Wastelander UK, I

July 2007.

[Invited by Cunard to fly to London and come back across the pond on the Queen Mary II, leading literary discussions of my work. This is hard to believe. But it’s the kind of opportunity you can’t pass up. Cinderella and I packed and headed out. This is the record of some of the journey.]

* * *

Virgin Atlantic, Chicago to London.
O’Hare International Terminal.
Beaten and
battered by
legions of kill-crazy

All knees and elbows
as we struggle to be
1004th in line
so we can take off our shoes and
have the bored TSA agents
ignore the x-rays of our bags, all of them
crammed with ointments, fluids, gels
and creams. Woman toting an ostentatious
“Monaco” shoulder bag fusses and cuts in front of people
using her pout like a snowplow.
No polite Midwestern US just-folks manners
in the international terminal.
Except for the Brits
who are cast off to the edges saying, “Sorry! Dreadfully

Lovely young mum
w/ a baby in a sling
wafting up a miasma
of rancid poo.

6’9” Sikh
w/ a foot-tall turban!

Two old people stop to squint at the departure boards.
Very Important European
Woman snarls at them: “EXCUSE ME—you can see
I am trying to walk here!”
They blink around in fear as she shoves them aside.
Of course,
she pronounces it:
I wait in line for an hour to buy
2 water bottles.

We find we are seated apart.
Cindy does battle at the Virgin kiosk to try to
get us together, until a kind British man
steps up and switches seats w/ her.
Upon hearing he will be seated w/ a group of 3
women, he says, “Are they young
and perky?”
C says, “Well,
they’re perky.”
“Old, then!” he says,
squaring his shoulders manfully for the challenge.

The flight attendant who greets me on the plane
acts like I have worms
coming out of my nose.

We are sitting in the back of the plane
with Warren, the champion
Toyota dealer in Wales.
Warren, Cindy and I are
pressed into a row so narrow
that our blood and lymph
puddles on the floor as we
are compressed into
a sausage patty.

Oddly, we have been placed, again,
next to the toilet. Our traditional plane seats.
The lavvy inspires some businessman
to unload a ton of manure
beside my right ear.
And we haven’t even
taken off.


Virgin does have
that TV screen at every seat, and movies all night,
and they serve supper w/ a very civilized
little glass of wine.
The safety video on my li’l screen shows a cartoon
about how apparently flippin’ hilarious it would be
if the plane were to plunge into the ocean
and we got to float around on our seat cushions
being eaten by sharks.
The cartoon characters in each crisis scenario
turn to the camera w/ big goggly eyes and the
music goes: “WAH-WAHHH!”

Rule, Brittannia!


Wait. Wait.
We haven’t even started to taxi yet
and a fellow up front barfs
right in front of the stew.
She comes running up the aisle
to get bags and towels in the galley.
One of the gang of evil flight attendants
gathered like crows in the galley shouts,
He frew up!?!”

They parade up and down the aisle,
bearing little sacks of his vomit. Suddenly
the intercom comes to life and warns us
NOT, for any reason, to open
a bag of peanuts! There are
SEVERE allergy issues on the plane!

Man, you never run out
of stuff to write about.

Warren says to Cindy:
“He keeps on


Can’t sleep. Butt hurts. Can’t move in the seat.
The woman in front of me puts her seat back
and shoves the TV screen into my nose, but at least
I can clearly see “The 300” and “Hot Fuzz.”
And unexpectedly, it’s
Over! Heathrow!

Breathe the English air!


“I’m in England-o,
The land of I’m all right, Jack.”
--Shawn Phillips


Just when I thought I got away,
there it is again!
I came all the way across the Atlantic,
and the first thing I see when we enter
the immigration salon is a huge sign that says:




Nobody gave a damn.
We waltzed right through.
Joined the people in djellabas and burkas
marching past the immigration officials and their dogs,
none of whom ever looked over from their hilarious
morning chats.
This was our arrival in the Elevated Terror Alert
Orange Security Level-High Crime Watch


Our driver is from East Africa.

“I been in London fourteen year. Yeah.
Where I come from is hot.
Is too hot.
Very hot. Got nothing there.
Always war. No water.
Nothing to drink.
You got to drink dirty water.
You got to drink mud sometimes.
My kids, they no understand this now,
living here.
They don’t know home.
They don’t know war.
Is survive!
Is all

Our epic journey from Heathrow to Gower St.
The delightful carnival-ride effect of cars
going the “wrong” way in the “wrong” lane.
It’s odd that the first ad I see is a London cab with
a full color Corona cerveza bottle on the side.
With a wedge of lime.
“Hecho en Mexico.”
You must be kidding.
Memo to American conspiracy theorists:
The globalists have won!

I’m all excited.
I’m seeing things I have wanted to see and thought
I would never see. Things you read about or hear about.
The London Eye. Baker St. Shepherd’s Bush.
The M-1.

Drive thru London
and you will understand Boston.

We arrive at the Arran Hotel
around the corner from ancient and legendary Oxford St.
My wife, Zsa Zsa,
has packed approximately 500 pounds for the trip,
and our room is on the top floor.
No elevator. I mean, “lift.”
I keep hoping they’ll send
Sherpas to bear the Imperial Urrea Luggage
above the treeline, but it’s up to us
to gasp and lunge.
the stairs are only
10,000 feet tall.
We survive
w/out oxygen bottles.

Somehow, we announce that we will ignore jet lag!
That’s the ticket! We will forge ahead
w/ our plans and take London by storm!
Then we fall in bed and immediately go to sleep.


Soon enough, though, we realize we are in Londinium and
the day is wasting and we can’t just
lounge about in panties and underpants, dreaming
about air conditioning.
We’re off! Out! And about!
We hit the street, hungry.
We walk about Tottenham, gawking, not knowing
which way to turn, really. Aghast at the American
crap-factories in sight: McDonald’s, KFC. No!
Oh, all right,
maybe a Starbuck’s once in a while!
We step into a British burger spot—thinking we ought to be
eating fish and chips or toad-in-the-hole or something,
but the burgers turn out to be slightly Twilight Zone odd
and subtlely un-American in alien biscuits and fries (chips) that come
with mayo. Good enough! Fuel for the walk, I say!
Everyone is nice, everyone is friendly. They look at me
with a slight sense of concentration or even bafflement
until I realize I have the accent, not them.

A two-story gold statue of Freddie Mercury.

We walk down Oxford St., the most popular shopping street
in the world, and we look in every shop—t-shirts say “My Mum
Went to London and all I Got is this Stupid Shirt.”
I see everybody loves George Bush: they have shirts
showing him standing beside Adolf Hitler,
and they say, “Same Shit.”
As a Yank, how do you respond to that?
Keep walkin’.

The streets have helpful stencils at each curb (kerb):
LOOK LEFT one warns,
I do whatever the street tells me to do
because I can’t remember which direction
traffic is going to come from.
It won’t do to be flattened by a lorry
because I was looking in the wrong direction,
thinking I was street smart.

Mind the Gap.
Mind Your Head.
Mind the Light.
Strange poetic urban announcements.

Tired, saturated, we board
the double-decker red tourist bus.
To the open top.
Crane and gawk.
We are Goobers,
and we are proud of it!

In light

Hey—there it is! What is?

Red telephone booths! Bobbies with their helmets! London
cabs! Other double-decker buses looking exactly like
our own double-decker bus!

Union Jacks! Pigeons and sparrows and
pubs—The Albert, The Green Man, The Hung
Drawn and Quartered!

A billboard suggests:

Helicopters restless as dragonflies
endlessly patrol the skies.

Security cameras everywhere. It becomes fun to see if I can find
them and count them all: some MI5 copper at a console must be
watching a progressive series of videos of me
smiling up at him like an idiot. (Later, a chappie will tell me
“All those cameras are good for is
getting a nice film of yourself being robbed.”)

And here it comes.

Big Ben. Westminster. St. Paul’s. Hyde Park.
Fleet Street. Trafalgar Square. The Globe. The Thames.
The Tower Bridge. The Tower of London.
There’s Picadilly Circus.
There’s Buckingham Palace

and there’s Elton John’s house.
The tour guide calls him, “Sir Elton John,
The second Queen of England.”

When he sees anything historical, he says it’s

Victoria Station.

Roman ruins and
the corner house of Joan Collins—
“She sits out there in the morning, drinking her coffee,
and then she goes inside and pulls on the wig.”
There’s Downing Street, and we see Parliament, and we see
Jimi Hendrix’s house where he died, and we see
the balcony where Michael Jackson dangled his baby and
the spot where 60,000 people were hanged in public to picnickers and
frolicking children, and the site where the London Fire
began and the snooty Belgravia where we all peer around
in case Gwyneth Paltrow might be out walking her baby around
and we pause for the tour guide to shout improper things at
Margaret Thatcher’s house: “Maggie, dear, put on the coffee—
I’ll be home in a minute!” Then we see Sean Connery’s house and are thrilled
to hear that right next door lives Roger Moore! “This is the street
where James Bond lives!” he bellows.
Ian Fleming lived right around the corner, to boot.

Who knew that Fleet Street, home of the early printing presses
and all the newspapers
has a river flowing right under
the traffic. The River Fleet, so filthy
it was encased in cobbles and buried, where it
rushes in the dark like a mad oldy-woldy
city secret.


The dollar has fallen so brutally that when we go in shops
we spend a car payment for a sandwich or a t-shirt.
Our various UK pals think it’s funny to tell me
“You got pounded,” and it takes me a day to get the joke
as I finger my extremely valuable
two pound coins.

We get off the bus at Tower Hill, in a paroxysm of
oldy-woldy overload: the Roman walls beside the road, the spot
where the axeman lopped off all those heads, and on this side of the street,
the Tower itself. Tower of London! Vast and scary monster—
many towers, really. And down in the moat area, a rock concert
getting ready to launch—The Good, The Bad and The Queen
revving up. I am agog when I see a Beefeater
standing there in full Henry VIII red regalia chatting with
coppers and soldiers in his funky velvet hat. My head’s spinning.
Beyond, the haunted battlements, stands the City—its new tors
like the skyscraper they call The Gherkin, or—
according to our bus pal, The Happy Gherkin due to its phallic
erectness, among the church spires and great ancient stoneworks.

We hop on a river cruise and set sail
down the Thames.

The guide on the boat notes the muddy shores of the river and says,
“Behold the sunny beaches of London, where Londoners
go to sun themselves and picnic on the beach!”

Weirdly, Cindy’s cell phone rings—some soccer mom in Naperville, IL,
not knowing she’s just called Jolly Olde England.

Across the river from the Tate Museum of Modern Art,
our host says, “Do you fancy modern art? You do, eh?
Let me tell you what you’ll find in the Tate to save you a trip.
I went there one day, and d’you know what I saw? I saw
a crushed, wrecked car. I saw a wall with graffiti on it. And I saw
one single blinking light bulb.
I’ll tell you lot something—
you can come down to the neighborhood where I live
and see these things every day of the week.
You don’t have to go to a museum for that!
It’s the Tate Museum
of Modern Rubbish!”

Bagpiper in full regalia on Westminster Bridge.

Cleopatra’s needle on the bank, only
4,000 years old.


We walk along Oxford again,
old Roman road built on older
hunting and farmers’ trails.
Seeing where the terrorists
left their bomb-cars hoping to blow up
innocent Londoners and women coming from
ladies night near the Trocadero.
Not knowing until there, in the city,
how small the streets are, how narrow, how the city
echoes 1342 and 1616 to this day, and how
devastating those bastards’ bombs would have been.

Oxford Street!
Where prisoners were brought along to be hanged.
And where citizens came out to watch them go to their doom,
offering them cups of grog or ale or rum
a cup of mercy for their last journey so they would be
feeling less pain at the end—the practice now known as
“One for the road.” And the drivers of the executioner’s wagons,
taking them down that street of doom, not able to drink
since they were driving, were what we call today
“On the wagon.”

Of course, “You’re pulling my leg” came from
those poor souls who drank one for the road
having their legs pulled so the hanging tree’s noose
would choke them to death.

I popped into the HMV record store
and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to spend
$14,000 US dollars to buy the first
Blodwyn Pig album!

Before tucking in for the night,
We went to the Tottenham pub to eat.
Cindy said she was going to eat steak-and-eels pie.
“WOT!!!” I shrieked. “You’re going to eat
“Ale, sweetie,” she said. “Steak and ale.”

But we settled for fish and chips. We didn’t know what to do with
the frightening green bowls of “mushy peas.”
But we did know exactly what to do
with our big foamy pints
of ale.


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