Friday, May 14, 2010

London 2003 - Thursday Evening excerpt, part 2

Although I (surprisingly) still had some beer left (it was a large-size glass) I couldn’t help forming the survival-oriented question: Does the beer tap still work after this power outage? I had no more idea than when I ordered my first drink whether I should hail (whatever that means for an introvert) the waitress, wait for her to amble over, or whether I should go on over to the bar if I wanted another drink. With the zero pace of being waited on at my table and the slow pace of my being acknowledged at the bar, I couldn’t see how this whole roomful of people had ever gotten drinks, but some of them had what looked like fresh ones. (Craig said later in response to my whining about this experience, “Maybe when you stood at the bar they thought you were waiting for someone,” and I hated the fact that even from home he had a better grip on the bar experience than I did.)

Now I noticed that the corner lights I had seen over the metal pizza counter had gone off, although I did see dim emergency-looking light (backup lighting, so the cooks didn’t burn themselves at the stove) through a swinging door into what I thought must be the real kitchen. It wasn’t pleasant to be given thoughts of a kitchen right now, since I envisioned partly cooked food sitting on cooling cooktops and unpowered refrigerator units. If the kitchen was not closed, it should be.

The bar in general looked darker now, with the darkness somehow reflecting off the dark TV screen, whose grainy image I had been staring at earlier (before it lightning-zipped off), reflecting in annoyance that a talking head newsperson viewed while listening to bar music wasn’t much of an entertainment package – but now, it would have been great to see any type of show flash back to life on the screen. I was comforted that I had at least a little (warming) beer left in my glass, which defined me as a person in the moment, a still-consuming customer waiting for things to resume.

However, the rest of my planned evening was in question – venturing back toward the restaurant was no longer an option, since I could tell it was dark down that hall. Someone in a hotel uniform had shut the wooden swing doors, with only darkness showing through the small round windows at the top. I didn’t understand why they needed to be closed (other than to keep bar customers from noticing that the entire hotel was dark), but I hoped it was a temporary thing – I didn’t like my budding thoughts on whether the closed doors might signify fire safety, panic control, or what.

Despite everything, I was glad to be on the ground floor and not power-stranded in my small-windowed room or, worse thought, in the very box-like shower. Continuing to look around the room for comfort and distraction, I noted that only a few tables of people had left and the people currently sitting (there were only a few bar stools) and standing at the bar seemed unfazed by the power outage, probably because they all had visible drinks. I didn’t feel an immediate urge to leave…since tripping with my candle earlier, I didn’t think I was sufficiently in command to walk back to that bar down the street, and despite this place having no power, I (with some shame at my provincial-ness) liked its American-like openness, with an outside wall of windows and double doors to the street outside. I also liked the relative lack of smokiness, even though by choosing low smoke I was surely depriving myself of anything near authentic pub life on a Thursday night.

I felt comfortable now, but I pretended I was at least toying with the idea of going outside to that other pub, by now almost mythical to my imagination, although I knew exactly what street it was on (hardly mythical) since it was so close to the St. Giles. After all, I could have set my parameters to have one glass of wine, which I wouldn’t glug like beer, and which wouldn’t render me incapable of protecting myself from any pub or street dangers. I could then return to the safety of my hotel for more wine, if I wanted it, as a nightcap. (Uh, yeah.)

The St. Giles bar tap did seem to be working, since I saw a guy bringing drinks back to a girl at their table. Probably the beer tap wasn’t electric, and I guessed the staff could do at least cash transactions manually. Actually the guy I watched had a bottled beer but his female companion’s was draft. The draft glass had no foam head on it, but I didn’t know enough about the physics of draft beer to extrapolate much about the beer setup from this…bar power on?, off? Who knew.

Other than being down to my last sip of Heineken, I was surviving well and felt no rush to leave – the room temperature didn’t seem much colder than before, and I had my coat with me anyway. If I got tired of staring at customers who had the fresh beer I coveted, I could go back to reading, squinting in the dark like I did on the plane coming over when the lights didn’t work for my row. Admittedly, it turned out to be a little difficult to concentrate on reading, especially after I drained my beer glass, but I hoped that if I went through the motions (i.e. glancing through the same book page three or four times with only slightly increasing comprehension), the repeated act would eventually bring me more fully into the moment at hand. The concept of using forced repeated activity to enter the moment (a useful tool for the shy person who can’t think of much to say to strangers other than a rote, “Where do you work?”, which fortunately is usually a well-received question), was one of the points I liked to ponder in my writing, but in tonight’s context, it seemed rather futile and more lonely than usual.

No level of management ever made any kind of announcement to the customers, but I did see men in hotel uniforms and cheap-looking suits walk briskly (yet somehow conveying worry) through the corner of the room and in and out of the doors to the lobby. While I was feebly trying to manage my slightly fussy thoughts that back in the U.S., someone would have come out and given us a status report (and/or, at least a few customers would have rudely demanded a report), a young woman that I hadn’t noticed before (she wasn’t in uniform and she wasn’t taking drink orders, which was why I hadn’t noticed she was an employee) came around with a tray of lighted votives and replaced the one on my table that I had killed. I thanked her with enthusiasm – immediately getting the impression she didn’t understand much English, but I wanted to thank someone anyway – and immediately basked in the cozy glow that my marble-topped table re-assumed with this little flame. (This votive was in the more traditional round-bowl holder, not as pretty/glam but a sturdier set-up than the flat-bottomed votives in the tapered-bottom martini-type glasses I had struggled with earlier.)

Although my table had now been recozy-fied, I was feeling less content there. I was getting hungry and wished I hadn’t left my snack nuts in my room, where they felt inaccessible right now – even if I wanted to hike up the stairs, would the card key work without electricity? I really wasn’t sure what to do about my hunger, since I assumed that the restaurant was still dark. Speaking of that, the lobby was probably dark – what a scary thought, a dark lobby open to a busy and less than genteel street. The bar doors to the hallway were now open again and I slowly walked out to check the lobby. I went far enough to see that the automatic doors to the street were staying open, with several employees hovering protectively in the front-lobby area including the blond doorman with glasses who had given me the soccer map when I arrived that morning – what a long shift this was for him. I could have asked the nearest employee what the extent of power outage was (concerning elevators and room electricity) but I felt I didn’t really want to know. Walking back toward the bar, I saw through the restaurant windows unhappy-looking people in the dim dining room sipping wine in front of dirty, empty plates – definitely the bar seemed to be a better, warmer atmosphere than a dead restaurant.

I stopped at the hall bathroom, which happily was fully lit (I considered this an excellent allocation of emergency lighting), although it took me a minute to figure out that I needed my card key to get through the outside bathroom door. There was a bumpy slant in the slick-linoleumed hallway back to the bar that was marked with colored tape, but I almost tripped on it anyway, both going out and coming back in – not surprising by my usual clumsy standards, but not impressive on a sobriety continuum. I realized that about an hour of main-power darkness had now gone by, a time unit which felt like a kind of milestone and mathematically helped convince me that I needed to eat before having a second Heineken (which I figured was stronger than my usual Miller Lite, accounting for my near-pratfall antics with the votive and walking in the hall).

My conscious combination of hunger, acknowledged inebriation and need for safe-seeming comfort took me no further than back across the street to Subway for a cheap, filling sandwich of predictable quality. On this second trip to the combination Subway-Internet cafe, I realized how little of the space was dedicated to eating – just a few not-quite-cleared tables near the front window. Obviously the primary focus of customers was to get online. Thinking of keyboard cleanliness, I did my best to wipe the tuna and mayo off my fingers with the single napkin included in the Subway sandwich bag, and then went over to a computer. I didn’t look for a place to wash my hands before joining the crowd of typists, but my lazy rationalization was that it would have been more disturbing to touch the keyboard first and then eat my sandwich – eating first (with hands recently washed at the hotel) and then sliming a keyboard for the next person (in a country I didn’t live in) was selfishly less of a concern.

This time I was more savvy about my money timing out and I felt in control as I ended an email to my sister-in-law Belinda, “I’m going to log off now, I may get some more bottled water at the grocery store next door and then try the bar again – hope their beer hasn’t warmed up too much.” I had neared – or probably crossed – the point where I was acting out things I had written about in my script, rather than just documenting what had happened.

Sainsbury was less crowded than when I went in earlier, or maybe I was just in a more relaxed mood from my beer and the warmth of email connection – I drifted around a bit and gawked at the multiple selections of Old El Paso chili mix and sauces, refrigerated cans of Dr Pepper that I hadn’t seen all week, anywhere, and two sides of an aisle full of premade sandwiches. Few of the sandwiches had much visible green stuff in them, and I was glad I had already found myself a healthier, crunchier sandwich at Subway (tuna on wheat with fresh veggies). The store did have quite a few ready-to-eat entrees and frozen things that I guessed I could have heated up here in the store’s microwave and schlepped back across the street, steaming in a plastic bag, perfuming the elevator (assuming the elevator worked) and attracting curious stares at the food smell. Considering the Sainsbury options, a Subway sandwich seemed even more suitable in retrospect, and in fact, my overall reliance on sandwiches on this trip seemed wise.

Going back to the bar, I had a rather silly sense of anticipation – I was convinced that for my earlier inconvenience, my venturing out (although that was not so impressive since I had only crossed the street), and most of all, my having waited to get a second drink…that for those things, I truly deserved, guilt-free, another beer. (This kind of reward thinking is probably close to being included on the classic “Are you an alcoholic” checklist.)

The bar looked a little less cohesive now, with fewer customers in it and a sense of people drifting through and waiting for others. I held out cash at the bar counter and quickly received my Heineken from a rather lost-looking woman. She was a far cry from the perkily rude ones that had been working here earlier – either those had run off to a more happening spot, or the stress of the power outage had drastically changed their demeanor. With its now more vacant atmosphere, the unelectrified bar looked darker. However, it wasn’t really any darker and was lit primarily by light coming in through the picture windows, the same ones I had earlier mocked as being painted with pizzas and coffee mugs. Although the outside light was welcome, this wasn’t really a well-lit street, since office buildings and hotels, not retail, filled the blocks on that side of the hotel.

I sat down in my same area, got out my paperback to pretend to read and my red-covered book in case I wanted to write more gossip about my surroundings, but I couldn’t settle into reading or writing and instead kept gazing around. At first it puzzled me that a trickle of people kept coming into this relatively dead place, but then I realized that from the outside, the dim lighting probably looked like normal bar ambience. After all, there was no kind of warning sign on the door and certainly no staff waving away newcomers while explaining the problem. Probably the St. Giles’ assumption was that if people wandered in and found their way to the bar with correct change for their drinks, well, business was business.

There was a group of young white guys downing pints who I eyed several times because they almost had a punkish troublemaking look, from their posture and ghetto-imitating dress. However I felt less intimidated after they gave me a good laugh – one them got a cell call with a girlishly musical ring, and I couldn’t quite believe it was what it sounded like – the beginning chorus for the R&B/hip-hop Nelly/Kelly “You’re my Boo” duet so overplayed in America – but when the phone rang again a few minutes later, I was certain.

One reason that I put those song lyrics in the humor category is that we sometimes call our dog “Boo” (short for Marley-Boo, which is even sillier). The actual song is called “Dilemma,” by Nelly (from his 2002 Nellyville album) and features Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child, with a chorus that goes: “No matter what I do…All I think about is you…Even when I’m with my Boo…Boy, you know I’m crazy over you.”

I was rather ashamed of my lack of political correctness as I stared at an interracial couple that turned into an interracial group – it started out as a woman wearing a tight, low-V neck top that caught my attention because the leopard print was so like things that the character Kat (Kathleen) wears on BBC TV’s East Enders. Kat has a heart of gold and more IQ than she gives herself credit for, but she dresses in a lot of animal prints, feather accessories and skimpily cut leather. Around the time of my trip (on the BBC America weekend rebroadcasts before I left Dallas), Kat had gotten involved with the neighborhood doctor, who happened to be a black guy (and coincidentally, her illegitimate daughter’s ex-fiancee…yes, really). Continuing the East Enders tableau, almost immediately a business-dressed black guy came into the bar to join “Kat” and her East Indian-looking companion. The St. Giles Kat was more trim and slim than her TV counterpart but was noticeably the only person at the bar wearing anything near to a leopard print.

At 10:00, the bar was still dark but I realized that didn’t really matter, since I was done with food and drink for the night. The 10:00 time was remarkable only as a point of pride that I had ended my solo day with a solo evening that kept me out of my room until 10 pm, considering that I often nod off at home before 9:00 – I won’t say how much before – I thought this was pretty good.

There were uniformed St. Giles employees at the lobby counter in their usual position when I went up to ask about the power situation – I can only imagine how arriving guests reacted when they came into this dark place, but the counter ladies tried to maintain an attitude of normalcy. My question sounded a bit whiny but after they asked what floor I was on, they immediately said that floors such-through-such had maintained power the whole time, although the lifts were still not working.

I wasn’t sure whether I considered this news to be good, knowing my room with my stuff in it had never been dark, or whether it made me feel silly, having killed time in a dark area before getting back to a lit place. I walked toward the stairwell, which still smelled of pool chlorine from the basement, and with what I hoped was a moderate amount of self-pity, trudged up clanky metal-and-concrete stairs (nothing like Dukes’ wide carpeted ones – I missed my last hotel) to enter my room hallway through the fire doors. My heart rate got really rapid – I was only on the 3rd floor of rooms, but since the lobby ceiling was so high they must have skipped a level before numbering floors. It wasn’t cold in the stairwell but I immediately took my coat off, and the weight of carrying was not welcome.

By the time I reached my floor, I was only slightly gasping but ready to drop my coat and water bottle. I checked my reaction to the room again since I was much closer to feeling the right degree of tired for bedroom appreciation. The room did seem more welcoming now that it was dark outside and since I had had to hike up to it. It became easier to think of the small size as cozy for small me, although I kept wondering how this room, supposedly designed for two people, could fit two people, not to mention their luggage, with any degree of comfort – there would have been no place for my second suitcase if I hadn’t put it on the other bed. I still couldn’t avoid noticing that the beds were narrow and flat and the carpet was stained.

Due to the questionable power situation, I didn’t even try calling down to ask about a wakeup call but fished out the alarm clock that I had packed, only now realizing that I had dragged the small plastic thing to Europe with a dead battery. I had not used it since I bought it when Billie was a puppy, attempting to find something that would make that supposed help-the-puppy-sleep sound, a ticking that frantic (sleep-deprived) shopping had taught me was difficult to find in today’s age of electronic timepieces. Even with a dead alarm clock, I thought I would be OK – my flight time didn’t require me to get up super-early anyway, and by combining my jet lag sleep disruption with some obsessive can’t-oversleep stuff (must-catch-flight) mixed in I would be up in plenty of time.

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