Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"The Kindness Of Strangers"

England loves its traditions.

Two of them, occurring annually around this time, are highlighted in the following fondly-remembered reminiscences. 

One event is “The FA Cup”, a championship soccer game (or, to them, football game because they almost exclusively use their feet playing it, in contrast to our football, so named even though they hardly use their feet playing it at all.)  The first “FA Cup” was played 133 years ago. 

The other British tradition (coming up shortly) is a horse race called the “Epsom Derby” (pronounced “Darby” but they’re wrong about that one), which was first run in 1780.  (As opposed to where I live, where we have restaurants with signs outside them boasting “Two Guys From Encino – Fine Dining Since 1997.”)

I lived in England back in the late sixties, having fled Toronto after quitting Law School and seeing nothing in my future but familial nagging and existential dread.  I wanted to live someplace where the weather appropriately fit my mood – hopeless and gloomy.  (The polar opposite to where I live now, where the weather inevitably cheers me up.  I have learned something over the years.  If you can’t change yourself, change your meteorological surroundings.  Where your funereality will be mitigated rather than reinforced.)

Living in, at the time, the artsy/posh London suburb of Hampstead – man, I could write a lot about this, but I have to stay focused – it became my nocturnal routine to visit a pub called The Horse And Groom, located on Heath Street (on the way up to Hampstead Heath.)  Though the building is still there, it has be transformed into a Chinese restaurant, as I discovered when I escorted my daughter Anna to the that location while visiting her during her London college year abroad only to open the heavy oak door and be greeted my a middle-aged Asian lady, going,

“You wanna eat?”

(Ever the nostalgic, I hungered to show the twenty-one year-old Anna where her twenty-one year-old Dad used to hang out, but my “local” pub, once redolent with pints of “Bitter” (room temperature English beer) now smelled distinctly, and depressingly, “sweet and sour.”)

I am not a drinker.  But pubs were where the people were, so “pubs” was where I went.  (I was introduced to The Horse And Groom by my roommate, an acquaintance from Toronto who’d been living in London for six months before I arrived.) 

Not working or being inheritorially endowed, I had very little money.  This pecuniary shortfall presented difficulty and discomfort when it came to “buying rounds.” 

As you are probably aware, “buying rounds” involves one person buying a “round” of drinks for the group you are drinking with, and then you rotate, and the next person takes their turn.  Frankly, this is a concept I have never really understood. 

If everybody in the group buys one “round”, it is pretty much the same from a financial standpoint as every person buying their own drink times the number of people in the group. 

Why not simply do that?  I mean, it’s not like anybody was actually buying anybody any drinks.  The magnanimity of this ritual, therefore, completely eludes me.

Compounding this confusion is the fact that, physiologically, I can only tolerate one drink.  After that, I get incoherent, gloomy or uproariously funny – and I can never tell ahead of time which reaction it is going to be, so I judiciously restrict myself to the single drink.


When it becomes my turn to buy “ a round”, with the exception of the person who bought me my solo, I am buying drinks for people who had never bought any drinks for me. 

On top of that…

The only drink I could handle was the inexpensive half (pint) of “Bitter” (room temperature English beer), while others drank hard liquor and glasses of white wine, which were considerably more expensive.  Therefore, when it came my turn to “buy a round”, I was purchasing alcohol for people, the majority of whom had not purchased anything for me, and when they did, it was the least expensive drink in the place.

I did not mention this economic disparity to my pub mates.  I imagine one reason that I stuck to only one drink was the fear that if I drank any more, I might have.  I just kept my fiscal grievances to myself, hoping they would not notice some unconscious giveaway “hitch” during my payment to the Publican and turf me ignominiously into the bone-chilling night. 

In fact, what actually happened was the opposite.

I shall not present some self-congratulatory, pretend “humble-ism” as to why people like me.  I shall simply say that the explanation eludes me.  Of course, not everybody likes me, but a lot more do than I see any perceptible reason for.  I mean, you just read my rant about getting ripped off with the “rounds.”  What kind of likable person thinks that?


I’m in The Horse And Groom on a Saturday afternoon, the pub closing Saturday afternoons at three.  As I survey the bar, reeling from my “single-drink” stupor, I see the Publican going around, whispering something into certain people’s ears.  I had no idea what he was telling them. 

Until he came around to me.  And he whispered,

“Stay after ‘closing.’”

The Publican bellows, “Last Call!”, a final round of drinks is ordered, and then, when the clock chimes “Three”, the assembled patrons file dutifully out the door.  Except for what seemed to be the “Select Few”, who, following previous instructions, remain.

The pub door was locked, and now it’s a party.  The drinks are on the house.  (Which pissed me off considerably, as I had already consumed my allotted one drink.)  A TV set is rolled in and switched on, after which we – and by “we” I mean “The Select Few”, which apparently included me, enjoyed a memorable afternoon, (privately) watching the “FA Cup” together (in a public facility.)

A few weeks later, there was the “Epsom Derby”, held traditionally on a weekday.  The night before the event, I was invited by some pub mates to “go to the ‘Darby’” with them.  I thanked them for the invitation, but said no, as I was teaching school at the time and, it being a weekday, I was required to go to work.   

The morning of the “Darby”, my pub mates were at my front door.

“You’re coming with us.”

“But I have to work,” I explained.

To which they memorably replied,

“We called up your school.  And we told them you were sick.”

And that’s how I attended the “Epsom Darby” in 1967.

Strangers were nice to me.  I could never explain why.  But, coming up on fifty years later...

Their generosity and kindness still resonate in my heart.
Today, we are leaving for our vacation cabin in Indiana.  The place apparently has wifi - though the washer-dryer is "iffy" and the shower rarely works - so I may write stuff from there.  On the other hand, I may just "veg" out on our screened-in"sleeping porch" watching the passing deer foraging in our yard.

In either case, there'll be something here for your attention.  So don't go away.

Just because I do.

1 comment:

Indiana Jonas said...

Nice story. Enjoy the vacation!