The 88

It must be time to head home. I am getting angry at myself for everything, and for anything. And for what? Never mind. This is my reflexive response, and at age 66 what can one do but hang on for the increasingly rough ride? Not to be overly pessimistic.

In fact, when I inhale, take several deep breaths, and think about the unfolding day…well, I haven’t done badly in the life department. It’s just that I haven’t done enough. Not that I can define what ‘enough’ would look like. No, not true. It looks like the 88 bus.

You know, the red double-decker one that plies Holland Park Avenue along with the 12? These are redoubtable bus routes of London Transport. Or they were. In fact London Transport were, or was. The modern name is Transport for London, and this name has been in place for over a decade. But when you are 66, what’s a decade or two? You are past everything, and everything has passed you. You just don’t know it. But you find out.

You find out as soon as your last day in London acquires what could be called shape. The day has been shapeless for want of available cousins. Barbara and James aren’t dragging their grandkids into the West End, that seems pretty clear. So I am dragging myself…kicking and screaming…out the door. But where? I seriously consider looking at the Thursday matinees. Which is a wonderful thing about London theater, one of many. There are Thursday matinees. But, I don’t know, this seems too indoors, too unchallenging. After all, I have barely been out on the town on my own. Use it or lose it, they say. And damned if I’m going to lose my London mojo.

Which is why I come to a brilliant insight concerning Praed Street buses. That they only seem to go in two directions. All departing buses heading east, in a manner of speaking. In a manner of London speaking, they head toward the Edgeware Road, thereafter dispersing to the ends of the English Earth. Forget the buses apparently heading west, for they are doomed transit-wise. Buses at the end of their routes head toward Paddington Station, while the upstarts head away.

Although this insight does not give me a purpose, let alone a destination, it will do. After all, there is this Pre-Raphaelite show on at the Tate Britain Gallery. The 88 bus goes right there. Change at Marble Arch, and Bob’s your uncle. Or is he?

Is Robert avuncular at all? This is the essential matter before me as the 436 bus stops just around the corner from the Marble Arch Odeon. When the driver lowers the wheelchair ramp, I know to wait. There is a disturbing and trust-challenging moment with these buses, for first they disgorge the walking passengers, then the door shuts. And one has to believe, really believe that it will open again, this time for those who roll. Once out, pedal to metal, jerking the joystick forward I power around to the driver’s window to give him a jaunty London-style appreciative thumbs up. This is a small gesture that, to me, makes a big difference, one of the signatures of a society that is continuously woven and rewoven by its members, second by second.

Marble Arch. There it is, in the center of a traffic circle, looking as it always has, only smaller somehow. London’s answer to Paris. I hang a left in search of the 88 bus stop and glance up at the Marble Arch Odeon. Just in case it is still a cinema, which it does not appear to be. On the ground floor a series of shops, Sainsbury’s Local. Luggage. Tourist crap. The cinema? Time has taken its toll. And I shouldn’t be surprised, should I? As for the 88, I do see a sign handwritten in a most uncommon and amateur style for Transport for London. It announces the 88’s New Year’s Eve diversion. A.k.a., detour. Good, we are getting close.

I roll straight down Oxford Street. No 88 bus stop. I cross the street. Fifty meters down Park Lane, I come to one of those big multi-bus stops with the letter P on top of the shelter, a signal that this fits into some map legend for transit in this part of London. I scan the signs, painted and digital, but no 88. Still, from this perspective, one thing is revealed. The Marble Arch Odeon is still, you know, on. The entrance is…well, who knows where the entrance is or was? I saw the 30th anniversary reissue of Gone with the Wind there in the late 1960s. The film is 2 1/2 times as old now. But never mind, for surely the 88 bus is just over…there or somewhere.

The Transport for London helpline comes to life smartly, as they say. A recorded British woman’s voice pops into my day. She asks me to state what I want. I duck into a minor recess where the sidewalk widens and the Park Lane Marriott Hotel ends. I share this space with a man who is pushing his ragged possessions in a shopping cart. He is not pushing now, but dozing, slumped against a sort of pack. I face into the brick-walled corner, foolishly believing this will block out the roar of traffic rounding Hyde Park. Of course, it only amplifies the sound, wedge-shaped architecture notoriously having this affect, vis-à-vis auditoriums everywhere. While waiting for assistance I roll through the Polovetzian Dances, the Sugar Plum Fairy…then hang up.

The 88. I do not like giving up on transit. I really don’t. This is a mild winter day, and I have left my coat at the hotel. It’s just me and a wool sweater and a sports jacket and a wing and a prayer. And fuck it. I roll back down Oxford Street, hail a cab and do what must be done. This proves fraught enough to please me. On the surface, this may not have the urban challenge of the public bus experience. But it is challenging enough. Normally Jane assists in this process, or someone. Not now, I have to back into the taxi, up a 45° ramp. Drivers inevitably want to push. This one not only wants to push, but push on my control. Naturally, he hits the joystick. I lurch slightly out-of-control. Into the taxi, and slightly out again, hanging at a perilous angle. This happens in an instant, and there’s no time to do anything but bat his hand away from the joystick. I make it inside.

I make it back outside much later at Millbank, home of the Tate Gallery. What has transpired there in many respects mimics the preceding events outside. That is to say, an emphasis on transit. Although I have an opportunity to jump well ahead of the queue for tickets to the Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition, winding down a flight of stairs as it is…I magnanimously waive this option. No, none of that. I shall stand in line like everyone else. I do this noble thing, reaching the ticket desk just in time to be told that the exhibit is sold out until 3 PM. What the fuck. I roll about the galleries. I have a fizzy water. Then I reenact the drama with the taxi.

I am getting the hang of it now. Thing is, the interior of London cabs slant. This is all important as one backs in. Otherwise, the wheelchair gets jammed up against invisible surfaces that block and tilt it at the same time. Not good, blocking and tilting. Better idea: go home. Which, first thing in the morning, I shall do.

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