Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"London Times"

A long time ago today, when I was twenty-one, I went to London, and lived there for more than fifteen months. (But not sixteen.) It was a major turning point in my life.

My London experience played a transformative role in my ultimately coming to California. It was a three-stage process, "it" meaning the prying me out of my Canadian cocoon. First, I went to L.A. to attend the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop. Then, I went to London. And finally, I moved to L.A., where I have remained ever since. Before these events, I had never gone anywhere on my own. Anywhere far, I mean.

As a rule, I wasn’t a person who went places. I stayed home and watched TV. Big picture: I went to school during the school year, and in the summer, I went to camp. Small picture: I was not big on leaving the house. Especially in the winter.

I had quit Law School after five weeks. On Orientation Day, the Dean of Law had welcomed us with the obligatory warning: “Look to the left of you, and look to the right of you. By…[I don’t remember the designated date]…one of you will not be here.” I had dozed through that speech at every level of my higher education. I was never the guy deleted from the proceedings.

This time I was.

After I quit, I walked across the street from the Law School to the college, and I found my friend, Alan, in the Hart House Theater, designing sets from some upcoming production.

“I just quit Law School,” I told him, a little trembly in the voice and the knees.

“Good,” he replied.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Alan told me about another Alan I knew, who was living in London. (At the time, I knew a considerable number of Alans, or Allans, or Allens. I could list half a dozen more of them for you, but they’re not really pertinent to this story.)

“Hart House Theater” Alan suggested I write “London” Alan and ask him if he was interested in sharing a flat, or a bedsittingroom, or something else that was English. I had never thought about London before. I had little interest in going there. I was a homebody. I didn’t want to go anywhere.

I didn’t tell Alan that London was a bad idea. Instead, I said it sounded like a good idea. Hearing myself say that scared me. It told me I was really desperate.

This was me, maybe it was you too. From the age of three onward, September rolled around, and I went to school. That’s what you did. You came home from camp and you went to school. I always went to school in September. What else were you supposed to go?

That’s why after I graduated from college, on the day before I flew to L.A. to attend the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop, I signed up for Law School. I had no great interest in becoming a lawyer. I hadn’t even thought about it. I just wanted somewhere to go in September.

My brother had just become a lawyer. I had always gotten better grades than him. I figured, if he could be a lawyer, so could I.

I started Law School in September. I quit in November. And that was that.

This was a turning point. Up till then, my experience told me you always had a future. After Kindergarten, there was First Grade to look forward to. After, Elementary School, there’d be Junior High, after Junior High, High School, and after High School, college, and after college, there’d some professional school, like Law School, only I just quit Law School, so they way I saw it…

I had come to the end of my future.

I was done.

It’s hard to be done in your hometown. People look at you, in a strange and probing way. They drill you about your plans. They interrogate you about your future. I had no desire to be looked at. I had no plans. And my future, as I understood it, was behind me. It seemed wise to be somewhere else.

But London? London held no particular interest for me. It was an English place with fog. It had strange food and strange people. It didn’t have my room. On the other hand, London had an undeniable thing going for it.

It was somewhere else.

I had some money. There was this arrangement that, when I turned twenty-one, I’d receive a certain amount of cash from my father’s estate. It was a sad way to get money, but it got me out of town.

During my extended stay in London…

I would live in three different places, one of which offered no tub or shower, and I’d be required to partake of the Public Baths…

I’d be a substitute teacher (having no teaching training whatsoever) and, through the kindness of a headmaster, be presented with a classroom of my own…

I’d be hired during the Christmas season to wrap toys at Harrods Department Store, where I’d encounter a princess, and later, lead my fellow toy wrappers out on strike, and be fired as a troublemaker…

I would spend a year getting “method” acting training (in London, where their specialty was the opposite), and, during a “showcase” performance, receive “mention” in a major newspaper for delivering a single line...

I would learn to appreciate beer at room temperature, and almost learn how to roll a cigarette…

I would enjoy a weekend at an insane asylum in Yorkshire (as the guest of a staff member, not as an inmate)…

I’d be singled out by my local pub owner to “stick around after closing”, and be kidnapped by some friends to the Epsom Derby…

I’d see Paris and Amsterdam on five dollars a day…

I would accompany a guy on his honeymoon, after his wife of two weeks had dumped him and returned home…

On my birthday, I would just miss seeing Laurence Olivier in his final performance of Othello, and later, be involved in a pretty scary car accident…

I would steal plays from a world-famous English bookstore (and pay them back decades later by deliberately buying a book I didn’t want)...

I would come home on the Queen Elizabeth, where I’d order kosher food and have a shipboard romance.

Leaving for England, a long time ago today, I had no idea any of that would be happening.

I remember traveling to the airport with my mother, my brother and his wife, Nancy. I remember the goodbyes and, when my flight was called, I remember heading away by myself.

As I walked down the corridor from the Departure Lounge to a plane that would take me thousands of miles from my home, I heard myself say, out loud, to the strangers passing around me:

“Could somebody please tell me why I’m doing this?”

I had absolutely no idea.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Earl...This was YOUR idea?

After cyberly (is that a word?) learning a bit about you for the past (almost) year, I am shocked you did this. What courage it took!

I hope we can look forward to more stories from that time in your life.

Anonymous said...

You will be going through that list of stories, won't you?

It'd be cruel not to. I'm already hooked!!!!

Hee! Today's word verification: hairmen

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to hear the stories!


Rusty James said...

Hello Earl,

I wonder what your thoughts are on Leonard Cohen - you know, because he's Jewish, and Canadian.

I'm being facetious of course, but I was just wondering if you have ever met him?

Max Clarke said...

Very funny, lived in London more than fifteen months...but not sixteen.