I suppose the first hard thing about reviewing a piece of theatre is the critical and necessary requirement of having seen a lot of it. I, an actor since my middle school days, have seen less theatre than just about anyone involved in the medium I know. I often remark to my brother, who is an electrical engineer, that he probably knows theatre better than I do, at least from a non-participant perspective. So how do I, an actor, one who has studied theatre and certainly knows a good performance when I see one, review the immensity of an entire show, when I have so little personal history to compare it to?
Well, I don’t honestly know. But I am going to try.
I had the pleasure of traveling to just outside Times Square tonight and finding myself at the Laura Pels Theatre, one of the more intimate spaces owned by Roundabout Theatre Company, one of the pre-eminent NYC producing powerhouses that lately, in quite a few people’s opinions, have produced less-than-stellar shows. Many quote the garbled vision of Hedda Gabler that went up a few seasons ago as a particular low-point in recent Broadway, Off-Broadway, and indeed, even Off-Off Broadway shows. Still, a ticket to see Olympia Dukakis, one of the most celebrated actresses of both stage and screen in America, was not an opportunity to be missed.
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is one of Tennessee Williams’ later plays, and many of his themes remain the same. The main character, Flora Goforth, is an aging Southern Belle from Georgia, a former chorus girl who married rich, but found love in a reckless young poet (her fourth marriage). Chris, another poet and rambler who shows up on her doorstep, is an enigma of shifting sexualities and ideals. He might be Tom seen ten years down the road, trying to atone for the abandonment of his sister. Much of the action of the play centers around a kind of metaphoric, philosophic dance between these two, with other characters coming and going throughout their dangerous diatribes.
In the original script, Williams makes use of two stage assistants, dressed in black and set apart from the action, but still a piece of the whole. In his notes, he describes the play as something more theatrical, more removed from reality than the approach Michael Wilson and his team take. The two assistants (the “balletic duo” as Williams refers to them) are completely cut from the script. Wilson’s approach then, is to highlight the sumptuous and bacchanalistic foreplay of each of the characters. Much of this play is motivated by sex, and sex, being the giver of life, bestows upon Flora a few last days of erotic interplay.
The play begins with the two servant characters lustily groping each other onstage, before the action of life begins to flow around them. Each character then weaves their way around Flora, the dictator of her mountain on the sea, a steep goat-path the thing separating her from humanity, a place she has come to publish her memoirs. “Blackie,” as Flora calls her, is the nubile young assistant/secretary there to take dictation of Flora’s story. She is on the verge of going mad making sense of it all, just as Flora is losing her mind trying dull the pain of death. Suddenly, into their midst, a beautiful young man shows up and throws all of them into the clutches of the hot Italian summer.
The acting is very good, and at times, with Dukakis at the helm, even transcendent. She is radiant, terrifying, completely mad, and stunningly seductive as the very aged queen of her villa. This being a preview, one can see her nearly taking shape, and a production seen later in this run will most likely reveal a fuller portrait of this very rich character, or at least a character Dukakis has bestowed her rich talent upon to grasp three-dimensionality. Darren Pettie, an actor I recently saw in the wonderful Pinter revival of The Collection at CSC, illuminates all of Chris’s danger and rampant sexuality, but his hard-edged tone, especially in tender moments, becomes a bit too one-note as the show goes on. Maggie Lacey displays a wonderful vulnerability as the assistant Blackie and her first scene with Dukakis was especially enjoyable. Edward Hibbert, notable for his turn on Frasier as Gil Chesterton, makes a wonderful cameo. I have not seen a better predator onstage in quite some time.
The production is, on the whole, an enjoyable evening of theater. I believe, however, the flaw lies in its self-awareness to its own romanticism. Much of the more philosophical dialogue is muddied because of the perpetual grinding hips and full frontal nudity. I agree with Williams: this play is not situated in our reality, and though the set certainly suggests a kind of cherubic Mount Olympus, only Dukakis succeeds at getting near Aeschylus in her scope of character and emotion. At one point we find that Chris’ other passion, beside giving older women his services, is building mobiles, delicate shapes of glass and iron balanced perfectly to chime in the wind. This production could use a bit more balance and the script a bit less wind.
First grade. We had just moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, leaving behind a suburban metropolitan area with a higher-than-normal crime rate for a rural community based around a battlefield where over 50,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing in three days of fighting during July of 1863. Being any older than 6 would have made this a shock to my system, but my spongy brain kept absorbing information and took it all in stride. I adapted well and began excelling in school.
Spring of that school year and the music teacher, Mrs. D., was busy organizing the annual Fine Arts production. Mrs. D., I realize now, was a cliche. Her long, flowing, graying hair was a holdover from her glory days in the ‘60s, where I’m sure she experimented with a few mind-altering substances, some of which stuck with her. She kept her hair in a huge bun on the back her head, a #2 pencil the only thing securing these generous strands from the floor. One of the most remarkable memories I have of her was coming into class one day and finding her sitting on her stool, her hawk-like nose turned down towards her guitar, face obscured by her hair (no longer in a bun) humming softly to herself. It turned she had written a song for Princess Diana, who had died a few days earlier. She proceeded to play and sing her ode to the great humanitarian. All I can remember thinking was that it sounded almost exactly like ‘Candle in the Wind,’ Elton John’s (recycled) tribute for Diana. I believe it actually used the same metaphor, Diana as a flame in a frightful gale, to get the message across. It was a surreal experience.
She was our director for these Fine Arts programs. The premise was that the first and fourth graders would collaborate to produce an original piece of theatre incorporating music, sets, costumes, and even a bit of history. Ours turned out to be a Time Travel piece, complete with a prehistoric rendering of the comet that destroyed the dinosaurs. This was the climax of the show. I, being a youngster, would be out of harm’s way for this final act and instead play a part in the middle, when the two intrepid temporal wanderers visit Medieval England. I was to play a six-year-old Don Quixote, a knight errant in a small village. My mother, a woman who devoted herself first and foremost to the raising of her children and the many skills this involved, set to creating the most magnificent suit of armor made from cloth ever seen. She started with my old Batman pajamas, then sewed velcro on to attach the armor pieces. These she had sewn from a shiny metallic fabric and stuffed with cotton to appear bulkier. We purchased a plastic helmet and large broadsword to complete it. I looked magnificent.
Rehearsals began with me walking through the scene, a sort of background figure uninvolved and undistracted by two twentieth-century ten-year-olds coming through our village. We rehearsed many times, figuring out my path across the stage and my many motivations. I was recently back from slaying a dragon and being a knight newly unemployed, needed to find more work. I was bowing to the many ladies onstage as they walked pass, hoping to catch one’s eye with my chivalric display. I was concerned with the sharpness of my sword and needed to find the blacksmith, else I might be caught unawares by any number of bandits with a dull blade. I was six, mind you, and having the time of my life.
This is the first time I remember being onstage. My imagination was engaged, my creativity was harnessed and felt free to live and love in this strange world we created on a 20×40 wooden platform at the far end of the school’s gymnasium. The night of the production came and I was nervous. I think peed about twelve times before going onstage, but once the lights came up, once the boundary between the real of before and the real of the now was established, I felt right at home. My moment came and I was ushered onstage by one of the parents in the wings. The lights came up. I was a knight in medieval times. A flower-seller came by hawking roses. On impulse, I picked one up, smelled it and gave it to a damsel nearby, bowing as she continued past. I was, in theatre parlance, “in the moment.” My brief scene finished, I wandered offstage and got out of the knight costume, which was sweated through in those brief moments under the lights. I changed and found my parents and we all enjoyed the asteroid finale together.
Being onstage became a requirement after that. I was one of those lucky kids who found a way into our “gifted” program at school. My teacher, Mrs. Schultz, indulged our creativity to no end. Near the end of fifth grade, we put on a very revised version of The Tempest, me in the title role of Prospero. I don’t remember much aside from the extremely heavy velvet cloak, once again sewn by my mother and one particular incident. It being Shakespeare and us being eleven, we had our scripts in hand as we played out the last of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. The kid playing Ariel, Prospero’s fairy minion, had somehow not shown up to rehearsal at all and was still in the production. So we began our scene, and he was on the wrong page. Very un-selfconsciously I took his script from him, went to the right page and kept going. This action perhaps added a bit more flame to Prospero’s anger, which I think made the scene better in the end.
More plays came and went and I was introduced to the magic of the musical throughout high school, taking part in Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma!, and the prerequisite of every burgeoning theatre major, Guys & Dolls. I learned very quickly that I could dance, a revelation used to my extreme advantage in wooing women during my teens. I found I was very happy to entertain with my self-cultivated “moves,” knowing full-well they were ridiculous and awful. However, to those without a Y-chromosome, it somehow also came off as “cute.”
There are many great memories from these years, but one stuck with me. After Guys & Dolls, as we were making our way through the crowd, a woman stopped me and said, “Do you have plans to continue in this?”
I mumbled something in reply. “Hrgm.”
“I think you should.”
I have no idea who this woman was or what her qualifications were, but it sowed a seed in my brain. Four months later, I sat in the backyard of my house and told my mom I was not healthy enough to go to college. There had been difficulties with some health problems over the summer. I planned to go to Macalester College in Minnesota, but found that these latent issues prevented me from traveling so far away. I enrolled in Gettysburg College and began my year with that old familiar friend, Acting I.
I immediately excelled in the class and found I wanted more training than Gettysburg could offer. I applied to schools almost exclusively in New York City, knowing it was the hub of the industry and a place I always dreamed of living. I began preparing monologues, bought train tickets for auditions, and wrestled myself into acting school for the next three years. There I learned everything, if I really wanted to, but that is the hard part about being an actor. It is an inherently personal and highly self-motivated practice, and one only gets as much as one puts in. I encountered teachers who taught me nothing, who gave me creative blocks I’m still working to dismantle and I encountered working professionals who taught me more in three months than my sophomore and junior years combined.
I only encountered two teachers who were willing to push me past my comfort zone. One was my fantastic Voice & Speech Practicum teacher, Barbara. This woman is the size of a willow wand, but breathes the fire of dragons if properly motivated. Voice & Speech Practicum, as the name suggests, is a practical application of the technique learned in the sophomore and junior years. This technique allows one to be understood in a large auditorium without blowing one’s voice out every night. Practicum took this further, engaging challenging text with breath to help the actor find his or her inspiration. At one point, I was asked to get up and deliver a poem we had all been working on. Barbara’s lesson for the day was being “Ready,” (the capital R is needed) so I walked to the front of the studio, stood there and started speaking.
“Stop!” she yelled. “You’re not Ready. Breathe.”
I breathed. I started again.
“NO! You’re not READY! Breathe. Just stand there. Breathe.”
I did. An amazing thing happened. I was relaxed in front of people for the very first time, completely conscious of where I was, but ok with it. I was breathing. I started the poem and my voice was never richer.
The other teacher was the director of my last performance in college, where I played a 45-year-old doctor visiting an estate in Russia, in a play called A Month in the Country. She taught me to stop acting and start living onstage. During the latter part of the rehearsal period, I was performing the last piece of a scene where I was left alone onstage and had to confess a very truthful piece of information to the audience. This was one of my character’s only honest moments and I wanted to get it right. I delivered the line and walked offstage.
“Come back!” she said from the audience.
“You want me to do it again?”
“Yes,” she said. “That was good. Now do it for real this time.”
Something clicked. I had an incredibly successful run, a fantastic reception from my teachers and I began my journey into the truth of being the stage demands.
The journey is still happening, though I gave up auditioning and its seemingly fruitless pursuits. I will start on an acting class again soon, I suppose because it is the place where I can break down my own fears. It is the best way I know to get to know myself better. Even if I never appear onstage again, I will still take acting class, because there is such pleasure in exploring fear and desire in a completely made-up context. The world is only richer because theatre exists and even if my only contribution for the rest of my life is be honest with only my classmates watching, I will feel I have achieved something.
“I’m leaving you in twelve minutes,” she said, as they brought the bags down the runway and shuttled them conspicuously into the back of the waiting jet.
“I’m leaving you in twelve minutes and if you don’t apologize, I will never speak to you again.”
Pride comes before the fall, and as I looked around for an answer, I realized autumn had taken its hold sweetly and quietly in the fields surrounding the airport. Golden corn stalks, stripped of their summer fruit, rippled in the wind. The trees resembled the skin of a honeycrisp apple, red and green and yellow, waiting for the strong wind of a fall storm to bring leaves to their rooted ankles and begin the cycle of life again. I wasn’t sure what I was apologizing for, as I wasn’t sure she was worth the time it took to wait for this plane to take off.
“I’m sorry,” I said as she huffed and puffed toward the stairway. “I’m sorry, ok?”
She turned and her big, haughty, beautiful eyes flashed underneath her sunglasses. They made her look like a raccoon dicing roadkill frozen in the high-beams. How I wished she might get hit by a car, not to hurt her, but to humble her. To show her that life was harder than she ever imagined, that her life was easy because she was rich and beautiful.
But that was too simple.
Even I could admit that. It was too easy to put someone in a category. I knew where she came from. Her older brother died when she was 9, and her dad, though sweet, never quite forgave God or her mother for lending him a daughter as his sole heir. She went about over-achieving to find love and she got it. Student Council President, Honor Roll, Harvard, Harvard again for a graduate degree, the youngest senior associate in her firm, on her way to partner in another five years. But it was killing her. Not physically. She would undoubtedly last long with her shakes of green goo in the morning, 5 miles on the treadmill and yoga twice a week. But she was racing time, and eventually time would catch up to her.
We met at a bar one night. Back then, she was smooth and soft and real and interesting. She was like baking-soda on a bee sting, the kind of woman that heals your pain with those little flecks of green-gold in her eyes. We made love all night and, when I made pancakes in the morning, she showed up to breakfast naked and we made love again all day. She forgot about going to her bikram class. She’d call me at work and leave me messages about how good my ass looked in the mirror as I walked to her bathroom. She’d tell me about the books in her head, let me write poems on her back in ballpoint pen and have me wash it away later in a bath before bed.
So where did she go? How did we lose those weekends of bliss and how did I end up apologizing for it? Every flash of her eye was a remembrance of things long past and I could see, I could finally see that what was and what is are not the same thing. Memory was a film over my eyes, a playback that disguised who she had become. She was a ghost, a being to be heralded with fear, wonder, and also, sadly, pity. She no longer existed on the earth I was a part of and had not a clue.
She gave me a small kiss on the cheek and got on the plane. “I’ll text you when I get there,” she said, then boarded.
I waited. The door closed, the plane taxied to the end of the runway and began its ascension into the stratosphere. I watched it disappear into blue sky, and stood there for a long time, gazing, silhouetted against a deepening twilight and the fall trees. It grew chilly.
I wrapped my coat around me and walked back to the car. It was an easy drive into the city, but I took the far-out roads on the way home, nestling myself into the heart of the countryside. Winter was on its way, and I needed to make myself a warm place to sleep.
Jesus P. Bacinski wrote the net game back in 1971 when, at a tournament in Boca, he served and volleyed and drew a line in the sand for every other retiree in the Sunset Sands Retirement Community Annual Tennis Tournament. Jesus was a 75-year-old retired steel worker from Pittsburgh, one of those life-long bachelors whose money went nowhere but his 401k and after working in the industry for 47 years, decided Florida would be his final resting place. His bandy legs stepped heavily on his morning walks throughout the streets of fellow septagenarians. He grunted through life, a perpetual 10-ton anvil moving slowly and purposefully in the pink 6 am light. This made him a natural foil for the steel. He understood steel and its natural unbending will, its preference for high heat and its inimitable strength. He made steel into the most exquisite drain pipes, I-beams and giant bridge supports seen anywhere. But that day, Jesus walked on water.
The day started with an early match between Harold Stutter, the reigning Sunset Sands champion and former national amateur contender, and Jim Botten, a light-footed 65-year-old. “The Velvet Ringer,” some with bets placed heavily in his favor referred to him, as it was his custom to appear anywhere after 6pm in a velvet smoking jacket. Sadly, those in his corner did not have long to see the fleet-footed cigar man fall. It took all of a set for the spry filly to pull up lame, an old knee injury knocking him for a loop. Perhaps it was arranged, perhaps it wasn’t, but most didn’t believe that a man who ran the circuit of the neighborhood (a whopping 4.3 miles) every day could find his knee so suddenly gone. So the reign of Harold, steady for 3 years, became one round older as the heat spread and the sun rose.
Jesus was fortunate. He received a bye in the first round when Dick Limpkin died a week before and no one stepped into replace him. This was Jesus’ first year in the tournament, and all thought he would prove a fool. Never was he seen on the courts near the pool and Pittsburgh did not harbor many great talents of the racketed persuasion. Skepticism spread freely over the chattering court. He took his place behind the line, tested his racket, and prepared to receive perhaps his first first serve ever from a former top 25 national amateur contender. The ball was tossed, where it floated for a brief moment at its apex and smashed, with a slight amount of topspin so as to kick up on the bounce and flummox the opposing player into a bad return. But Jesus was ready. He saw, from the position of the ball toss and the very small, adjusted backhand grip, exactly where the ball was going, and he rotated freely, seemingly giving the ball back across the court, utilizing Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The crowd, stunned, watched as the ball traveled faster back across the net to an empty piece of court where Harold Stutter did not exist. The chair umpire, a half-deaf machinist from Massachusetts, called, “Love-15.” Each point continued in the same fashion, until Jesus P Fuentes was up a break in the first game of the first set against the reigning champion. The crowd silently adjusted their egos and settled down for a day of tennis.
They came to see a game, came to nosh and eat potato salad made by Mrs Hutchins at #137, but they did not expect art. Such was the next service game by Jesus. Most denizens of the court commented afterward about the ease with which Jesus moved around the surface. “He appeared to float,” one excited patron said later. “This lumbering man of little motion became a ballet dancer before us,” the newsletter read later that month, “It was as if, like a penguin, he found motion on a different element than the natural earth. The penguin swims graceful in the sea, Jesus danced his way into our hearts on the asphalt.”
Words truer were never written. Jesus himself, when interviewed later that day would say nothing but, “I was on.”
Jesus stepped up to the line, placing his left foot a half-centimeter behind it, all his weight centered on the ball of his foot. His right foot served to stabilize him, its toe barely touching the ground as he leaned forward and coiled up like a cobra. His eyes moved, from the spot he wanted the serve, up and up and up to the ball as it was tossed with no spin, where, at the point it could no longer travel higher, his racket and all of the tightly wound muscle exploded. The ball howitzered into the opposite court, skidded, and was narrowly returned by a focused Harold conjuring up all of his muscle memory. But Jesus, being “on,” had anticipated. Like a tap dancer, he shuffled-step-ball-changed to the net, stuck out his racked, and coolly volleyed to the far court. The hammering of heartbeats confirmed a sudden truth: time had slowed and this moment lasted forever, burned into their retinas as something sublime.
The rest was mere semantics. He triumphed quite easily and even Harold Stutter had no problem handing over the trophy. A week later, Jesus was admitted to the hospital with chest pain. He never came out. His funeral, attended by all from the community, included a viewing of amateur home video from that day. It featured the legendary serve-volley combination. Speculation into his latent talent ran the gamut, until an old man got up to speak. He was Bacinski’s brother. It was revealed that Jesus was a natural athlete, receiving a host of football scholarships before the war, but electing to head into the steel business like his father and brothers. On weekends, he would coach whatever sport was in season. “He was a very hard man,” his brother mumbled into the microphone.
No one knew if Jesus was dying when he entered the tournament. Perhaps he knew it, but he still danced the net game and won.
Yesterday, I woke up to find the $92 earned the night before had gone missing from my desk. In its place was $9. Since my bedroom door is locked at night and my roommates are two charming young women without a criminal history, deductions produced the hypothesis it was probably my fault the money was gone. Retracing events, memory conjured the food order the night before: Chinese delivery. In preparation for gastronomic bliss, I set out two piles of money: one with $9, for the delivery man; and one with $83, for a deposit the next day. Going further into the mystery, conclusions suggested something extraordinarily stupid. The delivery man got the best tip of his life.
Of course, realization hit me leaving for work, before the Chinese restaurant was open, without any hope of resolution till after my shift was over. The story went over well at the bar and subsequent relief came in both sympathy and taunts from my peers. As soon as the rush was over, my boss cut me, leaving me enough time to head to General Tsing’s. The subway ride uptown was spent contemplating elaborate farces to win over the manager:
“I was paying too much attention to my sickly puppy to notice the money.”
“I was praying too hard for all of the sinners in the world.”
“I am blind.”
But in the end truth won out. This was a restaurant frequented since my college days. They knew me on sight. My jolly old roommate used to inquire about how pregnant the woman was each time we saw her. I’m sure we were one of the first to see the new baby girl’s pictures. In short, she loved us. She greeted me and I started my rambling explanation.
“I’m sorry, but I think I gave your delivery guy too much money last night, cause, here’s what happened: I put two piles of money on my desk, one for him and one for – ”
“Wait one second.”
She headed to the back, yelling something in Cantonese.
“You wait here, he on a delivery right now. I ask him when he come back.”
“Thank you so much.”
At this point, the first hurdle was was behind me. The next ten minutes were an acute examination of budget and personal assistant apps on my phone. Then he walked in. The moment was near. She spoke to him and he came out bearing $70 asking if it was mine.
I am not known for being overly affectionate, but I nearly kissed him. I could have kissed her, but she is married and her very large, not-in-a-fat-way husband worked in the kitchen and I didn’t want to add that to the list of flubs for the day. She told me, very sweetly, that she had wondered where all this extra money came from last night and how made such a killing. He was very nice too, so I threw him an extra five for his trouble.
All in all, a miraculous ending to a seemingly innocuous cash transaction thrown out of whack by an extraordinarily stupid move on my part. But lesson learned. This evening,the money went straight to the ATM. And I made peanut butter and jelly.
Food in the United Kingdom is a much maligned and much discussed prospect. For many years I have been hearing from everyone and their mother that “England is wonderful. I just wish the food wasn’t so bad.” In considering that statement, it was hard for me isolate an English food tradition. Of course, after researching it, there is mountains of information, but coming from a background ignorant of this, I was basically visiting blind. Of course, the Irish have their blood sausage, their oatmeal; the Scottish their haggus; yet England remained a gastronomic mystery. John Cleese, of Monty Python fame and the writer and star of “A Fish Called Wanda” states in that film by way of the character of Otto that, “The English contribution to world cuisine – the chip.” For those of us unfamiliar with a chip, it is a french-fry cut thick, fried crispy and normally served with any manner of dish; though for my part is best served next to a piece of fried haddock doused in malt vinegar.
This is certainly, if anything, an excellent contribution to world cuisine and the English know how to do it. In Australia, a place known for its seafood, this dish became a regular staple of our household. My parents would sometimes go out for dinner parties and leave my brother and I home with $20. We would walk to the local fish and chips stand, get two enormous portions and sit at home trying to decipher a game of cricket as it was broadcast live from halfway round the world to our small TV in East Melbourne. I still don’t know what a googly is, but I enjoyed the meal.
Being in the place of its inception, I sought out fish and chips for one of our dinners. We had a lovely example of it at The George Tavern in Belsize Park, a 20-minute walk from my girlfriend’s place in Swiss Cottage (see the previous post) and thoroughly enjoyed two ginger beers along with it. But what amazed me, after hearing the derision spouted by my friends and family toward English cuisine, was how much more like food food tasted in England. Michael Pollan, nutritionist and food guru of our generation, writes in his book In Defense of Food that people should not be eating food there grandmother wouldn’t recognize. My grandparents would have loved English food. It is a country with a rich tradition in plain, simple fare. It certainly flies under the wing of its more illustrious neighbor, France and does not have the exotic pull of Indian or Thai food, but this is the country where the English fry-up began.
The traditional English fry-up comes in many forms and many sizes, but at its heart includes:
- Bacon – Not American bacon, from the belly, but more like ham, much meatier and fried very slightly.
- Eggs – Scrambled, fried, over-easy, however you order them. I prefer it fried.
- Sausage – Pretty self-explanatory.
- Blood pudding – Blood that is cooked down with a filler (generally oatmeal) enough to congeal and be fried. It sounds terrible, but it is delicious.
- Mushrooms – Typical baby Bella that are fried in oil.
- Hash browns – Some variations also come with chips, but the hash brown is more distinctly breakfast.
- Beans – Full on baked beans.
- Half-tomato – Fried and served hot.
- Toast – Butter and plenty of it.
Put all this on a plate together, and you have a traditional feast. But do any of these ingredients sound familiar? To me this speaks of a traditional farm breakfast I know my grandparents and their parents were eating in their childhood. I enjoyed it thoroughly and even made it for myself when at home this past week. It’s easy and the hearty nature is such a comfort on a cool morning. During this lovely breakfast, however, a great example of the stereotype of bad English food revealed itself. A bloke sat down next to us with his morning paper and promptly ordered “cheese on toast.” About five minutes later my curiosity was satisfied when an enormous plate with two huge pieces of bread smothered in what looked like cheddar cheese came out. He wasted no time in pouring large amounts of ketchup on this and consuming it greedily. I was amazed. What struck me more than anything else, aside from the caloric content of his ham-sized bread, was the fact he went to a restaurant to order this. Here is a dish that is simple to make even for the most cooking-deficient. Even someone who has never seen a kitchen before, or food for that matter, would probably think this up pretty quickly. But he went out for it. And more power to him. Next time, I’m quite tempted to do the same myself and heck, maybe it just tastes better when you pay for it.
Tackling English cuisine was a pleasuree. Equally as fantastic is the English theatre tradition. London is full of theatres, with major commercial and non-commercial venues wracking up at over 100. Combine this with limited runs of 5-6 weeks for each show, and hundreds, even thousands of plays could be performed every year. What’s amazing too, is the sense of accessibility one has to the theatre. The Royal National Theatre, for example, is an organization that receives about 30% of its funding from ACE (Arts Council Exchange) grants. It is, in effect, 1/3 funded by the government of the United Kingdom. This also means that tickets are drastically reduced in price, and because the show only runs for five to six weeks, most of the time the house is full. We showed up on a Saturday morning around 9:30 and were able to purchase £10 tickets that got us first-row seats for that night’s performance. Coming from the consumer-driven market of New York, this is an amazing deal. I’m not saying that shows don’t exist where profit drives the ticket prices up. The entire West End is becoming a clone to Broadway’s musical-driven economy. But there are alternatives and the difference is, that £10 ticket is not to another Off-Off Broadway production of “Dog Sees God,” it is a ticket to an original script deemed good enough for a Broadway-size house and the full production treatment.
We saw a show called “Blood and Gifts,” a thinly-veiled critique of the American response to Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, circa 1981 on. What struck me after seeing it was that a show like this could not be put up in New York. It was too provocative, too “close to home.” Without ruining the ending, the show gave you a reason why a jihad could develop and what motivates men to do terrible things to each other. It is, in a sense, always personal. I loved it, not only because it was so thought-provoking, but because they found very fine actors to portray these characters. The accents, especially to an American ear, were mostly good, with a few exceptions here and there.
Aside from the quality of the performance, the space itself was beautiful to behold. We did find out at the interval (intermission) that it was exceptionally hard to procure an espresso at around 9:30, but this one detraction did not take away from the sense of history one feels being in the theatre. Walking around the south bank of the Thames, a place where in Shakespeare’s day most of the theatres and consequently whorehouses, markets, etc were located, you get the feeling you are part of something bigger. This is the place where English drama reached its pinnacle when that mysterious genius, the son of a glovemaker, came to town and wrote plays that in many eyes, have never been equalled. It is a place of reverence for those with any love for the theatrical tradition.
I loved London. There is a vague sense of an undercurrent there, a sense of history and grounding that is not present in New York. In New York, I feel like an ant scurrying around the pavement, trying my best to keep up with everyone else, trying to bring back the biggest piece of the pie for myself, trying to carry 3 times my weight home with me every night. Perhaps it is different living there, but in London I felt someone had already done that, as though I had nothing left to prove and could live my life free from this responsibility. There are busy parts of London, but no one is rushing anywhere. There seems to be more time to take care of it all there.
I plan, if possible, to live in London in the near future and examine this hypothesis more closely. For now, London is a city unpretentiously itself and I was charmed.
The plane ride to Heathrow is easy, a mere six hours from JFK, following the coast of the US to Newfoundland, making a 45-degree turn towards Iceland, drafting the jetstream through the north Atlantic across Ireland, finally touching down in West London. An hour-and-a-half long tube ride later and I was in Swiss Cottage, a charmingly “posh” (as described by locals I had spoken to before leaving) section of Northwest London where my girlfriend shares a flat with a French chef and Spanish grad student while she studies at Central School of Speech & Drama.
Swiss Cottage is not remotely Swiss, nor does it abound with cottages. In fact, most of the houses are multi-story, Victorian-style, million-pound mini-mansions, the kind you always imagine as a child had the secret door through the library to the laboratory where some intrigue occurs beyond your 8-year-old comprehension. Swiss Cottage gets its name from the pub centered around the intersection of Finchley and Avenue Roads, built in 1804 and called the “Swiss Tavern.” The modern incarnation, still on the same spot, is more grandiosely titled “Ye Olde Swiss Cottage Public House,” where it serves the traditional Samuel Smith English Bitter out of an oak cask. The bitter is an English invention and more commonly known in the US as English Ale. It is characterized by the intense bitter aftertaste it leaves on the tongue, one of the effects of a higher hops content in the brew. It is slightly opaque in nature, even cloudy and when poured, looks almost like a Guinness as the head retreats from the bottom of the glass. It is also delicious, especially at room temperature, where the full flavor tends spring out of the pint glass (a whopping 20 oz in the UK) and warm the very insides on a cool autumn night. Or so I’m told.
“Ye Olde Swiss Cottage Public House” happened to be the very spot where my girlfriend and her classmates would go to have a drink after class. My introduction to English pub culture went like something out of a Dickens novel. I stepped into a warmly lit room full of sweater-clad people talking and laughing to each other. No loud music blaring, no dimly-lit hallway to negotiate around the bar. No one bartender struggling to maintain a state of calm while eighty or so drunken yuppies yell at him over bad stereo system. This was the very definition of the word “civilized.” All that was missing was a large hearth roaring in the background and men smoking cigars in top hats. Actually there was a large hearth, it just wasn’t on. The beer was delicious, the staff were delightful, and conversation was able to flow without the risk of losing one’s voice halfway through the night. I loved it.
It was something to be there. I have always been an Anglophile. One of my first memories of television is Ringo Starr spouting his incredible Liverpudlian accent on Thomas the Train Engine. My parents would let me watch in their bed in the early mornings on our 13″ black-and-white tube-tacular set. Due to this devotion to the local PBS station (and the fact we couldn’t afford cable), my teenage years were filled with one witty British comedy after another, culminating in the genius of Monty Python and all of its wonderful absurdism. My first attempt to develop a taste for eggs came about at age 6 because of The Hobbit, the first book my father ever read to me. I wanted so badly to be a hobbit, and I think rightly identified the root of my transformation in the diet. Sadly, I didn’t develop a taste until well into the Monty Python years, but the effort was an important step. I was ensconced in British culture, by the simplicity of existing in a house with a penchant for publicly-funded entertainment and nerdy books.
Fast forward 10 years and I was living in Australia. My parents had the foresight to let me play soccer as my first sport, which probably also helped seal the deal on my love affair with the United Kingdom. Here we were in a commonwealth of the British Empire and all of the sudden we had access to all of the best soccer in the world. I took up playing on a local Irish team, my brother on a Greek team. Our introduction to real world of football came on the day my brother’s team played the local Turkish team. On a Saturday afternoon, on a well-manicured pitch in Southeast Melbourne, two countries came and battled out their latent frustrations and warring history through the legs of their 14-year-old sons. The mood was tense, the atmosphere friendly, even though a few tackles were a bit late. As I recall it was a draw, a fitting respite for two countries who took so much from each other for so long. Soon, though, my brother and I were completely taken with the discovery of world football and its tremendous grace, power and beauty. We searched for hours on YouTube for the perfect goal, found teams to support, began participating in fantasy leagues, the works. We became adopted sons of the world’s game.
So here I was, traveling to the place it was invented and where today, the best footballers in the world flock to play in the Barclays English Premier League, which boasts an annual revenue upwards of $3.5 billion dollars. Its stars are fabulously wealthy and while mostly unknown in the US, can hardly go anywhere else in the world without stampeding mobs and paparazzi watching their every move. Cristiano Ronaldo, formerly of Manchester United, one of the largest clubs in the world, and now of Real Madrid, arguably the largest club in the world, boasts endorsement deals and supermodel girlfriends that would put any NFL player to shame. In a way, it felt as if I was coming home.
Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight or the funds to enjoy a game while I was there, so that was out. I did however make a pilgrimage to the stadium of mine and my brother’s personal favorite club, Arsenal. Arsenal is a club with a long history, most notably characterized by the chant “Boring, Boring Arsenal” because of their habit of winning games by scoring a quick goal and then shutting up shop on the other end of the pitch. If you’ll recall from the movie “The Full Monty,” one of the ways the men start learning to dance is by equating a certain step to the Arsenal Offside Trap, a defensive move that involves everyone in defense stepping up to catch the forward “offside,” meaning he is ahead of the last defender (not including the goalie) when the ball is played to him. If this is too confusing, don’t worry about it. Here’s a picture:
If you still don’t get it, start watching soccer. I can guarantee you won’t regret it.
I made it to the stadium and found it was not open, so I did the next best thing and visited the gift shop, entitled impressively “The Armoury.” I contented myself with the purchase of a personalized Arsenal mug, though I could have shown my support in any number of ways, most notably an Arsenal Monopoly game, which begs the question: Is there anywhere Monopoly has not plundered for their real estate money-making machine? Will I go to the Taj Mahal one day and find that, if purchased in tandem with the Red Fort (another famous Indian landmark) and populated with hotels, I will in fact be able to bankrupt everyone if they were to visit?
Regardless, I did not buy the game, preferring to be a conscious consumer that buys something reusable and with my name on it, for less than ten pounds. But the reason to love Arsenal now is that the old adage of “Boring, Boring Arsenal” has been thrown out by the advent of Arsene Wenger (pronounced Veng-grrr), a haughty Frenchman whose genius catapulted Arsenal to an unbeaten season, the first ever in the Premier League and a feat that may never be repeated. What’s even more amazing is he did it by playing attacking football from Dreamland, a fictional place commentators often refer to when teams are performing with such ingenuity and style they surpass normal human standards. Some of the most beautiful goals every made are from that 2003-2004 season and I offer a terrific YouTube compilation for your enjoyment:
Exciting isn’t it? Beautiful too. The simplicity of and power of some of these goals is simply breathtaking to witness. It is the reason this is the most popular sport in the world, a sport the world will stop for. In 1914, a spontaneous truce was called during the first Christmas of World War One. German and British men all along the lines got out of the trenches and began a ragtag game of 50-a-side soccer. It is a sport that brings the world together, and I love it more than most things in the world. Start watching it, believe me.
So, my Mecca visited, my piece of the history purchased to drink out of later, I set off walking back to Swiss Cottage. Hampstead Heath was conveniently along the way, and I found the detour refreshing after the more industrial North London. The Heath, as locals refer to it, was more recently popularized by the British indie film Bright Star, the story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne’s brief love affair before Keats’ death at 25. Some of the most beautiful romantic poetry ever written was thought up on walks through the woods and creeks of this small park, and I, a burgeoning poet myself, had to see the place of inspiration.
What struck me walking through this place was the evidence of its age. It is easy to identify age in London. You are surrounded by cathedrals, castles, and walls dating back to Shakespeare, back to the Middle Ages, back even to Roman times when London was first settled. You are constantly reminded that life existed before you and will exist long after you are gone. It is the same in this little spot of country, but the evidence is different. Walking down a manicured gravel path, you turn a corner and an old man, gnarled, bent, and weathered, greets you. He stands regally, his branches splayed out to the sky, his rigid backbone, that probably saw Shakespeare himself wander by at one time, stands straight and true as ever. The elderly trees of Hampstead Heath are what make this such an impressive and startling place to be. You begin to understand where Tolkien came up with his Ents. He stared at these massive old trees and saw a living creature that just got tired and stopped moving around.
Here is where life starts to get interesting and where the difference lies between a city like London and my own habitation, New York. I know it is a cliche, but New York is a relatively new place. New York was founded in 1624 by the Dutch as trading post. Its oldest surviving building is the Peter Claessen Wyckoff House, a Dutch saltbox structure that stands in Flatbush, a neighborhood of Brooklyn. It is a simple household, probably owned by a tradesman or trader. London began as the Roman settlement Londinium, founded in 43 AD. It’s oldest surviving structure is the Tower of London, which is actually a collection of 21 different towers. Its oldest is the White Tower, built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, that stands in the center of castle-like structure built up by kings past. The amazing thing is, the Tower of London is still in use. The Yeoman Warders, the group charged with the care and upkeep of the Tower, still reside there with their families. Most of their duties today extend to entertaining tourists and feeding the ravens of the Tower. It is said that the should the ravens ever leave, the Tower would fall. They are now kept on payroll and given an annual salary of £1 a year to help cover their daily diet of raw meat. Their wings are also clipped on one side, to prevent them from flying over the walls.
Not that they have any reason to worry. The ravens live a cushy life and the Tower has not been invaded in about 600 years. But the Yeoman Warders do protect some of the most priceless treasures in history. The Crown Jewels are housed in a vault on the backside of the White Tower. This vault, a combination of two steel doors weighing 4,000 lbs. each, holds the crowns or the skeletons of the crowns, of most of the monarchs since Queen Victoria. These crowns, aside from a select few, have been stripped of their jewels, as the jewels are passed along to each new monarch on their coronation. These jewels include the largest diamond in the world, the Cullinan diamond, weighing in uncut at a whopping 3106 carats (about 1 1/3 lbs of diamond.) Nine cuts were made in these diamonds and the family of Cullinan I-IX was created. Cullinan II resides on the Imperial Crown and Cullinan 1 in the Sovereign’s Royal Sceptre. If you have never seen a very large diamond, as I never had, you cannot imagine the awe these stones inspire. It seems like no big deal, especially to someone from a country without a monarchy, but trust me, go. It is an experience to breathe in.
Other crowns are also kept there, including Queen Victoria’s diamond tiara-like crown and the Imperial Crown of India, worn once by King George V on his visit to India, where he reportedly complained about a headache after three hours of wearing it. It has not been worn since.
England is a country rich in history and tradition and I felt right at home in the middle of it. Aside from the influence of my Brit-friendly parents and my preference for English football, I was surprised at how easy it was to integrate myself into the society. Most of the time traveling is an uncomfortable and often embarrassing mix of faux pas for the first week (or month or year) there, but I was able to comfortably find my feet quickly and enjoy my time in London thoroughly. The best part of it is summed up by my first meal there. My girlfriend took me to another pub called The White Horse Tavern near her house after drinks with her classmates. There we met Phil, a very British, very polite bartender who served us the best Thai food I have ever eaten in my life. To have the combination of English Ale and deliciously authentic Thai food made me realize I was in for a treat while here. This combination of New and Old World, of cosmopolitan cultures mixing to create an effervescent, lively society is what charmed me the most about London. I will certainly be back.
A London Story Part II: I Go to the Theatre