God Bless Us, Every One
I can't believe I've sunk to this.
I've never told ANYONE this story. Not my best friends. Not my wife. Never spoken it out loud, never put it into print. If it weren't for THIS RECORD, there would be no evidence of it ever really happening.
And the worst part is, I'm only unburdening my soul now because, frankly, I can't think of a bloody thing else to write this week. I've been saving this one for a desperate occasion, and at long last, that day has arrived. So enjoy my pain, you sick, sick bastards.
There I was, a young lad of nineteen, in the fine city of London. It was Christmas break from my sophomore year of college. My brother had decided to spend a year abroad, and my parents decided it would be nice for us all to visit him in England during the holidays. It was, in fact, Christmas Eve. It was practically a C.S. Lewis novel.
Now, I was sort of charmed by the tourist-fleecing in London. Disheveled old men would offer naive Americans hard-luck stories in charming accents, and walk away with some change for their trouble. Compared to the pathetic "Vietnam Vet -- Give" signs hung on the comotose homeless of my native land, this seemed like a legitimate form of theater.
In the later part of the morning, I was approached outside a bookstore by a small girl of maybe ten, with slightly ragged clothing and - I kid you not -dirt smudged on her cheeks.
"Please sir," she pleaded. "Could I trouble you for a pound? It's Christmas Eve, and my family hasn't a thing to eat!" Her eyes were wide and tearing up, and she was ever so insistent. Foreign change always feels like monopoly money, so it's easy to hand over without thinking what it's worth. So even though I suspected this was more performance than necessity, it was better than actually reading Dickens, so I gave her a pound.
With all the remorse of a dog who's just gobbled down a scrap of roast beef, she pocketed the coin and looked up with the same sense of deep longing. "Please, sir. Could I trouble you for another pound? Please, sir. We've got nothing. It's Christmas Eve!" I steeled myself, and walked away. Not so far away, though, that I couldn't keep an eye on her. In ten short minutes, she must have made fifteen more pounds. A pound was worth about $1.90 at the time, and I figured that was pretty good work, if you could get it. I walked on, laughing, wondering how many others would be suckered before the day was through.
Now the thing about downtown London is that it's not all that different from San Francisco (the city I grew up nearest to) in that you don't have to walk many blocks in any direction from the nice, upscale parts to the downscale, seedy parts. So I ended up walking into a little part of town I later heard was called "Soho."
Right now, Geoff is shaking his head. No doubt he's heard this one before.
Live Nude Girls, said the signs. Totally Live, Totally Nude. £2 Two jingly, jangly little coins in my pocket. After all, it's not really money. I had another two hours before I was to meet back up with my family. It's just a cheap thrill. No one would ever know.
Never having been in a stripping establishment of any kind, my only experience was through film. Behind the curtains leading into the club, I had visions of a large room with stage lighting and mirrors. Comely women would prance energetically before dozens of excited, cheering onlookers. Sure, I knew this might be expecting too much. I did, however, expect something larger than an oversized office cubicle with a coffee-table stage and seating for two. Two women in vaguely burlesque costumes were standing at the "far end" of the club. One of them approached me, took my £2 and led me to one of the love seat in front of the stage. The show, she told me, would start in a few minutes.
I'd barely sat down before a black woman in her late 20's came up and introduced herself. I have no recollection of what her name was, or what she looked like, only that she wasn't quite what I had in mind, but at least she was smiling, and seemed friendly. She asked me if I'd like some company.
I didn't want any company. But I didn't want to be rude. And I had come in here to experience life a little. What was the harm? So she sat down and asked where I was from and seemed very surprised that I was from California because I didn't have an accent at all. She asked if I wanted to order a pint of beer, which seemed a bit scandalous because I was still under 21. I said yes, and then she asked if she could order a drink for herself. This seemed a bit suspicious. I hadn't checked on how much my own drink would cost me, and I was betting hers would be a bit more. Being savvy to the ways of the world, I figured this was how they really made their money in a place like this. I balked, and said I'd rather not.
"Oh please sir," she said with a look of sadness in her eyes. "It's Christmas Eve."
I felt sorry for her. Who would want a job like hers on Christmas Eve? I had some early Christmas money from Grandma in my pocket, and the markup on a drink couldn't be all that much, now could it? Begrudgingly, I told her to go ahead.
I had just enough time to take three sips of my beer before a stocky, middle aged black woman appeared at the edge of the table. She had short-cropped hair, wide shoulders, and a bill.
"Before the show starts, sir, we'd like to settle up on what you owe for the drinks and the company."
I wasn't quite sure how a beer and whatever cocktail the young lady was having added up to £78.34, but I was shown a typed, laminated price list with drink names like "Strawberry Sunburst" listed in the mid two figures. For a moment I suspected that this was some sort of charge for illicit services to be rendered, and I explained that I'd really just come in for the show, not anything, uh, else. I looked to the girl sitting next to me for help. She just grinned sheepishly, and looked vaguely guilty.
Then the angry woman flipped over the bill to reveal yet more figures. I saw the £78.34 again, but this time it was at the TOP of a long list of calculations, adding in the bare minimum charges for the young lady's time regardless of any services rendered, and somehow the number jumped into the two-hundreds. I did not have this kind of money on me, but I did have eighty more pounds (which suddenly felt very much like the $150 it was worth), and I didn't want to just give it to people who were clearly robbing me.
I also had a credit card. It wasn't in my name (they didn't give out credit cards to college students quite so readily in those days), it was my parents', given to me "strictly for emergencies". I really didn't want to explain several hundred dollars worth of charges to a strip club in London, or try to contest such a bill with the fine folks at MasterCard. But most of all, I didn't want to be in front of this woman any longer, so I did what seemed reasonable at the time. I ran for the door.
This move she'd clearly seen before, and I met a body block that would have made any linebacker proud. Five foot three inches of angry London madam might as well have been a brick wall. And she was livid that I was trying to ditch out on my bill. I wouldn't be running, now would I, if I didn't have the money? Did I want her, she asked, to go get the manager?
No. I didn't want her to go get "the manager". I really, really didn't. Part of me suspected there might not be a "manager" and this was all just part of a well-rehearsed con. But the betting part of my brain multiplied the slight odds of an altercation with a psychotic London pimp by the potential pain and embarrassment of said altercation, and came up with a value that dwarfed the figure on the bill. If this is a game, I told myself, they win.
She patted down every pocket in my jacket and pants, relieving me of all my cash. Merry Christmas from Grandma. She conveniently missed the "hidden" pocket in my wool overcoat, which concealed the credit card. Then, as an afterthought, she checked the inside liner of my coat a second time, and found the card. My heart stopped for a moment, but she frowned and said she couldn't take it. She handed it back to me, and I started for the door.
"Don't you want to see the show?" she asked. "You did pay for it."
I left, cursing London, cursing thieves, cursing all womankind. I made up a story about how I must have been pickpocketed in the Virgin record store, more to explain my mood than my sudden lack of any money whatsoever. I had nothing left to look forward to but the Christmas dinner we were putting together in my brother's dormitory kitchen.
My parents were terribly excited. They'd bought a haggis for the occasion.
Columns by Cindy