Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"London Times - Part Eight"

After living in Hampstead for seven months, I was evicted from my Bedsitting Room at 10 Church Row for being rowdy. (This is the only time me and “rowdy” have ever appeared in the same sentence.)

Mrs. Tompkins, my landlady, had a particularly narrow vision of the concept. I was challenging “rowdy” simply by coming out of my room. In fairness to her, it was summertime, and Canadian travelers were regularly ringing her doorbell to “look me up.” I guess she got tired of the door never being for her, and she decided to evict me. In truth, it was the visitors who were rowdy, but she could hardly throw them out. They didn’t live there.

I did.

And I had to go.

“Going” meant a lot more than finding a new place to live. I couldn’t find anything nearby in my price range, so I was forced to relocate to a different and distant part of town. This meant I wasn’t just losing an exceptional situation. I was also losing my community.

Sure, I could take the “tube” up to the Horse and Groom. But it wasn’t the same. I was an outsider now, no longer a citizen of the neighborhood.

The pub had been important to me. The “regulars” had taken me in. Once, a group of them invited me to accompany them to the Epsom Darby, a traditional, annual horseracing event, taking place the following day. I told them I couldn’t go because I had to teach. The next morning, they rang my doorbell, and told me to get in the car.

“I can’t,” I re-explained. “I have to work.”

“No, you don’t. We called your school. You’re ‘sick.’”

And off we went to the Epsom Darby.

I experienced many such kindnesses during my Hampstead stay. I’d have one more before I left.

On my last night at the pub, the manager – I now remember his name was Eddie, not Jimmy as I previously reported – presented me with a surprise going-away present. It was a half-pint beer mug, beveled glass with the official Horse and Groom, Hampstead etched on the side. I was told that pub glasses are legally protected in England, the licensing procedure making them “Property of the Crown.” Stealing a pub mug is like stealing a mailbox.

They gave me one as a memento. I’m looking at it right now.

I moved to a mid-city district called Euston. It was a totally different environment. A block away sat Euston Station, which housed both a train and an Underground station. (Euston Station also offered a “canteen” which sold a pretty decent steak pie. How do you tell the difference between steak pie and steak-and-kidney pie? The latter has bits of shiny meat in it. Those would be the kidney bits.)

The Euston neighborhood had a “downscale” feel to it. The buildings were caked in soot and indifferently maintained. Though decades had passed since World War II, there were empty lots still piled with rubble from “The Blitz.” My four-story building had been left untouched. It’s as if German pilots had flown over it and said,

“Ve are not vasting a bomb on zat!”

It wasn’t much of a place.

Why did I take it? The rent was two pounds a week. That’s less than six dollars. Charles Dickens would have called it a steal.

The landlord was decidedly “absentee.” Some oil company, as I recall. I paid the rent by mail. I was given a long, rusty iron key for my door. I looked at it and thought, “I have moved into a self-service prison.”

The apartment was small and dusty. The floors were uncovered plywood. The entire unit (furnished by Oxfam – read: Salvation Army) consisted of a room and a kitchen.

You will notice what I didn’t mention. I didn’t mention a bathroom. I didn’t mention it, because my apartment didn’t have a bathroom. There was a toilet, shared by all the floor’s tenants, at the end of the hall.

You will once again notice what I didn’t mention. I didn’t mention a shower or a bath. There’s a reason I didn’t mention a shower or a bath.

The building did not include a shower or a bath.

How did I take a shower or a bath?

I went down to Shaftsbury Avenue, the main thoroughfare of London’s glittering West End, and availed myself of the Oasis Public Baths.

Public baths are a longstanding English tradition. A lot of places – places poor people live – were constructed with neither indoor plumbing nor bathing facilities. The former need was accommodated by outhouses. The latter, by the public baths.

The Oasis, the closest bathhouse, was a twenty-minute walk from my apartment. This was not an easy adjustment for me. A person accustomed to middle-class amenities was now required to walk twenty minutes down the street to take a bath.

The culture shock, however, was only beginning.

My First Visit to the Oasis Public Baths

I arrive at the premises, clutching my bath towel and my shampoo, contained in a plastic bottle shaped liked Popeye. I pay the shilling (twelve cent) fee. I am handed a tiny bar of soap and a number. I proceed to the “Waiting Area”, planting myself on a rough, wooden bench, alongside other people who are waiting to take their baths. Many of them appear to have spent the day working underground.

Yes, indeedy. Little Early Peemerantz was bathing with miners.

After half an hour, my number is finally called. I follow a man holding a long, crank-looking object down a badly lit corridor. He unlocks a door with a number on it, and I follow him in.

Inside is a worn but surprisingly clean bathtub and a hook on the door to hang my clothes on. That was it. The tub had no “hot” and “cold” handles. That’s what the crank-looking object was for. The man attached it to the…whatever, and alternately cranked in hot and cold water for my bath. (The “crank” method kept unscrupulous bathers from abusing the “hot.”)

The man asked me to feel the water to see if the temperature was to my liking, and when I told him it was fine, he filled the tub, said I had fifteen minutes for my bath, and left.

I’m not clear on the explanation, but, apparently, there are parts of your body that are more sensitive to hotter temperatures than other parts. For example, my hands, which I had used to test the bathwater, are not sensitive. Other parts, however, parts I now found myself lowering into the water, are extremely sensitive. So sensitive, it turned out, that it was necessary for me to remove myself from the tub.

Which I did. Rapidly.

On my first visit to the Oasis Public Baths, in a misguided effort to insure that my bathwater would not be too tepid, I had ordered it cranked in way, way too hot.

I am standing there, naked beside the tub, waiting for the rising steam to abate, so I can again get back in the bathtub. You’re probably ahead of me at this point, but this is exactly how it went. Just as the water had cooled enough to allow me to climb back in…


‘Time’s up, sir. Time to go.”

One shilling. No bath.

Eventually, I familiarized myself with the process. But taking the twenty-minute trudge home afterwards, my hair, damp and stringy, my pre-bath clothing clinging to my body (it was too cumbersome to pack a different set of clean clothes), carrying my water-logged bath towel and my now-slick Popeye shampoo bottle, though unquestionably clean, I never failed to feel bewildered by my predicament.

Tomorrow: Rescued from the Public Baths.


Jon Mac said...

Earl, thanks for these London stories. I used to work on Grape Street which is almost directly opposite Oasis (now a swimming pool/gym) and it's great to hear what the area was like back when. I'm not so far from Euston Station as I type this either. Keep 'em coming.

growingupartists said...

All this just to get your readers to picture you naked. There are more efficient uses of technology, Earl. Like digital pictures. Jeesch!

A. Buck Short said...

Not to further dampen your tub experience so belatedly, but it is my understanding the name of the facility was a pun on the exclamation, “Oh, a siss!” That may have been only to discourage the vandals known to break in under the cover of darkness and unlawfully freshen up.

Observing as how your London Times seem to have leaned far more to the Dickensian than the Lerner and Loewe, you may be happy to learn that in the early 80’s Boston I had the sometime acquaintance of the novelist Monica Dickens, great granddaughter of the man himself. Your reference reminded me how that happened, and also unfortunately that I have no one else I’d be interested in sharing that with. Tag.

A friend from Wellesley was producing a “Not Necessarily the News” type spoof benefit for the Cancer Society at Brandeis University, to be performed by 1) the news anchor at the TV station where I was working, 2) the entertainment reporter, and 3) for no reason I could fathom, Jose Greco. Arthur brought some rough material into the newsroom, and it was horrible. The man was a concert pianist, but no Victor Borge, and certainly no Shecky Borge. Our on air personalities weren’t doing that well on TV already; we didn’t need them to take the show on the road and die with Jose Greco.

I wrote an entirely new, fairly well received fake newscast, finishing about noon before the “performance.” The real news was abuzz with the imminent prospect of Skylab crashing to earth God knew where, with ominous potential. As I recall, every other story, we had Sklyab landing on something else, ultimately striking Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, who was the other big recurring news story, spending what turned out to be his final days at Massachusetts General hospital. As I recall, during the rehearsal, my anchor, who like many, could have been the prototype for Ted Knight, actually asked, “Didn’t we already do a Skylab Story?” The commercials all involved Jose Greco and roach removal.

As the result of that stomping success, I was asked to serve on the board of the local chapter of the Cancer Society, where I met Ms. Dickens, the founder of another United Way agency, appropriately, The Samaritans suicide prevention hotline, among other Dickensian pursuits for the betterment of children and animals. I had great fun going around town claiming the woman would never return my phone calls. (My wife and I also once had dinner with another novelist who was Freud's great grandaughter -- then saying she kept telling me she didn't care what I thought or felt about anything.)

That’s about it, but do you know how hard it is to try to work Skylab into somebody else’s blog? Thank you for another encroachment opportunity. As you can see, I have no other life.