Where was I headed on that particular day? A government office? A medical appointment? Or even one of my rare job interviews? I could not have been anticipating much reward at the end of my schlep through Soho. Yet in 1971, I was still walking everywhere, the wheelchair two decades away. London’s maze of narrow streets and theaters and pubs and restaurants was not the ultra-pricey place it is today. In fact, the district had some authentically seedy and risqué elements. Which was actually rather pleasant, for the whole experience was safe. The naughty parts of London joined hands with the respectable bits in a way that was both comfortable and blasé. The neighborhoods and their purposes shrugged at each other, stepped aside and made room. Chandelier-laced hotels were just a couple of streets away, as were fancy shops and consulates. Stockbrokers could nip over here for lunch…particularly if they were schooled in the brisk pace of British walking…to get lunch or to get laid. In Soho, old-style specialist shops selling umbrellas and door knobs, coexisted with whorehouses. One of the main thoroughfares, Wardour Street, was still headquarters of the British film industry, or what remained of it.
And so I made my way, the most direct route from a tube station or a bus stop…I cannot recall…to wherever I was going. An older woman stood in a doorway. By ‘older’ I mean that she was probably in her late 30s. She said hello, looking me up and down. I raised my eyes to hers. In Britain people simply did not say hello to each other in this fashion. Unless they knew each other, of course. Did she know me? I stared at her for a moment trying to work out the connection. ‘Oh,’ she said. She had recognized something in me, something that was not looking for a prostitute or even aware that one might be looking for me. Oh. This knowledge, of not only my naïveté, but my deep belief in my own sexual unattractiveness, made me cringe. I continued on. Oh. I was headed somewhere, but I existed nowhere. Oh. I knew that what my unguarded glance had conveyed to the doorway prostitute was something pained. Oh. I limped on to wherever I was going. The destination is long forgotten, but the troubled young person remains vivid. This was, in fact, one of the most vital periods in my life. Troubled or not…or even because.
On our last morning in London, Jane and I had decided to have one of those sturdy English breakfasts that can keep a person going for days. Inversely, each of these meals probably takes years off a human life. Particularly a older human life. Never mind, we had yet to sit down to bangers, fried eggs, baked beans, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, that triumph of British cuisine. But it was going to happen now. We had gotten up early enough, bags packed, and now I was sitting on the wheelchair lift of Chandos House, Marylebone. Inching upward from the basement level to the sunny London street above. The place is really a club, not a hotel, and how this came to be my home away from home in this particular city is another and rather boring story. Suffice it to say, Chandos House went up about the time of the American Revolution, and we can forgive it for having an ancient retrofitted lift for wheelchairs. Besides, going up, the ride is only slow. Going down, mildly terrifying. On descent, I hang the front wheels of my chair right at the edge of a very steep drop, inching ever forward to make the thing fit aboard the lift platform. Every inch closer to the point where the wheelchair and the occupant supposedly controlling it will roll right off, bouncing and plummeting a good 15 feet down some very ancient steps. Never mind. We are ascending now. No, I lie. We are stopping. Why? The young man operating the lift tries the usual remedies. Raising and lowering the safety bars. Trying to bring the platform back down to ground level. Folding up the side rail. None of this works.
And yet this is a glorious London morning. Surely this thing will get fixed. It has acted up before, been balky. And Jane is waiting at the top. She is cheering me on by her presence. We are off to breakfast, nothing can stop us, and somehow we have done it. Fit together the extremely complex pieces of wheelchair travel virtually the entire length of Britain…while fitting in family and friends, admittedly sometimes a tight fit…and on this glorious day we are headed off to the finest sort of British meal in Wimpole Street, two blocks away.
I suppose I should have grown alarmed when the Chandos House manager began offering us coffee. This did, after all, suggest a rather long stay aboard the wheelchair lift, five feet off the ground. He has made calls, he tells us. An engineer is coming over from Wimpole Street headquarters. Meanwhile, how do we like our coffee? The answer is that we like it absent. Not that I can speak for Jane in this matter. She does have a cup of coffee, doubtless brewed expertly by the Italian manager. My bladder is working on a different assumption, the notion that I’m not going to be here very long and soon using the modern loos in the Wimpole Street building. I surreptitiously give my bladder a diagnostic poke. Things do not look good. The engineer is coming, the manager says. I don’t want to look at my watch.
Until I have to. We have missed the breakfast hours at the Wimpole Street dining room. We have not missed our plane, however, and for this we must be grateful. Furthermore, these are my final moments in London. I am surrounded by people, admittedly rather concerned ones, but they are Londoners nonetheless. We are having a sort of unscheduled festival, all of us.
Yes, at the heart of things, a growing number of people are showing signs of agitation over the American guest in the wheelchair who is stuck in the air and not moving. Oddly, I like having everyone around. I am leaving, after all, and what is there to do but enjoy this final sunny moment? The engineer is an older man, which is to say about my age, and he is utterly unperturbed by the situation. He has no real solution, that is the other thing. The ‘works’ as they are termed in this nation, are built into the stone wall to my left. Actually blocked by the lift, which has stalled in the worst conceivable place. The Chandos House manager is actually getting a little too Italian by now, borderline operatic, such as his anxiety. Will I be here forever? No.
I instruct several of the staff on how to help me stand up, stepping from the lift onto the steps it traverses…for this is an industrial version of one of those stairglide elevators. Now I usher everyone away, Jane hands me a plastic urinal, having literally scaled the stone steps and wrought iron railing from below. This completed, I lean on an arm, while my helpers lean the wrong way, such as the way of these things. Soon I am at the top of the stairs, sit down in a chair and more or less direct the next stage. I explain how the wheelchair can be disengaged from its brakes. The engineer assembles five strong young Chandos House staff…a proud assemblage of Commonwealth and Eastern European participants…and incredibly my chair is lifted, rolled away to the internal elevator…then carried by the same five-man team down the front steps and deposited at my feet.
We are almost there, I tell myself as the Chandos House crew lifts one arm, then another, all to no effect. I give them mild instructions. The sun is bright, today is my last in this town, and whatever t
he moment, I am savoring it.
‘Sir, you are a gentleman.’ This from the junior engineer. I am surprised at his remark, while quite flattered. Hard to say exactly what it means, but this is praise. Praise for not going ballistic or even getting anxious. For handling everything with good humor…and in the final moments doling out tourist advice to the senior engineer who is bound for San Francisco next month. The general attitude that, of course, Jane manifests more consistently. And now we are teamed in gentlemanliness.
Jane says that everything, the good spirits of the misadventure, the morning, our involuntarily early departure for the airport, has much to do with grace. She explains the concept to me, and although I do not quite understand, I recognize that something is going on. Even at the last moment, a cab appears from nowhere. Chandos Street is nowhere, at least in a taxi sense. Furthermore, particularly in high tourist season, London cabbies have a way of pretending not to see the passenger in the wheelchair. Loading me is time consuming, what with the ramp that must be unfolded and the bulky wheelchair that must be guided inside…at least, that is the perception. But this cab driver sees Jane, sees our bags, and even sees me. He stops. The curve is a little low, making his ramp a little steep. Not to worry. For Team Chandos has gathered on the sidewalk to see us off. A couple of team members lift the front of my wheelchair, and I sail up the ramp.
Grace. I shall think about it and try to better grasp the concept. For now, I am thinking of the journey. The long one, the one that brought me across Soho – to here. Wherever ‘here’ is. Too bad we missed our bangers. English breakfast sausages are without equal. Strange that we get them anyway, in the United Airlines club lounge. Why are we here? Because Jane amassed so many miles flying to and from her ailing father in the last year or so. That and, for all I know, grace.