May 6th, 2020

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LJI 11 Week 21: From Dusk to Dawn, London 1991

This is my entry for Week 21 of LJ Idol (therealljidol). This week's topic was "The Way Back."






Me at the Tower of London in December 1990



Two bobbies* stood smartly on either side of a smashed store window. As we passed, we greeted them with a cheerful, "Happy New Year!" They nodded politely and returned the greeting. Shauna asked them, "Could you tell us the direction to Earl's Court?" At that stage, the experience felt like a jaunty adventure. Little did we know it would turn into a three-hour ordeal.

Our little group was a subset of the Penn State University Scholars students participating in a two-week trip to London, which happened to span New Year's Eve 1991. The popular place to celebrate New Year's, we'd heard, was Trafalgar Square, so most of us took the Tube** from our boarding house in Earl's Court, a middle-class London neighborhood, to the busy square in the center of the city.

What we found there was not at all what I expected. As I wrote about it later, in the Penn State Monty Python Society newsletter, "Spent New Year's Eve in Trafalgar Square, watching people throw confetti, drop bottles, kick aluminum cans, kiss and throw up on each other."

I left out the part about drunk Londoners pushing up against the mounted police's horses, lined up head to tail to block people from entering the square's packed center, around the column topped by a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson. The horses swayed and stumbled but held the line. Stiff upper lip and whatnot.

My college roommate, always the practical sort, quickly had enough of the nonsense. "Well, I've seen it. I'm heading back," she announced, and a couple members of our group took the hint and joined her. Before she left, like a fairy godmother, she presented me her crisply-folded London map, which I tucked into my nearly empty fanny pack, having decided to go light for the celebration. I think I had a few pounds*** in there, and a container of lip gloss.

To think, I actually felt sorry for her that she would be seeing in the new year alone. Maybe if I hadn't been such a naive bozo, I would have left with her and celebrated the new year with one of my best friends, instead of with a bunch of raucous strangers.

The rest of us stayed longer than was advisable, but we didn't figure that out until shortly before midnight, when a current of people started swarming towards the Underground station. Quickly sussing the situation, we grabbed each other's hands, in other to keep our little group together, and began weaving our way through the crowd towards the station. As midnight rang, people around us stopped and kissed each other, but we forged on.

We made it to the station, all right, but that did not solve our problems. The platform was so packed I thought for sure that someone was going to be pushed to their death in front of a passing train. I would later write the following emo poem about it. (And yes, I'm aware that's not how fusion works.)

London Underground -- Twenty Minutes Past New Year's Eve

Mist from all these mouths
smokes up the platform
with champagne-tainted clouds;
people pack tighter than
molecules before fusion,
in a cold tiled tunnel
many grave-digger's depths underground.

Digital signs reiterate! Last train
To Nottinghill Gate... 5 minutes...
Last train... 5 minutes.

Unspoken warning flashes through
the ten-fold rush hour crowd,
You'll never all
make this last train.


And still, bodies press downstairs;
and a ten-year-old retches in a corner;
and the anxious crush pushes closer
to the edge where death waits
for a momentary loss of balance...

Train rushes platform like the swift hand of God.

- September 17, 1991

We did, indeed, make that last train. However, the problem is that Nottinghill Gate was not our end stop. Not even close. That was the place where, if the trains had continued running, we would have transferred to another line to keep going to the neighborhood where we were staying. But the British transport system stopped at 12:30 a.m. on New Year's Eve, and we had no option but to head up to the surface.

Shortly afterwards, we met the British constables in front of the broken shop window. After Shauna asked them directions, I pulled out my map, and one of them pointed out the most direct -- and undoubtedly also the safest -- way to get back home. Then he gently suggested we take a cab. We thanked him and went off to confer as a group.

I would have been happy to contribute my measly money towards a shared cab ride, but the problem was the two brothers. I no longer remember the second brother's name or what he looked like, but the leader of the two was named Alex. He was short, with unkempt shoulder-length brown hair and a peach-fuzz moustache, and he always looked dreamily happy, no matter what was happening. Alex and his younger brother had already taken a day trip to Paris, which may or may not have been without our teacher/tour guide's permission. The rest of us, a group of three Type A female nerds, found his compulsiveness a bit irritating. (Says the person who decided to stay until midnight in a crowd one drink away from stampeding.)

For whatever reason, Alex and his brother refused to go in on a taxi ride. I don't know if they were worried about the cost or they simply reveled in adventure, but with the brothers out, the rest of us resigned ourselves to walking. Not because we thought we couldn't afford it without them, but because Shauna feared they wouldn't make it home without us.

Of course, all this was purely academic, because as we began walking, we realized that empty taxis were as mythical as English sun. Every cab that passed us was packed full of passengers, until we'd walked so far that taxis became a rare sight, regardless of their occupancy status.

A host of revelers in similar circumstances bustled down the streets. At first, we greeted every passing person with a cheery "Happy New Year," receiving it back in kind. As our journey lengthened, the greetings became rote, both sides exhausted with the endless forced cheerfulness. Or maybe it was just me.

I'll tell you what I was really sick of: the brothers. On more than one occasion, they struck out on some side street, convinced they knew a shortcut. Shauna would sigh, call them back, and demand that I pull out the map to "double-check" the way that all the sensible amongst us knew we should head: the directions the constables had given us. I became convinced that Shauna's mother-hen instinct had been correct. Without us, the brothers would have wandered blissfully through the streets of London until they collapsed in a puddle somewhere. But Shauna was a no-nonsense person with a Germanic square jaw and sandy hair pulled into a tight French braid. Nobody was faceplanting into a puddle on her watch.

In hindsight, I realize that Alex's blissfully fuzzy-headed countenance might have been caused by more than airheadedness; perhaps by a leafy substance he'd smoked in his room beforehand. But in those days, I was naive about such things, and had never even tasted any alcohol other than a sip of German porter my Dad let me have at a party once. As far as I was concerned, Alex and his bro were just a couple of ninnies.

The other member of our group, Jo, was a cheerful brunette whose blue eyes danced with mirth at the ridiculousness of it all. "At least we'll have a good story to tell afterwards," she reminded me.

Hour after literal hour we plodded on, checking the map every once in a while, despairing at how much distance we had yet to traverse. While Shauna kept a vigilant eye on the bros, Jo and I tried to keep our spirits up by chatting and joking, pointing out the interesting things we saw along the way, none of which I currently remember. It was, after all, just a futile effort to take our minds off our aching feet, our sleepy bodies.

When we saw the stone face of St. Cuthbert's, the little brick church down the street from our boarding house, I thought at first it was a mirage. Its timeworn, stained edifice struck me as radiantly beautiful in the early morning light.

Exhausted, we trudged into our boarding house, not even bothering to be quiet, and fell into our respective beds.

The next morning, my college roommate woke up at her usual early hour, perky as a songbird. "Well, I see you made it home okay," she observed.

I must have mumbled something.

"Tea?" she asked. Included in our rented room were two single beds, a small refrigerator, a sink with the faucets on the wrong sides (kept burning myself by confusing the hot for cold), and a rusted electronic tea kettle.

I nodded, then asked her how she'd seen in the new year.

She shrugged. "I was asleep by midnight."

Asleep. In her warm, comfortable bed. How glorious, I thought, deeply envious. And then I reflected, with a bemused chuckle: at least I'd come home with a story.





* Slang for British policeman

** Subway train

*** British currency; even in 1991, not an awful lot of cash