I had this joke:
“In London, I lived in Church Row. Not on Church Row, in Church Row. That’s how they said it. Which was actually appropriate, because my building was sinking.”
That was wrong in so many ways, not the least of them being that it wasn’t my best joke. More importantly, it wasn’t accurate. Church Row was a quiet thoroughfare off of Heath Street in Hampstead, an elegant London suburb, populated, among others, by successful people in the arts. Peter Cook, of the iconic comedy group, Beyond The Fringe, lived directly across the street. (This did not work out well for me. See: “I Knew If I Had My Chance…” – July 28.)
Church Row was a quiet street with a low divider running up the middle, against which cars would be parked overnight. I’m not aware of the street’s history, but it’s unlikely it included garages. At the farthermost end of Church Row was a tiny cemetery. Tiny but creepy.
This wasn’t just my evaluation. Movie companies from around the world regularly filmed in that cemetery, altering the headstones to match the nationalities of the filmmakers. I walked through one day, and everyone dead was Polish. Which was surprising, because not long before, the departed had all been Swedish.
Ten Church Row, my actual address, was a townhouse, meaning it was part of a block-long construction, with each townhouse having its own private entrance. These were distinctly separate living places, but there were no spaces between them. They were, like, all glued together. I’m sorry. That’s the best I can do.
Ten Church Row was the place my roommate-to-be Alan took me after finally finding me at Victoria Station. He had expected me to wait for him on the train platform, and I had waited on the subway platform, unaware that Victoria Station housed two kinds of platforms.
Alan led me up to the fourth floor. Lots of stairs. (The ground floor included the entry hallway and the kitchen. Our landlords, the Tompkins family, lived on the second floor. There were three large bed-sitting rooms occupied by renters on the third floor. And then, there was us. Two cozy bedrooms and a kitchen. Just under the roof.)
I arrived in England in the winter. I’m used to cold winters. I’m from Canada. But nothing I’d experienced prepared me for this.
You know the pirate phrase, “Shiver me timbers”? Now I know where it comes from. If you imagine your skeletal structure as your “timbers”, an English winter will shiver them to the core.
This “timbers-shivering” is a product of the damp coldness England is famous for. It penetrates your entire being, no matter how many sweaters you’ve got on, chilling parts of you you never knew you possessed. And here’s the scariest part. Wherever you go…it’s there.
As of that period in time, a lot of homes lacked central heating. People’d invite you over for dinner, they’d let you in, you’d race right past them, and plant yourself directly in front of their fireplace. And be extremely reluctant to leave.
“Bring the food here. It’s okay. I’ll eat it standing up.”
Ten Church Row had no central heating. I’d climbed dozens of stairs up to our flat, and when I got there, there was ssteam billowing out of my mouth, and my teeth were chattering. I was freezing. In a place I had never been freezing before.
Our heat was supplied by means of canisters of something called Calor Gas. These canisters were about the size of a water cooler bottle. You plugged them in, and they heated the room. The thing is, a full canister of Calor Gas would be empty in forty-five minutes. And they only delivered them twice a week. That meant – let’s do the math together – you had an hour a half of heat to last you an entire week.
You woke up, your room was meat locker. You mustered up your courage, jumped out of bed, turned on the heat, and jumped immediately back in. The room warmed up, you got up, and you got dressed. Then, you turned off the heat. At bedtime, you repeated the process, only backwards. This is how you made the heat last till the next delivery of Calor Gas.
Tenants elsewhere got heat by feeding coins into a gas meter. When the heat ran out, you’d drop in a coin, and the heat immediately came back. But gas meters left landlords open to government monitoring, leading to tax assessments on the rents they collected. Our landlords wanted to hide the fact that they had tenants. Ergo, the untraceable Calor Gas.
Speaking of gas, our kitchen had a very old gas stove (in contrast to the electric stove I grew up with at home.) You lit the stove with a match. This meant either using really long matches – so your arm wouldn’t get incinerated by a sudden “flame-up” – or you rolled a piece of newspaper into a point, ignited the point with a match (any size), and lit the stove with the newspaper.
My grandmother had a stove like that. Amazing. I had moved to England, and stepped back fifty years.
Or more. If you judged by the “facilities.”
The bathtub and toilet were located one floor down. In separate rooms. Neither of which had heat.
You never wanted to get out of the bathtub. You knew what was waiting for you. Antarctica. If it were possible, I’d have put my clothes on while remaining in the bath. It wasn’t. I’d get out of the tub, and immediately turn blue.
The toilet…you know…I’m used to a handle. This one had a chain. Suspended from, I don’t know, a tank? What I remember, vividly, was that this chain required a particular “yanking” technique. Which I, to that point, had not been taught.
It’s my first time in there. I yank the chain. There is no flush. I yank the chain again. And again. And again. And again. And with every yank, to my mounting concern, it’s not working out. The water flutters around a little, but it’s not close the desired effect. Then, this weird thing happens.
Alvaro, a third floor tenant from Spain, appears out of nowhere, steps, uninvited, into the “water closet”, and demonstrates the technique that will get the job done - a sharp tug followed by a quick release. Then, wordlessly, he leaves.
I internalized two lessons from that experience.
Learn the tug. Check the lock.
Down the line, I’d discover that you could look in the paper, find a play you were interested in, hop on the Underground, and for less than two dollars, be enthralled by productions brought magically to life by the greatest actors in the world.
But that would come later.
Right now, I was learning the equipment.