After completing my first house sit in Clapham, London, I traveled to York to stay with my friend Amber for two weeks. York is an extraordinarily beautiful and unique city, located in the north of England, about a two hour train ride from London. It was founded in 71 AD by the Romans, who built a 50 acre military fortress in stone, which at one time housed 6000 soldiers. Two large sections of the wall still exist and you can stroll along the top, pretending you are a Roman soldier. (Well, that’s what I do. When you go, you can do as you like.)
I enjoy walking the walls. Many locals and tourists make their way there, especially when the weather is being cooperative. Not to mention the sheer joy I experience in being *allowed* to touch something that is 2000 years old! More often than not, most things that ancient are in museums, and they get rather pissy when you touch them. I tend to get in trouble frequently in museums, but that is a topic for another day.
On one particular day during my stay the weather was lovely, and after strolling through the picturesque streets of the city I decided to walk the walls for a bit before heading to Evensong at the Minster. I had already walked all the way to the end, and was headed back the other way when I decided to sit for a little bit on a bench overlooking the well manicured English gardens that bordered that section of the wall, with the Minster as usual looming in the background.(You can see the spire of the Minster from just about anywhere in the main part of the city. I used it as my landmark for which direction ‘home” was in as I often found myself lost during my wanderings.) The bench was set back in a curved turret like section, and I was just about to take out my notebook to write a bit when a man approached and asked if he could join me on the bench. He looked to be in his mid 50’s,was wearing a shabby long black coat, and had a general unkempt look to him. He carried a backpack in one hand, and a half-full two litre bottle in the other. Now, sometime I am in the mood for an interaction with a stranger, and sometimes I am most heartily *not*. To be frank, my first impression was that he was homeless, drunk and would soon be asking me for money. Right as he walked up, I could smell the alcohol oozing out of him. But it was not accompanied by the usual olfactory assault of urine and BO that unfortunately is normally a characteristic of “eau de homeless”. I have to remind myself that one of the purposes of my trip is to meet all sorts of people, and this man was definitely of a “sort”. So I figured what the hell, and cheerfully said ‘Sure! Have a seat! Plenty of room!’
‘Thank you’, he said to me as he set his backpack and bottle on the ground in front of him and plonked himself on the other end of the bench. He put his right hand into his coat pocket, pulled out a pack of cigarettes (the kind in England that only has 10 in a pack instead of 20.) ‘You want a smoke?’, he asked. ‘No thank you’, I replied. ‘But thank you for offering.’ ‘You sure?’, he asked again. (Now, I have smoked before in my life, on and off…mostly off…and was fairly certain judging by his appearance that he wasn’t flush with cash and cigarettes are expensive. Also, I just didn’t want one) But he shook the box at me and said ‘Aw, go on. I don’t often get to sit on a bench and smoke with a pretty lady. Two of my favorite things really, pretty ladies and smoking. Well, and booze. I’m a chronic alcoholic you see’. He reached down to the two liter bottle, unscrewed the cap, and took a swig. ‘So make a dying man happy…smoke with me’. So again, I thought ‘What the hell’, took the cigarette, and he expertly (and with a bit of flair) lit it for me. I took a drag…(It wasn’t horrible. Not great, but definitely not as gross as I was expecting it to be)…and contemplated the man next to me. I was surprised by his accent. It wasn’t the broad local accent of a Yorkshireman. In fact, if I had to label it anything, I would have to go with “posh”. He was shabby, yes, but not filthy. And while obviously inebriated, he was well spoken and had no sign of drunken slur.
He lit his cigarette, and made this odd gesture while inhaling…moving his hands back and forth, one on each side of his head, as if he were directing an aircraft on final approach to the terminal. As he blew out the smoke, he muttered ” God, that’s good. Smoking is good” , and continued swiping his hands back and forth by his ears until he had emptied his lungs of all the smoke from his first drag. (He did this many times during our conversation, with each cigarette.)
‘So, what is your name?’, he asked. ‘I like you’. I told him my name, and he replied ‘Ah, not from Yorkshire, are you? Where are you from, the south I bet.’ (I got this quite a bit in York. Lets face it, no matter how hard I try, a bit of an accent slips into my speech. Not enough to sound native by any means, but often just enough to be confusing) I told him that I was an American, from Orlando Florida to be exact, and he was mightily unimpressed. ‘I love America’, he said, ‘But only New York City. My name is John. Pleased to meet you’. He reached out and we shook hands.
I spent forty minutes chatting with John there on that bench. I wish I could remember the entire conversation exactly, but it was so higgildy piggildy I can only sketch out the high points. He started off by telling me a dirty joke, and when I laughed he went to give me a high five, intentionally missing my hand four times. (This is another action he repeated often) He explained to me his complicated sexuality…that he was in love with a man who wasn’t in love with him, but that he also had a boyfriend *and* a girlfriend…and defined himself as “emotionally gay but physically heterosexual”. Many tourists passed us as we sat on the bench, and sometimes John would insult them under his breath. ‘Look at those two gay fatties’….or ‘Too many fucking Chinese. Whats with all the fucking Chinese?’ (This was said about an Asian family that were walking by. I’m pretty sure they were not Chinese. Anyway, that led to another dirty joke with a decidedly racist bent to it) He started to compliment me on my hair, smile, general persona…and oddly enough, my toenails. When I said ‘John, I am wearing boots, you can’t see my toenails’, he replied in all seriousness, ‘I’m psychic. They are lovely.’ Occasionally he would ask those walking by (the ones he wasn’t insulting) ‘Do you like my gardens there below? I come up here to admire them. This here is Rebecca. She is my project manager. She has lovely toenails. Would you like some of my rhubarb? I can get you some if you like.’ ( The tourists always looked at me oddly, obviously trying to sort out my relationship to this strange man. I gave up nothing. Figured let ’em wonder.)
He expounded on his family troubles…his strained relationship with his sister and his mothers death, and he cried a little. Then he told me the story of Russian soldiers eating the dead frozen bodies of their comrades in one of the world wars. (He couldn’t remember which one) He cried a bit more over that, moaning ‘They ate their babies! Can you imagine that, they fed their babies to each other!’ (?!) He said he liked my ears as well, but that they weren’t as nice as my toenails. One of my favorite bits was when he asked the father of a passing family with two young girls to Google the band “Lovin Spoonful” because he couldn’t remember the name of the song he and his mates were singing the night before when they were rudely kicked out of a pub. (It was “Summer in the City) He thanked the man, and tried to give him money for “Doing the Googling”.
Finally, it was time for me to go, as I had plans to attend Evensong at the Minster. He walked me to the end of the wall, gave me a hug( tried to give me a kiss, but I wasn’t having that. I have limits) and very mournfully said ‘I’m never going to see you again, am I?’ I said ‘Probably not.’ He plopped down, and told me he was going to stay there and keep drinking. Then he said, ‘I like you. You made me feel real there for a little bit. I’m probably going to die very soon, but just for a little bit there, I forgot. Thank you’ I tried to get him to allow me to take a picture of the two of us, but he said he was too ugly to want to remember.
One of the most bizarre, entertaining, and yet terribly sad conversations I have ever had.
God speed, John.