Thames Pub 1969

I am certain it was a Sunday, and it was summer. My first summer, and my first months in Britain, 1969. My father’s cousin and her husband – relations who seem so distant on a family tree that that I could hardly imagine being grafted onto the trunk – had a modern townhouse in Kensington, across the street from London’s Holland Park. I had been around just enough to sense that this was a leafy, affluent part of town. But being from a leafy affluent part of America, I thought little of it. Holland Park seemed crowded, beset by screeching peacocks and nothing particularly special. As for my cousins’ home, it seemed strangely miniature and cramped. I was sitting in the hallway, just inside the front door, a passage squeezed into particular narrowness by the townhouse’s garage and the presence of its owner, Wilhelm.

He liked to be called Bill, but his daughter and son had decided differently. A tall man well over six feet, his declarative style stood out in Britain. Teutonic and Jewish, his extroverted fatherly stance added up to Wilhelm. An impatient man, he stood in the hallway, post-breakfast preparing to announce next steps. I sat there waiting.

I was waiting for everything. And I was sitting all the time. I had only been sprung from my six-month hospitalization that winter and still had no life. My body was weak. Standing, which I would eventually learn was good for me, took too much energy. Wilhelm took even more, his presence in my life setting off a cascade of contradictory emotions. Why was I so welcome in his house? True, I had struck a strong chord with both his daughter and son. But there was more. He wanted me there. I was quickly being adopted. But I was too old to be adopted. Too old to be a son again. As for Wilhelm’s life guidance, his frequent recommendations for growth and development, this was the last thing I needed. Except that it wasn’t. The attention, the kindness, the commitment to me…was exactly what I needed. I was drowning. Like a man who has been crawling across the parched desert sands and is thrown into a bubbling spring. From struggling with thirst to struggling to swim…I didn’t know what to do.

Ellen, Wilhelm’s wife, had just completed the morning’s nourishment, a Sunday English breakfast fry up, a blast of calories that I could easily shed in those days. And now loaded with food and caffeine, Wilhelm was proposing an outing. How would I like to go to a pub?

I was 22 years old, not feeling very robust physically or emotionally, and now this. A pub. I wouldn’t go to the equivalent of a pub in America – why should I here? The nearest thing I had ever encountered to a pub was La Val’s Pizza on the north side of the Berkeley campus. When I turned 21, a year and a half before, my friend Bruce had taken me there for a beer. That was fine. Now I was crippled, self-conscious and painfully aware of my limitations. Including, of course, urinary. A pub. Drinking, having to find a men’s toilet. Why?

How would I like to go to a pub, Wilhelm asked. Sounds okay, I said, flatly. It was the best I could do on the spur of the moment. A pause ensued. It did not last long.

“Since Paul has so graciously accepted my offer, it shall be a pub,” Wilhelm replied. And so we were off. Off on the wrong foot, I could tell, feeling mortified. I wasn’t quite sure how to rectify this. I hoped I hadn’t done any permanent damage. For in such moments it was obvious, my need to be included, the futureless nature of my life. Love.

I did not understand many things about Britain and British life. Chief among them, that “going to a pub” bordered on a vocation. Much of life involved going to a pub. Or coming from a pub. Or being in a pub. Furthermore, the varieties of experience were almost limitless. This particular pub was on the Thames. Upstream, well out of the urban crush. Was it suburban? Quasi rural? It was hard to say. Even today, Britain protects its green lands fairly well, drawing the line at urban encroachment. And so it was with this pub on the river. The drive might have taken half an hour, so it could not have been very far.

The river predominated. That is my point. It was summer, the day was sunny, and the Thames was all splash. Swimmers, bathing suits, youth. I looked on longingly. Aside from everything else, I was a very lonely and horny 22-year-old. So the trip to the pub proved to be tantalizing, if not wholly satisfying. I don’t recall the conversation. I probably had half a pint of beer. The latter then and now was enough to send me over the edge, certainly toward sleep. And I probably found the men’s toilet. Or perhaps not. It didn’t matter. For the daylight and the company and the sunniness, and the miracle of a river…a startling and invigorating experience for a desert boy…all this surely had brightened my spirits.

Perhaps Wilhelm noticed. I was certainly trying by that point. For I could see myself in the social context and knew that I was indeed trying in that other sense. I didn’t want to be a trying person. I wanted to try. No, my unenthusiastic response to the pub offer, my general gracelessness…maybe it wasn’t so bad. I wasn’t so bad. Although things were bad. Very bad. I knew that. People around me to it too. Wilhelm, whose family had evaporated in German concentration camps, might be someone to know. For now, he was someone to drink with, very sparingly. I didn’t believe in social bonding through alcohol. Mostly because I didn’t believe in social bonding, truth be known.

That summer I had set off on my own, boarding a charter flight to nowhere, in terms of the future. But now I was somewhere, quite new and unexpected. And without knowing it, Wilhelm had steered me in a certain direction. A mild cuff that got my attention. I wanted his attention, after all. And I wanted none of it. I wanted to be a free and fulfilled adult. For now, I would have to settle for being a highly conflicted, emotionally needy youth.

But I was not content. I was in the most precarious of positions, included, but for no reason I could see. Except that I was disabled. People wanted to take care of me. Fine, because I wanted to be taken care of. But life, real life, splashing around in the river on a Sunday afternoon, that was gone. I could see across the water to where swimmers climbed out of the current and sunned themselves on reedy islands. Couples. Coupling. They had all been drinking, then had gone swimming. Apparently they weren’t afraid of drowning. Or afraid of anything. They were living, living in the moment, the slightly sodden, alcoholic moment. And me? Did I have a moment? Did I have a future?

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