Thursday, December 06, 2007

"Dude, We Have a Problem."

After my walking-talking meeting with the BFI cat, I saw London with new eyes. Gone was the wonder of walking through the world's largest (and dirtiest) outdoor museum. In came the feeling that it was just another place on earth for me to be. Doing whatever it is that I do. Clearly a different place than others I have lived in or visited. But nothing that was fundamentally larger than me.

That, of course, is when the mouth of the city gaped open and took a big, humbling bite out of me. In the form of one gawdawful day.

These days happen when you travel for long periods of time. They're unavoidable. How you deal with them proves your road mettle. Without doubt. One way or the other.

This kind of day pokes you in the eye, kicks you in the balls, then hovers over you--deciding whether to add a third, fourth or more kind of pain--while you writhe about. These days happen when you're away from home for more than just a week at the beach or a 3-day conference in Atlanta. They’re completely pitiless. And nothing makes you more sick. Not so much for home. But for something that feels comfortable. Knowable. Familiar.

Something that doesn’t involve dragging 70 lbs of clothes, flyers and equipment all over London.

My cell phone gets no service in Europe. I do not wear a watch. Which means that keeping time had been a daily challenge. A confusing one at that as I’d been in two different European time zones.

If there had been time to do some serious watch shopping, I may have avoided that gawdawful day in London. Alas, the watches I’d seen were either expensive arm jewelery or didn’t meet my immediate needs. Or both. Consequently, I had to be creative about how to trigger the end of each night’s sleep.

Which places us on the morning of Wed the 28th. The homie Adam--who graciously provided shelter in his brand new, yet to be furnished apartment in Hackney--and I both made mistakes in the way we set alarms on Tues night. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but I do know that...well, let me just tell you.

A knock on my door woke me up and one sentence set the tone for the day.

“Dude, we have a problem.”

He informed me that it was 8:30 am. My flight departed at 9:40. That’s not much time to travel halfway across London and check in to Gatwick, but I crammed all of my things into my bags anyway and gave it a go.

We had no car. A taxi was not an option. Nor was a double-decker. Best bet was the Tube.

Sardines are the obvious metaphor that might describe the scene on the Underground during rush hour. That’s really not the whole story, though. And it’s not all the way accurate either.

An assembly line of human goings supplies densely packed train cars that depart every two minutes with a steady stream of passengers. You fight your way up, down and around the station. Fight your way onto the train. Fight your way off. Passively, of course. And without much sound. There are no loud conversations among the British. There is no echo of trains moving elsewhere on the subway system, either. There is just you—plus whatever crap you carry—quietly struggling to squeeze into half as much space as you really need. Oh, and 15 jillion other people trying to do the same thing at the same time. With 15 jillion more people coming right behind you.

We transferred trains once. Then again. Time quickly slipped away from me. We both realized there was no way I was going to board Easy Jet Flight 0942.

Bummer. With a capital B. For real. ‘Cause I was supposed to return to Amsterdam to do a radio interview that afternoon to promote my movie.

After we extracted ourselves from the moving metal amoeba, we found an internet connection. I checked flights. Called Philip and Sasha from Black Soil to see what my options were for arriving in time to do the interview. There was no flight available that would get me back to Amsterdam to do it.


Missed flight. Missed interview. Several new bruises from wrestling a me and a half through the Tube during rush. Oh...and I think the dollar lost 5 more cents to the pound while I endured all of that. Putting my money halfway to worthless.

Suddenly, London didn’t seem like just another place on earth for me to be. It felt like someplace I had to escape before the bank notified me that all of my accounts had been overdrawn. And I still had 70 lbs of my crap to lug around. Somewhere, a voice inside of me couldn’t figure out whether to whine or scream my disgust.

I logged onto the internet and checked all the choices for planes, trains and automobiles and found one semi-affordable option: book a new flight on Thurs. It cost me two pairs of sneakers and a couple CDs. Or a third of one month’s rent.

Adam, kind soul that he is, bought breakfast for both of us. A proper English breakfast with sausage, eggs, beans, toast, tea, tomatoes and mushrooms.

Since I was stuck in London for another day, Adam and I figured we’d try to make the best of it. He had only moved back to the country two weeks earlier and was still setting himself up. He had an apartment. Was still looking for a job. Had just opened a bank account. And still needed to buy a cell phone.

It seemed like a simple enough chore.

We hit up the cell phone store. Adam copped a mobile. We found a Starbucks and he got online to launch the service for his new phone. The sun even made an appearance. Maybe the day wouldn’t be so bad after all.

An hour and a half later, the battery on my laptop died. With him still stuck on step 26 of the 4,968-step process.

We found another Starbucks that had an electrical outlet. I had to ask a couple of blokes in business suits to give up their table so we could plug into the only one in the store. Adam got back online to resume the process. He got bumped off. Back online again. Bumped off again. Back online. Advanced to step 37. Bumped off. Back on. Was told to go back to step one.

When he finally made it to step 40, he was told that his mailing address was not being recognized and that he’d have to contact the Royal Post to get it verified. At no point was he invited to contact a live person. ‘Cause, um, there are no live people left working for his new cell phone provider, O2.

Obviously, this was not my battle. But when you watch someone struggle to restrain themselves from throwing a tantrum in a coffee shop, your energy can’t help but sour. Just a little bit. And that’s not a good thing. ‘Specially not when the day has already shit on you in about 8 different ways.

Mid-afternoon had crept upon us. We’d already drug all of my stuff through the morning rush hour on the tube. And were about to get stuck dragging it through the evening rush, too.

So...we jumped back on the train. Rather, we elbowed our way back through the Underground. Again, it was the best of a bad lot of travel options.

We arrived back at Adam’s place and made one more feeble attempt to salvage the day. Adam went to the Royal Post. And I tried to do laundry.

Seemed like two easy enough chores.

The apartment was fitted with a single machine which washed and dried. I fumbled through the instruction booklet, dumped some detergent into the receptacle and hit start on a very small load of jeans and boxers. Half hour later, the buzzer rang. I fumbled again through the instruction booklet, pressed a couple buttons and left the machine alone to do some drying.

Adam returned from the Post with bad news. He was going to have to wait 2-3 business days to have his address verified before his phone service could be activated.

More than an hour had passed since I started the dryer cycle so I figured I’d check my jeans and boxers. Surprisingly, they were very hot and very damp.

After an hour?

Perhaps I’d pressed the wrong combination of buttons. Or maybe I was proving Adam’s theory that I was mildly retarded. He had yet to learn how to properly use the machine, so he was little help. I re-read the instructions. Pressed some buttons. And we went out to get some dinner.

We wandered around. Heads down. Bellies growling. Every menu seemingly more expensive than the last. Finally, we saw a pizza place. Grabbed a table. Ordered a couple of drinks. And sighed a bit when the pretty Italian waitress returned with pints and pizza.

The day was pretty much over. There was only night to survive. And since Elie Wiesel was no where to be found, we chose the next best--and presumably cheapest—-entertainment option appropriate for such a day. We bought tickets for Rescue Dawn. A movie about prisoners of war trying to survive a Vietnamese concentration camp.

Given the day I’d endured, I found it to be a very cheerful film. Someone somewhere had it much worse off than me. And no matter how exhausted, frustrated or broke I was, my situation could have been much, much, much worse.

When we got back to the apartment, I optimistically checked the dryer.

Still damp.


Such is life.

In London.

On the road.

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