Guy on the Train: London 1980

English: Gower Street sign, Camden, London WC1

English: Gower Street sign, Camden, London WC1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Daily Prompt: Come Fly with Me

Share a story about the furthest you’ve ever traveled from home.

The guy on the train.

I had been schooled: “In America, people say ‘come on over’ or ‘I’ll meet you next week’, but they don’t mean it.”

Even the book “Let’s Go–England” (a 70’s copy found in a Laundromat) told me that if  invited somewhat casually, with no follow up plan, to a location, it would be considered rude not to show up.  This would be the farthest from home I had ever traveled, and the last thing I wanted to be was rude.

The other thing that I failed to learn by reading the travel books was the train ticket advice…you will need your ticket to get off the train. Simple enough, right? It wasn’t as if I was accustomed to train travel (at least not yet, anyway), so I didn’t have any bad habits to break.

On a train from Gatwick  (ultimate destination, Gower Street via the Goodge street station) I had the weariness and exhilaration that accompanies the completion of a long trek.  I wouldn’t have needed this next-to-final leg of the journey had I flown into Heathrow, but I saved hundreds of dollars, and I met ‘the poet.’

He sits across from me and says ‘hello’ with an English accent so thick I had no idea what in God’s name he was saying. Since the plane was full of Americans, this was my first sip of the UK and I intended to drink deeply.

It was all that I expected. It sounded beautiful and I listened intently, picking up a bit here and there. He seemed fascinated that I was American, and I was fascinated at his fascination, among other things.

He told me he was a poet and I said I kinda was too.  We dug through our belongings. In a moment he came up with a journal out of a worn, cotton messenger bag. I pawed through  my luggage to get mine. I was also packing a Martin guitar in a massive hard shell case, an over-sized soft sided suitcase that said “parental property” all over it, and a purse. Nothing had wheels and I checked my passport (purse) and guitar every eight minutes.

We shared a few poems, and had that non-verbal agreement that writers sometimes have: Yes, these are poems.  It is so embarrassing when someone hands you something that doesn’t seem like a poem to you. I was glad I didn’t have to manufacture some kind of reaction, I was way too tired for that. I had been awake for 19 hours, in the air for 9 of them, and I was having alcohol while severely dehydrated. I wasn’t buzzed, drunk or stoned. I was crazy, but I didn’t yet know it.

The ride was less than an hour and we exchanged numbers, mine, the student number for the house at 35 Gower street.  I spoke to him on the phone a few times but this caused some issues with a boyfriend or two…ahh, the jealousies of youth!

When the train stopped, I went to hop out and the conductor asked for my ticket.  I was wearing my cape and had no pockets, and I was so struck by the ride and my new poet friend that I was flustered and near tears while searching my purse and the bag that held the poems.

A hand reached out behind me holding a pale yellow ticket. The sans-serif font explained my destination to the conductor and to the world. It was as if I was freed from incarceration, the endorphin release brought the tears the rest of the way.

The hand belonged, of course, to my new literary cohort, who had come to the front of the train to see what the commotion was about. We had already said our goodbyes, simple and sincere. Now came an awkward moment and a final glance that I was sure revealed my craziness in full bloom. The last look I saw from him can only be described by the word poignant. I probably looked a little desperate, that would be the kindest word for the moment.

Map of Gower Street

Map of Gower Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We had a few phone times, me on the Gower street phone where the whole house could hear even the slightest whisper; he on a pay phone in a little red booth that I got to see in a Polaroid photo he later sent me.

He sent me a few love poems but it was not “like that”; he wanted to share critiques and, while we were close in age, I believe he felt a little fatherly towards me, writing-wise. If this girl couldn’t get off the train by herself…

After a few phone calls and failed meeting attempts and new, exciting adventures supplanting this one, we stopped talking.  But he that was the boy who helped me validate myself me as a writer, by way of my first European peer review.

Weeks after we met I realized he must have paid a hefty few pounds for me to exit the train (what the delay hoopla was about). In a pocket in my sweater was the pale yellow ticket with the sans-serif font.

International Phone At A London Post Office

london bt post office tower

London Post Office Tower-Just outside my window at Gower Street. Photo: Wikkepedia

In 1980 I wrote a poem that struck me. It didn’t strike me as the best thing I ever wrote (at the time, nor now). It just struck me. I am not sure if you should read this post forward, or backward, from the bottom up. It makes sense either way; the sad part is in the center.

As I shared it (in a writer’s workshop) the blank stares and lack of input from the room might have been a clue to an ordinary wanna-be that this poem was not my best work.  Never the less, I tucked it away but thought about it, visited it, and shared it here and there. I read it publicly twice, both times to quiet rooms.

I don’t know when is a good time to mention it, I guess now’s as good as any. This poem caused my boyfriend to break up with me. He would tell you it was the other way around, whatever.

It went down like this:

I wrote the poem.

I left it on my desk while I showered. (A good writing effort often requires a shower afterwards).

My boyfriend read it. Thought it was about us.

Words flew. Some words, once spoken, cannot be put back.

He came to understand that the poem was not about us, but I could never understand how he could have thought, for one moment, that it was.  I had not yet learned of the fragile nature of relationships, much less of poems.

Since I was in England when I wrote it, a short tutorial is in order. I was literally in a London post office. The signs were literally there.  I did overhear most of this conversation (plus a whole lot more). Even then, I was Berniecing. The part that seemed like poetry to me was the passion that exploded between the people having the conversation.

Little things seem to matter-sitting in the back row of the theater was preferable to the front row to the Brits.  The cost of stamps. Details like that, some which are lost, even to me now.

Having been typed on the manual Underwood typewriter shared by the collective, this poem exists on paper that is nearly transparent and a carries a slight mildewy fragrance . The letters are both light and dark  reflecting the various pressures applied to the keys…the woman’s quotes are the darker indications of a heavy hand at times.

Creativity had to wait it’s turn.  The carriage on that thing was fast, when you hit the return you felt like the typewriter might take flight  until you got the hang of it. We didn’t write our poems and then type them, we typed them as we wrote them. Most of us worked  too close to deadlines rendered impossible by a delicious pint of Guinness looming so close in the nearby pub.

One of the things I didn’t like about poetry readings back in the day was the way the writers  would go on and on about a poem. Just read the damned poem already!  A poem should speak for itself!.  Here’s evidence  I’ve softened over the years, or at least, given up some of my earliest convictions.

International Phone At A London Post Office

A poet shouldn’t speak

of these unfinished things-

“Are you a man? A man

would tell her now.”

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“Will you tell her tonight? Are

You going to be free?”

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Buy your license here.

“Do you have the guts to tell her?

Do you know what this is doing to my family?”

It’s cheaper to pay for your health care all at once.

“Damn it! Just tell me. I need to know.

I can’t eat, can’t sleep. Cannot go on like this!”

Who needs Women Drivers?

We do! Call London Transport.

“But do you have the guts to say it?”

At last, you can sit in the back row again.

Highlights by Clairol.

“Do you have the guts to say I love you?”

Posted on

The Two French Girls Who Showed Me Everything! (1980)

Impression Sunrise

Impression Sunrise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To tell you about the two French girls, first I have to tell you a bit about the squat. I’ll tell you more about it later, all you need to know now is this: when the two French girls were there, it was pure art, all the time. They were either painting, crafting, or sewing.

And talking.

In French.

My six years of high-school French gave me nothing but the bravado to try and talk to them.  It was useless, so we would sit and knit and laugh. Sometimes there was an interpreter around. I think the bond that we formed stemmed from an understanding that our language skills would never be adequate for average communication, and that it was OK.

When I spent a whirlwind Easter break visiting Germany, Austria and Switzerland in 11 days, (1976) the most important thing I learned was that when it was time to do a semester abroad, it would be England for me.  While I was always interested in Royalty and Queenly things, it was my lack of faith in my ability to survive in a land where English was not king that kept me from my original dream destination: France.

At around 3 in the afternoon the French girls would come over to the squat and we would all have tea. It was quite ceremonious and calming.  After tea most days we would put on a big pot of water and throw in an onion. For the rest of the afternoon, whoever stopped by would drop a vegetable into the pot, and often we would have a hearty soup by suppertime. Sometimes it was really good, sometimes, not so much.

One day the French girls stopped by and physically stopped me from cutting up the onion.  We were heading out on an adventure! I was afraid to go, as I had no assurance that we wouldn’t get separated (or worse), and I did have dreams of returning to America one day. Still, they persisted, and dressed me up in some of their clothes (my first leggings) and made me up. When I looked in the mirror I looked like something out of Cabaret.  I heard them saying “Nous allons au musée.” I thought they wanted me to sing something.

We waited for one of the others to come home (we never left the place unattended, rule #1 of squat life) and off we went. The girls never seemed to have any money, but on this day they paid for all three of us to ride the Underground. I heard something like “Cette fille pourrait marcher plus vite.” Since I never got much past verbs, I did understand that they wanted me to go faster.

When we exited the tube we were a block away from The Courtauld  Museum.

As we made our way through the scary (and  thankfully,  attended) rickety metal elevator that led to the floors with the paintings, I grew increasingly depressed. We went through much effort to get here, and I tried to open my mind to what these girls thought was the best that London had to offer.

There were the horses. Oh God, the horses.  As I stated earlier, this was a small little place, but there were endless old pictures of horses. Mostly tan, brown and black horses with an occasional smattering of red on the outfit of the guy riding the horse. Horses in battles. Horses lost in bloody battles. Small people the height of children but with very grown up faces painted in the same dark dash-of red style. There was even a horse getting a nineteenth century horse shower.

Horses were only outnumbered by the women in the Rubin and Baroque selections, the same dark gloomy settings, women with occasional (now familiar) smatterings of red on their fainting couches, bored looking women appearing  to look over the artist’s shoulder, or beyond the artist’s eye.

I was ready to stop, to give up this charade of a parade that I was in with the two French girls who, it was beginning to seem to me, never stopped talking.  Then it happened. My Monet moment.

We went through the doors to the Impressionists. Paintings I had spent my whole life studying, paintings I didn’t even realize were all in one place!–were all in one place. The first one I saw was the Van Gogh. Never my favorite, surprise came with the tears that stung my eyes. I did a quick twirl around the room and saw the Eduard Manet, the Claude Monet. We spent the afternoon browsing the handiwork of Degas, Cézanne,  Renoir, – oh the Renoirs!

We stayed until the museum closed, sneaking the occasional forbidden picture with my 110 camera (which took impressionistic pictures all by itself). I felt an arm around my shoulder and I was suddenly flanked by the French girls. They looked at me knowingly. I understood something  important happened in me that day, and all I could say was “merci.”