my field of view. Of course it was a sunny day, so everyone knew I was an idiot. But San Francisco is a big city, and no one seemed to care if one more idiot was loose on the streets. By accident, I turned the wipers off as I was turning into the garage. I suppose I could have read about the wipers in the owner’s manual, but they were probably indexed under “precipitation response” and things were falling into place on their own. I returned to the hotel on foot, whistling a happy tune.
On the drive down Route One to Big Sur, we noticed all the blues of the ocean, not just one shade of blue, but three or four or five, changing in depths and shallows, over sand, over kelp, over rock. Add the mountains, the valleys, the coves, the surf, the rocks, the seals and birds, the ocean horizon, brilliant sun or dense fog, or both together, and you have a landscape that you will never forget.
“The wild road winds round ledges manufactured from the mountains and cliffs. The Pacific in blue spasms reaches all its superlatives.” — Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, 1945
Perched eight hundred feet up a mountainside, where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean, Nepenthe is one of our favorite places on earth. Built on land bought by Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles for a getaway they never got away to, the restaurant has been run by the Fassett family since its opening on April 24, 1949. The food is excellent and the view is one of the best on God’s green earth. Laurie would eat there twice a day for eternity.
Waiting for a table, we heard someone answer the phone and thus got an official pronunciation of “Nepenthe.” It is neither “Nepenth” nor “Nepenthee,” but rather “Nepenthay.” Another mystery solved. Moments later we were whisked to seats overlooking the ocean, and looked over the menus with brimming eyes. I started with the herb-cured salmon with basil aioli, crumbled goat cheese, slivered red onions, capers and buttery toasted baguette slices. Then on to the grilled marinated chicken breast on a French roll, topped with maple-smoked cheddar, lettuce, tomato and chipotle mayo. Laurie went for the broiled swordfish with melted cheese, lettuce and tomato on a toasted French roll, a sandwich she has craved since her first one in October of 2001.
Laurie also ordered French fries to be shared with a western blue jay who took his first fry straight from the basket in a blur of blue. After that, we lined up sacrificial fries on the edge of the long table to protect our own investment. The waitress told us the jays have been known to take fries directly from patrons’ mouths. These are really good fries.
In addition to the convivial jays, the skies and mountainside were also populated by crows, turkey vultures, hawks and a very large woodpecker in a nearby tree. We capped our lunch with slices of cheesecake and three-berry pie, and then forced ourselves to go down to the Phoenix gift shop, where I found my first commemorative hat, a bar of eucalyptus soap to remind me of the eucalyptus grove every morning, and a postcard with teapots to send to a friend who is an authority on all things tea and Dante. There were no Dante postcards. I’d like to tell you that the writer of The Divine Comedy drank at the Nepenthe bar with Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and Anais Nin, but I cannot. You would see right through that one.
Our next stop was Asilomar. Established in 1913 by the YWCA, with its early buildings designed by Julia Morgan, the same architect who worked on San Simeon for William Randolph Hearst, it is now a part of the California State Park system. The grounds are lovely; small deer roam freely; the rooms are comfortable and inexpensive; and a boardwalk takes you through the fragile dunes to the beach, a glorious beach.
Asilomar allows strays like us to stay as “leisure guests,” provided they have a spare room to offer. We stayed in ours about 60 seconds before heading to the boardwalk, through the dunes, across the road and down to the beach. Taking off our shoes, feeling the warm sand on our bare feet, walking to the edge of the ocean, we felt like we had crossed some invisible finish line. We weren’t touring any more; we were where we wanted and needed to be. We were back. We were home. We were on the beach at Asilomar, and we had won.
We shared part of this trip with Laurie’s brother and sister-in-law, and their son, and dined one evening at a country club restaurant on 17 Mile Drive. Midway through the meal, Erik began to fidget and Millie produced a DVD player. When I was a child, I was always quiet and well-mannered in restaurants because I was paralyzed with fear. This was true for any meal my father attended, at home or away. At picnics, I was tied to a tree with clothesline, so my options for misbehavior were curtailed, an arrangement that probably worked to my benefit.
But this was 2005, and Erik put on headphones and settled in with SpongeBob SquarePants. Jeff said, “I know, it’s weird. People say we’re spoiling him, but it’s worth it for the peace and quiet.” The boy was mesmerized, and perfectly quiet, until SpongeBob did something so hilarious that Erik had to laugh out loud, a great explosion with the unfettered gusto of a whoop, a bray, a war cry. He was quickly notified that silence was golden, and after a moment of fear that his video fix might be taken away, he returned to silent viewing, sitting very still. Until he fell off his chair. Just vanished from view, with only a headphone cord to indicate which direction he’d gone. But he reappeared, hopped back into place and resumed viewing. It reminded me of the time Erik’s grandfather fell off his chair at Gruen’s, a little German restaurant in Syracuse. You could see the family resemblance; what a magical thing is DNA.
I think I reached peak happiness at Asilomar, walking barefoot on the beach, watching the surf, watching the shore birds scurry along, letting the spent waves wash over my feet, letting the sun and sand warm my feet, and the sea breeze blow through my very soul, cleaning out all the junk. I recalled how my mother loved to watch the water, and wondered if it was part of her legacy to me, or something that everyone gets.
The dogs on the beach at Asilomar are the happiest dogs I have ever seen. Dashing into the surf, running back onto the beach, diving into the sand, digging holes, chasing sticks, balls, frisbees, barking at each other, wagging and panting, almost grinning with the joy of it all, they are in doggie heaven. And what a crew. Big dogs, little dogs, purebreds, mutts, Labs and Goldens, water dogs and lap dogs, and they know one another, racing to greet new arrivals, beagles giving cry, everyone sniffing.
Many of the dogs’ people had a long plastic device with a curved cup for a tennis ball at one end, enabling you to pick up the ball without bending over and then throw it really far with no strain on your shoulder. Dogs and masters alike seemed to think it was the greatest invention since the food dish. A greyhound chased a soft Frisbee. One Golden ran over as I walked along the edge of the surf and rolled his ball to my feet; we played throw and fetch for a minute, and I felt honored.
When the tide was out, we found, in a tide pool, a shiny, perfect golf ball. Not being versed in the currents, I wasn’t sure which course it had come from. Might it have made its way to the sea via the stream that flows through the Spanish Bay course? Or was this an errant shot at Pebble Beach that had been swept away by the ocean and washed up here? Could it have come off the club of Bob Hope or Bill Murray? One is not allowed to collect shells on the beach at Asilomar, but the sign said nothing about golf balls, and I quickly claimed it as a souvenir.
I hated leaving Monterey. I always have. And I always have to tell myself why I’m leaving. It’s a real argument.
:: Italy, 2006 ::
As our plane approached Rome, Laurie’s mom began to worry about her wheelchair arrangements. Would she be separated from us? Her grandson reassured her. “Grandma, there are no wheelchairs in Italy.” I, too, wanted to help. “You’ll be riding a goat,” I said. She was warmly appreciative of our support.
Pienza is a hill town that for a brief time enjoyed the patronage of a native son, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II in 1458. He died in 1464, but in his short reign, he worked with the dispatch and efficiency of a U.S. Congressman building a Navy base in his home district in Kansas.
Originally a hamlet, his town was rebuilt as an idealized Renaissance city with the help of a Florentine architect, Bernardo Rossellino, whose work exceeded both the Pope’s expectations and his budget. On the main town square, which includes the family palace, the Palazzo Piccolomini, we saw the Cathedral, built in a small space but with vaulted ceilings to give it a sense of grandeur. It was quiet and starkly beautiful.
Inside, the church had been chilly. Outside, the church was chilling. Bullets had scarred two walls on the side of the church where two lanes met, a corner with clear lines of fire across this small town and up one side of it. Of course, this was also a spot where you could be shot at from two directions as well, with the church walls as a backdrop, and someone had.
“At Pienza there is a German mopping-up, and eight partisans are captured.” — June 10th, 1944, War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary by Iris Origo
“Tiny Pienza, birthplace of Pope Pius II and the very model of a Renaissance city, fell to the French on the morning of June 28. Stubborn enemy rearguards fought desperately to slow the French advance.” — The War North of Rome by Thomas Brooks
As I stood before the bullet-pocked walls, built in 1462 and scarred in 1944, I thought about timing. Here I was in February of 2006, free to stand and look out at the valley below. On this same spot, people ran for their lives across these smooth stones: German soldiers, Italian partisans, Frenchmen, hearts pounding, smelling war and tasting fear. Yet there I stood in peace, inhaling nothing but fresh air.
Along with history, Pienza has cheese. Our guide for the day, Pino, led us to a shop for a tasting of Pecorino cheeses, made from sheep’s milk, which ranged from the delicious to the ambrosial. My favorite was an aged Pecorino wrapped in walnut leaves. Others were wrapped in grape skins, tomato sauce, ashes. I bought a small wheel for the road, rolled in chopped walnuts.
Siena was not without its perils. I was window shopping at a stationery store when a young man passing by in the narrow street made a sudden U-turn and charted a course for my pockets. I was watching his reflection in the store window (too many spy novels) and as he glided up to my side, he looked at the reflection of my face to see if I was absorbed in the window display. Our eyes met in the glass, we reached an understanding in less than a second, and he was gone. I was wearing a money belt (too many Rick Steves episodes) (in fact, it was a Rick Steves money belt) so I wasn’t worried. But still, if someone slips a hand into my pocket, that person should be wearing Shalimar.
In Florence, after the Ponte Vecchio and before anything else, we needed lunch. It was raining lightly, so I left Mom and Laurie at the Uffizi lobby and went off in search of a restaurant. Just around the corner on the Via Lambertesca, as if on a movie set, I found the Trattoria Antico Fattore. I returned for my charges, took them to the promised land and we were led to a table.
As always, I was watching the people. A woman came into the restaurant, took off her coat and sat down. After ordering, she took out a paperback book for company, which suggested to me that she dined alone often. The book was Blind Man’s Bluff, a good read about American submarine espionage during the Cold War. She was wearing a white sweater like a Hostess Sno Ball, a fuzz of coconut on white marshmallow. She had a pixie-ish haircut, short and dark, and, as she read, she slipped her little finger into her nose up to the second knuckle, which ended my reverie abruptly.
I returned to the menu, and selected deviled rabbit, which Laurie never makes for me at home. Mom turned down the pigeon, having seen pigeons in the street on the way to the restaurant. “You could be sure it’s fresh,” I said, but she was not persuaded. Lunch was delicious. A culinary sidelight: During World War I, the restaurants in Florence served cat.
:: England, 2007 ::
In Canterbury, I asked directions to the Cathedral, which was kind of stupid because you really can’t miss it. It would be that enormous cathedral in the middle of the town. I had booked a room at the Cathedral Lodge, right on the grounds, and although it was too early to check in, they did let me drop off my bags. I went out to explore Canterbury, saving the Cathedral for the afternoon. What I really wanted was a restful place in which to have lunch, and for the first time in a long time, a proper pint.
For various reasons, I had not had a beer since October of 2004, but this was England and I was throwing caution to the late summer winds. I found my way to the Pilgrims Hotel. Fifteen of the patrons had white hair, but it was a blonde barmaid named Inga who led me to a table. Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was playing, but softly. I ordered sausage & mash, and a Greene King IPA. The pint came first; I took a deep breath and dove in. It was as though we’d never been parted, I and this nectar, a deliciously hoppy ambrosia. Then the bangers arrived, draped with beets and caramelized onions. I can recall few other times in my life when I have been so happy.
In a letter, Virginia Woolf once wrote, “There is no lovelier place in the world than Canterbury… that I can say with my hand on my heart.” Indeed, it was lovely. While walking, I came upon the local library, a great ark of a building. It was the gift of a wealthy benefactor, and it reminded me of the Skaneateles Library with its Barrow Gallery. Except here, the art gallery was on the upper floor and went by the more elevated title of The Royal Museum and Art Gallery. The gallery, up a grand staircase, was filled with surprises. An exhibition of teapots (ah, England), a room devoted to military history, and in one room, in a corner, one of the most arresting paintings I’ve ever seen.
A girl in a dark hat and coat stood at a white door, about to turn the knob. Not the stuff of epic romance, but I couldn’t leave it. It cast a spell and I was caught. When I did manage to leave, I came back again. I don’t remember anything else in the room. The painting was titled The Little Girl at the Door, and the artist was Harriet Halhed (1851-1933). She was born in Australia, but came to England and studied in Canterbury at the Sidney Cooper School of Art, at the Royal College of Art in London, and then in Paris under Louis Henri Deschamps. She returned to Canterbury where she painted, taught, and occasionally did sketches of sculptural details at the Canterbury Cathedral for the Kent Archeological Society.
One of her pupils, Janet Forbes, described her: “She wore strange, homespun, loose, sacklike clothes… girded herself with embroidered and studded belts and clasps and chains from Bulgaria, donned little Finnish fur hats, and beads from the Andaman Isles.”
This was a woman my Aunt Rhea would have enjoyed. Historical sources list both Foresters’ Hall in Canterbury and Sevenoaks, in Kent, as places where she lived or worked; in 1897, she went to London, where her studio was behind a Chelsea pub called “The Magpie and Stump,” which often furnished lunch for the artist and those she taught.
The Little Girl at the Door was exhibited in 1910 at the Royal Academy in London and at the Paris Salon, and 20 years later was presented to The Royal Museum & Art Gallery by 16 of her former students.
Back out on the street, I saw a Goth, an old street-person with Tourette’s, many young art students, two tattoo parlors, and a post office that included a stationery store where I bought a pen just because I could. Then the Cathedral, the center of the worldwide Anglican communion, the scene of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom in 1170, the destination of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, a house of stone alive with faith and history: a stained glass window from 1176, towers completed in 1130, 1405 and 1498, tombs, memorials, stonework as delicate as lace, soaring arches, too much for me to take in. I felt a special connection with the tomb of the Black Prince, Edward, Prince of Wales, who died in 1376. At the foot of his gilded effigy, also in effigy, lies his dog. This I understand.
I had dinner at The Miller’s Arms. On a rafter was chalked a quote from Herb Caen, San Francisco’s famed writer, which read, “Like a camel, I can go without a drink for seven days and have on several horrible occasions.” I ordered fish & chips, and settled in, listening to Bryan Adams’ “Cuts like a Knife.” At the largest table, young men were talking about wireless communication for laptops and young women were talking about bra straps. One of the women said to one of the men, “I’ve never seen you without your laptop and I’ve never seen you without that t-shirt.” I envied them their youth.
I headed back towards the Lodge, passing by a nightspot which promised lap dancing, kind of an odd touch in Canterbury, but this was 2007. Almost at the gates of the Cathedral grounds, I was drawn into The Old Buttermarket, where I ordered a half of Adnam’s Broadside and listened to the Pointer Sisters sing “Jump.” I chatted with an older man at the bar who had many tattoos on his arms. He had done most of them himself with a needle, when he was “young and foolish”, but he had one “paid for,” which he showed me, a tribute to his son who was murdered.
The Cathedral’s bells were ringing when I passed through the gates. It was twilight, and halfway up the bell tower one could see a window, a yellow rectangle of light, and the bell ropes, going up and down, and at the top of the rope’s rise, a glimpse of the hands of the bell ringers. I sat on a low wall and watched and listened. A young woman with a bicycle sat next to me. We exchanged smiles. Runners passed in front of us, young and swift, and one of them said, “I love coming through here at night.”
The next morning, I breakfasted at the Lodge, noticing the availability of rhubarb yogurt; if only Laurie had been with me. I went across to the Cathedral for a communion service in one of the small chapels. I was early, and could hear singing from another service echoing through the Cathedral, like Gregorian chant, ancient cadences, and everywhere, the smell of stone, damp stone. It gave me chills, good ones. The communion service was lovely.
Before leaving, I spent more time nosing around. I visited the tomb of William Courtenay, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1381 to 1396, whose effigy also included his dog at his feet. And a tomb that asked, “Stay gentle reader, pass not slightly by this tombe…” I think that one belonged to Thomas Thornhurst of The Buffs Regiment, buried in the Warriors’ Chapel.
I visited the Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time. Among them, Jonathan Daniels, a student at the Episcopalian Theology School of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who went south as a civil rights worker in 1965 and was shot by a deputy sheriff in Hayneville, Alabama. Daniels was trying to buy a bottle of soda after being released from jail; the deputy, who was armed with a shotgun, shot Daniels in the doorway of the store and then shot a fleeing priest in the back. The priest survived, but Jonathan Daniels joined Thomas Becket. (The deputy’s plea was self-defense; he was acquitted by a jury of his peers.)
At the train station, I sat next to an African warrior, perhaps a young prince, in full array. Together we watched young people on the opposite platform, bound for the seashore, sketching and painting while waiting for the train.
In London, I arrived at the church as the bells were ringing for the service. St. George’s of Bloomsbury was built between 1716 and 1731. Anthony Trollope was baptized there in 1824. In 1913, the church was the scene of the funeral of Emily Davison, a suffragette who was trampled by King George the Fifth’s horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby. (She had stepped onto the turf course with a suffragette banner during the race; since she had a return ticket to London, it was believed that she was intent on a protest rather than martyrdom.)
Then the British Museum, just a short walk from Russell Square. My grand-nephew Jacob’s interest in chess had rekindled my own, and I was headed for Room 42 and the Lewis Chessmen, some of the oldest chess pieces in the world. Much has been written about them, so I won’t repeat it all here, but they are the oldest complete set of chess pieces yet found, carved from walrus ivory and whale bone, possibly Norse or Icelandic, dating from around 1100 AD. There are several examples of each piece, but it is the queens I love.
Usually, in a figurative set, the queen is regal, icy, beautiful – all appropriate to her position as the most powerful piece on the board. But chess is a game of war, and a king must die, and the Lewis queens seem to know that. They fear what their husband might do next, how goes the battle, if they are to be widowed or die themselves. They are not artificially beautiful, but human, the robes and crown failing to hide weight and age, one hand touches a worried face, another clutches an ale horn. They cannot put the vessel down or it will spill; they must hold it until it is empty. The struggle draws closer; the end is near. Which king will die?
I walked to The Lamb on Lamb’s Conduit Street, a pub that hosted Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Kinglsey Amis and the Queen Mum, although not at the same time. The pub is a shrine to entertainers of the 1800s and early 1900s, with vintage photos of scores of people famous in their day, and a few I recognized: a very young Billie Burke before success took her to America, and to Oz as Glinda the Good Witch, and Fats Waller, whose music carried him across the Atlantic in the other direction. Their framed pictures line the walls; the bar is in the center of the room, and what a magnificent bar, carved wood, cut and frosted glass, pivoting privacy panels.
My next stop was The Queen’s Larder (named for Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, who kept food in the cellar here for her husband, when he was being treated nearby for madness), a pub with framed theater posters and a sign that read, “Well behaved dogs are always welcome.” I missed my dog. The trip to Queen’s Square had brought me into a neighborhood of many hospitals, a place set aside, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “for the alleviation of all hard destinies.” In a small park, a woman walked her ailing husband in the sunlight; outside The Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, a little boy in a wheelchair coughed the cough of an elderly man, and his father leaned over and said, “Would you like some juice?”
I circled back to the British Museum, to see the mummies, who made me thirsty. I sought relief at The Museum Tavern on Great Russell Street, a paradise of old wood, frosted glass, stained glass windows, pressed tin ceiling, old lights, mirrors, flower baskets, and faded drapes of maroon, green and gold. Past patrons include J.B. Priestley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Karl Marx. I had a pint of Tim Taylor’s Golden Best, “the last of the true Pennine light milds.” It was glorious, perhaps the loveliest pint of my visit.
Four people at a nearby table talked about business. A couple, Americans, were trying to sell an Englishman and a man from somewhere in Eastern Europe on a deal that was presently held up in the courts. The American man brushed the legal question aside with a literal hand wave, mumbling assurances of the matter’s speedy and inevitably successful conclusion. There was also a question about there being no real collateral for the investment, and the American again fell to making assurances. I had a hundred Euros on me, but it was staying in my pocket.
On the way back to the hotel, I walked through the streets around the University of London; I saw a young woman in a Bart Simpson t-shirt; it was apparently the British version: Instead of “Bite Me” it said “Lick Me.” I do not recall young women being so forward when I was in college.
I retired early, and decided not to eat dinner, instead opting, again, for the Hotel Russell’s gigantic English breakfast the following morning. Suitably fortified, I set out for Gordon Square, where I sat across from Virginia Woolf’s residence, number 46, where she lived from 1904 to 1907. I communed with her spirit and listened to the crunch of English gravel as people cut through the park on their way to work.
I saw a great many handbills for prostitutes; each one included a color photo of a nearly nude woman said to be the individual you will be paired with if you call the telephone number given. I should think this is doubtful in the extreme, but I did enjoy the writing. The “Sexy Senorita” or “Naughty British Schoolgirl” promised “All Services” (which probably covers more ground than I can imagine), welcoming particulars like “Bubble Bath” and the comforting “No Rush.” These bills were mostly posted in telephone booths, whose walls appeared papered with them, but they made their way to the sidewalk as well where they mingled with the mint wrappers. I’ve seen nothing like these in Skaneateles; perhaps it’s because we have no phone booths.
A cab took me to the airport. There are cheaper ways to get there, but I was bone tired. My driver was a lovely man who told me that he was a Jew from the island of Moishe, north of Madagascar, who sought to glorify God in all that he did. At his request, we stopped at a gas station so he could relieve himself. He returned the car and said, “I must have been holding one liter.” I liked this man very much.
:: Killeen, Texas, 2008 ::
I had occasion to fly west, and found myself bound for Killeen, Texas, the home of Fort Hood. Next to me was a G.I. reading Kill Shot, one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, so we had something to talk about; I had just finished The Hard Way and Die Trying, had a copy of Tripwire waiting for me at home. But because I always fly with Charles Dickens, I was carrying a copy of The Old Curiosity Shop — Little Nell could have used Jack Reacher on her side, but I didn’t go into it.
The young man was returning from Special Forces Selection at Fort Bragg. How was it? “It was the biggest suck-fest I’ve ever been in,” he said, telling me about 23-hour days with little food and miles of running that had landed him in a coma with hypoglycemic shock, and a torn knee. He was disappointed about his knee giving out; they would give him another shot, but he probably wasn’t going to try again.
I asked him where he was bound next. Afghanistan. How long? “Well, they’ll send me for 12 months and then extend me to 15 and then extend me to 18.” But Afghanistan made more sense to him than Iraq. “There, you’re just riding around getting shot at.”
He cared about the men in his unit; he feared for some of them who didn’t have the strength or the sense for combat. I said I had a special concern for National Guardsman; I couldn’t even finish the sentence. “Oh, those poor bastards. They haven’t got the training.”
He talked about a friend on his third deployment to Iraq and how mental illness was inevitable. “You can’t be in the suck for that long and not get screwed up.”
I didn’t ask him how he felt about being sent by men who had never gone to war themselves; I just told him how I felt: It made me angry, a President who couldn’t even bother to finish a sweetheart National Guard hitch, a Vice President who had “other priorities” and skipped along on five deferments, a Secretary of Defense who enlisted as soon as the Korean War was over. Now safe in their old age, sending our troops into harm’s way again and again, extending tours, shortening the time at home, all to avoid reinstating the draft and spreading the burden of this war around the electorate. He nodded, but didn’t add anything.
We swapped stories about Basic Training. I talked about language training, how I’d lived in a barracks with Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force. He rolled his eyes and said, “Infantry and Marines in the same barracks… whoa.” He told me that Marines were still referred to as jarheads. And the Air Force was called “The Chair Force.” I laughed, and told him that was a good description of my service. He told me about his plans for the future, how much money he was saving up, how his twin brother was about to enlist. How he planned to re-up as an officer because he already had his college degree. Maybe go into the FBI after his time in the Army was passed. When we landed, I shook the infantryman’s hand and wished him luck.
In a row behind us was a fresh-faced young woman, perhaps 17 years old, with an infant son who wanted to touch my hat. In front of us, another young woman with a daughter, a toddler, whose blonde hair she brushed with her fingers, whose stroller was pink-tagged and waiting at the top of the of the jetway when she got off the plane. Both young women going home to Fort Hood to rejoin their husbands, smiling with anticipation. In another seat, a young woman, perhaps 18, about to see her boyfriend, unable to sit still.
They were all so young, so happy. Young men and women, filled with hope, loving their children, loving each other, loving their country, who will soon be parted for 12 months, 15 months, 18 months, perhaps forever, by men who slipped into the shadows when they were called and emerged years later waving the flag.
In the terminal, the young girl found her boyfriend; he’d brought flowers. On the down escalator, she stood on the step above him, embraced him, her hair falling around his shoulders, and whispered in his ear the whole way down. He wore his desert fatigues and a shy smile.
At my client’s office, they told me never to fly through Killeen. The flights are always being cancelled. I thought there was another reason never to fly to Killeen — you see the face of truth, not just the numbers.