02 February, 2010

Back-B-Log: UK20: A Night Out or how I learned to stop worrying and became American

[From the 1st issue of the Tuesday Express/American Defendant Winter/Spring 1990
This is an apt story of culture clash, as well as the dangers of the forbidden dance!]

A Friday night approaching, I've made arrangements to get together with Francesca and some of her friends. I met her last summer when she was making the transition between her old job as a nurse (she was dedicated but the profession here is sorely underpaid), to working as Stephanie Fancett's secretary. The feeling started the first two weeks I was here. They were a little rough, socially isolating. I compulsively went to the theater when I was alone. I'm slowly attempting to build up social contacts outside of work.

For a while there is a constant sensory overload, a combination of a sense of wonder, and an open wound. Everything seems fresh, new, with an apparent beauty that wears you down. Every street you turn down is unfamiliar and may make you lost, and there is a giddy feeling when you find your way.

I'm more self-conscious than I've been for years. In speech, I stumble over my own Americanisms, concerned that I'll be misunderstood. Then that feeling of having to apologize for Americans and then for being American, and worst of all for not being English. Especially the social alcoholic part. We go out for a drink after work in the middle of the week, I have my one pint, then stop, they all look at me like I'm from the moon. I pay for the round, I pull out the change purse I use to carry the heavy clanky English coins (£5 is the lowest denomination note). A bit poufy, someone remarks, I shrug. It's like that alot, it makes me defensive, and sometimes no fun, in that mood I bridle when someone takes the piss out of me instead of playing along and sniping back.

Don't talk on the tubes here. That's how they spot the foreigners. Just listen, anyone who's talking on a train or bus probably isn't English. It took me a while to catch on- Last summer I was coming back from a movie with Francesca and she clammed up as soon as we got on the tube, she looked uncomfortable as long as I was talking I thought I'd said something wrong, by then I felt too awkward to say anything about it.

By Friday afternoon I'd written off the possibility of getting tickets to the sold out Tanita Tikaram show. I call Francesca. She suggests going to a 'jazz club' that she and Sonia have been to before. She also suggests that Carla come along as she hasn't been out once in over a month since she arrived from Italy.

We meet at Steph and Paul's. Carla is decked in a voguish green dress. Francesca and Sonia arrive late. Sonia is French with bobbed short slicked hair and an arrogance and pillbox hat to match (I like but am annoyed). In the first five minutes of the conversation she tells me I'm wasting my life if I don't enjoy my job as much as my writing, she finds fulfilment in what she does as a legal secretary. I don't feel like arguing her simplifications. Pretty soon she stops talking to me completely, not saying a full sentence to me the rest of the evening.

We emerge from the tube in one of the grimier areas of London, mostly warehouses. We find the Bass Clef club at the end of an alley. We pay our cover make our way down the stairs, pleasant but cramped restaurant on one side of the showcases kind of seating I was expecting on the other side entrance to the club proper. We go into the club, there is a small bar area, a hat check room the size of an ordinary hall- closet with a sheepish employee hunched inside. People are milling about. Recorded music playing LOUD from the next room. We enter, it is dark, the ceiling is low, it is mildly crowded, the room is not very large, we make our way down to the front the stage area, itself minuscule is crammed with the instruments of the band.

The dread that has been lurking hidden all evening takes form. I had equated 'jazz club' with a place where you can mellow, sit and talk and drink and listen. There are at most five chairs, two tables. This is a club to stand or dance and drink, and nothing else. Granted, this place looks like a good time, but not the one I was after.

After a bit Francesca follows Sonia's suit and rudely cuts short our conversation, leaving me and Carla stranded with our various Pidgin English/Inglese, and the amplifiers between us. The band come out, they are La Clave, a Latin/Afro/Cuban dance band. They crank up, they are good. Everybody dances. I try to make the best of it, dancing as well as I can without my knee brace on. By this point Francesca and Sonia are completely ignoring Carla and I, and are taking up with two extremely good black dancers. The kind of dancing this music seems to entail is like playing choo-choo at high speeds, you stomp your feet and move your hands and rump circularly, rhythmically. The real problem is doing this while confining your feet to an area of the floor roughly the size of a postage stamp.

During the second dance a complete stranger, a short blonde woman grabs me and dances with me, I guess that for a moment or two I must have looked like I knew what I was doing. The combination of contact and the grind of the crowd, prompts an unexpected, (un)welcome sensation, before you know it I'm attempting to Lambada with an erection. The woman says nothing, no eye contact, moving with me as though she were using me like a mannequin. With the crowd the smoke and the noise, may as well be slamming in the tube at rush hour. The dance ends, and with some words of thanks the woman detaches and slips back into the crowd.

I want to leave, desperately. Francesca and Sonia are dancing 'til the cows come home. Carla is found standing against the wall in the bar. I buy her a drink. The bar is like some living thing crawling with the rude obnoxious Londoners doing anything to their fellow beings to get the bartenders attention. Carla attempts to sit on a stool by the bar, she is nearly suffocated in the lethal press that I expected at soccer matches here. She is miserable as well, but insists on waiting until Francesca and Sonia are ready to go. I feel bad about leaving Carla to the mob, so I hem and haw, watch the nightlife combo of posers, punks and tuxedoed and gowned debs and snobs, for about two hours, end up staying. Finally, F & S decide they are tired, we leave. Twenty minutes to get our coats back from the beleaguered hat check guy who was in tears, people were trying to jump over him to get their coats out of turn. Francesca gets the gist of my discontentment after I start whining about my knee, and has the grace to feel bad, especially when I insist they use the first cab we hail after thirty minutes of trying.

The crowd convinced me, I've never been in an American club that was half that bad. They are worse than us. I shouldn't be ashamed of my American rudeness, I should wear it as a badge. There's a new sheriff in town. And he better stop trying to be what he isn't. I'll drink as little as I want to, I'll use idiomatic expressions, I will say golly-gee wherever and whenever possible. Gosh-darn the queen!

Copyright 1990 Tarnoff-Navel-Gazetteer’s, Un-Ltd.

[Addendum: some things never change, the main difference might be that a club like that will have slightly more oxygen with the smokers banished to outdoors. More people talk on the tube now, but more likely into their mobile phones. After 20 years I don't have a British Accent, I don't have quite the same accent I left with, it is more generically American than suburban Philly. Thankfully it hasn't become a Lloyd Grossman strangulated transatlantic accent. I occasionally allow myself to be misidentified as Canadian, but normally that's during a Bush administration. I know the words to O Canada if I'm taken hostage.

I do have a slightly British vocabulary, I swear Brit stylee, I say Football, not SOCCER (feet are actually used, it's "World" competition is really the World"), I queue rather than get in a line, but trucks are TRUCKS not lorries (that's just girly).

I know I also sound a bit of a wet blanket here (I prefer the term curmudgeon). Back then I had to gamely throw myself into situations not knowing whether the result would be enjoyable. I had enough solitude taking in movies, theatres, comedy clubs and impro. The cushion of the crowd of young and friendly workmates down The Beehive on a Friday was great, but often didn't extend beyond that.

Finally, I probably wouldn't admit to liking Tanita Tikaram now, good first album though.]

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