During my first months living in London, I had no job, no local family, no contacts, and no friends. My roommate, Alan, had met a girl at a party, and they’d moved into her place (though he continued paying half of our rent).
I was officially alone.
I needed a lift. A comforting sanctuary from the cold, dark, lonely and lingering London winter. Fortunately, the city offers just the place.
The local pub.
London has thousands of pubs. Hampstead itself has a bunch. But everyone has their special favorite. Their own personal “local.” And I found mine. I can’t recall how it became mine. I guess somebody took me there once.
Standing on the south side of Heath Street, up from the Hampstead Underground station, its name spelled in raised bronze letters affixed to its red and white façade was
The Horse And Groom
I went there almost every night. It was welcoming and warm. Both emotionally, and they had heat.
It was our neighborhood meeting place. A clubhouse with drinks. How many bars or taverns had I frequented in Toronto? Pretty close to none. But I wasn’t in Toronto. I was in London. And Londoners went to pubs.
To me, the pub seemed very democratic. People gathered there after work. And by their dress and demeanor, at least I as an outsider, had no idea who was what. And vice versa. Nobody knew what I was. Which immediately erased the stigma of my being nothing.
Pub people order drinks in “rounds.” Two problems there. I was financially not equipped to pay for “rounds.” And on my best drinking day, I could drink maybe three quarters of a “round.” After that, I either got very grumpy or fell asleep.
It didn’t matter. The “regulars”, surprisingly quickly, took me in. I developed an identity. I was the Canadian funny guy. (Or, alternatively, the financially strapped easy drunk.)
My new friends taught me things. Like how to roll your own cigarette. Cowboys roll their own cigarettes. Gary Cooper did it with one hand. I was eager to learn. Whatever cowboys did, that was for me.
I studied the technique. Then it was my turn. I laid out the cigarette paper. I tapped in a thin line of tobacco. I rolled up the paper, licked and sealed the edge, and stuck it in my mouth.
My first rolled cigarette. (And maybe my tenth cigarette ever.) I felt really cool.
I swiped a wooden match along the side of its cardboard box. The flame jumped to life. I brought the match to my cigarette, lit the end, and drew in a deep and confident drag.
The flame shot straight through the cigarette and burned up my tongue.
If tongues can have scars on them, I believe mine bears the imprint of that (one-time only) smoking experience.
I felt safe at The Horse and Groom. I could be silly. I could be drunk. I could even be sad. Somehow, being part of this lively crowd could pick up my spirits and make me forget. Once, having exceeded my drinking limit, I forgot where I lived.
Deep down, and for no reason other than I’m me, I never felt entirely accepted. I was an outsider, with no accomplishments, an uneven temperament, and minimal money. Sure, I’d feel included. Nobody ever told me, “Get out!” But there were always those private doubts.
Do they really like me.
It was the day of the FA Cup Final, an English soccer tradition spanning over 130 years. The Cup Final is up there with the Superbowl. It’s the biggest game of the year. The whole country’s into it.
As the pub is about to close for the afternoon (to re-open later for the evening), I notice the pub manager, a glowy-cheeked fellow whose name eludes me, passing through the crowd, stopping here and there to whisper something into some of the customers’ ears. It was all very mysterious.
He comes over and whispers into my ear. And what he whispers is this:
“Don’t leave after closing.”
“Last Call” is announced (the call for the last order of drinks). Little by little, the customers straggle out of the pub. Except for the ones who’ve been invited to stay.
One of whom is me.
After “closing”, the pub transforms into a private party. A television is wheeled in, so we can watch the game. The bar remains open, and free drinks are served to the pub manager’s friends.
One of whom is me.
When a thing like that happens – an expression of unqualified inclusion – even an insecure fellow like myself can’t help but feel, at least temporarily, accepted.
Years later, treating myself to a solo visit to London, where my daughter, Anna, who was taking the traditional college year abroad, I insistently subwayed her up to Hampstead for the obligatory “Pomerantz Tour.” (Dr. M had endured “the tour” numerous times before. It’s close to Anna Freud’s house, so it wasn’t a total loss.)
I showed Anna where I’d lived on Ten Church Row. I showed her the nearby cemetery, which European movie companies frequently used as a filming location, altering the headstones to match their respective nationalities.
We then dutifully trudged up Heath Street to The Horse and Groom.
I pointed it out from a distance as we approached. My heart began to pump. Only party because we were walking uphill.
We’re standing at the front door. I’m exploding with excitement. Where did it come from? I don’t know, I’m introducing my daughter to a place I had frequented when I was barely older than she is now. The place mattered to me. The moment, even more so.
I pull open the door, ready to usher my daughter through a guided tour of her Daddy’s history.
It isn’t a pub anymore. It’s a Chinese restaurant.
There was absolutely no tip-off. The outside of the building – including the trademark Horse And Groom lettering – looked exactly the same. Inside, it was barbecued spare ribs and hot and sour soup.
“You want to eat here?” the Chinese lady proprietor inquired.
I sighed. And then politely said no.
Anna and I ate at a Vietnamese restaurant across the street. It hadn’t been there in the Sixties.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
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Thank you Mr. P. You make me nostalgic for places I’ve never been. You’re like a Hallmark Card commercial with feet. I know what you mean about that inclusion thing. My wife and I were recently accepted for membership in Sam’s Club. So, what are you doing for Pesach? Now this is the part where someone is supposed to allude to the thought that your big mistake was going with the tobacky for your rolled cigarette. My understanding of Chinese-British food is an hour later you still haven't flossed.
What a surprise ending! Loved it.
Should have asked for the tapioca.
As a native Londoner, I can say that a lot of the old pubs are shutting down. The last 10-15 years have seen traditional pubs in the area losing out to trendy wine bars and restaurants.
It's a terrible shame.
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