Monday, November 9, 2009

Our Trip to London, Part the Third


After a twenty-minute Underground ride, we reached the tube stop that The Traveler recommended. Exiting the station, we walked north for one block and, suddenly, found ourselves swept up in a sea of Lubavitchers. Black hats topped black beards which in turn topped black suits, all accented by a Yiddish-English accent. Shops were designated in English and Hebrew, the Hebrew for 'kosher' appeared on the right side of every building. For three men used to the WASPy South, it was overwhelming. The last time I had been in an area like this was in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and the highlight of that trip was being told that maybe I should think about moving closer to a synagogue.
“Wow,” said The Student. “This place sure is Jewish.”
“Damn straight,” said The Drunkard. He took a deep breath. “Smell that, boys? That’s challah in the air.” Without further prompting, The Drunkard strode into the crowd, tossing out “Shalom” and “Yom tov” at random. The man was the happiest I’ve seen him, and it seemed like the very confused faces looking at the swaggering American didn’t faze him in the least. I’ve always understood that Chasids should be approached on their own terms, and swaggering into the mass, bare-headed (wearing my flat cap, I was the only one who could have fulfilled even one clothing commandment) and asking where to get some corned beef wasn’t the best way to go about introducing oneself.
The Student and I jogged to keep up with The Drunkard. “Hey buddy,” I said, “you might want to calm it down.”
“Screw that,” said The Drunkard. “These are our people! You two want to get some Manischewitz with our meal?”
“I don’t think they have Manischewitz over here.”
“Course they do. What self-respecting liquor store wouldn’t have Maniscewitz? Here,” he said, coming to an abrupt halt in front of a glass-fronted store with the words “Gould’s Bakery” on the front. “We’re going to eat here.” He pushed open one of the doors and walked inside.
The interior of the bakery was almost dead quiet. There was a group of older men--liver spots marking their faces, wearing leather jackets--taking up a table in the corner, all hunched over hunks of bread and gigantic bowls of soup. In another corner, there were three old women whispering to each other. The building was dimly lit, and the glass front didn’t do much to brighten up the inside atmosphere—especially considering a mass of dark clouds had appeared over the course of our underground journey. The Drunkard nearly bounced up the four steps to the counter and said, “My dear woman, I shall have your finest sandwich,” to the middle-aged dark-haired woman behind the counter.
The woman squinted and, in a strong Moroccan accent, said, “What?”
“Er,” said The Drunkard. “Sandwich.”
“We don’t have sandwich,” she said, making no motion towards any sort of food.
“Ah,” remarked The Drunkard. “Um. Do you have a menu?”
The woman pointed her thumb behind her towards a blackboard, on which the words ‘Soup’ and ‘Bagel’ were written in shaky handwriting.
The Drunkard looked at the blackboard and weighed his options with a strong stroke of his chin. “I’ll have a bagel.”
The woman took a step to her right and took out a circular hunk of bread, then she put it on the counter, tapped a few buttons on the register and said, “Two pounds for bagel.”
The Drunkard took two pounds out of his pocket and put them on the counter. “Do I get cream cheese?”
“What?” asked the woman.
“Do—” The Drunkard looked at the bagel. “Ah, it’s not cut in half. Never mind.” He nodded and walked to a table, put the bagel on a napkin, sat down, and stared at it.
The Student walked up to the counter. “What sort of soup do you have?”
“Broccoli.”
“Don’t order it,” I whispered, leaning in close.
“I’m sure there’s something other than broccoli in the soup,” he said out of the corner of his mouth. “That sounds delicious. I’ll have the broccoli soup and a cup of coffee.”
“What?”
The Student cleared his throat. “Broccoli soup and a cup of coffee.”
The woman scratched her head. “What kind?”
“Um.”
The woman sighed. “Espresso, or coffee?”
“Coffee.”
“What kind?”
“Black coffee.”
The woman shook her head. “What?
“Jesus Christ!” shouted The Student. “What is this, Abbot and Costello? Black filtered coffee and a broccoli soup!”
“Hey!” shouted one of the men in the corner. “Do not yell at Sasha!”
“Sorry,” said The Student.
The woman frantically hit some keys on the register, poured some coffee out of a pot into a stained mug, and said, “Six pounds, fifty. Get a roll.”
“What sort of roll?”
“Take a roll, please.”
“Yes,” said The Student, a vein popping out in his forehead. “What sort of roll would you recommend?”
The woman rubbed her head. “Please, take roll.”
“Fine,” said The Student. He put his money on the counter, took the coffee, took a roll from the baked goods display behind him, and joined The Drunkard at the table.
Sasha turned to me. “Well?”
“Black filtered coffee, please.”
The woman cursed in Yiddish (unlike French, Yiddish is a language in which everything sounds like a curse), got me a coffee and said, “Just go sit. No money from you.”
We sat in abject silence at the table. The Drunkard poked the hard, stale bagel in front of him and The Student tore his roll into three parts, passing one to each of us. Occasionally, a word or two of Russian would drift our way, but other than that, all we heard was traffic noise leaking in from the outside. The Student and I sipped our coffees, and, about ten minutes later, an old woman with an unlit cigarette dangling out of her mouth brought over a white bowl half the size of The Student’s head and put it on the table in front of him. “Broccoli soup,” she said, walking away.
I took a look inside the bowl. It looked as if someone had put a pack of broccoli into a food processor, tossed it into a bowl of water, and boiled the lot. “It’s green,” I said.
“Very,” said The Student.
The Drunkard grunted and went back to poking his bagel.
The Student took a sip and said, “Yup, just broccoli.”
“Any good?” I asked.
“It’s just broccoli in water.
“You could send it back.”
The Student and I looked around the dining area. The Russians were staring at us and one of the old women had fallen asleep on the table. “Hmm,” said The Student. “No, I think it would be best if we just left.”
“You paid like four pounds for that soup,” I said.
“Friend,” responded The Student, “there are things more important than money. Things like enjoying a soup that has something other than broccoli and water in it. Things like not getting lynched by a group of Russians for insulting the owner, for whom they all seem to have a boner.”
I studied the Russians. Indeed, they had all returned to leering at the woman they called Sasha. “Student,” I said, “you may be right.”
“Drunkard,” said The Student. “Shall we make our exit?”
The Drunkard dropped the bagel onto the floor. It broke cleanly into five even pieces. “Yes. Yes we shall.”
“Hold on for a second, though,” I said, glancing towards the counter. Sasha was glaring in our direction and the old woman with the cigarette spoke rapid-fire in something that sounded like Arabic.
“Why?”
I pointed at the counter. “They’re watching us.”
“So what?” asked The Drunkard. “They make an ordering experience Hell for customers, then it stands to reason that those customers should leave.”
“I agree with The Drunkard,” said The Student. “It’s not like we’re hurting them by leaving. We’ve already paid for our meal. I—” The Student paused and looked out of the window for a moment. “Do you suppose that’s why they had us pay before getting our food?”
The Drunkard crushed a bagel slice under his foot. “Doesn’t matter. I’m leaving. You guys can sit here and discuss the ethics of the situation.” He stood, put on his jacket and walked out of the door.
The Student followed suit. I looked towards the counter and saw Sasha looking after them with a triumphant grin. Now I was certain, we had trod on grounds we should not have. One of the Russian men turned to me and said, “Hey gay boy, aren’t you going to follow your lovers?”
I felt a change coming on. “What the fuck you saying,” I asked, jumping up from the chair and upending the Student’s cup of coffee in the process. “You saying I like to fuck guys in the ass? That what you’re saying? You saying that, you better just say ‘you fuck other men’ cause I don’t like to play games.” I advanced on the now-quaking fifty-year-old paunched Russian. “Last fucker played games with me got a God-damned golf club to the eye, but seeing as how I ain’t got a golf club with me—” I picked up the bowl of soup and upended it over his head.
The man shouted in pain. Turns out the soup was still hot. Really hot, judging from the steam coming from his head. “No! The soup! It is terrible!”
“Now look who’s insulting Sasha!” I shouted. I turned towards the counter. “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, lady!” At that point, I left the Bakery, caught up with my friends, and said, “We need to duck into a pub forthwith. I can already hear the sirens and the Russians are probably upset that I poured soup on one of their friends.”
The Student skidded to a stop. “You what?”
I took my hat in hand, scratched my head. “Well, I—you remember the chavs on the first day we got here?”
“Oh, no. Those guys were, like, fifty years old, man.”
“I know. That is why, without further ado,” a police siren sounded off in the distance, “we should make our way—forthwith, as I say—to the nearest pub and wait until the patrols have passed.”
“Sounds good to me, I could use a drink and some pub grub,” said The Drunkard. “Man, you got more chutzpah in you than I thought you did, you know that? First trip to London and you get the cops called on us.”
I popped the collars on my pea coat. “Yes, well, they were very unfriendly in there.”
We came upon a pub called The Lions Gate. Had we taken the time to look in, we would have seen that there was something deeply wrong with the establishment, but, in the predicament we had, there was no time to reconnoiter. “Here,” I said. We entered.
It was nearly silent inside the pub. The only sound was a clock ticking. There were five people in the pub, some sitting at tables, a couple at the bar. They sat in utter silence, not even making eye contact with each other. Their glasses were half-filled with Guinness, the foam marking the liquid’s decent towards the bottom of the glasses. Lighting was virtually nonexistent; there was only a single lamp in the whole of the room, and that was in the middle, towards the ceiling. Instead of an aesthetically pleasing shape, the room was long and thin, with the bar towards the right when one entered.
The door slammed shut behind The Student. Two patrons looked up at him. “Sorry,” he muttered. They looked down at their glasses. He poked my shoulder and whispered, “You sure know how to pick em, don’t you.”
I gulped and walked towards the bar. The woman behind it stood up. You could almost hear her bones creaking to get to where they needed to be. “Yeah?” she asked in a clearly Irish accent.
“Er,” I said. An old man wearing a tattered suit walked out from the kitchen clutching a glass of lager and muttering to himself. He jostled me as he passed. “I’ll have a Guinness,” I said.
My friends ordered the same, and the barmaid started to pour our drinks. I turned around to see what sort of d├ęcor would belong in such a place, and the first thing I saw was a medium-sized portrait, about eleven inches tall and five inches wide, with a white background and a pair of red eyes in the center. That was all. Next to it was a portrait of the same size of an aquiline nose. On the other side was a mouth, grinning, with sharp canines protruding from the top. Three thuds on the counter. I turned around and the barmaid asked for our money. We paid and went to a table towards the end of the bar.
We sat and were drowned in the silence of the place. I looked across from me, on the other wall, and saw the clock. It had a white face with a section for the date. At that point, I noticed that something was wrong. The clock ticked every five seconds and the date read “16 APR, 1943.” I nodded. Clearly, time worked differently in here.
“Dear sweet God,” said The Drunkard. He sat across from me and his face paled in an instant. His gaze was directed to a picture positioned above my head. I craned my neck around and saw what made him blanche.
It was a portrait about two feet wide by ten inches tall. A man stood in what could have been either a library or a study. There were crammed bookshelves and, behind him, a large wooden desk. On top of the desk, there was a lit candle placed inside of a human skull. The man was dressed in the classical English hunting gear—with one exception. Where there would have been a black cap, his head was bare. His arms raised up a golden top hat, and his face was contorted in an expression of maniacal laughter. To the other side of the portrait, a man wearing a blue uniform that I could only equate to a bell-hop’s was in the process of braining a butler with a nine-iron. I looked underneath the portrait towards the brass plaque into which the title had been etched. It read: “Vengeance Is Mine.”
I now looked at the opposite wall and saw a nearly identical portrait, only with the bell-hop in the hunter’s place. I stood, looked at the title. This one was called “Vengeance Is His.” Next to that was yet another nearly identical portrait, except with the butler braining the hunter. This one was called, simply, “Demise.”
I returned to my seat and said, in a voice so low I’m positive it was barely vocalized, “Okay gents, we will finish our drinks in a leisurely manner and then, quietly, leave and never speak of this place again.”
The Drunkard leaned forward. “There is,” he whispered, “an advertisement that reads ‘Don’t let the Jews Take Your Money—Invest in Irish Banks!’”
I checked behind me. Sure enough, there was. The picture was a stereotype Jew that, I think, was widely used in Nazi propaganda. “Still,” I said, “let’s not draw attention to ourselves. I’m sure no one in this pub advocates braining anyone with a golf club or anti-Semitism. The owner might, but probably not the patrons.”
The old jostling man then sidled to our table and sat down at the vacant seat next to The Drunkard. “’Ey lads, you look like you’re new here.”
“Shit,” I thought. Out loud, I said, “Oh, just exploring off the beaten path. Going from one small pub to the next in a never-ending quest to fi—”
“You like them paintings?” the man asked, pointing at the “Vengeance” series.
“Yes, they’re quite lovely. On par with the Masters, don’t you think, Student?”
The Student nodded rapidly. “Yes. I do.”
“I painted them.”
The Drunkard shot me a look that could only be described as, I told you so. We are in a den of murderous anti-Semites and now we shall die by golf club.
“Only took me ten hours, like,” the man said. He took a sip from his not-bubbling lager. “Wonders you can make when you’re on the crack, yeah?”
I nodded. The Student nodded. The Drunkard nodded.
“See,” the man continued, slipping more and more into a mode of speech laden with lisps and stutters such that I could not replicate them on page without seeming insensitive, “I was inspired, like, by my old man—he did that advert with the Jew sniffing Irish pounds right there—and when he buggered me in the midst of a Jameson-fueled binge.” He drank of his lager. “Got his comeuppance he did. My brother and I brained the bastard, like, and took his prized fecking top-hat. Bastard won it from a fancy dress party, like. I’m the hunter. Fecking hunted him down to the death we did.”
“And what’s going on in ‘Demise?’” I asked, earning another look from The Drunkard. Now, I’ll admit, it was strange to ask this obviously mad person what their meaning in their work was, but I was compelled.
The man craned his neck. “Ah, that one.” He returned his gaze to me. His eyes were milky and bloodshot. “Well, I’m almost certain that, one day, he’ll return and brain both my brother and me. Only proper to do that to someone who killed you.”
The Drunkard and The Student drained their glasses in one gulp. The Drunkard shot me a look and kicked my leg. I shook my head. He took my glass, drank the rest and said, “Boy, I sure do love talking art with interesting folk like yourself, Mr.—”
“Moriarty.”
“Right,” said The Drunkard, breaking into a sweat. “Well, Mr. Moriarty, we’ve got to be on our way. Off to go kick the shit out of some Jews up the street, and we can’t be la—”
“You know, you look a bit like a Jew yourself, boy,” said Moriarty.
“Gotta go!” At this point, I was back in my senses, and the three of us ran out of the pub for dear life.
When we finally made it to the tube stop, The Drunkard punched me in the mouth. “Don’t fucking ever,” he said, “make another suggestion again. Do you hear me?” He grabbed me by my lapels. “Huh?”
I nodded, clutching my mouth with my hand. There wasn’t any blood, but there was, of course, pain.
“Look,” said The Student, “let’s just leave it behind us. We didn’t get arrested by the cops for The Narrator’s soup attack, and the Irish Nazi didn’t kill us. All in all, not being arrested and not being killed makes for a pretty good day, I’d have to say.”
The Drunkard grumbled at The Student and turned to me, “Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “Didn’t lose any teeth.”
The Student clapped his hands. “So. What next?”
“As far away from the pub as we can get,” I said.
“I know,” said The Student. “The British Museum!”
“Yeah,” said The Drunkard, “that’s about the opposite of what we just went through.”
“Excellent!” said The Student, clapping his hands (he was apparently in a clapping mood), “I hear they have an exhibition about the dogu of ancient Japan!” The Student then bolted into the station.
The Drunkard and I shrugged and followed.