It started with the pay phone.
What’s “it”? The foreignness of the place I had just left the familiarity of Canada to move to.
London was different.
In Canada, people spoke with English accents. But not all of them. Now here they were – “Jabberin’ away, they was” – as if it was natural. It was very alienating. And for the first time in my life, the alien was me.
The plan was this: When I got to London, I would call my friend, Alan, with whom I’d be sharing a flat. Alan would then come down on the subway – which they call the Underground – pick me up, and escort me back to where I was going to live. I just had to call and tell him where I was.
The saga I am about to relate took place before cell phones. Back then, pay phones were the only way you could call people when you were out. They were simple to use. You picked up the receiver, you inserted a coin in the slot, you dialed the number, the person on the other end said, “Hello?” and off you went.
I’d been using pay phones all my life. No need to read the directions. How different can an English pay phone be?
You’d be surprised.
I pick up the receiver. I insert a coin in the slot. I dial the number Alan had given to me. The phone rings. I hear a guy who sounded like Alan saying, “Hello?” I say, “Alan?” Alan repeats, “Hello?”, as if he hadn’t heard me say, “Alan?” I say, “Alan?” again. Alan says, “Hello?” again. We go back and forth.
Then I hear a loud series of “beeps.” We’re disconnected, and the line goes dead.
Generally, when I’m involved in a “mess-up”, I reflexively blame myself. Something had gone wrong. It couldn’t have been the pay phone. I must have been me. That’s the way I am. (Therapists, back off.)
For people of my temperament, the next step is inevitable. You do exactly the same thing again.
I pick up the receiver. I insert a coin in the slot. I dial the number. It rings. Someone sounding like Alan says, “Hello?” I say, “Alan?” Alan, obviously not hearing me, says, “Hello?” again. I say “Alan?” again. And off we go. “Hello?” “Alan?” “Hello?” “Alan?”
And here come the beeps, and then we’re disconnected, and then the line’s dead.
I immediately start to laugh. That’s what I do. When absurdity and failure’s involved, I laugh. What can I do? It’s ridiculous. The guy is my lifeline, and I can’t connect with him. Our entire communication was, “Hello?” “Alan?” “Hello?” “Alan?”
The next step? Involuntary shaking. There’s no hope for me. I don’t know where Alan is; Alan doesn’t know where I am. I’m done for. Totally doomed. I’m going to die exactly where I am – a Canadian skeleton standing at an English pay phone.
My fate is sealed. They’ll be flying me home in a box. A dead embarrassment.
“When did he die?”
“His first day in England.”
“How did it happen?”
“He couldn’t use the pay phone.”
Drawing on a microscopic sliver of genetic self-preservation, I pull myself together. I will not allow this to happen. Not without a fight.
I get some more change. From a “Sweets Kiosk.” It’s a candy stand. Why can’t they just call it that?
I return to the pay phone (which they call a “Phone Box.” These people! Although, truth be told, they are the older country. We were the ones who changed what you call everything.) I read the directions for the phone booth. I’m hopeless at following directions, but what can I do? I’m desperate.
Oh…I see. It’s different.
I pick up the receiver. I dial the number. It rings. Alan says, “Hello?” Only then – as the directions direct – do I insert the coin in the slot. (Why do they do it that way? I don’t frickin’ know!!!)
The problem is, I’m nervous. I know I have a limited time to insert the coin. I jab urgently at the slot. But the coin won’t insert. Hard as I try, I cannot seem to align the coin and the slot at same angle. I desperately keep jabbing.
And here come the beeps. And there’s the “disconnect” sound. The phone goes dead again.
Hmph. That’s what I say when I don’t know what else to say. Even when I’m talking to myself.
I’m successful on the fifth try. Not my best work, but Alan and I are finally connected. I tell him I’m outside Victoria Station. Alan tells me to go inside Victoria Station, and wait on the northbound platform. He’ll be there in twenty minutes.
The instructions are simple; you can’t get them wrong. I lug my suitcase into Victoria Station, I buy a ticket, find the northbound platform, and stand there. The crisis is over. In twenty minutes, I’ll be united with the only person I know in England.
I wait on the platform for over an hour. No Alan. Ah, I think to myself. Like many of my predictions, I had once again been mistaken. I would not die at the pay phone, as I’d previously believed.
“I will die on this platform.”
Epitaph: "He Couldn't Follow The Simplest Instructions."
Finally, Alan shows up. With an explanation. Apparently, there are two stations at Victoria Station – a train station and an Underground station. Alan had been searching for me on the platforms of the train station, while I waited for him on the platform of the Underground station, totally unaware that a train station existed.
Lesson One of “Earl in Another Place”:
This new country thing?
It was not going to be easy.