I flew into London on the anniversary of D-Day. As we broke through the dense cloud cover over Gatwick, I couldn’t help thinking that London looked like Jessica Lange—getting a little decrepit, but you still have to admit that the old girl’s still got it. I covered up the sound of the squalling baby in the seat behind me by stuffing my headphones into my ears and turning up the volume on The Weepies.
I waited like all the other sad sacks in the long line leading to customs and endured the inordinate suspicion of the customs agent who had apparently never heard of university fellowships. I suspected he may have been dowsing his fish and chips with more malt vinegar than was absolutely necessary. While waiting on my luggage I exchanged a wad of dollars for a much smaller number of British pounds. I had never seen bills so huge. Those things were the size of napkins. But they were all emblazoned with a very regal looking Queen Elizabeth, and that took my attention away from wondering how big English wallets would have to be to accommodate such monstrosities. After claiming my battered backpack from the luggage carousel and wondering how the ground crew managed to get sufficient grease smeared on it to transfer to my pinstriped linen pants, I wandered out and caught a train bound for Victoria station.
I had no destination in mind, so I meandered out of Victoria station wishing I hadn’t seen the need to buy the biggest backpack I could find. If you’ve got a big backpack it stands to reason you’re going to stuff as much into it as you can. The weight of the pack did more to determine my choice of lodging than anything else really, and so by the time my jaunty saunter had degenerated into a drunken man stagger I was ready to lay my burden down at the nearest hostel that would have me. I found a hostel that offered a berth in a bunk bed for twelve pounds so I took it. And that’s how I ended up in Westminster in the great city of London.
After a quick shower, I pulled on a pair of Levi’s that were so wrinkled from being rolled up in the backpack that from a distance they looked like corduroys. I tried to compensate for my lack of sartorial splendor by throwing on a linen jacket and a pair of red espadrilles then headed out into a balmy London early evening. I had no map—directions and knowing where you’re going is highly overrated anyway—so I moved in a direction I presumed as generally eastern until I caught the unmistakable smell of fish and chips wafting from a disreputable looking establishment with a green façade and The Pride of Pimlico in heavy brass lettering. I noticed that the o in Pimlico was hanging down in such a fashion that it looked like it might become dislodged at any moment. Any place this rundown deserved my full attention, so I ducked through the doorway into another world.
Through the swirls of blue tobacco smoke I noted with approval that the interior of the pub was finished in dark walnut and gleaming brass. I approached the bar and ordered a pint of Guinness. After ordering, I heard a reedy “hey chaps, if it isn’t a Yankee Doodle dandy.” While waiting for the publican to pour a perfect foam-topped pint I looked in the direction the voice had come and saw a straight-backed old man wearing a crisp suit with knife-edge creases in the blue serge fabric of the pants. He had three medals pinned to the left breast of his suit jacket. He told the publican that any Yankee ordering a pint in his pub on D-Day deserved to have it paid for. I hadn’t even realized it was the anniversary of D-Day. I thanked him and pulled up a stool and sat down with my pint. We chatted for a while and he told me about fighting Rommel and the Germans in North Africa.
I ordered a plate of fish and chips, and when they arrived all golden battered and beautiful, I poured a hefty stream of malt vinegar over the fish and washed it all down with the rest of the pint. When I finished my first Westminster meal ever, I wandered over to the jukebox and an old man in a wheelchair informed me that he’d love to hear some Frank Sinatra, so I loaded up as much Sinatra as I had funny looking coins for and sat down at his table. He introduced himself to me as Murray, and the gruff looking old man next to him as Tom. Murray looked feeble but Tom appeared to have the force of a banty rooster, and even his out of control untrimmed bushy eyebrows were a little intimidating.
As we chatted I started to feel at home enough to ask them how they had gotten to know each other. Murray said he was fishing in the North Sea when a freighter captained by Tom ran him down and capsized his fishing boat. He actually seemed pretty steamed by it. I asked him when it happened and he said that he thought maybe 1956. It may have happened in the distant past, but you could tell he was still a little indignant. Tom explained to me that turning a freighter around took about three miles and when he was finally able to fish Murray out of the frigid water, Murray was about as blue as an Atlantic cod.
I stayed there in the Pride of Pimlico chatting with Murray and Tom for as long as Frank Sinatra continued to croon. As I got up to leave, Murray and Tom accompanied me to the door. I avoided walking under the hanging o in the Pimlico sign and walked out into the unswept streets of Westminster. I looked back and Murray and Tom were waving and the last rays of London sun were glinting off the shiny spokes of Murray’s wheelchair.