31 May 2007

Welcome To London

No sooner did I write here that I wouldn't dream of taking a taxi when there was a bus or train available than - oh bitter and expensive irony - I found myself in the back of a taxi watching the meter climb toward the stratosphere as we crawled through the back streets (the expressway was jammed solid, natch) on the way to Kennedy Airport.

It was my own fault, really; I thought I could get some errands done in Greenpoint and still get back home in time to catch the train to the airport, but I got hung up at the bank for an extra half hour. Compounding the irony, as it turned out I still could have made it to the airport on time even if I'd taken the train; as it was, I ended up with almost two hours to kill. Still, the ride out was both enjoyable and instructive, if a bit dizzying.

It started when I complimented the driver on his car (it wasn't an actual taxi, but a guy from the local car service driving his own carefully manicured vehicle), which was obviously the sort of thing he liked to hear, because he immediately went into a half hour disquisition on everything and anything to do with cars, including the price and styles thereof in his native Ecuador as compared with Brooklyn, the new minivan he was going to buy when he finished paying off his wife following their messy divorce, and comparative gas mileages of the leading 50 brands of automobile.

Only thing was that he did nearly all of it in Spanish. We started out in English, albeit on a very rudimentary level, but I only had to utter a couple of Spanish words in an attempt to clarify a point - nothing more elaborate than ¿Que tipos? or ¿De donde vienes? - and any effort at English on his part went right out the window. He seemed to assume that I was fluent or very nearly so in Spanish, and while I've never been anywhere near that level, the amazing thing was that I actually did understand between half and three quarters of what he said. As I said, very instructive. If I weren't too much of a tightwad to consider using his car service unless it's another emergency, I could be speaking Spanish like a pro in no time.

Keeping with the theme, my seatmate on the flight over was a big (in that he took up his entire seat and part of mine) old (in that he was only 14 years younger than me) Puerto Rican highway worker from Maspeth, but he'd been in New York for so long that he barely spoke Spanish at all. Apparently much of his social life involves regularly flying over to hang out with his Irish buddies who are spread out all over England, Scotland and, oh yes, Ireland. Nice guy, good sense of humor, and a great story teller. Only downside was that I didn't get any sleep.

We landed early, customs was smooth and no ordeal at all, and then came the real treat: I went to get an Underground ticket for the ride into London and found that out of three available machines, one was out of order, one took coins only and no credit cards (sorry, but I just don't happen to have £23.20 in coins), and the third had a fairly long queue in front of it.

Typical, I said, reverting almost immediately to my long-practiced role of whingeing Pom, but the queue moved relatively quickly until there was just one girl in front of me who - once more, typical - was having trouble getting the machine to accept her money. Instead of huffing and puffing, however, for once I practiced patience and forbearance, and then came my reward.

The out of order machine next to us made a retching sound, almost as if it were vomiting, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a £5 note sticking halfway out of the "insert cash here" slot. I thought about grabbing it, but realized it would look unseemly to the girl still struggling with the machine in front of us. Then came a bit more retching, and the £5 note came out a bit further. There was no one else around now except the girl in front of me (and of course the omnipresent surveillance cameras), but I was still too shy to grab the money, and instead debated whether I should turn it in to the London Underground employee who'd been hanging around a few minutes earlier.

He'd just put it in his own pocket, I reasoned, er, rationalized, but still, what did it matter? One thing that was certain was that it wasn't my money. Just then the machine gave an even bigger shudder and vomited the £5 note out onto the floor, followed closely by a £20 note. The two bills landed virtually at the feet of the girl in front of me, who looked at them with the quizzical eyes of a foreigner who has seen just about enough strange things in this new country for one day, thank you very much, and then looked away as if to say, "It's nothing to do with me."

That did it. I scooped up the £25 and generously offered to trade her my new £5 note for the one she was having no luck getting her machine to accept. That didn't work either, so I traded her £5 in coins, which did, and as she walked away, I finally felt free to put the £25 in my pocket.

Not without a few qualms of conscience, it's true, but I needed only to remind myself of the years of pain and indignity inflicted on me by London Underground and the many thousands of pounds they've charged me for the privilege to feel assured that while I may not have been acting with perfectly scrupulous honesty, I could make a pretty good case for the 25 quid being a dividend earned many times over.

And in fact it was just slightly more than enough to pay for my first week's Travelcard, which of course has gone up in price again since I left London. A month's travel in inner London now works out to about $180 per month, compared with $76 in New York (and that $76 gets you all of New York; a similar deal in London would run closer to $300). Never mind, though, no need for griping, as I'm only here for 12 days and I don't want to mar it by worrying about money.

It's my first time in London as a tourist since the 1970s, and more specifically the first time I haven't had a home to go to. For some reason, that seems to have greatly changed my perspective on the place. I'm staying quite near to my old stomping grounds, and find it rather staggering just how beautiful it is. How did I not notice this as I walked through these same streets through the years? And the air is so brisk and (I know this is an illusion) clean and invigorating compared with the muggy summer soup that was beginning to settle in over New York when I left.

Did I make a mistake by leaving London when I did? No, I don't think so. I still love this place, and it's great to be here for a few days. But it'll be even greater to come back home to New York.

1 comment:

Anna Louise said...

There is a perculiar ticket machine in Richmond which charges me £2.20 to get to acton but required me (my mum) to exact change using a note, which makes no sense whatsoever. If a £10 pound noted we would have lost £7.80 for a one way ticket of four stops. Using a credit card for £2.20 seemed a bit pointless so we joined the queue of several people. if oyster card worked on the overground trains we'd have no problem but transport for london just likes to make bank holidays all the more fun.