Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tales from the road, part 3

January 28, 2011
On the train from London to Dover

Neal called him a Lithuanian git as we wandered drunkenly down the street in Soho. The Lithuanian was a massive man working the door at a bar with a band playing upstairs, and he turned Neal and me away, telling us we'd had too much to drink. The rest of our impromptu party had already run up the stairs as we listened to his scolding. Go down to the KFC and eat some food, the Lithuanian said. I was at about a five on a ten-point scale of boozing but there was no denying I had bounced off the door frame as I tried to walk into the place, and that caught the Lithuanian's attention, and I had been in town too long to blame jet lag. The Lithuanian had a huge head under a fur cap. His eyes were childlike and he had that weary look that bouncers usually have. Above all, he was enormous, and I decided not to argue with him.

Neal and I shuffled into a cheap Chinese diner and disinterestedly ordered something sweet and sour. I was thinking about the bar with the loud music and how much I'd rather be there than eating bad food with other drunks at midnight. The group I had fallen in with at the Marlborough Arms in Bloomsbury were celebreating the end of their semester at the University of London.

Neal was a chemical engineer and lectured at the University on getting oil out of the ground. He had the florid face of a man who packed away pints without number, and he seemed devoted to making sure I had a good time in London that night.

A man with an untrimmed look and a practiced smile began to speak to us from the next table. Are you doing well tonight? he asked, and I said that I was. Neal gave him a silent sideways glance. Might you have a few coins so I can get some food? the man asked. I'm a bit short, you see, my wife can't work because of her disability. He spoke in a slow, supplicating way. He began to go on but Neal cut him off saying Shut up, you, I'm eating here and I don't want to hear you. The man protested; Neal would have none of it. I still hear you talking, said Neal, and I don't want it, you worthless cunt, so be quiet or get out of my sight. The man's smile never changed. He and Neal exchanged a few more words, the English equivalent of maybe I should kick your ass, and try it, buddy, and then the man stood and silently dragged his wheeled cart out onto the street.

Having swallowed the sweet and sour, we made a return visit to the Lithuanian and this time scored passable sobriety and we climbed the stairs and wedged ourselves into the room. The band played generic bar-quality rock and roll loudly, if not well, and the crowd danced intently, if not well, and we rediscovered our ad hoc drinking buddies. There were a few pints ahead of us and happy to see us again, in that we're-all-getting-sloshed-together-tonight way. The crowd whooped and more began to dance as the band launched into their final song of the set, and the room full of London college students, exams over, sang along in full voice to Sweet Home, Alabama.

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