In Praise of Higher Education

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Semester Abroad; Oxford, England; Thursday night, the Bulldog Pub’s karaoke night; slightly more than halfway through our summer, 1994 term.

It was hot, the hottest summer in England in nearly one hundred years. My white Gap 100% cotton t-shirt stuck to my back. My curly blonde hair was pulled up in a jagged-toothed hair clip. I held a warm shandy while my friend Jon slouched nearby in relaxed Levis and a yellow t-shirt, clutching a pint of tepid Guinness, which was rumored to be nearly 10% alcohol in those days (which might explain why we did some of the things we did).

We had been going to the Bulldog for a while, every week as regular as a sunrise, to avoid writing papers and to plan our weekend breaks to London and Paris, while listening to backpack-clutching, disaffected Euro-youth sing “Love is All Around” and the Big Mountain version of “Baby I Love Your Way.” I don’t remember how we chose the Bulldog; we just seemed to have drifted there one night and stayed. I don’t even know why we did. The pub was stiflingly airless; the floor was sticky; the Euro-youth were doing their best to destroy our inner ears with their caterwauling; yet we wandered in every Thursday night.

One night, at Jon’s signal, Stephanie Tinley and I pushed through the side door to the relative cool of the alley to hear Jon announcing to the rest of our classmates that we could no longer observe the howling karaoke; we had to participate.

After registering our disbelieving stares, he explained that we needed to express our Americanness, our very New Yorkness, to the European pub rats. Although no one had yet agreed with him, he outlined his idea. Musically-speaking, nothing says America better than Motown and nothing says New York like the Village People. Motown, okay, but the Village People?  On one level I understood his analogy: Motown does say funky, talented, high-achieving America and the Village People do say New York – specifically Greenwich Village, where we had all met at New York University – however they said it in a language I wasn’t sure I wanted to shout out in a pub.

It took some cajoling, but eventually Stephanie and I agreed to sing – and spell out while dancing – the disco hit “YMCA,” although privately I wondered just how drunk I would have to be to actually climb onto a stage and sing in public. Jon and some other classmates, David and Mikael, decided to be the Pips while Clydette sang Gladys Knight’s part on “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The plan was good as far as it went, however, in those days before Ipods, the Internet, and downloaded music, to do this adequately, one of us needed to have either a phenomenal memory for lyrics and tunes or a Sony Discman and a compact disc of the songs.  Fortunately, I had a Discman back in my room and at the time there was an HMV music store on Cornmarket Street, so the next afternoon after lunch and before tutorials, Jon and I bought the necessary CDs.

We began rehearsing that evening. It was truly idiotic for Stephanie and me. We giggled, we overacted, and we fell onto my bed in hysterical tears. The problem wasn’t just that the song was stupid: we were both spectacularly untalented. Regardless, we kept at it. The days passed and, caught up in our own performance, plus all the academic work Trinity College appeared to believe that we should complete, we didn’t discuss it with the others again until after dinner the Wednesday before our performance.

“Are you guys ready?” Jon asked as we sat on a bench outside the Junior Common Room watching the sun streak across the evening sky.

“Yes,” I answered, glancing at Steph who nodded in agreement.

His eyes went from my face to hers. “Are you sure?” he asked with a trace of disbelief in his tone.

Steph answered this time. “Yeah, we’re sure.”

“We aren’t very good,” I interjected as she frowned at me.

“Hmmmm. ‘Not very good’ in what sense? ‘Not very good’ because you didn’t practice enough?” Jon asked snarkily.

“No, ‘not very good’ because we have no performing talent,” I snapped.

He waved a hand airily. “Oh, that doesn’t matter.”

Easy for him to say, I thought.

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Oxford, England; another Thursday night; the Bulldog Pub’s karaoke night, two weeks before our summer term ends.

All of the regulars were there on the sweltering evening Jon chose for our musical debut. I was nervous and needed a shandy. Hell, I needed two. I am an English major, for crying out loud; I am happiest curled on a sofa reading from books, not standing on rickety pub stages following lyrics along a teleprompter screen. Evidently I was not the only performer in need of lukewarm liquid courage; Jon was on his third pint. One of the regulars, a skinny, shaven-head, gap-toothed guy in Levis, a combat jacket, and Doc Martens, looking like a National Front organizer, decided to honor the American visitors by performing “New York, New York.” Doing his best Sid Vicious imitation, he snarled his way through the poor, tortured song. Finally, mercifully, done, he winked at Stephanie and me, then lifted his pint from a wooden ledge, and, toasting us, drained it.

We were next. The trumpet intro of our disco number blared. Too drunk and way too frightened to find the stage, Stephanie and I climbed onto the nearest table and began shaking our little Wonder-bra’d breasts and shouting “Young man! There’s no need to feel down. I said, young man! When you’re in a new town.”

I could see Jon in the back of the pub nearly spray out his Guinness at the sight. (Later he observed that we resembled nothing so much as two crack-crazed cheerleaders.) We formed the YMCA letters over our heads, thrust our pelvises, and shouted the lyrics. Thankfully for all concerned, it ended pretty quickly.

Jon, Mikael, and David climbed onto the stage followed by Clydette. Their performance was breathtaking. While Steph and I looked exactly like what we were – half-drunk, frightened young women – the four of them make singing in a pub look natural, like it was something they did every day of their lives, as though they just happened into the Bulldog on their tour of Oxfordshire. While Clydette wailed (unlike Steph and me, she really could sing), Jon and the other Pips shuffled their feet and spun in time and in unison, raising their arms into the air and mimicking pulling a train whistle for the “woo woo” part.

When they finished the crowd of Euro-youth cheered. We cheered. The bartender cheered. Even the National Front skinhead cheered. Later, when I learned that the intricate choreography had been Jon’s idea, I wasn’t surprised. The Jon I knew always made an effort, always aimed high, always sought perfection; he never sat in the folding chairs on the sidelines and watched life pass in front of him.

It has been decades since that night – the Bulldog Pub has long since been gentrified and Jon has been dead for nearly twenty years – but I laugh whenever I am in a checkout line and hear “YMCA” playing. If I hear “Midnight Train to Georgia,” I cry.

It’s Not Always Sunny in New York City

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New York, New York. The city so nice they named it twice.

New York is a magical place to live. There are terrific universities, great restaurants, and every aspect of high and low culture anyone could ever want. Every day is an adventure, yet buried below all of the nice things that have happened to me while I grew up in New York are a few painful events, the memories of which fade but continue to leave marks, pale shadows like the ashy, circular, black burns a fire’s sparks leave on a hearth rug. In June 2015, it was eighteen years since I began the process of surviving the murder of my graduate school friend Jon.  Although at the time, I recognized the horror of the day, I didn’t realize immediately the ancillary ramifications of it.  The gunshot killed Jon but also much more.

On May 30, 1997, someone who wanted to rob Jon also chose to kill him; intentionally chose, first by torture and then by a gunshot to the base of the skull, presumably to stop him from reporting the crime. He knew his assailant; it wasn’t random street crime. Perhaps if it were it would make more sense.

No one learned of the event until a few days later when Jon failed to appear for work. And then, as they say, all Hell well and truly broke loose, because Jon’s father was famous. Within two weeks the perpetrators, hardly criminal masterminds, had been apprehended and relayed their side of the story to the NYPD and the newspapers, then, ultimately, the English-speaking world. The numbness, which had begun with the initial shock, began to recede like an ebb tide, leaving an amazingly large amount of room in my heart for pain.

In mid-July 1997 I attended a pretrial meeting at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office with Jon’s mother, Carol.  At one point, after Carol had gone to the ladies room, I naively asked the ADA whether she believed that they would secure a conviction because I would hate for my friend to have died for nothing.  “I have news for you,” she replied curtly, gathering her papers, “your friend died for nothing, anyway.”   Her observation shocked me at the time, although later I realized that it was true. I couldn’t have believed her on that sweaty July afternoon, though, because to do so would have left me unable to attend the trial that fall.

I remember entering Manhattan Criminal Court uncomfortably that cool October morning, scanning the public gallery for empty seats, and then pulling a little notebook from my handbag to scribble quick impressions so I could remember later what my senses were too overloaded to process.

We watched jury selection – twelve regulars and eight alternates (I wrote in my journal “are they expecting a high drop-out rate?”) and wondered what might really be learned about people from voir dire.  I remember hearing the judge advise the jury to “use the same methods you use in your everyday life to determine if someone is telling the truth” and wondering what exactly those methods might be.  The character analysis skills learned in English class didn’t seem to work in this room, especially since some in the jury pool (“Juror number 6 is trying to get off; says he’ll only be paid at work for 2 weeks so he can’t stay for 6”) didn’t care to determine anything at all.

Among the worst moments of the trial were hearing from the Medical Examiner (“one puncture in the back of the neck – three shallow cuts across the throat – one right side stab wound which hit the liver – one gunshot wound directly into the brain”) and seeing the autopsy photos passed around (according to my journal, “one of the jurors has her head between her knees . . . Carol’s face is red, now white. I think she’s about to pass out . . . Jamie’s left the room . . . M.E. doesn’t recognize the photo of Jon because by the time he saw him the body was so badly decomposed.”)

After this, the long misery of jurisprudence, the moment I had previously thought was the nadir of it all – the second I learned of Jon’s murder – faded nearly to nothingness when a jury of my peers found Corey Arthur – the assailant who was arrested wearing clothes smeared with Jon’s blood – guilty of only second degree murder which earned him a sentence of twenty-five years to life.  That day paled, too, later, when Corey’s accomplice, Montoun Hart, was acquitted.

Then it was over.  Except it wasn’t over.  It isn’t over.  Every May 6 is Jon’s birthday and every May 30 is the anniversary of his murder.  Every June 2 is a recreation of the day his decomposed body was found.

Shakespeare was right when he wrote that the evil men do lives after them. Evil’s residue continues to blow over everyone involved in this event like ash from an incinerator.  There is no escaping it.

The Garden Cottage

largeNew York City children grow up cautious. Maybe an extra chemical in the air they breathe has altered their DNA; maybe skepticism is dripped into the water supply. Regardless, they expect the worst from every situation.

Jamie and I were both born in New York, the City of Many Locks. Even though I remember the New York in the 1960s and ‘70s – and even the ‘80s – as a lot safer than it seems now, it wasn’t a place where you slept with the front door unlatched. Having windows open in the summer was a requirement, true, but then no one ever expected Spiderman to climb the brick walls, enter the flat, and clear out its valuables. So we lived in our Upper West Side apartment with an open-windowed view of Central Park and Tuxedo’s dirty paw prints on the wall under the wide, dusty sills. According to Dr. Frank Field, this particular summer was one of the hottest on record, so the windows were never closed and the paw prints multiplied.

Jamie’s family had close friends who owned an original land grant farm in Cape Cod, bestowed by George III. He had worked on it for many of his adolescent summers, remembering those days fondly with their temperate days and cool nights. Since I hadn’t seen Massachusetts since age nine and Jamie was certain it would be cooler on the Cape, we thought it would be fun to drive up for a long weekend to escape the July heat.   We arranged for a friend to look after Tux and reserved a room at The Fernbrook Inn, a gorgeous Victorian bed and breakfast in Centerville.

The snag came two days before we planned to leave. We had gone out to dinner and upon exiting the Mitali West Indian restaurant on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village discovered that Jamie’s baby blue Mercedes E class had a new paint job – a thick stripe of Metropolitan Blue running along the entire driver’s side, almost as an accent on top of the assorted scratches and the crushing indentation from tail light to head light. Although he didn’t shriek the profanities I expected him to, it was obvious that he wasn’t happy with the NYPD’s poor driving skills. But what to do about the trip? Should we cancel?

We considered the problem the rest of that night and the next morning. Neither of us wanted to postpone; NYC in July is a tourist-stuffed and aroma-infested city-sauna. A weekend away was tempting, but how would we get there?

Just after lunch, Jamie phoned me at my office with the solution; his business partner, Danny, had recently sold his house in Tuscany and had had the furnishings shipped home and among them was a BMW sedan. We were going to borrow it for the weekend.

He arrived home a few hours later looking disconcerted. I asked what was wrong. It turned out that there are different models of BMWs available in Europe than in the US. Danny had the newest, snazziest model BMW sedan; all of its controls were voice-activated.   It was the early 1990s and I had never before heard of this.

“You mean you talk to it?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow, that’s cool.” He frowned slightly. “It’s not cool?”

Jamie scratched his chin. “Oh, it’s cool, all right. What’s even cooler is that it talks back.”

“No! Really?”

“Yeah. In Italian.”

“In Italian? You don’t speak Italian,“ I observed.

“No, but Danny does and it’s his car,” he answered.

“Ohhhhhhhhh.” The complication was beginning to sink in. Fluent-in-Italian Danny wasn’t accompanying us. “Do you think we need to speak Italian? I mean, can’t we just fill up the gas tank often and presume that it’s all right?”

Jamie nodded. “We’ll have to. It’s either that or stay home and neither is us wants to do that.”

He was right – neither of us did want that. So the next morning we loaded the car and set off for Cape Cod listening to a new best seller in the CD player. The car had a lot to say but neither of us understood it so we just turned the book louder.

We arrived in early afternoon. The inn was even more beautiful than we had imagined; a Victorian house with a wide, airy porch and spectacular gardens created by Frederick Law Olmstead.  We learned from Brian, one of the owners, that while a sea captain had built it, its owners had also included Dr. Herbert Kalmus, the inventor of Technicolor. Francis Cardinal Spellman, Walt Disney, Gloria Swanson, and several American presidents had vacationed there.

As Brian showed us around, we noticed that it wasn’t very cool; in fact it was nearly as hot as Manhattan. Jamie mentioned that he had spent his adolescent summers on the Cape and it had always had great sleeping weather, cool with a light breeze. Brian nodded. “Usually,” he agreed, “but this has been the hottest summer in seventy-five years.” Jamie and I exchanged glances. “At least there’s an ocean,” I mumbled.

Brian introduced us to his partner, Sal, who had taken our bags to the Garden Cottage. We followed Sal along the pea gravel path to a tiny studio nestled within the embrace of century old trees. It was lovely – with high ceilings, a queen-sized bed, its own bathroom, and airy porch.

“It was a little stuffy in here so I have opened all of the windows for you,” Sal said, opening, then resting, the screen door against his shoulder as he handed Jamie the key to the thick oak door as he turned to leave. “You might want to leave them open. It’s been a scorcher of a summer.”

I pulled a sweatshirt from the beach bag. “Well, I guess I won’t be needing this.”

Jamie shrugged and dug in the suitcase for our swimsuits. Perhaps there would be a cooling breeze at the beach.

Later, after roasting on the beach all afternoon, we returned to the cottage to shower and find a place to eat dinner. As Jamie opened the thick door a blast of heat attacked us like from a furnace in a steel mill.

“Holy cow, it’s still like an oven in here,” I said as I dropped the beach bag.

“We’ll leave the door open when we go out for dinner,” Jamie said turning to enter the bathroom.

“We can’t!” I exclaimed, appalled.

He turned, surprised. “Why not?”

“It’s not safe. It’s like asking someone to rob us.”

“Don’t be silly. We are twenty feet from the main house in a private garden in Centerville, Massachusetts, not pitching a tent in Central Park. And we don’t have anything valuable with us anyway.” I wasn’t convinced, so when he left to put gas in the chatty Italian car, I snapped the door locked and moseyed along the path to meet him in front of the house.

It was nearly midnight when we pulled into the inn’s driveway after dinner but it felt as hot as midday in Studio City. The same blast of hot air met us as I opened the cottage door. “I thought we were going to leave the door open,” Jamie said as we entered.

“You went for gas and I forgot,” I lied. Did he think I was nuts?

“Well, we can leave it open now,” he said pulling back the white sheets and reaching for the remote control.

“You mean all night?” I squeaked.

“Sure, why not?”

“Uh, burglars, rapists, murderers, the usual suspects,” I replied snarkily.

Jamie stared. “What are you talking about? You aren’t in New York; you are in Cape Cod. It’s very safe. It’s also incredibly hot, so, please, please do not close that door. Just lock the screen door.”

Reluctantly, I agreed and crossed the room to the door. I looked at the screen door. No lock marred its smooth painted wood surface. I turned. “There is no lock,” I said.

“Sure there is; I can see it from here.”

“You mean this? This little hook and eye?” I swung the curved metal latch with my index finger. “Tux could break this.”

“What were you expecting? The door’s too thin for a Medeco dead bolt.”

“So? They have never heard of chain locks up here?”

“It’s a low crime area.”

“Humph. No place is low crime if doors are left open and everyone’s vying to be robbed. The burglars’ only dilemma is where to hit tonight.”

“Will you please stop acting like you are vacationing on Fordham Road? They don’t need security gates and dead bolts here.”

“Yeah, well.” I remain unconvinced. I wasn’t a native New Yorker for nothing.

“Yeah, well, I’m going to sleep.” Jamie rolled over and within seconds he was snoring like an asthmatic walrus.

Miffed, I sat on the bed and stared idly at a rerun of Mystery! on PBS. A crime show, great. Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was solving the mystery of the naval treaty stolen from a Foreign Office clerk. Hmm. Stolen. See? From a place that was properly locked at night; that treaty wasn’t left on a flat surface in an unsecured garden shed in a heat-ravaged coastal town just waiting to be pilfered. I gazed at Jamie sleeping and wanted to poke him awake.

I watched TV the entire night, growing more fearful with every noise I heard. Every call of a night bird became the communication of burglary accomplices. Every padding of paws under the window became a rapist in crepe-soled shoes seeking a victim. Every crunch of gravel was a car thief choosing his prey. Eventually, I nodded off, just as the ink-blue sky began its fade to grey.

Early-rising Jamie awoke with the summer sun, leaping from bed just as the robins began their dawn serenade. Grumbling I pulled the covers over my head.   “Come on,” he prodded. “Let’s go see what Sal is making for breakfast.”

“Can’t we see what Sal is making for lunch?” I grumbled.

“No lunch. B & B, you know.”

I peered out over the scalloped edge of the sheet. Jamie frowned. “What is wrong with you? Your eyes are all bloodshot. You look like you just got in after one of your grad school pub crawls.”

I scowled. I hadn’t crawled the pubs all that much at Trinity, Oxford as I completed my Masters degree; Jamie just thought I had based on who my friends and classmates were. Self-righteousness swelled within me. After all, I had stayed awake all night guarding our safety, while he slept completely unawares, snoring like a grizzly bear with post-nasal drip, and if I had felt better I would have told him so.

Truthfully, I felt like a wrung-out dishrag. Jamie could see that. He brought me a brimming mug of coffee from the dining room and held it under my nose. Eventually the scent of what my grandfather called “the hot, black elixir of life” revived me and I made it to the breakfast table where all of the other guests sat chatting brightly. No one else appeared concerned about Centerville’s propensity for nocturnal crime. Frankly, I was too tired to care about it anymore, as well. I spent the entire day dozing on the beach.When we returned to the garden cottage from dinner that night, I decided that while the hook and eye might be – was – flimsy, Brian and Sal had owned this place for years and had never had a break in; that had to count for something. I flipped the latch and got into bed. Que sera sera, as Doris Day so often sang. I imagined I’d be alive and intact in the morning. And if I was, I planned to find a Borders books; I still needed to buy an Italian-English dictionary to figure out what the car was trying to tell us before we drove back to New York.

Piglet out of Water, or Friday at The Chelsea Arts Club

I was standing in afishoutofwater phone booth in the lobby of the Dukes Hotel in St. James’s Place, London.  I was a twenty-one-year old, shiny new, NYU liberal arts graduate and I was scared.  I had been scared for quite a while, at least since bumping my wheelie suitcase down the stairs to the E train at 57th Street Station more than a week earlier.

I’d never been in London alone before – except for college I’d never really gone anywhere by myself and even then I only went a few stops downtown on the B train – so when my mom mentioned to her poet friend Bonnie that she had finally convinced me to leave New York to study for an advanced degree at Trinity College, Oxford for a year, Bonnie thought it would help me to know someone, and she told my mom to tell me to look up her dearest friend, Leah, who had moved to London in the wake of a collapsed marriage.  All this arranged friendship intimidated me even more than knowing no one, so I avoided calling; rather I wandered throughout the city alone, growing acclimated to being on my own. It was now my final day in London, and my apprehension about coming here was roiling, like one of those constantly-on-the-boil teakettles in Dickensian cafes.  I know it sounds like I am overly timid – my older sisters call me Piglet after Winnie the Pooh’s pink and quaking friend and wonder, often and loudly, how anyone raised in New York City could possibly be so fainthearted – but I prefer to think of myself as cautious.

Regardless, since I was leaving London for Oxford early the next morning to begin the Michaelmas term, it was my last chance to contact Leah, so I entered the phone booth next to the night porter’s chair and, chewing my left thumbnail, inserted my BT calling card.

Leah sounded pleased to hear from me.  She said that Bonnie had told her to expect my call and when she offered to take me to dinner at her club, I accepted.  I was aware that both Bonnie and my mother believed that new experiences were crucial for personal growth, a philosophy I was not entirely sure I shared.  But, like Bonnie, Leah was a published writer – a poet and a playwright – and since I wanted to be a writer, maybe she would offer me advice.  If not,  . . . well, I wasn’t thinking that far in advance.  And I’d never been to a private London club and had no idea what to expect; it sounded more exotic than the University Club where my parents took us for holiday lunches and it was bound to be better than another boxed sandwich from the Mark & Spencer food hall.

Pushing apart the split-panel glass and mahogany door of the old-fashioned telephone booth I headed for the birdcage elevator to return to my room to shower and change.  One sure thing was that dinner with Leah would force me to stop dwelling upon my own fear of change for a few hours.  And maybe Leah’s club was a famous one like the Groucho – supposedly Mick Jagger belonged there – or the renowned Chelsea Arts Club, which was reputed to be Eric Clapton’s club, and if I saw him there my sister-in-law Kelly would be really jealous.

Two pm found me standing in front of my hotel, shifting my weight in the late September sunshine.  Unsure what to wear, I had opted for a short-sleeved blue cotton dress and matching espadrilles. I didn’t think I’d need a sweater because I had read in the Timesthat this had been the hottest summer since WW II, and in the short time I’d been there, I had learned that London wasn’t air-conditioned. A tall, slim woman with curly brown hair and baggy linen pants approached me tentatively.

“Lucy?  Hi, I’m Leah, Bonnie’s friend.  How are you?”  She had a slight English accent, like she had adopted, rather than given birth to it.  She stretched out her hands to grasp mine and kissed me on both cheeks.

“Oh, hi.  I’m fine,” I waved a hand in front of my face nervously.  “A little hot.  I always thought it rained all the time in England and that would make it cool.”

“It does usually, but we’ve been having a record summer. And rain doesn’t always make it cool here, just wet. Wait’ll autumn strikes Oxford.  I hope you packed a mac because you are really going to need it.” She cocked her head and studied me. “You know, Bonnie never told me how cute you are.”

I didn’t know how to answer that so I didn’t and we stared at each other for a moment.  Then, “Bonnie says you’re a writer.”

“Um, yeah, well . . . um, I’m trying to be. . . I’m not a real writer like Bonnie or you. . . I have published a few things.  I won a haiku contest. . . I, uh . . . I’m just starting.  I think they call it ‘emerging’ but I hate that term; it makes me sound like a caterpillar breaking out of a cocoon about to be a . . . a moth or . . .or something . . . ” my voice trailed off.  Blushing, I turned to admire the lush floral baskets clustered within wrought iron trim of the hotel.

I felt a tug at my arm.  “Come on, caterpillar.  Let’s go for a walk and you can see London.”  Leah turned her face toward the sun. “It’s such a beautiful day I want to enjoy it.  I must pop into Boots, and then we can go to my flat in Morpeth Terrace for a bit. It’s in Westminster so it’s not far, right near Victoria Station; do you know where that is?  It’s the closest stop to Buckingham Palace, in case you ever want to go there. Oh, it’s such lovely day to walk; we rarely get weather like this.”  She almost skipped.  She must really like the sunshine.  “I want you to see where I live so you can tell Bonnie.  Do you know she has never visited me?  It’s a lower ground floor flat – what we’d call the basement in America – so you can only see people’s feet and there’s a long wall with a gate that goes across the building’s entire ground floor, but it looks across to Westminster Cathedral.  Do you know it?  It’s the one John Betjeman wrote about.”

I would have said I had heard of the historic cathedral, but I couldn’t slip a word in.

”Then after our visit we’ll go to the Club for an early dinner.” She began striding toward St. James’s Street, leaving me bobbing in her wake.  “On the way, we’ll call for my friend Graham at his flat.  He lives near me in a lovely neighborhood, right between the Station and the Cathedral. He leases a room in a massive and very elegant mansion flat in Carlisle Mansions.  Wait until you see it. It’s astounding – an entire floor!  The London Arts Council used to meet there.  Jessica . . . she owns the leasehold . . . has a dining table with 60 chairs; can you believe it?  And an amazing antique chandelier is suspended above it; it has these very grand angels hanging from it.  We’ll meet him then go for a meal.  Is there a Boots in Piccadilly, do you know?  I need to pop in for a few things.”

There was a Boots the Chemist in Piccadilly; I had noticed it on my way to the Green Park tube stop and had picked up a few useful items there myself over the past few days, however it was in the opposite direction of where Leah was pointed and she was chattering so quickly that it was hard to find an opening. “Yes, yes, there is a Boots, but it’s opposite the Ritz.  Isn’t that the other way?”  I gestured over my shoulder feebly.  Leah stared wide-eyed. “You have learned some things about London since you’ve been here, haven’t you, caterpillar?”

“Well, I learned where to buy toothpaste.”

Leah threw her head back and laughted. I blushed again. We set off toward the Ritz Hotel.

Over the next fifteen or so minutes, I trailed Leah through Boots as she collected her toiletries in a metal basket, then I sat and waited with her while the pharmacist filled a prescription for her second husband.

“How do you like London?” she asked once we were back outside, waiting to cross Piccadilly to cut through Green Park.

“Well . . . I like it more than I thought I would.”  I replied.

“More than you thought you would? Did you expect to not like it?”

I twisted a lock of hair around my right index finger.  “Oh, I don’t know.  I mean, I grew up in New York – my family has been there for generations – so New York is my template. Especially our neighborhood.  My grandparents – my mom’s parents – live really close to us and my dad’s parents live a couple of blocks away.”

Leah nodded. “So, like the slogan, you love New York.”

“Yeah, I guess.  My only criticism of Manhattan is that it is constantly destroying its past by knocking down beautiful old buildings and putting up steel and glass monstrosities.  It’s never the same from year to year. I hate that.”

Leah smiled. “You’re right about New York.  I think it purges itself every ten years of its people and its way of life and just starts over like a snake sloughing off its skin.”

“But London has . . . continuity; gorgeous old buildings are everywhere, and more survived the Blitz than I had thought. I love that . . . that constancy.”

“Developers knock down buildings here, too, you know.”

“Oh, I know, but there are so many great buildings and they transcend eras. The old Roman wall is still there in the City; I saw it when I visited the Tower, which is also still there.  And the V & A has one façade that shows bomb damage from WW II; no one has plastered over it.  And there is that Congregational church in Stepney that was bombed during the War that has only one wall remaining but that wall is still up.”

Leah stared. “You went all the way to Stepney?” she asked.

“Lord, no. I don’t even know where Stepney is, except in it’s in a Rolling Stones song.  My dad is a WW II historian and he talks a lot about the Blitz.”

We’d reached Leah’s building so conversation ceased as she began fussing with keys for gate locks, door locks, and mailbox locks.  Westminster was like New York in that respect, at least. As we entered, I gazed around at the building’s façade and hallways and mentally compared it to my family’s apartment building on the Upper West Side.  Morpeth Mansions was a big building but the halls seemed narrower and the windows, although larger, were fewer. When we entered Leah’s apartment, I realized that it was much smaller than my family’s on 86th Street.  Despite the front-facing windows it was dimmer, and even though she had less furniture, the space felt crowded.  The kitchen withits mismatched cabinets wasn’t separate, either; it took up more than half of the main room.  A small washing machine was located under the kitchen counter where I had expected a dishwasher to be, although I didn’t see a matching dryer.

I pulled out one of the two chairs tucked under the small, wooden dining table and sat and stared at the passing parade of shoes out the window, only half listening to Leah chatter as she pulled her damp sheets from the teeny washer while waiting for the electric kettle to boil for tea. I couldn’t imagine having such a small and inconveniently placed machine; it would take forever to complete a family’s weekly wash. I thought of the well-lighted and airy laundry room in our building at home containing nine regular-sized washers, three double-sized washers, and twelve enormous dryers.

Just after Leah had placed a glass pint bottle of milk on the table, she pulled open a narrow door to what I presumed was a pantry.  Inside was a series of pipes.  She began laying her laundry over them.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It’s an airing cupboard,” Leah replied as she slipped the sheets over the metal rails.

“What do you mean by ‘airing’?”

Leah stood on tiptoes and continued stretching and smoothing.  “This flat is too small for a tumble dryer so we lay the washing across these rails to dry.  They are heated by sourcing directly to the water heater. Over there, see?”  She pointed to a large, wall-mounted, metal cylinder. “Lots of older flats have them. It’s very energy-efficient.”

And peculiar, I thought, remembering how when I was little my mother would pull her sheets from the giant dryer, toss them in her wheeled basket, plop me on top, and push everything upstairs.  I mentally crossed my fingers that Trinity was in the current century laundry-wise.

I chewed my thumbnail again.  “Uh, Leah?”

“Hmmm?”

“Did you find it weird when you first came here?”

Leah looked over her shoulder from the airing cupboard.  “Weird how?”

I considered.  “Well, weird in that it’s different from New York.”

“It’s not that different; they speak English.”

“No, that’s not it.  I mean . . . like moving from your old apartment to here.”

Leah laughed.  “After Harry and I divorced, I moved into an unrestored five-storey walkup in the Village. There was no shower, no laundry facilities, and precious little heat, plus the only view was of an airshaft. Comparatively, this is a palace.”

“But weren’t you born in New York?  Hadn’t you first been published in New York?  Wasn’t your . . . life . . . in New York?”

“Yes to all three but there are publishers here.  New York isn’t the center of the artistic world, Lucy; it just thinks it is. And my parents are dead and I have no siblings, so after my divorce I had no real reason to stay.  And besides,” Leah closed the airing cupboard door and turned her attention to the kettle.  “There is a vibrant artistic community here, a real value of the written and spoken word that I never felt in New York, even when I did readings or met with my publisher.  It’s why I joined the Club.  Everyone just gets together and sustains one another in their latest endeavors.” She poured tea into porcelain mugs then placed the traditional English Brown Betty teapot on the table.

“You mean like a writers’ support group,” I ventured spooning sugar into my mug.

“Yes, and no.  A support group says ‘yeah, yeah, that’s great, it reminds me of . . . ‘ blah blah blah.  I mean a place where all artists, not just writers, express and stretch and celebrate just being artists together.  Not valuing who just got accepted by Grantamore than who is still scribbling away in a Shakespearean garret, but appreciating all. Just a great love for art itself.”

I thought about those concepts – camaraderie and acceptance.  My experience had been that writing was hard, solitary work and fraught with rejection of one kind or another, from professors, from classmates, from editors. Leah’s artistic London sounded as unreal as Oz.

Leah’s telephone rang, breaking the silence with that sharp European brrrring-brrrrring sound.

“Three one double six four.  Graham, darling!  Hello!  How funny that you are ringing now . . . we are actually about to head out. Are you ready?  We’ll be . . . What?  Now? Ohhhh, I am so disappointed!  You won’t get to meet Lucy, then, because she’s leaving in the morning . . . No, no apology!  I understand.  No, no, you absolutely need to do this.  You have worked too hard for too long.  Well, ring me tomorrow then, darling, and we’ll catch up.”  Leah replaced the receiver.  “Graham can’t join us, after all.  He has had a play in workshop for the longest time and the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse wants to discuss the possibility of staging it. He is thrilled because although he has been writing for years, he has never had a production.  This is a brilliant opportunity for him.”

“Wow, that’s impressive.”  I didn’t know much about the Donmar except it was a respected professional theatre created out of old warehouse space in Covent Garden, the former fruit and vegetable market on the fringes of the West End.  I felt a pang of envy; imagine having a play you wrote be performed.

“Well, caterpillar, I think it’s just you and me for dinner then. Let me tidy up a bit and we’ll be off. ”

Once Leah had brushed her hair and written a note telling her husband the approximate time she would return, she was ready to leave and we began the walk to her club.  She chatted the entire time but, immersed in my own thoughts, I barely heard her.  I was considering what she’d implied about New York’s being artistically inhospitable.  I could see how it might be true, although I still thought it was mostly representative of a writer’s friendless existence, not necessarily something exclusive to New York; that said, there must be some kind of artistic community in London if a friend of hers could workshop a play into the Donmar.  He didn’t workshop alone; there had to be other playwrights and actors to workshop with.

After about twenty minutes we reached Chelsea and I guessed our destination – One Hundred Forty-three Old Church Street, the Chelsea Arts Club. You could see it from two blocks away; it was a Victorian terrace with each section painted alternately prune-whip purple, Mediterranean coral, and Creamsicle orange, with unfinished-looking blotches of lemon yellow and cobalt blue.  On top of the colors were representations of all kinds of people, including a fat lady in a polka-dot bikini; a tall, thin toff wearing tails and a top hat; a tennis player with four legs; and an approximation of King Kong, a hairy brown ape balancing a recumbent woman on his right front paw like a cocktail tray.

“Here we are,” Leah said brightly a minute later.  “It’s not always painted like this.  We change it pretty often to suit the mood of the city.”  She extended a hand and fondly patted an outer wall, firm and solid, its regularity broken only by the somewhat uneven placement of large-paned windows covered with old-fashioned lace curtains somewhat at odds with the design of the mural.  My gaze drifted upward to the slate roof dotted with chimney pots. I wondered what mood the city had been in when they painted this.

It was a pretty audacious structure, miles away from the Italianate, palazzo-like University Club, although, architecturally-speaking – without the mural – the building itself was typical Victorian working class construction, stucco over brick and wavy glass panes in wooden frames.  It boasted no elaborately carved lintels or outré bas-relief patterns – but it didn’t need to; the paint job said it all, telling the world that this club, the urban home of London’s most talented and Bohemian artists, had stood fast since the reign of England’s longest-serving monarch and didn’t care what anyone thought.

We reached the door and Leah grasped the brass knob.  Inside, the light was dim and, despite the early hour, the bar was packed with people, their voices reverberating off walls covered with colorful Modern paintings so closely hung that I couldn’t discern the wallpaper pattern beneath. Strings of twinkling fairy lights entwined the upper reaches of gleaming bottles, casting dainty shadows on the bartenders’ faces.  There was no fire but people clustered around the stone fireplace, anyway, sprawled on well-stuffed furniture, talking, laughing, and clinking glasses. French doors were open to catch a hoped-for evening breeze and I could see lots of people gathered under market umbrellas, lazing in wicker chairs, or stretched on steamer lounges on the stone patio, talking animatedly.  Further away, on the exhausted-looking patch of lawn, striped canvas sling chairs were scattered.  There were no clubby leather armchairs here, no Persian rugs, and certainly no ambiently lit paintings of bewhiskered founders hanging above the bar.  Its very eccentricity delighted me.

Leah grabbed my arm and steered me from group to group to spread the news about Graham’s good fortune.  She seemed to know everyone in the room and all of them, from a BAFTA-winning playwright to an unemployed fabric painter, raised a glass in Graham’s honor and insisted that Leah convey their congratulations to him.  Eventually she got around to introducing me as an emerging writer and the response was pretty much the same, albeit more muted.  People asked about my writing: some offered suggestions for classes I might take or publishers I might approach while others merely smiled and wished me good luck.  A fat, balding man with glittering eyes and weaselly teeth professed especial interest in my professional progress.  Sidling next to me, he slid his arm around my shoulders and squeezed me under his sweaty armpit; he whispered drunkenly that I should feel free to call on him any time for anything.  He would make a valuable ally, he confided, as he had twice been long-listed for the Booker Prize. He reminded me of the Monk from The Canterbury Tales.  Nodding, I rotated my shoulder muscles and popped from his grasp. Leah caught my right wrist and we pushed into the crowd toward another cluster of friends.  Everyone we spoke to was warm and approachable and nearly everyone got in a round.

After about two hours, I pulled myself away from the cacophony and flomped unsteadily on an old brocade sofa alone.  I gazed happily around me at the affable chaos of the room, tipsy from too many Buck’s Fizzes and no food.  Maybe Leah had been right about New York’s not being the center of the creative universe; she had certainly been right about the coziness and vitality of this place, created by artists for artists.

Slouching there, I wondered how I could join.  After all, Leah had said that there was no distinction drawn between those who published in Granta and those who scribbled away in attics.  I had no idea what the requirements were for membership and suddenly I needed to know.  It probably cost a lot; certainly my dad said that the University Club did. But, it was worth it; I could take the train down from Oxford on weekends.  Coming here would further my education; the rooms were full of painters, sculptors, poets, lyricists. Hoisting myself up and out of the enormous cushions somewhat queasily, I looked around for Leah but didn’t see her.  I remembered vaguely that we had passed a Club Secretary’s office on the way in so I pushed through the crowd to the tiny room immediately to the left of the front door.  It was empty. Damn.  I felt a little dizzy and leaned against the cool plaster wall.

Hearing Leah’s laugh from somewhere near the French windows I turned my head back toward the bar to see whether I could find her in the scrum. The room really was stuffed with people and she was easier heard than seen, so I pointed myself in her general direction and began creeping, crablike, through the Friday night revelers. Eventually I made my way to where Leah stood surrounded by friends, her chestnut curls dancing in the approaching evening breeze.  I leaned toward her.  “Leah!”  She couldn’t hear me over the group’s laughing at the BAFTA winner’s joke.

“Leah!”  I jiggled her arm.

She turned her head and bent toward me.  “What is it, caterpillar?”

“You were right.  It’s amazing here.  How can I join?”

“Through committee acceptance of your body of work.”

I blinked.  “That’s not what you said!”

“I can hardly hear you; let’s go out into the garden.”  She handed her glass to the BAFTA winner’s staring girlfriend with a muttered excuse and led me into the evening air.  It was a little cooler now and the last vestiges of sunlight shone through the leafy trees.  We found two empty sling chairs, scruffy and nearly threadbare, and sat.

“What’s the matter, Lucy?” Leah asked.

“What do you mean by ‘committee acceptance of body of work?’ “ I asked.

She shrugged.  “After you apply for membership you need to be vetted by the professionals in your field who sit on the Board. For a writer, it means gaining their favorable impressions on what you have published in your career, so favorable that they think you will make a good addition to the Club.”

“But what if you haven’t published much?”

“You can’t become a member.”

“Not at all?”

“No, not at all.”

“What about expressing and stretching and celebrating?  What about not caring who gets accepted by Granta and who . . . writes on tube station walls?”

Leah cocked her head. “Perhaps I was a little cavalier.  What I meant was that England is a very class-conscious country and there is no status line drawn at the Club due to one’s background.  Everyone is welcome.  The only thing that matters is talent.”

“Published talent.”

Leah raised one eyebrow and answered she in a slightly defensive tone.  “All right, yes; published talent.  To be nominated for membership you must be a professional in your artistic field, and for a writer that means publication in reputable places.”

Minutes passed.

“So, I can’t come here,” I said finally.

“Well . . . no, not yet; at least, not as a member.  But you can come with me, Lucy.  And once you have published enough, I‘ll be happy to nominate you. Graham will second you.  I’m sure you’ll be accepted.”  She hesitated.  “Although there is a three-year waiting list.”

A three-year wait after I have been determined acceptable? I sighed and gazed into the weedy garden.

After another few minutes, Leah reached across the patch of tired grass and patted my knee, then rose and walked slowly toward the French doors.

I remained in that sling chair for a long time.  Well, that was that, at least for today, but like my mother always said, tomorrow is another day, Scarlett, and early tomorrow morning I would board the train for Trinity.

I stared at the dirt, wondering what time it was and whether I should try to find Leah so we could eat. Lacking a tissue, I wiped my nose across the back of my hand. Feeling a mosquito tickle the back of my neck. I reached over my head and slapped it, surprised to find that it was sturdy and hairy.  My head shot up. The lecherous two-time Booker long-lister’s hand was resting on the back of my head.

“Oh! Sorry. I thought it was a mosquito.”

Undiscouraged, he continued to caress me. I jerked my neck hoping to dislodge him. “What are you doing?”

“I’m just keeping you company.  You were sitting her all alone like an abandoned pussycat.” He began to entwine his fingers in my hair. “Is there anything I can do for you, pussycat?” he cooed.

I stumbled up and of the chair, knocking his hand and causing him to sway backward, spilling some single malt on his pale blue cotton shirt.  Lucky the glass was so full.  “No, not a thing. I’m fine. Really”

“Not even help you join the Club?  I could have sworn I heard you and Leah discussing it.” His eyes glittered.

“Well . . . sure I would like to, but I realize that it isn’t an option for me right now. After all, I am leaving for Oxford tomorrow morning and . . . ” I could hear myself beginning to babble as I backed away.

“We could get you an Overseas Associate membership.”

“What’s that?” I asked suspiciously.

“It’s a lesser membership for artists living abroad.”

“Why didn’t Leah mention it?”

He shrugged and took a step behind me.  “Perhaps she was merely forgetful.  She has been quite . . . merry tonight.”

Taking my skepticism for an invitation, he continued working his way around me and said, “It’s true that there are comparatively few memberships of that type but I have been a member here for over a quarter of a century and if anyone could be said to have influence over the selection of candidates eligible for such things, I must be among the first to spring to mind.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I really wanted this opportunity but if it were truly a viable option, wouldn’t Leah have mentioned it, regardless of her level of . . . merriment?

With my peripheral vision I could see him lean down and gently place his glass on a tile mosaic table. Bending close to my neck he whispered in my ear, “Let’s get out of here.  We can stop at the Membership Office for an application on our way back to my flat.”

“Your flat?  Why do we need to go there?  We can complete the paperwork here, right now, can’t we?”

He chuckled drunkenly.  “There is a certain level of quid pro quo in most negotiations, my dear.” His eyes wandered downward toward my breasts.

I understood.  No wonder my sisters thought I was naïve; they would have seen this coming long ago.  Taking a step backward, I dipped and lifted his glass from the little table,

“Thanks, anyway.  I think I will just wait for Leah to propose me for membership.”

His eyes glittered lasciviously in the dim light as he shrugged slightly.  “Your choice, my dear, and your loss.”

“Yes, my choice and my loss.”  With a sharp upward thrust I tossed the dregs of the Scotch in his face.

After a quick glance over my shoulder to assure myself that he wasn’t following, I threaded my way through the milling throng toward the bar.  I really needed a glass of ice water – my mouth tasted like a small animal had crawled in it and died – and I desperately wanted something to eat to absorb all the alcohol threatening to impair my judgment even further than it had already.

Leah was nowhere to be seen, but directly in front of me Eric Clapton stood, glass in hand, lounging against the bar’s scarred teak surface, surveying the room.

I wondered fleetingly what time it was, but that early morning train to Oxford had already chugged away in my mind. I continued walking toward the bar even though it no longer mattered whether my sister-in-law ever knew.