The London Why (Part Two)

posted in: Day In The Life, Paean, Travel 26
A look at Battersea Park from ‘Davies’s New Map of the British Metropolis, The Boundaries of the Boroughs, County Court Districts, Railways, and Modern Improvements’ (1852). Image: Wikipedia

 

When Mozart was eight years old, he went on tour. That’s how you roll when you’re eight and you’re Mozart.

Accompanied by his awesome dad, Wolfgang hit 17 cities, all the usual suspects on the European drawing room circuit; Paris, Vienna, Rome, etc.

Their last stop was London. If I walk out my door this morning and hang a right, it will take me 13 minutes to get to 180 Ebury Street where Leopold and Wolfgang ended up living for about a year. Mozart wrote his very first symphony at 180 Ebury Street, aptly titled Symphony No. 1. 

Say I decide to extend my hypothetical morning walk. Let’s say I swing by Gail’s Bakery and purchase a warm custard croissant and a hot cappuccino, and I think we can all agree that I should hypothetically do this. If I head south toward the Thames, it will take me 27 minutes to arrive at Cheyne Walk, slightly longer if my body feels weak on account of that demonically good croissant, so … Let’s say it takes me 35 minutes.

Cheyne Walk is just a quarter-mile long the way a lot of streets here are just a quarter-mile long. It runs along the north bank of the Thames between the Albert Bridge and Battersea Bridge, and Cheyne Walk is a lovely, lovely place, indeed. In spring, wisteria grows so high along some of the buildings it seems to pour down from the top; in autumn, well-manicured hedgerows are blanketed with crimson and gold-edged leaves, wide and fat and crispy, that sift down from the oak trees overhead. The apartment buildings would be imposing if they weren’t so charming, but they can’t get away from it. You might see a marmalade cat peeking through one of the tall, leaded-glass windows; all the pediments and pilasters are rounded; all the brick chimneys were clearly built to accommodate Santa Claus. Who wouldn’t want to live, at least for awhile, on Cheyne Walk?

The street has existed for about 300 years, so a lot of people have lived here. They have eaten their breakfasts, played their records, written and received letters, gone to sleep and gotten out of beds in these buildings. And it happens that a few Cheyne Walk residents made quite a name for themselves before, during, or after they lived here. This short street is notable not just for its beauty, but for all the notable people who lived on it. Dig:

George Eliot, author
J.M.W. Turner, painter
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter
Thomas Carlyle, philosopher
Bertrand Russell, philosopher
W. Somerset Maugham, author
J.M. Whistler, painter
Hilaire Belloc, poet and historian
Sylvia Pankhurst, superstar suffragist
Henry James, author
T.S. Eliot, poet

Amazing, right? And that is in no way an exhaustive list of all the remarkable people who had/have addresses on Cheyne Walk — google it and you’ll see. But the names up there mean the most to me because those people produced work that resolves tumblers in the combination locks of my brain. Even better, all that work was completed and all those people were dead way before I was even born.

This is infinitely comforting to me.

George Eliot knew all about heartache way before I ever went through a breakup, and what she wrote about love was waiting for me. Rossetti’s paintings of female flawlessness existed long before I looked in the mirror and admitted, as I did the other day, that I’m not so young. Just as the bloom of youth in La Ghirlandata is eternal, so is the vague despair I feel when I discover that my maiden days are over. Countless 40-something women have looked at La Ghirlandata and felt this; to join their club is both a defeat and a relief. I’m not alone; none of us are. Books and paintings that stand the test of time remind me that as special as I am, I’m not so special. There’s pure encouragement in it, if you’re open to it.

London does the same thing for me. Did you know that London is 2,000 years old? Two thousand.

I didn’t know that until recently, but it’s true: In 43 AD, the Celts who were loafing around were sacked by the Romans, who established the outpost they called “Londinium”. From there followed more sacking, and fires, plagues, wars, revolution, political chaos, etc. And now, 2,000 years later, here we are, strolling down Cheyne Walk with croissant crumbs on our jacket.

London has endured and that endurance makes me feel good, cuts me down to size in the best possible way, just like La Ghirlandata. London is an old place. It’s seen my type before. It didn’t rejoice when I got here and it won’t weep when I leave, because London doesn’t care about me — or you — that much. Not in the same way that New York City doesn’t care about one person. New York City doesn’t care about you because it’s doesn’t have time for you, and this feels hostile, like the way a mean girl treats you in the cafeteria. London doesn’t particularly care about you but London has nothing but time, so it might decided to watch you as you about your day. And, because it’s seen everything, if you screw up — when you screw up — it’s not inclined to laugh at you. There’s nothing new under the sun and besides, London is tired. London doesn’t want to laugh at you; London wants its slippers and its cuppa. Do this or don’t, London says; try this or don’t. Be a person in London for a brief flicker of time, dear, if that’s what you want. Then London gives you a pat and turns her great, heavy head to the next upstart to eventually them the same thing.

Being in an old city like this — being in London — makes me feel like I’m part of the human race, no more, no less. Now that I’ve felt it, finally, I confess that I don’t particularly want to leave. With the exception of Chicago, the other cities I’ve lived in made me feel like I was auditioning for them. In London, I’m just cast.

I thought this second half of the first post about London would lead off with how I ended up here, but Mozart and Cheyne Walk got in the way. The reason isn’t so crazy: The company Eric is with has a London office, and the opportunity arose for him to work on a project here for a few months. We arrived in August; we leave the first week of December.

I love it here. A lot. Like, an alarming amount.

Journal Buddies #12 : Write From The Perspective Of a Mouse Going Down a Hole

posted in: Day In The Life 7
The cat is dread and the mouse is me. Image: Illustration from the ‘Reading and Literature First Reader’ by Garuuette Taylor and Margaret Free, (1911).

 

 

This is the 12th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.

 

The second time I went to the Las Vegas airport, I was escaping. (To read the first part of this story, click here.)

Rental car returned, I got a taxi back to my hotel at the Bellagio. The cabbie had the radio on and it brought bad news about the virus and the markets, and there was reporting about President Trump’s announcement the night before of an E.U. travel ban. My stomach was tight. The president wouldn’t just suddenly ground all domestic flights, I told myself; it would be disastrous to displace people under such circumstances. But what if the circumstance is a global pandemic and a stock market crash? What if, for reasons of contagion or economics, great chunks of domestic flights were about to be cancelled or significantly delayed? Forget Mexico: By the time we turned onto the Strip I was trying to calculate how to get the hell out of Las Vegas, and soon. Being in an unfamiliar city in the middle of the desert with two suitcases of dirty laundry and no husband? The back of my neck was clammy.

I called Eric. It went to voicemail.

Adding to the stress of all this was that my man had just spent some eight or nine days in the San Francisco/Oakland area. This was sub-optimal. The virus had been loose in the Bay Area for weeks, they said, and you may recall that when one of the first cruise ships full of infected people was finally allowed to come into port, it docked in San Francisco. Eric actually — albeit accidentally — saw the ship as it came in.

He picked up when I called back, but my relief was short-lived. It was time to cancel Mexico, I said. Too much had changed in the past 24 hours. To my astonishment, he vacillated. We’d be fine, he said, and if the situation was escalating, all the more reason complete our mission. You’re crazy, I said; did he really think leaving the country in an escalating situation was a good idea? We have time, he said. We do not, I said. Fine, he said. Fine, I said, but I didn’t appreciate his tone (always a great choice of words in an argument.) So … now what? He should come to Vegas so we could leave for Chicago, together, first thing in the morning. No, he should come to Vegas and we leave tonight. If there weren’t flights to Vegas tonight, maybe I ought to fly to San Francisco and we get a red-eye home. No, no, he should just fly to Chicago and I should fly … Wait, where the hell are we? Where are you? Where are you? 

I want to pause here for a moment and make it clear — especially to those who think my fears were irrational to begin with — that I was not having a panic attack. I have had two actual panic attacks in my day and I was as far from one of those as I was from my front door. I wasn’t panicking. I was simply enduring the mounting tension that was beginning to give the atmosphere a personality and I did not trust that personality. I wasn’t shaking, I didn’t feel like crying; it just felt like every moment counted. It felt like every move I made had to be smart if I was going to stay one step ahead of all this.

We decided Eric would fly directly to Chicago, and so would I. We had to get home before things changed again. I opened the Southwest app on my phone. There was a flight out of Vegas to Chicago at 4:20 p.m.

It was ten to three.

This gave me just 30 minutes to pack, check-out, and get back to the airport.

When the cab pulled up to the Bellagio and the valet opened my door, it was all I could do not to run straight into the hotel, and sprint through the din of the cavernous casino to the bank of elevators. But I didn’t run. I walked.

This wasn’t an amble, mind you. I didn’t have time for amble. But I forced myself to sort of … glide. Yes, the clock was ticking, but a grown woman running through a public place — especially a busy hotel — would attract attention and surely, surely, I thought, everyone else had been listening to the news and were as tense as I was. It takes one person to yell “Fire!” in a theater to cause a stampede for the door, and this was precisely what I was trying to avoid. I put a placid look on my face and smiled when I greeted the elevator attendant. The doors closed. The car went up. When the doors opened again and I saw no one waiting for the elevator, I shot out like someone had fired a starting gun and whipped down the long hallways to my room.

Folks, I’ve never packed so fast in my life. Normally, I am organized to the point of being neurotic when I pack a suitcase. There’s a place for everything and everything goes into its place. A well-organized suitcase makes for a well-organized mind which makes for a well-organized trip, that’s what I say — it’s practically science! But that afternoonI did my best Tasmanian Devil, flinging things in as quickly as I could: Panties, boots, loose toiletries (pure agony), sneakers, books, notepads, nightgowns — this kind of packing job would’ve been physically painful if I had time to think about it.

The heavy door to my room shut behind me and I headed back down to the lobby. With two suitcases, it was even more important that I remain calm as I made my way back to the taxi line. I marveled at all the people at the slot machines, the craps tables, the bars, the restaurants, drinking their double vodkas as dealers dealt poker hands. I had visions of announcements over the loudspeaker, of shouts and crowds rushing to get out the door. Was this what foresight felt like? Was I leaving just in time to escape pandemonium and take one of the last on-time flights out of Vegas?

However in free-fall the airline industry might be, even after all that’s happened and all that’s still to come, domestic flights still haven’t been grounded. There was plenty of time for me to get home from Vegas and plenty of time for Eric to get out of California. But that’s not what it felt like the second time I went to the airport 20 days ago. That afternoon, I felt like a mouse being chased by a cat, and in the nick of time, I had slipped through a hole to safety.

The hole is quarantine. And we’ve been here ever since.

Opening The Door, Part I.

posted in: Chicago 0
This, friends, is what you get when you put "flip-flop, footwear" into WikiCommons image search. Thankfully I did not find this person in my home when I opened the door.
This, friends, is what you get when you put “flip-flop, footwear” into WikiCommons image search. Thankfully I did not find this person in my home when I opened the door.

There’s much more I want to say about what I found when I entered my condo on Thursday for the first time in a year-and-a-half. For now, a list of things left behind by the tenants who lived in my condo while I was out of town:

1. One pair dusty flip-flops (women’s)
2. A nice collection of dishwashing detergents
3. Blowdryer (unisex)
4. IKEA comforter, sheets, pillowcases
5. A bunch of medical textbooks, including “The Human Brain Coloring Book” (it sounds a lot cooler than it turned out to be)
6. Guides of things to do in Chicago
7. Dust bunnies the size of flip-flops (men’s)
8. English toffee from Trader Joe’s (probably intentional, tasted fresh)
9. Small screwdriver (in bathroom)

and, among a few other things:

10. Good vibes

Hat Frisbee.

posted in: Art 0
This hat came up when I searched for a public domain image of a stocking cap. You should've seen the other ones.
This hat came up when I searched for a public domain image of a stocking cap. You should’ve seen the other ones.

On the train late this afternoon, I was out of sorts. My psyche was pulling to the right while some other part of my self was tugging on the leash to go left. This is a strange feeling but I was on a wobbly train on top of it. Good thing I had a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee or I might’ve slipped through the cracks.

The train conductor announced the next stop: Smithsonian. I jerked up in my seat, seized with the desire to not go home but go there, to Smithsonianworld. Seeing some art would jerk my brain stem back into alignment for sure. I could do it fast, too; take a quick dip in the eternal pond and then get back to my day. The Smithsonian museums are all free, so you just walk right in, fill up your tank and walk back out the door. Surely a painting or some kind of strange installation would break my mini-fugue.

I decided this almost too late, however; right before the doors closed at the Smithsonian stop, that’s when I decided to execute my plan. I shot out of my seat at the last possible second — scaring the bees out of everyone, I’m sure — and jammed my body through the closing doors. I was the person that annoys everyone riding a train: the person who delays the train leaving because they’re standing in the doors. Sorry about that, comrades.

The doors released their silver jaws and I went, “Phew!” and began to walk away. Then I hear this, “Hey!” and I turn around to see my stocking cap flying through the air.

I had left my stocking cap on my seat and someone inside the train had chucked it out the doors as they closed for real. “Wow, thanks!” I called after the car as it pulled away. Someone threw my hat out for me. They saved my hat. I stood there for a second, feeling my heart get warm and my brain get right. Also, flying stocking caps = comedy.

Up at street level, I passed several museums but couldn’t go in. I couldn’t handle the Holocaust Museum, clearly; I couldn’t give proper attention to the African American museum or the Chinese art collection at another grand building I passed. I saw a Barbara Krueger exhibit advertised at the Hirschorn but no freaking way could I have handled Barbara Krueger today. I found the sculpture garden out back of the Hirschorn, though, and that was just right.

My stocking cap kept me warm as I walked among the statues.