Thursday, December 28, 2006

Coming to America: the Michelle Story Part 2

My second day in London started off more relaxed. My hotel provided "bed and breakfast," so I ate there in the morning. Being a Sunday, it was quieter in London than it had been the day before. In the afternoon, I found a telephone box and dialed the number Michelle had given me, the night before. Maybe we could get together before I left on Monday afternoon. After the phone rang several times, I got a recorded message, saying no one was a man's voice. The voice sounded too young to be her father. It seemed she was living with a guy. I felt a flush of disappointment rush through my body. I hesitated for a moment, about to hang up, then, for some reason, I left a message saying that I had called for Michelle. Let her explain that to her boyfriend. I hung up, never expecting to speak to her again.
I made my way to Royal Albert Hall for the Prince's Trust Concert. Outside, a crowd was gathering. There was a booth offering the Pepsi challenge. The challenge involves giving people a cup of Pepsi and a cup of Coke, with no indications which is which. The person taking the challenge is supposed to indicate which sample he or she likes best. Then the identity of the samples is revealed. Supposedly, all and sundry are to be astonished that the taster picks Pepsi. Being a life long Coke man, not only have I always picked the Coke every time I had taken the challenge, but I can tell which sample is which, by taste. How anyone couldn't tell the difference is beyond me. Two attractive women were manning the booth. If that wasn't lure enough, the prospect of getting a free drink proved too much for me to resist. I sauntered over, took the challenge, and picked the Coke...again.
Newly refreshed, I walked toward the entrance of Royal Albert Hall. As I was crossing a driveway alongside the Hall, a car came speeding toward me. It didn't slow down, nor alter course at all. It only narrowly missed me as I stepped out of the way. I felt the breeze of its passage ruffle the light jacket I was wearing. That's a difference I had noted between America and London. Back in the states, a pedestrian can be confident that if a driver sees you, he won't hit you. In London, it seemed like drivers would run you over as soon as look at you. Maybe the difference is that in America, if you hit a pedestrian, it's generally an automatic loser in court and the odds of being sued are practically 100 percent. In the UK, civil law is a bit different. Here, if you sue someone and lose, you are liable to pay the defendant's court costs, including the fees of his solicitors. The result is that there are a lot less lawsuits, here.
I managed to make it inside Royal Albert Hall in one piece...just. Royal Albert Hall is an old building. It was built in 1871. That's another difference one notices about Britain. There are lots of old buildings. As Britain goes, Royal Albert Hall isn't that old. It's common to find buildings which are several hundred years old and still in use. As I was waiting for the concert to begin, I scanned the audience, looking for Howard Stern's group. I figured the best way to find them, amongst the crowd, was to look for Howard, himself. At six feet, five inches tall, with long hair, he should stand out a bit. The concert had a number of acts appearing. Among these were T'Pau, the Bee Gees, Phil Collins, Genesis, Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, Elton John, and Rick Astley. At some point, during one of the breaks, I managed to spot Howard. When the concert ends, I watched to see which direction Howard's group starts to go, then I made my way in that direction. Howard has always been very guarded about encountering listeners. Back in New York, it's almost impossible to get to speak to him in person. However, in London, 3500 miles from home and across an ocean, his guard is down. As his radio show isn't broadcast in the UK, he was probably not expecting a member of the public to recognize him. Because of how defensive Howard is, a direct approach to him would most likely be immediately rebuffed. Robin Quivers is different. She started out reading the news on Howard's show, then evolved into a full member of his cast of characters. She has one of the loveliest laughs I have ever heard, which is perfect for radio. I spot Howard, Robin, and Gary standing in a junction of walkways, just outside the auditorium. I walk up to them, ignoring Howard and say hello to Robin. Gary, who's met me once, before, in 1986, says, "what are you doing here?" I guess I should be flattered that he remembers me. Before Robin, Gary, and I can engage in much conversation, Howard announces that they need to be going and rushes them off. Howard and I would cross paths again, in 1994, with more productive results.
I still have another card to play. Howard is much too secretive to reveal which hotel he's staying at. However, back in New York, it was mentioned, on air, which hotel the listeners who are on the trip with him are staying in. As it's their last night in London, they might be celebrating. There's a chance that Howard's hotel isn't far from where the listeners are staying, since he needs to get together with them for each broadcast. I head to the hotel. Sure enough, I bump into a couple listeners in the lobby. Unfortunately, they don't know where Howard and Robin are, but we have a couple of drinks together.
The next day is supposed to be my last in London. As it's a Monday, London is alive with the hustle and bustle of a typical weekday. After checking out of my hotel, I check my bags at Victoria Station's left luggage service. This way I can do some last minute sightseeing without lugging my luggage around. I have to catch the Gatwick Express from Victoria anyway, so it seemed like a good plan. I bought some souvenirs, trying to use up as much of my British money as possible, so as not to have to exchange much back into dollars. I saw a sign advertising tickets to a Sade concert, in London, later in the month. I don't know why I did it, but I bought two tickets to see Sade. I had been having such a great time on my trip, perhaps the idea of returning to London appealed to me. In any case, I love Sade's music and the idea of seeing her live was exciting. I decided it was time to start heading for the airport.
One thing I hadn't counted on was how bad London traffic is. It makes New York traffic seem light, in comparison. I was on a bus to Victoria Station, to collect my luggage and catch the train to Gatwick. The bus seemed afloat in a sea of cars, lorries, buses, and pedestrians. Progress was agonizingly slow. By the time I got to Victoria, I had less than two hours till my flight left. The Gatwick Express goes non-stop to Gatwick Airport, but the journey takes about thirty-five minutes. By the time I got to the check-in counter for my flight, it was only fifteen minutes before the scheduled departure time. In America, back in the 1980s, if you arrived at check-in before the flight departed, you usually got on. This was Britain. When I hand my ticket to the woman at check-in, she informed me that I had missed my flight. How can that be? It's not scheduled to depart for another fifteen minutes yet. She insisted that it would take me more than fifteen minutes to get to the gate and the flight can't wait for me. I suggest letting me try to make it, but, no matter how much I pleaded, she refused. In all fairness to Virgin Atlantic, they were so small back then that they contracted out their check-in work to another firm, Gatwick Handling. This woman wasn't a Virgin employee. All she offered me was a seat on the flight the next day. With no recourse, I accepted. What would I tell my boss, Neal? When I spoke to him last, he said to be at work Tuesday morning and not to be late, or not to come back at all. I called my mother, reversing the charges. I asked her to call Neal and explain to him that I had missed my flight and the only way I could make it back in time would be to take Concorde. Unless he was willing to pay for a Concorde ticket for me, I would seem him on Wednesday morning.
I now had twenty-two hours to kill. I had spent so much of my cash, that I didn't have enough left to pay for another night in a hotel. I thought about staying in the airport departure hall all night, but looking over what cash I had left, I noted that I had just enough for a roundtrip ticket on the Gatwick Express and a cheap meal. I decided to head back into London's West End and spend the night hanging around Leicester Square. That evening, I ended up talking to another bouncer at the door of a club, on a side street, off Leicester Square. He was built like a heavyweight boxer and had dark brown skin. The club was closing for the evening and a couple of women joined us in conversation. The bouncer knew one of them and they decided to go for tea. They invited me along. As my social calendar was a bit open at that point, I accepted.
The others led me to some late night cafe that was still serving. The bouncer concentrated on the one he knew, leaving me to chat with the other gal. Her name was Pam Jones. This was not the Pam Lyn Jones who was my girlfriend, twelve years earlier (see my blog article, "Pam 1"). The similarity in names was just a coincidence. This Pam had a similar, light tanned complexion as Pam 1, but with darker brown, longer hair. Her hair had reddish highlights. This Pam was from Zimbabwae and had an accent to match. I told her how I had missed my flight and couldn't afford a hotel. Then she did something for which I will always be grateful. She said that if I didn't mind sleeping on the floor, I could come with her back to her flat, for the night. I agreed, readily. I had seen enough of Leicester Square for one evening. We said goodnight to the others and headed to Pam's flat. Pam paid for a cab to take us to her home at such a late hour. Unlike New York's Subway system, London's Underground doesn't run all night. Pam lived in Crouch End, a community in the northwest part of London. When we got to her flat, she put a couple of large pillows on the floor and gave me a blanket. Tired, I quickly fell asleep.
In the morning, I awoke to Pam making breakfast. She introduced me to her daughter and young son. The girl had blond hair and was very fair. Her son had dark, curly hair and a Mediterranean look. I think they had different fathers. Pam told me she worked in a shop at Finsbury Park Train Station. She would take me there, with her, and I could catch a Tube train from there to Victoria Station. We rode a bus from Crouch End to Finsbury Park. I walked Pam to her shop and said farewell. I couldn't imagine a woman in New York welcoming a strange man, from a foreign country, into her home in the way that Pam did. This was the start of a friendship which lasted over ten years. After expressing my gratitude, I made my way to Victoria Station and on to Gatwick.
Not wanting a repeat of the previous day's disaster, I arrived in plenty of time for the flight. Just to see, I timed myself from check-in to the gate. It took me thirteen minutes, slightly less than the fifteen I had the day before. I probably could have made it the day before, but I would have missed out on meeting Pam. The Virgin Atlantic flight pushed back off the gate on time. We taxied to the active runway and after receiving clearance to take off, the throttles advanced with a roar. The 747 accelerated down the runway and rotated into the sunny, June sky over England. My Great Aunt used to work building the wings for 747s. Now one of these massive planes was carrying me back across the Atlantic, to America and home.
When I arrived at work, the next morning, Neal wasn't angry I had come back a day late. My mother had called him and he had just one question. Was that really my mother, or had I gotten some woman to pretend to be her? I assured him he had actually spoken to my mother. The receptionist had several messages for me. "Some girl keeps calling you...from Britain," she informed me.
My heart raced. It was Michelle. As far as she knew, I was meant to be back at work the day before, so she had used the number on my business card to call me. Because of missing my flight, I hadn't been there. I asked Neal if I could call her back, but he said there was no way I was going to call Britain on the office phone. I hoped she didn't think I was trying to avoid her and urged the receptionist to put her through immediately, if she called again. Fortunately, Michelle had a stubborn streak and she did call again. After a brief conversation, I told her I would call her from home, after work.
Once home that evening, I called her back and we talked for a long time. She had gotten my message. The guy on the answer service was a friend. She had given me his number, rather than her parent's number, as a safety precaution. During the conversation, she told me she had something to tell me. She said she was 18, not 23 as she had told me outside Shaftsbury's. When I asked her why she had lied about her age, she said she had to, because she was standing next to the bouncer. Shaftsbury's had an age limit and at 18, she would not have been let in. I wasn't bothered about this and we continued talking. Later, she told me she had another thing to tell me. What now? She said she wasn't 18, she was actually 16. I was very surprised. Michelle was a tall girl and looked quite sophisticated for her age. She had obviously fooled me and the bouncer on the previous Saturday, as neither of us doubted her when she claimed to be 23. She asked if I minded and I reassured her that I didn't. By then, I had become enraptured by this charming girl, with the posh British accent. These deceptions just made her seem more gutsy and enchanting. She probably could have told me she was Satan and it wouldn't have put me off. By the end of the conversation, she asked if my offer to put her up, if she came to New York, was still open. It sure was. We agreed to talk again, the following day.
Our next conversation occurred as agreed, the next day, which was Thursday. Michelle told me she had looked into things and had made herself a reservation to fly to New York on Friday, the very next day. She wasn't coming with her girlfriend, the blond who was with her when we met, but was coming alone. She gave me her flight information and I promised to pick her up at the airport. I asked her if her parents were alright with her coming and she assured me they were. She was flying Virgin Atlantic, the same airline I had flown. She asked me what I wanted her to wear on the flight. After consulting together on her outfit, she told me she would be wearing a short, dark blue miniskirt, with a blue and white striped top, and white, high heeled pumps. She was taking a bus from Wales, where she lived, to Gatwick Airport. I told her that if anything went wrong, to call me. We said goodnight to each other. The next time we would speak would be face to face.
On Friday, I was a bundle of nerves at work. I kept checking with the airline on the flight's progress. I was supposed to be making cold calls to prospective clients, but my mind wasn't on work. The Assistant Manager started hassling me about not working. I blew up at him and told him to leave me alone. I was worried about this girl, flying across the Atlantic to see me. Couldn't he cut me some slack just this one day? In response to my angry outburst, he said I was fired. Again. I had only been back three days. I packed up my stuff and left the office. I drove straight to Newark Airport, to wait for Michelle.
I got to the airport early, so I had a long wait. Finally, the Virgin flight from London landed. I told Michelle I would be waiting for her, outside the Customs hall. I watched the monitor which indicated the status of the arriving flights. When it indicated that the Virgin Flight was in customs, I started looking for her. I didn't have a very clear memory of what she looked like. I had only seen her once, at night. I remember she had brown hair, about shoulder length, and was tall. I was relying on her planned outfit to help me recognize her. I checked the luggage tags of the people exiting the customs hall and started seeing Virgin Atlantic ones. I scrutinized each female, comparing her to my mental picture of Michelle. Would she recognize me? Time dragged on and still she hadn't come out. Twenty minutes...thirty minutes...forty minutes and still she hadn't appeared. I started worrying that something had gone wrong. Maybe she had missed her flight. Maybe she had changed her mind and decided not to come. The flow of people from the customs hall had slowed to a trickle, then become intermittent. The Virgin Atlantic crew had come out and other people waiting had all met up with their arriving friends or relatives. Still, I stood there. Inside, I had resigned myself to the fact that she wasn't coming. The exit to the customs hall had two swinging doors. As soon as someone came out, the doors swung closed and you couldn't see what was going on inside, from where I was standing. Then, at forty-five minutes after the first Virgin passengers had come out, the doors banged open one more time. Out walked a vision of loveliness, pushing a luggage trolley. She was tall, with medium brown hair. She wore a blue and white striped top, and a dark blue miniskirt, which revealed legs that seemed to go on for days. Each of those luscious legs was covered by a white, sheer stocking, the foot of which was encased in a white high heeled pump. On her face, beneath a light covering of makeup, I could discern gentle freckles. Her lips glistened with a fresh coat of lipstick. Two grey-green eyes sparkled as she looked right at me. She seemed to walk toward me in slow motion, like a scene from a film. The vision didn't quite look like I remembered from that night in London, but looked better. She walked directly to me. It was Michelle.
Michelle threw her arms around me and gave me a hug. I felt like I was in shock. It was hard to accept that this gorgeous young woman was there to see me, just six days after we had met on the other side of an ocean. We walked out into the June warmth. I led her to my car and put her luggage in the trunk. I drove a black, 1986, Mazda 626 GT Turbo and as I drove along Route 1/9 towards the Holland Tunnel, Michelle commented that she was glad I drove a fast car. I glanced over at her in the passenger seat and she was adjusting her stockings I tried not to crash as I watched her pulling each one up, revealing the white lace tops. Michelle was amused at the effect her actions were having on me. I managed to hold it together and get us to Long Island in one piece. I stopped at the Burger King drive through, a few blocks from my house, to get us something to eat. Then we went home and watched "Miami Vice," while eating our delicious, fast food meal. Michelle had arrived and was about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting nation.


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