Dark cold rain walking down Charing Cross Road. Past the Portrait Gallery. St Martin in the Fields. The National Gallery. Trafalgar Square. Down underground to take the Bakerloo Line from Charing Cross Station. Piccadilly. Oxford Circus. Regent’s Park. Baker Street. Marylebone. Edgware Road. Paddington.
To a Londoner, the journey means work. To me, it is poetry.
The places. The people—gone and present. The words so familiar yet still somehow alien. Fairyland. Magic.
An end to a marathon two-day journey from Maryland to London.
(From Maryland to Fairyland. I like that!)
Some journeys you push yourself onward, not knowing if you will pass this way again, knowing how lucky you are to bask in November’s English chill the day after Maryland’s first freeze.
Now amongst clouds of white cotton sheets and pillows, beneath a thick counterpane, I can rest. Until tomorrow when I will have another day in the infinite city of London.
I hope I sleep. I know my body needs it. But my soul needed this change more. I have been in the same place for six months.
Like being reborn, I am back in the Paddington Hilton, where so many memories have been made.
I worked hard to get away. I think part of me enjoys the panic and stress. It keeps me relevant.
I am still needed.
I can still do it.
We had large Books by the Foot orders in many subjects all month. Especially the last week or so of October.
Literature. Biography. History. Cooking. Architecture. Sports…
It is so therapeutic to the stores’ success—the constant pruning, culling. We are constantly making room for new arrivals.
It paid off yet again. All three stores were up over October 2022.
Bookstores which have been in near constant growth since the scare of 2020 and COVID. So counterintuitive in 2023. But I’ll keep riding the wave as long as I am able. If I fall off, if the business starts slipping, I will struggle to get back on.
It is just not fun if the game is not afoot.
It is Thursday, nearing midnight. November 2nd. I went to the Gaithersburg store Monday. Frederick Tuesday. Frederick again Wednesday. I wanted to see it once again before I left. When I was done, I drove the big old 24-foot box truck back to the warehouse. Behind me were hundreds of boxes and other types of containers full of other people’s books.
The old thing rattles and wheezes and shakes, but it doesn’t want to quit no matter its age and wear and tear.
I sympathize with the big white rusting steel machine.
Now it is Friday morning. I am four stories above Praed Street. Always bustling with people and cars and buses. I should be out walking. There are places I need to visit.
The familiar. The Library. The Gallery…
The novel. Corners I have never turned before. When you turn a new corner, you never know what you will find.
It all would have turned out so differently if I hadn’t taken some unexpected turns over the years.
I should be out walking.
But I need to put this down in print first. Until I do, the memories are just ephemeral.
When I left the house Wednesday morning, it was with some luggage and big sweet stupid Giles—the dog which I inherited in August when everything changed, everything got interrupted.
I packed in a hurry. I needed to carry the rest of the potted plants in or they would surely freeze while I was gone. Some I can carry two at a time. One in each hand. Others I need to wrap two arms round and grunt and hoist the heavy ceramic pot made heavier by damp soil and large plants laden with moisture. Water. The secret to life. Did I carry in 35? 40? 50? The last census I recall was over 70 total. Whatever. I carried them all in. I walked around the house. There were no more outdoors. I set them down inside where I could find room. I’d brought a lot of junk books home to place them upon so they won’t damage the floors or carpets.
My home is in disarray again.
I will put them all in order when I return.
I checked the doors and windows. Switched the water and water heater off. Gently dropped a big log atop the smoldering ones in the woodstove. It will smolder for a couple days with the dampers closed.
Then I left home—with some trepidation. Is this a good idea? Can I still pull it all off? It has been a while.
A full day of books and work chores. How much can I get done before my deadline to leave for Dulles airport?
I got through all the steps one needs to take from the parking garage to the departure gates. I was promoted to the British Air lounge and took a window table for the ninety or hundreds minutes I had to kill there. It was a beautiful view. The Saarinen airport—now over sixty years old—still feels modern.
A flock of blackbirds swarm and swirl over the runway at Dulles.
Far larger birds launch at a twenty-degree angle from the earth beyond.
It is a brilliant clear early evening. November first. Sunset will be just after 6.
There’s been a lifetime of journeys from this airport. The gap between the first and second was enormous.
I have tried to make up for it.
The horizon in the past is so far distant. I can barely recall what I was like then.
Young. Impetuous. Optimistic—for no tangible reason. It seemed like it would all be so simple then.
The planes and shuttles and cop cars and baggage trolleys, food service trucks, tractors… all move on paths below. They roll in some rhythm and some order dictated by computers and eyes on high.
Stop. Start. Wait. Scoot.
Guided by a higher power.
I wait til I am called. Then I will be on board one of these vehicles.
The “wheel” still rules. Everything here rolls.
Starts. Speeds up. Slows. Stops.
I will be an invisible head behind one of those round porthole-like windows until I eschew gravity. I will rise, unbelievable if you dote on it, into the heavens.
So long ago. I was just a kid. My first trip to Europe was a “makeup” from Dad. I was supposed to spend my sophomore semester in Germany. That fell apart when he got very ill and required some major surgery. I was still pre-med. My father pulled strings so I could attend his surgery at Walter Reed Army Hospital. He thought I would like to observe. The aisles and wards were full of Vietnam casualties. Operations were being performed on gurneys in hallways. Dad needed a carotid bypass. He had pioneered the vein transplant surgery that was to save his life on animal models in the 1930s.
I blundered through the spring semester, returning home pretty often and falling in love so far from home.
It was a magical trip. I had an Interrail pass and some kind of membership in the youth hostel system.
No plans. No system other than tiring of a city and seeing where I could travel next via an overnight train. Sleeping on a train saved the cost of the hostel.
I remember that epic journey across Europe very well. I can relive parts of it to this day.
A long night. I hoped to sleep some on the flight over, but it wouldn’t happen. The flight is under 6 hours. Departure at 7:20. By the time you get settled, the flight is well into its duration. I wish I had the ability to just switch off. I waved away the dinner I was offered. I’d had plenty of great food earlier in the Lounge.
I’m on the Heathrow Express. It has always been a model of efficiency. Not today. There was a long wait for the train that is supposed to run every 15 minutes. (There was a long wait for luggage as well.)
Waits try one’s moody tired patience at 2 a.m. (U.S. time.)
The train just burst out into natural light from the bowels of Heathrow. It is supposed to rain all day, but right now is just looks cold and gray.
I hope they have a room ready when I get to the Paddington Hilton in about 15 more minutes. I’d like to wash up. Maybe stretch out on the bed a bit. But no sleeping. To sleep the morning of arrival will ruin your rhythm. You just have to power through the first day and then you are on UK time.
I didn’t feel great last night. That’s one reason I passed on the food and drink. Things have changed in the last six months. I have a new chemistry, it seems. Mostly dictated by doctors, though my ailments are invisible. Symptomless.
Mortality gained some ground in the last six months.
My new surprise “invisible” affliction.
Then the life-changing injury to a close relation.
“The next stop is Paddington Station. Please mind the gap.”
I still like to travel with few plans. Serendipity is far more satisfying that the expected. Even disappointments are interesting.
I think back to the flight.
“Boarding is completed…”
If I sleep, I will awake in London.
There’s a pedantic chattering little girl seated behind me. I hope she shuts up before long.
It was an enormous day.
Amazing how much you can get done with a gun to your head.
But I pulled it off. My first airport in 6 months.
It is different though. I don’t trust my body any more. My new “invisible” affliction hovers like some doom god. The dread is that it becomes no longer invisible.
When I got to the hotel, my room wasn’t ready.
I knew I was exhausted, but exhilaration trumped that.
I washed up and shaved in the lounge. (The rewards of loyalty.)
I reached out to the friend I was going to meet in London. We’ve never met. Only corresponded. He instructed me where and when to meet for the antique fair at Olympia.
It was much more fun and interesting than I’d anticipated. He’d brought along a London friend, and I was in the company of a man and woman who know far more about the city than I. But since the city is infinite, there’s plenty for us all to know and not know.
Gerry is didactic in the word’s best sense. That was good. I could just follow for a change.
Time to leave the antiques. I was sorely tempted, but I have so many framed things. A pile came in the day before I left.
I guesstimated prices on almost all of them before I left for the airport. They should get gone should others arrive in my absence. The few that concerned me could wait til I did some cursory checking or had someone else do some research.
They decided on a cab. I usually walk or tube. London cabs have a big passenger boxes in the back. There is lots of headroom and jump seats so a small crowd can clamber in.
The route took us along the Thames, and we chatted, getting to know one another.
The Tate where so many personal icons and memories are suspended upon the old walls. Gerry wanted to get a guided lecture. I was on batteries and couldn’t take in the tiny woman’s big words in the vast high-ceilinged galleries. Her accent, was it Italian?, made it more difficult, and every third word bounced off me. I wandered off to find the Blake room, which had been closed during my last visits. (COVID.) It was different. It was no longer in the tiny boxlike galleries up some steps.
I wandered back and found them. The guide was still speaking in a tiny voice in the vast space.
I wandered off.
Again and again. Checking in, lest the lecture end and we get separated.
I don’t usually eat lunch. It takes the blood from my brain to my gut, and I become worthless.
They decided on the Churchill Pub—an old favorite haunt of Gerry’s. It was wonderful. Classic.
Dusty photos and artifacts from before the war. Oddly, it has a second, secret life, as a Thai restaurant.
I carried two pints of bitter and a glass of water to the table. We three chatted while they ate and I sipped. There is nothing like English cask ales.
We three were then out of gas. He had only been in London one day before me. Notting Hill was a short walk. The Tube to Paddington was only a couple of stops.
I checked in. Was given a big suite. It was very disappointing. Two big empty stark Spartan rooms.
I sank into the tub filled with hot water and absorbed its energy. I had a couple hours to rest, get my sea legs before it was time to take the underground once again.
Paddington to Piccadilly Circus. A damp walk to German Street. Gerry had chosen L’Escargot.
It was wonderful. We shared a bottle of Pomerol and a dozen snails. They were served in shells and sizzled in a shallow pan filled with liquid that was the color and texture of pond scum. Snails are essentially a vehicle for garlic butter. Once you get the mollusks out of the way (they are essentially little shrimp like things with no real taste—just texture), you get to the real reason for the exotic presentation.
Pressing bits of bread into the still hot butter and herbs.
“Imagine pouring this over popcorn…”
It was a magical meal for we three. Gerry’s friend explained her thesis on Shakespeare and QE #1 and nursery rhymes and numbers’ meanings in words and verse. I was transported as she spoke and the anonymous dark bodies walked just outside the front window on tiny German Street.
“That’s a book,” I blurted out.
I’ve always been fascinated by the many Shakespeare theories and coincidences and codes and riddles.
Her ideas were novel.
“Cervantes… was written by… Four and twenty blackbirds…”
“That’s another book! An annotated nursery rhyme book for adults!”
And the meals that were set before us. Wild forest mushrooms. Truffles. Foie gras…
The show, just a block away, was also chosen by Gerry. Dear England. It is a new four-hour epic stage show about English soccer and its travails since it last won a world championship in 1966. Sports, race, history, a moment’s personal failure which affects the rest of your life, the “beautiful game”… and penalty kick shootouts. Makes perfect sense to me and to the rest of the English audience.
Most Americans would be clueless. I spend about ten hours each weekend with English football playing on my laptop while I play with books.
It was nearly 11 when we were out a stage door onto German Street.
Dark. Cold. Rainy.
We separated. Three new friends and a shared magical day in another world.
“See you tomorrow…”
Charing Cross Station was just ahead.
The acres of pavement were shiny.