My situation in London had radically changed. Instead of having a full-time teaching job and living in one of the classiest neighborhoods in London, I was out of work and living in a hovel.
A “room and kitchen” in a deteriorating building, a shared toilet down the hall, and no bathing facilities whatsoever, meaning I had to clean up at the often crowded and always humiliating Public Baths, a twenty minute walk down the street. Under such conditions, bathing becomes less “on a regular basis” and more “when you just can’t stand yourself anymore.”
Throughout my six-month stay in that building, I only met one other tenant. Tim, who lived in the basement. I’d been introduced to Tim by pub friends in Hampstead. It was through Tim that I’d learned of the availability of the apartment I was now living in.
Tim invited me down for a visit, and I went. His apartment was smaller than mine and, being in the basement, darker. We’re talking under ground basement apartment. No cute little Laverne and Shirley windows looking onto the sidewalk. A bare bulb in the ceiling illuminated the premises. You manipulated it by pulling a string.
There was a unique element in that apartment that you couldn’t help noticing as soon as you walked in. The man kept a falcon. Indoors. In a basement apartment. A large, impressively clawed, fully grown falcon. Like from the Middle Ages. Except it wasn’t the Middle Ages. It was the late 1960’s. And this thing was living in my building.
The falcon, whom Tim had named Cully, sat perched atop a high-backed chair, to which was attached a long, rawhide leash. The other end of the leash was fastened to the leather collar encircling Cully’s neck.
During our conversation, on numerous occasions, Cully would suddenly spread his substantial wings, let loose a blood-curdling screech, take off, and fly around the room, swooping and screeching at will, then return to his perch, where he calmly remained till his next unscheduled “fly around.”
I did not visit for long.
My life in London had turned rather distressing. My “covering” letters home were the best fiction I have ever written. The truth was, I badly needed a turn in my fortunes. Fortunately, I got one.
I have written about getting a job at Harrods Department Store, where I wrapped toys during the ten-week run-up to Christmas. (“London Times – Part Three” – December 18, 2008.) I have written about meeting a princess and leading my workmates out on strike. (“London Times – Part Three B” – December 19, 2008.) If you haven’t read those stories, check them out. They’re pretty good.
The Harrods job filled many needs at the time. A regular income. A place to go every day. Multiple toy wrapping adventures. But one “perk” rose in importance far above the others:
There was a shower in the “Employees’ Lavatory.”
No more Oasis Public Baths for this fellow. From now on, I was showering at work.
For other Harrods workers, the lunch break meant a generously subsidized three-course meal at the “Employees’ Canteen”. For me, it meant a generously subsidized three-course meal at the “Employees’ Canteen”, and getting clean without having to share a bathing facility with chimney sweeps.
Whenever it suited me, I would enjoy my roast beef, chips and peas luncheon, then proceed to the “Employees’ Lavatory” for a full and proper “wash-up.” It was hardly luxurious, but compared to my recent experiences, it was the penthouse at Claridge’s.
Clean. Well lit. Beautifully tiled. And I didn’t have to share. The shower was all mine. For as long as I wanted. (Or at least till my lunch break was over.)
I showered and I sang. I always sing when there are good acoustics. Showers. Tunnels. Underground garages. It’s what I do. No inhibitions. I just open up and I let it fly.
TO DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
TO FIGHT THE UNBEATABLE FOE
TO BEAR WITH UNBEARABLE SORROW
TO RUN WHERE THE BRAVE DARE NOT GO…
One day, I returned to my workstation, showered, shaved, hair neatly brushed and smelling like Lifebuoy Soap.
That’s when I learned about the “mystery.”
“Where have you been?” cried an excited co-worker.
“I was taking a shower.”
“So you didn’t hear it?”
“It was all over the store.”
“The place was absolute chaos. Everyone was trying to find out where it was coming from. But they couldn’t figure it out.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Somebody. It was coming out through the air vents.”
“They were singing?”
“The Impossible Dream.”
“Was it any good?”
“The singing. Was it any good?”
HE STARED AT ME, THEN SHRUGGED DISMISSIVELY.
“You really didn’t hear it?”
“I told you. I was taking a shower.”
I believed I had never sung publicly in London. It turns out I was wrong.
I want to thank those who sent along their thoughtful and persuasive comments on “funny numbers.” I will only add – and I’ll speak for all writers though they didn’t ask me to – that when you come up with a “funny number”, there is no planning or premeditation involved whatsoever. The number just pops out. There may be a legitimate explanation as to why that number is “right”, but these are retroactive considerations. The number just happens. And it’s always right. And that's not just for number. Blurt without censoring and you'll always be "on the money."
Questions and comments always gratefully appreciated.