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.

London Calling

-Part 1-

It never occurred to me that I might have trouble getting from St. Petersburg to the Miami airport. Steve One said he would take me, his reliability for things like airline schedules had been proven (we did get to Lakeland for the Dylan ticket sales, didn’t we?) and yet still there was yet another plan developing behind the scenes, unbeknownst to me.

My parents drove down to say goodbye, a long drive for them and we didn’t even share a meal. Long as in a carton of Salem long, a case of beer long, these were the days when the roadways were unencumbered with things like Breathalyzers and Triple A, the cops would actually help a stranded motorist change a tire.

There was a Steve at each end of the trip. Steve One’s goodbye would coincide with my folks’, and he would kiss me in front of them before driving away, humorous because we didn’t share that kind of intimacy normally and because my parents could now be glad to see me go. A year prior, I mistakenly thought his Conscience Objection to the Viet Nam war would garner approval (he served two years at a desk job and simultaneously cared for aging parents); I look back at my naiveté on this matter.  Steve Two was already at Gower Street, scoping out Museums and Pubs.

The details are fuzzy, but I ended up riding pre-dawn to Miami with a stranger, the cousin of a friend who was going to the airport also. He seemed alarmed at my lack of luggage (if you needed more stuff, you weren’t getting away from it all) and my lack of plane ticket. This was the day of Freddie Laker,where you went to the airport and stepped on to the next available seat to Gatwick.  That Heathrow would have been the airport of desire was another detail overlooked by me. This was before smart phones and databases; this was the era of maps and hearsay.

I didn’t need a crush; I was flanked by Steves and had grown to see things as unrequited before they had a chance to take root. But it didn’t get by me that my driver was handsome and talkative, and we were riding in an awesome car with an awesome stereo. We developed a bond over the five hour drive and he didn’t want to leave me alone without a ticket, but I assured him I would be fine and watched him leave for the gate for his pre-paid conventional flight.

I only had to watch one plane take off before it was my turn. After a 3 hour wait I was buckled in and feeling the relief of take-off. I was relieved to be heading to my semester abroad that I had dreamed and planned for years. Relief to be out of the crowded waiting room, relief that I only had to wait for a few hours to get my seat, relief that in a day I would be seeing Molly and Ken, and resuming my plan for my life.

-Part 2-

By the time I arrived at 35 Gower Street I had been awake for 24 hours not including the 9 hour flight. I was too excited to nap on the plane so I thought I would try cocktails. After the flight was the train, where I met a guy who whipped out a notebook and wrote out directions for me to London’s center. We shared more cocktails and he repeated for me, three times, that the key to travel was to hold on to your ticket stub, that, unlike America, you would not be able to get off the train without your ticket. He gave me a lot of advice on currency exchange and how to use the Tube, and where to go on a tough day (sit through a Scientologist presentation and they will feed you a hot meal).

English: Street Sign in London, Gower Street, ...

English: Street Sign in London, Gower Street, Camden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I knocked on the door and was greeted with the searching eyes of the housekeeper who must have been alarmed by my appearance, if not my fragrance. I had a suitcase and a guitar. Years later I would compare this fatigue to the ins and outs of anesthesia…you want to come out but you kinda don’t. Someone slaps you in the face. There’s usually a headache involved.

The official students had been there for a few days, and from the top of the stairs I heard David yelling “Do I hear Jaye?” I was surprised by his surprise, why didn’t people believe me when I said I was going to London?

I was taken to a tiny room with bunk beds where I could stash my stuff and tidy up-and then, still on my sleepless marathon, I was taken to Molly and Ken’s room. Ken greeted me with open arms, gave me a hug and seemed delighted to see me. Molly came from behind a corner and I quickly read the “shit Jaye, what have you done” look in  her eyes.  I stayed 2 nights while various phone calls were made and deals were struck. Ken advocated for me to stay and catch up with the studies, consisting of Museum browsing by day and theater-going at night, with plenty of pub crawling in the middle.

Three times in my life I would overhear a couple arguing over something I had done, and this would be the first.  I sat in my 5£ a night bunk-bed hearing Molly through the plaster walls making her point that if I got to stay, the whole selection process would be out the window and it wouldn’t be fair to the students who legitimately had been accepted to the program.  Ken seemed understanding but anxious to look for a solution that would allow me to stay. That I had caused this friction between them caused me genuine pain. It was the only moment where I thought maybe I wouldn’t do this again. I went with growing delirium to the guest room. 24 hours after that I was on my way out of Gower Street, but I always think of it as my London home.