April 25th, 2005

me: ooh!

It is always happy hour somewhere.

The man who gets on the train is the kind you eye peripherally and hope he won't sit next to you. He sits next to me. He smells like a beer factory. He's mumbling to himself and ruffling his wild shock of grey hair with filthy fingernails. I sit tensely in my seat and lean toward Marco with an extra semblance of absorption in my book (Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita). But I'm not paying attention to Humbert's hubris and the old drunk knows it. He tilts towards me and speaks, repeating himself several times as if searching for the proper inflections, the ones that have been so drowned in drink that they no longer come naturally to him.

"ExCUSE me, EXcuse me, excuse ME, Miss," he says, waving his hands about desperately, willing them to convey what his voice will not.

I look at Marco with wide eyes and lower my book slightly.

"I'm trying, I'm TRYing, I'M trying to get to Notting Hill, Notting Hill Gate. Do you, do YOU know, how I get to Nottinghillgate." The last three words tumble out together in a rush.

I peer at the tube map across from us. "You want the Central Line," I say, as neutrally and clearly as possible. I am trying not to encourage conversation, but neither can I convincingly pretend I haven't heard him.

"The Central Line, I want the Central Line."

He falls silent momentarily. I can sense him moving with the motion of the train, repeating his gestures: hand through hair, hands rubbing together, hands on knees, back to hair.

"Miss, miss, MISS? How do I, How do I get to Notting Hill Gate?"

I peer at the map again. We are about to stop at Leicester Square. "You want to get off at the stop after this and change to the Central Line."

"Are you sure?"

I freeze. This has come out with unexpected clarity. For the first time I turn my head to look squarely at his profile. Gaunt face, symmetrical jaw, strong straight nose. Bright blue eyes that show the traces of what must once have been an intelligent man, the one who has briefly surfaced from underneath the layers of dirt and befuddlement and sadness to ascertain whether or not I'm just trying to get rid of him.

"You're not sure, are you?"

"No, I am. That's what the map says." I point at it.

He cannot or will not – it doesn't really matter which – focus on the map. The train lurches to a stop. He falls over the arm of the seat, nearly hitting me with his arm, although I have braced myself against the other side, since my reflexes have allowed me to predict this eventuality.

A pause, and a horrified, "I'm sosorry miss, please 'scuse me." His tone is sincere. Even years of drink can't override his ingrained educated English male social responses. I shrink away as his reeking breath hits me, giving only the impression of repulsion, which is only half the truth as I forgave him even before it happened.

We sit in silence until the next stop, Tottenham Court Road. The carriage doors slide open.

"Miss? Miss, what do I do now?"

I try to sound both urgent and kind. "You need to get off here."

"I need to get off here, here, HERE."

He launches himself off the train and disappears down the platform. A sweaty, unshaven tourist with a giant backpack takes his place. I try to read my book and fail.

~*~


At a bar in Shoreditch, we are talking to our American friend, our favorite barista, who will be returning to the US tomorrow. We have come to say goodbye and listen to his friend play drums in his jazz band. The drummer is by far the best musician in the band. As we stand around with our drinks, a tall blonde woman stumbles into the bar. She fumbles clumsily between the tables and down the narrow stairwell, clutching at whatever or whoever can steady her passage. She bumps into the bar. The bartender firmly shakes her head. The woman turns around and stumbles back out, falling over our friend in the process. He watches her leave and bursts out laughing as she pushes on the wrong side of the door, trying to get out to the pavement.

When we leave an hour later, we see her leaning over a skip with her head inside it. A couple of men are pointing at her from the opposite side of the street and sniggering. She hears them and straightens. She pulls her flimsy shawl over her shoulders and walks away.

~*~


We step onto the bus and pass our Oyster cards over the readers. We stand near the exit since we are only three stops from our destination. Marco turns his back to it and I press into him for a kiss. We notice that the exit door keeps beeping and turn to look at it. A man who looks fifty but is probably thirty is trying to get on the bus through the exit. His fist is firmly clenched around a plastic bag full of food, but the door, though it won't close on his hand, also won't stay open long enough for him to pull it back towards him. Finally the bus driver overrides it. The man feels his way along the side to the front of the bus. The bus driver grudgingly opens the door to let him on. He staggers to the back, sits, puts his feet up and starts eating noisily and shamelessly, like an overgrown baby.

~*~


You have to be careful how much you allow yourself to notice in this city. If you don't, it will break your heart.