Saturday, January 10, 2009

Life on the Crescent

It’s amazing how much time there is in a day when you have no friends, you’ve read all your books, you don’t have a TV, and you don’t have two coins to rub together. I’d already worked a mindless 9-5 at an insurance company downtown and spent another two and a half hours in my booth at the pub afterwards, writing a script and nursing a glass of Coke til it got too loud. Dinner was a can of clearance Godzilla-shaped spaghettios, so that didn’t last long, and bedtime was still hours away. Nothing left to do but stare out the window.

Appropriately, my affordable housing did not afford me a remarkable view, so I was forced to people watch. And then I saw her. She was standing on the sidewalk across the street from me, moving as if tethered to an imaginary stake in the ground, occasionally launching unintelligible remarks at passersby, sipping from a can of beer. She was overweight and unattractive, but dressed mildly provocatively, if shabbily. It dawned on me.

“Is she a--“

“Oi! What you lookin’ at?!”

She stared right at me; I panicked and jumped back from the window. Holy shit--she was a prostitute! A real, live prostitute! I had never seen one before. I wanted to look again, to watch her, to study her, to see what they were like, what the transactions were like; I was bursting with curiosity. I slowly stepped back up to the window, just as she looked back up at it.

“Oi! What the fuck?!”

I jumped back again. I closed the curtains, so she couldn’t see me; she could see me. I turned off the lights and peeked through the curtains; she saw me. Each time, she looked up at just the right moment; each time, she shouted at me with renewed vigor. This prostitute had eyes like you wouldn’t believe--or did she sense heat? I went over to the bed, the only piece of furniture in my room, and stretched out. A prostitute... I might as well have seen a mermaid flapping around on the sidewalk singing La Habanera.

It was July, I was nineteen, and I was in Boscombe, England, a downmarket suburb of Bournemouth, a sleepy seaside resort town-cum-thriving center of non-London business. I came here because I wanted to see if I could write a feature-length film script, to see if I had it in me, and I thought it’d be easier if I didn’t know anybody.

The Beach in Bournemouth

My arrival could not have been more dramatic. On my deathbed for several weeks at the end of Spring, with some vague non-mono, but fiercely mono-like, illness, my summer in England was officially canceled. All that sacrifice for nothing! And then, one day, I suddenly felt better. My parents were in London, coincidentally, where my father was giving a talk, so I bought a last-minute five-hundred-dollar ticket and surprised them there.

I immediately decided I had to be near the water. London was too crowded, too hectic, too expensive. According to my Dad’s local sponsor, Mick, “Brighton’s dirty and full of...poofs. You should go to Bournemouth--it’s beautiful. Jill and I go down there all the time, when we go to see the ponies in the New Forest.” I took the train two hours to Bournemouth.

I hailed a black cab at the station and set off for the Hotel Miramar, clutching the full-color brochure, staring at the stately old mansion on a cliff overlooking the sea, dreaming about my life there. I would live in the servant quarters, be a bellboy, meet interesting strangers, and write on the lawn after work, staring at the rolling waves, only occasionally getting embroiled in the drama of the endearing, archetypical lifers on staff.

The cab dropped me off and I entered the lobby, suitcase in hand, backpack on back.

“Checking in?”
“No--I’d like to apply for a job.”
“Ummm...I don’t think we... Let me check...”

They didn’t have any openings. Neither did any other hotel in town. Nobody did, in fact. Or, at least, not for a Yank with a three-month work permit. I hadn’t expected this; I never expected to leave the Hotel Miramar grounds, in fact. My funds dwindled to time-to-go-home-lad levels before I stumbled upon the blazing blue door to Reed Temporary Services. I remembered hearing that Americans are miles ahead of anybody else when it comes to computer skills, so I went in and walked out an hour later with a six-week job at Royal and SunAlliance Insurance Company, as a data-inputter in the Boots the Chemists® Travel Insurance Unit.

NA is the way and the light

Job-in-hand, salary on the way, I went to look for a flat. My income and time in the country limited, I signed up for the only place available. It was weeks before I realized it was a halfway house for parolees attending court-ordered Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I wondered why it seemed like I was the only one with a job and what the hell everybody meant by ‘the meeting.’

“Are you going to the meeting?”
“Where’s Bobby? I didn’t see him at the meeting...”
“He’s not here--said he’d talk to ya after the meeting.”

After the old guy--the ‘father’ of the house, for sure--taught me to put salt in the water when boiling pasta and another made me my first curry, as he reminisced about his childhood in Glasgow, I finally felt confident enough to ask about the meeting. To his credit, Kenny told it to me straight:

“We’ve all been to jail for drugs and now we’re livin’ on the dole, goin’ to Narcotics Anonymous meetings or we wind up back in jail.”

Kenny was a good guy. He used to be a bad guy--a very bad guy--but he gave that up. I believed him. His will to be good and surrounded only by good was impressive in its strength.

One day, I was reading a book in the tiny park by our house. I called it Penis Park, due to the unbelievably lifelike, if grossly oversized, phallic stone monoliths peppered around the lawn, each surrounded by shrubbery at their base. Kenny picked me up off the grass by my shirt collar.

“What the fuck?!”
“What the fuck’re you doin’ here? Nobody’s in this park unless they’re buyin’r’sellin. Jesus coulda been hurt...”

I looked around--the only other people in the park were a handful of teenagers loitering around a park bench; they could have been dealing drugs, sure, it’s not impossible to imagine, but they were hardly dangerous. Kenny was huffing pretty hard, though, as if he’d been worried about me, as if he’d narrowly rescued me from a dire fate, so I relented and finished the book in my room.

Royal Crescent - Bath, England

The street we lived on was called Boscombe Crescent. In Britain, due to the popularity of the Royal Crescent in Bath as an immediate architectural touchstone, these sorts of things sprung up everywhere. A crescent-shaped street that detours from a main drag before rejoining it, lined by buildings of a similar architectural style opposite a small D-shaped park (sometimes filled with penises).

The Boots the Chemists® Travel Insurance Unit at Royal and SunAlliance Insurance Company was a relatively young, hip group of suits. The woman who trained me and the other four temps was a totally lovable twenty-five-year-old babe; I have fond memories of her teaching me what “full-stop” and “zed” meant. There was another woman, Claire, who was a purebred, stone-cold fox. Each time I saw her getting dropped off at work by her Italian boyfriend on a growling Ducati motorcycle, my heart skipped a beat; I could only maintain eye contact with her for about one second before my brain went into self-imposed cryogenic suspension; it was a delicious dream and no more.

I was somewhat of an oddity--not only did I travel around their island more than they did (“You’re going to Edinburgh? Oh...I’ve always wanted to go there...” “It’s only a nine-hour bus ride...”)--but I was American. Not too many Americans work in Britain, I guess, and certainly not as a temp in a place like this--and, as such, enjoyed a minor celebrity around the office. Sadly, it was not enough to get me into any pants. Not that I tried. Not that I didn’t want to--Lord, I wanted to--but I had no idea how to do that sort of thing. British girls don’t exactly melt at the sound of an American accent; they don’t return the favor.

One of the four other temps, the sexy one, oddly the only one whose name I can’t remember (serves her right!), became the more-realistic-than-Claire object of my affection during my stay in England. I have two lasting memories of her:

We were walking to the park one day, because I always brought my lunch, and Mark Griffiths (I even remember his last name, and I can’t remember her first) nearly broke his neck to get a longer look at a sexy girl walking by.

“Cor, that’s a fit bird...”

I laughed. What a phrase! Sexy Temp Girl laughed, as well, and looked me square in the eyes.

“What would you call her? A ‘hot’ ‘chick?!’”

She broke into childish giggles, the kind that you just can’t help. I melted from a mixture of lust and embarrassment.

“Uh, yeah...”

I guess you could call it a cultural exchange. The other memory is less colorful. I told her how I would love to buy an old Mini, bring it back home, fix it up, and drive it around.

Austin Mini, pre-BMW takeover

“You want a Mini? Ugh. They are so uncomfortable. And loud. No girls would want to ride in it. I hate Minis.”

The romance didn’t quite take off, as you might imagine.

One night, one of only four nights I consumed any alcohol--I love the stuff, but I was broke--a friend of this girl drove us all home after a post-work pint. Her friend couldn’t believe where she had to take me.

“You live in the Crescent? Shit, mate, you know you live on the most dangerous street in the most dangerous neighborhood in Bournemouth?”


Maybe it’s because I grew up in the urban U.S, where people have guns and no health care, but I just found it hard to believe. Well, I believed it--but that didn’t mean that it was actually dangerous. The worst neighborhood in Harmlessville is still harmless.

It was a good two miles from work to my place. I walked it twice a day, too broke to pay fifty pence for bus fare, despite the fact that I would defeat the purpose of my shower by getting to work sweaty, despite the fact that I only brought three nice shirts and could only afford to do laundry once the whole time I was there, despite the fact that my boots were literally falling apart.

I brought two pairs of footwear with me on the trip: an old pair of boots and a brand-spanking-new pair of sexy, electric-blue suede Nikes with an orange swoosh. Those were beautiful goddamn shoes. I took a picture of them, they were so beautiful, and it was a good thing I did; they were stolen from the tiny communal bathroom while I was in the shower at the Surfer Hotel. I only wore them a few times and that picture is all I have left.

The Surfer Hotel was so-named because the surfing in Bournemouth is legendary. The only surfers I ever saw came out during the only storm I ever saw and the waves were still hardly any bigger than those in tranquil Lake Michigan, so the legend remains a mystery to me. It was a truly atrocious bed and breakfast. It was grotesque, decrepit, infested...and all the other two-dollar bad words you can think of. Nobody lived there but me and maybe some as-yet-undiscovered corpses. The brunt of their business was stag and hen parties from London on the weekend. Those were trying evenings for me, I must say.

I moved there when money got really tight, when I had been there for weeks without a hint of future employment. I had been staying at a nicer bed and breakfast with clean sheets, an edible breakfast, and a working TV, where all my hotel rejection letters were sent, where the women who ran it worried about me like her own child, despite the fact that I had never spoken to her beyond “Hello” and “Thank you,” but I had to give it up. I criss-crossed the city looking for the dirtiest place I could find, assuming it would also be the cheapest, and tried to settle in without touching anything.

Five minutes later, my shoes were stolen and I had to make do with the boots. Not long after they became my go-to pair of shoes, they broke into many pieces. I bought a tube of all-purpose super adhesive and used that to glue my shoes together every night. I had to carry the glue with me at all times because every day they fell apart again.


Toward the end of my stay in Bournemouth, as I approached the Crescent on my walk home from work, I saw the prostitute again. I hadn’t seen her since that night she hollered at me. She was leaning into the window of a Lexus stopped at the traffic light on the near-end of the Crescent. I stared at her from across the street as I waited to cross.

“Well, it’s ten quid for a hand job.”

I heard this loud and clear. From across the street. I had always wondered what that sort of thing cost. I’m not sure if Kenny heard it, but I don’t think he cared about the details; he saw her and he knew what she was up to. He raced across Penis Park, shouting.

“Oi! Get the fuck outta my neighborhood! This is a family neighborhood! Full of good, hard-working people trying to live decent lives! We don’t need your fucking trash around here! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! NOW!”

The driver of the Lexus slammed on the gas as soon as he heard the word “Oi.” The prostitute attempted a rebuttal, but quickly realized its futility. I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing Kenny put her in her place, after the way she shouted at me that one night, but as I watched her sulk off in pursuit of some other john, on some other crescent, I also felt sorry for her. And the john.

Why can’t two people conduct a little business together? They’re not hurting anybody. Who is Kenny to say what can and cannot happen in this neighborhood? Just because Krooked Kenny done gone straight doesn’t mean he’s some sort of moral authority. And even if he was, who is hurt by that hand-job? She gets ten pounds, he gets a good time.

I walked past Kenny, into our house, up the stairs, and into my room. I closed the door, plucked a magazine off the floor, and leafed through it for probably the tenth time.

It was only six o’clock--what the hell was I going to do for five hours?



Karl said...

Good sir--What street was this Lady of the Night offering hand relief frequenting? I must say I'm scandalized by the very thought and I wish to get a closer look in order to pour my scorn down upon her very bosom!

Goodtime Charlie said...

Boscombe Crescent. Bring a tenner and tell her I said hi!