24 May 2006

An Autumnal Night

About three weeks ago, after a three-day warm spell, the authorities turned off the heat in our building for the season. Ever since, those of us who own portable space heaters have been running up huge electric bills, while those of us who don't have been trundling around the house in bulky sweaters and sleeping in our winter thermals. This morning, apparently in response to a barrage of complaints, the heat came back on, which will probably have the dual effect of adding £100 to our annual service charges and causing a sudden surge of tropical warmth to blanket the British Isles.

No sign of that happening yet, however. Our weather has been what BBC announcers call with oracular orotundity, their lips lovingly caressing the pear-shaped syllables, "autumnal." Not merely in the sense that it has been cold and wet and windy and horrible, but that it seems to be getting worse as the days descend inexorably into winter. Which creates an odd effect, since we are actually less than a month away from the summer solstice, the days are continuing to lengthen, and the trees, shrubs and hedges across London have just burst into full, voluptuous leaf.

So it's as though image and reality are headed in opposite directions, hardly the first time this has happened, but disconcerting nonetheless. I was tempted to stay indoors all day today and savour the warmth emanating from our reawakened radiators while doing laundry and packing for my imminent relocation to the hopefully more summery environs of New York City. But I was too restless for that, and so instead it was off into the driving rain, waiting on sodden, windblown platforms for trains that could barely be bothered to turn up on a day like this, and when they did, crawled timidly along as if they were afraid of sliding off the tracks. Everything and everybody looked wet and miserable; commuters crammed into standing room only spaces reeking of damp wool and soaked trainers, with barely room to reach up and brush away the residual raindrops falling from hair and hatbrims across their weary faces.

Disgorged from the Underground, I pulled my hood up and splashed through the forlorn streets of Soho, strangely deserted for such an early hour. Basement cafes did a roaring business, though, with people huddled at tiny tables, some reading, some shouting, some staring profoundly into space, all looking hunkered down for a long winter's night. I listened to a friend talking, something about some bad drug experience or his mother dropping him on his head as a baby, and went into a bit of a waking dream, where I was swimming through a green mist and suddenly emerged into the summer I was 16, with the sullen, sultry heat of a Michigan night pressing down on us as we clustered around the streetlamp like so many moths to the flame. Then, just like that, it was a few years later, only now it was winter, with slippery patches of ice blending almost invisibly into the blacktop as we roared up Allen Road on our way to the Chatterbox.

We were the Pompadour Gang, half a dozen or so of us, killing time while we waited to get drafted and sent to Vietnam. We spent our mornings styling our hair to gravity-defying heights, in some cases fully half a foot high (the best I ever managed was a still respectable four inches), our afternoons prowling the "coloured" shops in downtown Detroit for iridescent trousers in shades like gold, ruby red, and electric blue, matching thick and thin nylon socks to go with them, patent leather wingtips, 24 inch watch chains, double knit shirts and half or three quarter length leather coats to top off the ensemble. We listened only to the soul station, WCHB in Inkster, scorned any music or style that originated with white people, and were prepared to go to our graves as the last, and certainly most stylish representatives of the genus once known as the American Greaser.

The Chatterbox was our hangout, our club, our nerve center and last redoubt, but it was rapidly being taken over by the new kids, the mods, the garage rockers, even a few budding hippies. Sporting Beatles and Kinks-inspired poodle dos, they had the nerve to sneer, even laugh out loud at our magnificent pompadours, and though we were meaner and more prepared to fight, they weren't all as sissy as they looked, and wouldn't hesitate to fight back.

But tonight was our night, an all-soul night. There'd be no mods, no longhairs in phony Beatle boots to spoil our fun. Hopped up on beer, pills and codeine-laced cough syrup, we tore through town, barely able to contain our excitement. "Can't this piece of shit go any faster?" the Razz shouted, and Bob-O, already cruising at 55 in a 25, floored it. That same instant, some clown pulled out in front of us and we broadsided him. Everything got a bit vague after that, but somehow we still ended up at the Chatterbox. I was stumbling around and falling into people, and they kept telling me I looked like hell, but nothing penetrated until after the Chatterbox closed down at about 3 am and we wandered over to the police station to see what had become of Bob-O's car.

It sat there out back, the front end caved in, but what we mainly noticed was the three holes in the windshield where our heads had hit. They weren't big holes, not big enough for our heads to go all the way through, anyway. In fact they were just about the size and shape as our hairdos, and I instinctively clutched at my pompadour, realizing for the first time that night that it was a mess. Somehow that seemed a lot more important than the fact that I had come within inches of going through a windshield and probably dying. There was a purity to life in those days, a purity perhaps purchased at the price of great stupidity, but a purity nonetheless, of a sort I may never know again. My friend finished what he'd been saying and asked me what I thought; I opened my half-closed eyes and tried to focus on the still-crowded but now somewhat more sedate cafe before finally having to admit that I had been off in another land and another century. "It's just that you were speaking in such a hypnotic tone," I told him, "that I couldn't help drifting away. But, I mean, thanks, it felt like somewhere I really needed to go."

Then it was time to put on my still-wet jacket and hoodie and head back out into the darkened streets where they got even wetter. As I approached my building, a little shiver went through me, and I remembered coming home from Dublin around January of 1994, having just spent the coldest week of my life cooped up with a band called Huggy Bear in a flat with no heat apart from a desultory peat fire whose energy was barely capable of radiating beyond the confines of the fireplace. I opened the door to my building, and though the hallways were kept only at room temperature, if that, they offered a foretaste of the delicious, enveloping warmth that awaited me.

As I marched down the long passage, anticipating that warmth, promising myself that I would not set foot outdoors again until spring if at all possible, I chanted, in time with the sound of my soles slapping against the squishy floor tiles, "I love central heating, I love central heating." There were those who claimed that central heating and the softness of character it encouraged had ushered in the downfall of the British Empire, but just then I didn't care if the whole country had to be handed over to the barbarians as long as I could be warm again. And here it was the 24th of May, 2006, the barbarians have made considerable advances even if they're not completely in charge yet, and not much else has changed.

1 comment:

Jenna Alive said...

The weather has been off here, too. Specifically, we've been having... weather. Rain, cold, heat, humidity, the whole bit.

I blame Bush.