Into the Heart of a City

Today I’m guest posting over at Janet Oberholtzer’s blog. It’s a post about prison, Andy Dufresne, and how spending time each day doing just one thing you love might set you free. But now Into the Heart of a City…

The National Rail trains from Wendover into London mostly had plush, cloth seats and white lighting. The people traveling in them wore suits and  ambivalent expressions. There was a smoothness to those trains as they cut through the English countryside and eased safely against the outer edges of the city.

But the tube trains, which we caught in Amersham (one stop closer to London), had yellow lighting, and the cracked vinyl seats oozed white, scratchy stuffing. The floors were stained, and at 5:45 in the morning most of the inhabitants were drunk or homeless. These tube trains limped along, clicking and clacking on tracks that, once in the city, vanished into the soot-filled underground.

Once, after living in the city for two weeks during a store’s grand-opening, we emerged into the countryside, amazed at the green, living smell in the air as well as the black mucus we coughed up for a week.

My train-ride into London during the early days of our business involved waking at 5:00am, showering, and driving twelve minutes to Amersham so that I could catch the 5:42 to Baker Street. I found a place on a side street where I could park without paying. I slept on that train every morning but only missed my stop a few times. It was a cold, ratchety, Inception-like experience.

At Baker Street I changed from the Metropolitan to the Bakerloo lines, traveled two stops south and changed again, this time boarding the Victoria Line at Oxford Circus. I was still mostly asleep, but walking. Two more stops to the south and I reached my final destination.

Victoria Station, even at 6:30 in the morning, heaved with people. Trains came and went, spewing their humans like blood being pumped into the heart of the city.

A warm breeze whipped up the stairwells from the tube to the street, smelling mostly of diesel fuel and urine. Pigeons strutted everywhere on their disfigured legs, some so twisted that they literally walked on the tops of their feet (I always imagined this resulted from their determination to perch on power lines and third rails, but I have no proof of this).

They fought over any crumb or bit of food dropped by the passengers, angrily flapping their wings at one another, their necks jerking and snapping to tear the morsel. Then, if someone approached, they rose up in a cloud of feathers and dust, up, up, up into the old iron rafters where they settled and stared.

My brother-in-law referred to the pigeons as rats with wings.

Given just as much attention by the travelers were the people discarded by the city, hoarding their own warm corners of the otherwise freezing cement and rock and brick. They stared in one direction, vacant looks, assuming the world held nothing more for them. Some had small tin cups or mugs or hats or instrument cases in front of them, littered with coins and the occasional five-pound note. They were worse off than the pigeons, who at least had wings, and hope.

Sometimes, at night, when we had leftover soft pretzels, we’d take them out to these people without wings. The prospect of food brought them out of nowhere, like spirits emerging from every crook and cranny, ever skinny alley and grated stairwell. They pounded their fingerless-glove covered hands together like muffled cymbals, smiled their toothless grins, held out eager hands. Their shoulders, clenched up around their ears in the cold, poked against thin coats.

They were amazed that someone had remembered them. I guess just being thought of, even by a stranger in a baseball cap carrying an American accent, has a way of stirring your soul.

“Thanks, mate,” they said, half a cinnamon-sugar pretzel already clogging their mouth. Walking away, they brandished the bag of pretzels over their head, shouting to their buddies. “Free pretzels!” followed by a choking laugh. Back into the shadows.

Such a small offering. Nothing really, just a bit of sweet dough.

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You can check out other posts about our time in England HERE.

3 Replies to “Into the Heart of a City”

  1. Beautiful. We had similar experiences living in Baltimore. I’ll never forget the time a man washed my car while I was inside paying for my gas. He had no idea if I would pay him, or who I was. All he saw was a dirty car, and an opportuinty. At that moment, I had no cash. I offered him prayer instead, and his response floored me. Instead of allowing me to pray for him, he lifted me up in a mighty prayer that shook my soul. I began frequenting that gas station just to have him wash my car from then on. I never had the cleanest car around (have I ever?), but I had something more. There is truly nothing quite like giving hope and love, and nothing at all like the surprise of recieving it in return.

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