Odd that I had to distance myself 6000 miles from the scene of the crime…but this appears to be the case. Fact is, I had just driven myself home from a monthly meeting of the local library’s book group, and I was backing into a parking place. Let me put a finer point on things. I was backing uphill, in the dark…into a supposed parking place. Already this sounds like so much excuse-making. But, of course, what I must excuse is my own disability…. In that moment of fear when my car naturally drifts downhill, and I try to overcome the process with the accelerator…well, in that instant adrenaline overcame my own foot strength. I could not get my foot off the gas. I hurtled into one parked car fast enough to drive it into the car behind it. What is the sound of three cars crashing?
Yes, one should hasten to point out that there were no injuries, all cars in question have been repaired…and nothing has been permanently damaged except my confidence. And there’s something so fundamental about driving that loss of confidence can easily broaden. I’m not entirely clear about what I can or can’t do anymore. My physiotherapist suggests that I watch out for motor neuron fatigue, an affliction of the aging spinal-cord injured, post-polio survivors, and so on. I don’t know.
I do know that when in doubt, hit the road. And on this particular day, why not get up at 3:30 AM and fly from Dublin to Heathrow? Why not? Fish gotta swim. Or to explain things slightly, while Jane is leading a small church group to Iona in the Inner Hebrides, what is there to do but go to London? When a man is tired of life, he’s tired of Heathrow, Samuel Johnson meant to say.
And I can already say that this exercise in independence is worth it. I have been haunted by a pervasive sense of aging and loss. And while there is plenty of aging and loss to go around, there is enough left of the life force to get me through a couple of nights at the Paddington Station Hilton. And fears about spending a couple of nights on my own have been plaguing me. So I’m doing the right thing.
Which is to say I am doing less things. I had lunch with a friend, but in the hotel. Having stumbled out of bed long before the Northern European June sunrise…OK, it’s technically May…I am not running on all cylinders. And cylinders, as I have demonstrated late at night on Chenery Street in San Francisco…are important. Besides, although I have not technically left the confines of Paddington, a fair amount has occurred. Not the least being the evacuation of Paddington Station. Yes, I was in the station Sainsburys picking myself a nice afternoon snack or two when damned if the loudspeaker system didn’t erupt into warnings to evacuate.
This being Britain, two things occur simultaneously. First, it is a serious terrorist target, this island nation…and its capital being the favorite bull’s-eye. The other thing is that lots of things don’t here, and there is every reason to assume that alarm systems are among the dysfunctional. Sure enough, while I and a hundred other Sainsburys shoppers were quietly dropping our baskets and heading out the door to Praed Street…a second announcement provided an all clear. Yes, trouble with the alarm system. Only a test.
Except that everything is a test, when you think about it. And I do. Londoners have been tested enough to have an authentic courage. Perhaps I have too. This is enough to make a person relax, at least slightly. It’s also enough to make a person give way, give in…and ask for help. That’s the thing about this Paddington hotel. I have stayed here so often that everyone knows me. Why does this matter? I don’t know. It just does. For better or worse, the staff have become oddly frank. The disabled toilet off the lobby is always locked. Why? Well, one of the bellmen confessed, ‘something in there doesn’t work.’ It’s enough to make a person scream and yell, but not here and not now. I have screamed and yelled about other things, particularly the frequent breakdowns of the main wheelchair lift to the street. And, gentle reader, the real question is ‘why is there a wheelchair lift at all?’ After all we’re talking the ground floor. We’re talking getting from the ground floor to the ground. And the answer lies in the mid-19th century. This hotel was built in the era of great railway construction…and great railway hotels. And it’s still pretty great. It’s certainly convenient. The trains from Heathrow stop about a couple of hundred meters from the hotel entrance.
So, okay, I’m here…and tomorrow I will be there. Which includes lunch at the National Portrait Gallery…after what I pray will be a decent night’s sleep. Thing is, in my current state, it is entirely possible to get into bed and worry about if I can get up in the morning. Out of bed, that is. Out of London. Out of Africa. Out of my mind with a certain level of anxiety that will only be cured with time. And speaking of that, it’s time to get undressed for bed. During which I will not be alone. That’s because Britain is Radio Land. No loudspeaker in my hotel room can do justice to the evening concert on BBC Radio 3. But there’s also Radio 4, so what the hell. Between the two of them, these stations could entertain me until my dying day. Britons complain heavily about the licensing fee, the annual tax that supports the BBC. To put things in perspective, I pay more for one month of Comcast cable crap in San Francisco than the beeb charges for a year.
And did you know London’s water has, on average, been through the local sewage system at least seven times? Why seven times in this rain-drenched country? No room for reservoirs. Land is too precious. And, truth be told, water is precious everywhere. People are precious. It’s all precious. So is sleep. Good night.