by Tim Keane
(Swans - July 18, 2005) To travel is to feel insecure in differing degrees, which is partly the point of leaving home in the first place. Security is such a humdrum illusion that under its numbing influence we almost forget we're alive.
Knowing I've since been fearless to face far more risky personal adventures, I can admit that I was truly scared when, not yet out of college, I left friends and family and traveled alone to England where I would live and attend graduate school for the summer.
When I left for England on the eve of the July 4th weekend in 1988, the international Pan Am terminal at JFK was a chaos of overly lit corridors that doubled back on themselves, a disorganized stream of lines and luggage and passengers, all set to the soundtrack of roaring jets which drowned out the urgent, inaudible messages on the terminal's PA systems. There were the usual series of metal detectors, teams of uniformed cops directing bomb-sniffing dogs, travelers lost between countries arguing hopelessly with airport staff. Such chaos goes under the name "security," I reminded myself. Having never left North America, I wondered why I was leaving for Europe at all. In exchange for a discounted ticket, I was flying as a courier, not a passenger. My own identity felt at risk.
As I waited to board the jet, I wished I was heading out to a day's work rather than getting ready to board an airbus alone to Europe. How much easier it would be, right then, to be back doing my job as a cookie vendor in the supermarkets of the south Bronx, parking my car in front of housing projects and walking sidewalks where I usually was the only white face. There I never even once felt as at risk as I did in that jittery Pan Am terminal, not even in that memorably seedy supermarket on Southern Boulevard where the manager, a Colombian immigrant and wannabe vigilante, kept a photo gallery of alleged shoplifters just beyond the market doors. Caught twice, I was told, these photographed "shoplifters" were taken downstairs, where the manager's freelance goon squad would mete out justice. All politics is local, I guess.
But whether in a supermarket lobby or an airport terminal or in the foothills of some far off country, "security," like "justice," or "war," is often pursued through acts of barbarism that are sold as necessary evils which will create a moral order that somehow never materializes.
So I've never trusted words like "safety" and "security." These conditions are not ever objective, external realities. Safety and security are my subjective thoughts about my relationship to place. Necessary states of mind, to be sure. But defined differently by different people, and easily manipulated by power, "security" and "safety" are as fleeting as any other subjective idea or experience of mind, like love, or pride, or satisfaction, or sadness.
So standing in that Pan Am terminal seventeen years ago, I had no subjective sense of safety or security whatsoever. And yet I think I knew, even then, personal vulnerability was the very point of my travel: I was pushing my young self out of a comfort zone of complacency and routine to see what I could be by facing down this temporary but not small challenge of dislocation and disorientation.
When I landed in London's Heathrow Airport on July 3, 1988, my sense of insecurity and vulnerability intensified. At customs, an angry gentleman from Botswana held up the line for an unconscionable amount of time as he hysterically explained that the airline's baggage handlers had lost his rifle. Once I made it through customs I waited in vain for an hour as travelers one by one claimed their bags until there was nothing spinning round the carousel but an empty green bucket. My suitcase, filled with all of my clothes, as well as texts I would need for my classes, never showed up. I was shuttled from counter to counter. Forms had to be filled out. Lost baggage processes had to be explained. I could see through the terminal windows it was teeming down rain in London. I worried that the family friend who had agreed to meet me at Heathrow might not wait this long at the gate. And I worried that the courier company would be impatient and fail to show up to retrieve this urgent parcel of theirs: I might be billed for the full fare for the flight.
Having only my carry-on bag, I did meet the courier company's rep and my "chaperone" as well, a 40-something Irishman, a semi-employed bartender and teacher who shuttled between New York, Ireland, and London. As we made our way to the Underground, my "chaperone" filled me in on his tenuous connections and personal histories back in New York and he apologized for being so exhausted: a former lover of his was stalking him in his west London home and had kept him up all night. She was a dangerous woman, he told me, but he was confident it was over. He handed me a novel manuscript he wanted me to read. I pretended to be reassured by his presence.
On the Piccadilly Line, as I was admiring the well-lit, wood-floored carriage with its cloth-covered seats, I read a sign which warned me I should notify authorities if I see any suspicious-looking packages left unattended. The sign's illustration showed a suitcase bomb left between the doors of carriages. Having been a rider on the ever-dangerous New York subways of the late 1970s and early '80s, I had never seen such a sign on a train. The warning was a mixed message: Welcome, you have arrived in a city where certain people have been known to blow up subway commuters. "Certain Irish people," I reminded myself, thinking Belfast, hunger strikes, IRA.
My London "chaperone" didn't know Bloomsbury so I consulted my London A-Z, and suggested we get off the train at either King's Cross Station or Russell Square. Russell Square would have to do, he told me. The Kings Cross Station had been closed. A fire the year before killed dozens of people. Huh? So Russell Square Station it was. The station was deeper than any subway stop I knew in New York. The deep tunnel was bad for the Kings Cross fire, my chaperone told me, but good during the war. The Brits hid in these deep tunnels to survive the German bombs.
The hall where I was staying was on the west corner of Tavistock Square. Like many that filled the handsome 19th century square, Connaught Hall was a Georgian-style building. Inside, a doting, fussy concierge called me respectfully by my initials as he carried my single bag up the two flights to my "board." Suddenly, I was an English gentleman with a butler. Through my jet lag and fatigue I'm sure I asked myself, does it get more secure than this?
After thanking my chaperone with a pint of Guinness at the local Bloomsbury pub, I made my way back to my new living quarters. On my way, I passed a newsstand at Tavistock Square to buy a copy of Time Out London and I came across an ominous newspaper headline: "Yanks: Yeah, We Did It." I felt accused. What was it, exactly, that "we" Yanks had done? An "accidental" atrocity, it turned out. Patrolling the Persian Gulf, a US warship had blown an Iranian passenger jet out of the sky, killing 290 people. The ironic, mocking Englishness of that tabloid headline reminded me that like it or not, I was an American.
As I made my way back to my room at 41 Tavistock Square, I felt embarrassed, angry. I had long since had a distant if ignorant love of English culture. I wondered what it might take to cut my ties with America and to live here in London. I felt politically liberated by such thoughts. And, in turn, personally free. All politics is local, after all.
I fought off jetlag. I felt at home in this room with its tiny black television set, its strange electric kettle, its small, creaky bed, and its front facing window. I sat in that open window. I perused the first chapter of my chaperone's manuscript, a pulp novel about characters vaguely involved in the IRA. I was reminded of the cheap pro-IRA bumper stickers I saw in my Bronx neighborhood. I tossed the manuscript aside. I had come to England to get beyond politics, to read D.H. Lawrence and John Fowles, to see The Tempest up in Stratford and Waiting for Godot on the West End.
As the afternoon rain made drenching music on the trees of the square, I wrote in a notebook. As I wrote, I felt certain there was no more fitting place on the planet for me at that moment in my life but to be at 41 Tavistock Square. I was being myself and also seeing my self: a struggling if cocky literature student and arrogant, aspiring writer from working class America ensconced in this quiet, elegant, literary hub of central London. Sitting in there was one of those rare moments when, having risked years of insecurity, I found that sense of calm and triumph which frees one to think of possibilities so far beyond "reality." These moments in life we often label in retrospect moments of "innocence." Even as I sat there, I knew that one day I would call this a moment of personal triumph, a time of "innocence."
But innocence and experience are not opposites. Innocence is a pure, unselfish exuberance, an overwhelming optimism, a grace achieved by dislocating the self from routine to arrive at the unfamiliar and to know existence as it actually always was and is -- an open ended possibility. Innocence is a sudden, drastic expansion of experience, and not the antithesis of experience. Having arrived here at Tavistock Square, I had become my own Odysseus, returning to a foreign city I'd never visited before now, overlooking a place which I sensed would somehow always be a home.
From that base in Tavistock Square, I conquered England on behalf of some future self. The day after I arrived, I saw that young, leggy herald of contemporary England, Lady Diana, as she slipped into her limousine after visiting an educational center. Several days later, in a phone booth on the sidewalks outside my "home" at Tavistock Square, I summoned the courage to phone two English girls who had given me their numbers in a Baker Street pub. Mission accomplished.
And I learned about England's sometimes interesting sense of its political past. During walks and lunches in the park of Tavistock Square, I often sat before the statue of Gandhi, a thinker and a leader who knew Western civilization's proclivities for violence far better than that civilization knew itself. Here in central London was a statue of a political genius who had used his knowledge of the West to bring the British Empire to an overdue end.
And there was the literary energy of England as well. Plaques on the sides of buildings in Tavistock Square commemorate Charles Dickens and William Butler Yeats. Nice neighbors to have. I was told that The Tavistock Hotel, which I could see from my window, was where Virginia Woolf had lived. Every time I passed that hotel's awning that summer, I thought of the fever dreams of Mrs. Dalloway. Has English prose ever been so psychologically deep and so musical at once? And what would the modernist Woolf make of me, a late 20th century postmodern American kid?
And Tavistock Square became a safe haven on many days and nights when England seemed a dangerously unpredictable country. Like the night in west London when I helped evict my chaperone's stalker who had broken into his apartment in Acton Town, high on drugs, her fists flailing, her rage palpable and for all I knew maybe justified. And then the night on a train back from Bath when I sensed, alone in the train car, that I might at any minute become a victim of the Clockwork Orange-like gang of drunks who were periodically checking me out.
When my lost luggage finally arrived, I used the reimbursement money to attend a concert in Wembley Stadium, where I remember chatting amicably with a skinhead from South Africa who told me he desperately wanted to live in America.
But Tavistock was "safe." Over kippers and eggs at breakfast my fellow residents in Connaught Hall complained about the sirens that wailed from the nearby dispatch unit. I told them I didn't mind waking to the noise. To me, the high-pitched European sirens, when I heard them in the middle of the night, sounded like quaint reminders of how blessed I was not to be in New York, the high-strung, emergency capital of the world.
Weeks after I moved out of 41 Tavistock Square and found myself living in Exeter College in Oxford, I missed London terribly. But not London so much as that moment sitting in the window on my first day. The rainy afternoon was already beginning in some ways to recede into the routine of daily life in England. I worried I would lose it.
Before leaving England at the end of that rich summer, I asked a Swiss friend to detour with me over to Russell Square so that I could bid that building one last farewell. For all the places I saw and the people I met that summer, nothing symbolized the "uninnocent" innocence of my life than that window where I'd sat overlooking Tavistock Square.
A few months after I'd returned, on December 21, 1988, I was in a Bronx diner when the TV news reported that a Pan Am flight bound to New York from London had been blown out of the sky over Scotland, killing 258 people. I remember how unfazed those diners were as the reports narrated the details of the bombing and interviewed eyewitnesses on the ground.
When my dinner mate asked me why I was so engrossed by the TV, I hardly knew how to answer such an obvious, stupid question. Young Americans like me had been blown up on their way back home from England.
The next day, a work colleague told me that a former friend of hers from Syracuse had been on that flight, and as I took in her story I tried to recall, to pinpoint, really, what I had been doing when my own Pan Am flight flew over Scotland in August en route back to New York.
It was easy enough to remember: I'd been listening to the wonderful stories of a fellow American from Georgia who'd spent his summer in Liverpool. He was showing me pictures of himself and many old Liverpudlians -- pensioners -- singing Beatles songs with the tourists in cozy pubs.
On the eve of my country's invasion of Iraq in 2002, in the summer of The Downing Street Memo, I had a two-day stopover in London before heading to Europe. I hadn't been to London since 1988.
This time, I rented a cheap room in High Street, Kensington, a thriving working-class neighborhood lined with Arabic shop signs and alive with Asian faces.
Walking the crowded, commercial sidewalks on High Street reminded me of 8th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. I'm not sure I entirely liked the cultural similarities.
And I disdained the new wave of reality television on BBC, the British news reports of abducted children, the public transport's banner ads about personal bankruptcy, online college degrees, weight loss -- the new pervasiveness of American habits of mind in London suggested that Britain of 2002 seemed a country bent on becoming more like America than I remembered it ever wanted to be back in 1988. Some part of me felt out of time, out of place.
So I knew what I had to do: I would have to go back to where I'd once stayed in Bloomsbury, at 41 Tavistock Square.
Armed with the same copy of the London A-Z which I had carried with me fourteen years earlier, I mapped my way over on the Circle Line, where I transferred at Kings Cross station to my true line, the Piccadilly, one stop over to Russell Square, and the still familiar walk on Upper Woburn Place.
I don't know what I expected. Perhaps I'd run into my much younger self, some "me" trapped in time, wandering Tavistock Square all these years, just waiting to meet the present "me." Over a pint, I would get him caught up on "our" life: graduate studies, a teaching career, a marriage, publications, writing awards, travels east and west, a one-and-a-half year-old niece, a recovering, terror-stricken New York City. But I didn't quite find that "me" in Tavistock Square.
I did study "my" old window overlooking the park and wondered what the rush hour pedestrians in Tavistock Square thought I was doing. "Is that bloke stalking some University of London student?" I gave the building a figurative salute and as I walked back toward the Russell Square station, I wondered would I come back here again, 14 years from 2002? I could. I might. Bring loved ones this time. Explain what I felt that afternoon in 1988 looking out the window at the rain. And what I felt now, returning in 2002. Or 2016.
Before getting on the Tube, I popped into a pub on Upper Woburn Place. The bartender was Irish and he seemed to assume I was too -- until I spoke. As he tapped a Guinness we talked about London, New York, cities, 9/11, the impending American invasion of Iraq.
But really I wanted to talk about my own life. I wanted to narrate my own history with Tavistock Square. But what would he care? The news and weather are what strangers share.
So I studied the walls of the pub and wondered whether I had come into this place years earlier on one of the many pub crawls our group took that summer. I honestly couldn't remember. I must have.
The bartender topped my Guinness with one of those shamrocks and I raised a glass to London.
On 7/7, as I tuned into TV reports that had mapped out the locations of each of the London bomb blasts, as I studied the pictures of the blown apart double-decker bus on Upper Woburn Place taken only yards from where I had lived, I felt that the world's bloody politics had invaded my personal history.
I felt much as I did when someone had broken into my rented car in San Francisco; or, closer to home, someone stole my backpack while I was jogging at the local track.
These were terribly trivial, selfish reactions, I told myself, and I felt guilty about my reactions as I stared at that TV image of the blown-up bus near Tavistock Square and watched those bloodied, horrified Londoners stagger around Russell Square.
But I couldn't let go of my own personal anger. As my own homes in America have come and gone, 41 Tavistock Square had remained an unchanging home of mine.
Watching TV, I thought about my first quiet July day in Bloomsbury -- the Tube ride from Heathrow, my missing luggage, the afternoon rain on the trees, and my room with the view.
And as I heard reporters talking about "senseless brutal murder," I thought about that headline I'd read 17 years ago in Tavistock Square: "Yanks: Yeah, We Did It."
That headline was of course "a claim of responsibility" by America. Or was it? Civilian casualties. The implication of the headline back then was much more than that fact: "Yanks" emphasized a distinction between Britain and America, a long-lost distinction I know many Britons want back. Too late to get that distinction back, I think.*
All politics are personal. The pictures from Tavistock made me sick of the world. Though I'd never taken that number 30 line, I knew plenty of my London mornings had found me in a carriage between the Russell Square and Kings Cross stations, just as surely as this fall will find me on a subway car somewhere between Times Square and 34th Street stations.
And I will read the suspicious packages warnings with the same unexpressed disgust as I did on the Piccadilly Line seventeen years ago. And I will barely stomach American politicians who will laud our fortitude for taking the subway and "going on with life as usual."
I will feel, as I always have, that "security" and "innocence" are poorly understood and badly manipulated.
I will dismiss the clichés about "things having changed forever" or "living in dangerous times."
And I will, from time to time, imagine about what my memory would have made of Bloomsbury if I had been sitting in that window at 41 Tavistock Square on July 7, 2005 instead of July 3, 1988.
Had I been in that window in Tavistock this year, my own sense of having overcome insecurities and the tempting safety of home might have been eclipsed by a bomb exploding yards away from me, killing thirteen people, maiming scores of others, shattering the stoic morning; I would have earned a public prominence for having been an eyewitness to carnage.
I'm very glad I was there when I was. For being forced to witness "history" is nothing compared to the triumphs of personal innocence that often mean nothing to anyone but your best self.
A devoted lover of American freedom, I've never given in to the unfaithful lust of patriotism.
To be sure, I wish armies of killers would stop slaughtering innocent people in Baghdad, in Darfur, in London. That anger is nothing new.
But the window at 41 Tavistock Square will remain mine. It has to: I've never experienced moments of exuberant innocence living in the world's collective memory anyway.