The Bad Traveler
I had a San Diego Junior League friend named Olivia Nordstrom. I think I first met her at a rummage sale around 1991. Then I spotted her again some months later, in a distant land. I had been sent abroad to lie for my company, and Olivia was likewise overseas for work reasons: she was updating her growing series of travel guides.
You probably saw some of those guides if you hung out in the travel section of Bookstar or Barnes & Noble twenty-five or thirty years ago. They all had chirrupy, upbeat titles—Cheap Grub in Paris, Cozy Sleeps in London—that sort of thing. At her busiest Olivia had six, eight, ten, maybe even twelve of these titles, originally targeting London and Paris, but gradually expanding to cover Italy, Spain, and then even Prague, Budapest, Hawaii—yes, Hawaii—and I don’t know what else. The basic concept was to highlight quality restaurants and hotels that were aimed at neither the backpacker/hostel crowd, nor the kind of crass, over-moneyed tourists who spend a week at the Hotel Crillon every year and then send you notes on its stationery. Discreet, tasteful people, you know. Like Olivia.
She was a lot older than I, but also much more stylish and experienced, the way that polite ladies of a certain age are, or were, expected to be. She was always full of fun stories when we dined out, which she did frequently, as it was her job. Her home, in theory, was a smart little condo on State Street, near Seaport Village. (In mind’s eye I see ginger jars on the mantel and sporting prints on the walls.) The idea of living downtown by the “Historic Gaslamp District” still seemed novel and edgy in those days. (People from Cardiff-by-the-Sea made faces at the thought of downtown SD, not that they knew much about it. They thought Kensington was downtown, for Lordy’s sake!) But as Olivia’s guides expanded she wasn’t much “at home” anyway. She spent half her existence living out of a suitcase for the Cheap Grub series. When I caught up with her we were out of the country. There were times when she’d begin a story in a restaurant in the Gaslamp, continue it months later at a bistro in Paris, and finish up at a restaurant she was checking out in London.
She may have told me, but I don’t remember how she got into the travel-guide racket, just as I’m not sure who her former husband Mr. Nordstrom was. (Olivia Nordstrom is an alias, by the way; she’s long gone from her old telephone number and address, and I don’t know if she’s even still with us.) What I do know is that her travel-guide series eventually faded out. I can see how that happened. After September 11, 2001, exchange rates went bad. We went from 95 cents to the euro, to about $1.30, so there really weren’t any more cheap sleeps or eats. Not decent ones, anyway, not for Olivia’s audience. The publishers conjured up other title concepts (Wonderful Grub! Affordable Accommodations!) but nothing with the same ring and panache.
The Cheap Grub books must have looked like fun when she began them in the 1980s, but after a few years she must have felt she was chained to a treadmill. The titles sold well, but they needed to be updated every two or three years, because prices changed, new venues came on line, while old ones went out of business. We once ate at a Bertorelli’s, and while there are now enough eateries of that name in London to see out the new millennium, the one we went to in Notting Hill Gate disappeared almost as soon as the next edition (1994) of Cheap Grub: London was published. And as I say, during those glory days of the 1990s, her publishers were always seeking to add new locales and titles.
But she never complained about the constant hurly-burly. Not to me, anyway. The secret was, she traveled light and she traveled alone. Only once she broke her routine, and that was a hellish, memorable experience.
So here’s the story. She had a well-heeled socialite friend, an heiress to building-materials fortune, whom I shall therefore refer to as Bobbi Manville. After Olivia began writing her travel guides, Bobbi started to nag Olivia to let her, Bobbi, come along her on one of her exciting eat-and-sleep trips.
Exciting. Of course the trips were not exciting, they were all about tight schedules and drudgery. And if you’re picturing this right in your head, you know Olivia was the sort of person who had long since learned to travel with a toothbrush, a raincoat and very little else. (Makeup? Hose? Buy them in Paris or at the duty-free. I’ve actually gone on long jaunts without packing any undies, simply to force myself to visit my favorite lingerie department at the other end; but this is pushing it.)
Bobbi, on the other hand, was the sort who would pack a steamer trunk and two Samsonites for a weekend in Santa Barbara. Olivia gently put Bobbi off for a couple of years. But in the end she relented. And the experience was as bad as you’d imagine.
First leg of the journey was to London, where Olivia had booked them into a three-star (“moderately priced”) South Kensington hotel. Bobbi kept making a fuss that they insist on a no-smoking suite, so Olivia made a point of that. But when they got to the hotel lobby—I’m imagining lumpy wall-to-wall carpeting topped with a couple of threadbare Berbers—the effluvium of legacy cigarette smoke was just too much for Bobbi’s nostrils. She was already grumpy from the all-day flights from San Diego with a change at JFK. Furiously, she demanded that they immediately move to a different, “non-smoking” hotel.
This would have been about 1988. There were no non-smoking hotels to speak of, certainly not in London or Paris. Moreover, this was a hotel Olivia was specifically reviewing for a guidebook update.
So they stayed in that hotel for two days. Too bad for Bobbi! But Bobbi repeated the drama everywhere else. They’d go out to eat in some promising new restaurant, and Bobbi would order the weirdest thing on the menu—tête de veau or something—and then send it back because she thought it was going to be a veal cutlet. And then there’d be an argument about the bill, and Bobbi, who had all the money in the world, would declare that she wasn’t going to leave a tip because the service was so bad, and then loudly complain because she discovered there was a minimum service gratuity included in the bill.
And so, oh my goodness, they went on like this for a week or two, until they got to Paris, and Bobbi still didn’t let up. But the linguistic barrier now meant no one was really listening. Clearly it was time Bobbi to peel off and fly home.
I can’t imagine their friendship, such as it was, survived the ordeal.
Bad travelers are everywhere, but they’re particularly discomfiting when you have a job to do, and they don’t. They know you’re “at work” but nonetheless behave as though everyone’s on some kind of tourist junket. They’re always expecting Aunt Fanny’s bed & breakfast in Traverse City—the place with 360-thread percale sheets and the scent of warm, home-baked muffins. Their complaint about smelling cigarette smoke everywhere is a perennial, non-negotiable complaint. They claim they have an obscure allergy, or asthma; and the whole world had better mend its ways or there’s going to be a scene. And then, less tragically, there’s the inevitable question: Why does everything cost so much? Because, Madame Millionaire, you are paying Full Tourist Price.
We were dining at a North Italian place in the Gaslamp when Olivia gave me the broad strokes of the story. A year later, when we were having dinner six thousand miles away and no one could overhear us, she told me it again, this time with more awful details. We were near Piccadilly Circus, eating at a place called the Criterion. This was a 19th century oyster bar with lavatory-tile floors. It had been taken over by an American ad man we knew who had made a fortune introducing “rib shacks” and “Chicago-style pizza” to London, and now was moving upmarket. Bob Payton was his name; his plan was to reinvent this old haunt as a gourmet brasserie, with a lot of shellfish in vast tubs of cracked ice. (A popular “look” for early-90s London brasseries.)
There was a strange mildewy smell over where we sat. It may have been rising-damp in the wall, or some exotic preparation at the next table, where a couple of bohemian types were eating and smoking cigarettes at the same time. Olivia and I sniffed and looked around—at the black-and-white tile floor, the furious smokers at the next table, and the antique, atmospherically chipped wall trim. We laughed and declared in unison: “Bobbi would not approve!”
This must have been about 1994, as there was a lot of polenta on the menu. And it was expensive polenta, so I don’t think the Criterion made it into the next Cheap Grub: London. According to Wikipedia, out friend Bob died shortly afterwards in a car accident, so at least Olivia didn’t need to make apologies.
Frankie Laine and the Bloody Nose
I half-forgot the Bobbi story, and a couple of years later repeated Olivia’s ordeal with my friend Mimi.
The tale begins with a late-Saturday lunch at a place in Fashion Valley called The Crocodile Café. The Crocodile, long gone now, was never a gourmet eatery, but was surely decent enough for a Mission Valley mall, and definitely a step above your standard “food court.” I was back in town for a few weeks, and Mimi was telling me how much she wanted to escape San Diego.
“You’re so lucky to just be able to fly away like that,” Mimi was saying—and here she did a flying-seagull thing with her hands. Mimi was trapped in a dead-end clerical job at Sharp Hospital and pictured any alternative to that as a deliverance. Me, I wished I could stick around San Diego for six months, instead of flying back to London in 19 days.
I’d been drinking a couple of brightly colored tequila drinks, and imagined a visiting friend might be fun for a little while. So I suggested she come stay with me sometime. Perhaps for a week or two. I pointed out that she’d been born in Canada, and could probably work over there with a little help from the right immigration lawyer. Here I was talking through my hat, but those London immigration lawyers had frequently assured me they could accomplish almost anything.
Mimi agreed this was a great plan, but almost immediately began to complicate it beyond recognition. Instead of coming over to visit me for a week or two at some vague point in the future, she wanted fly back with me right now, or rather in 19 days. She was looking for an excuse to leave her job. This might be last chance to escape Sharp Hospital—the space-pod doors open only once in a lifetime—so she decided to give notice right away.
From there on out, the “mission creep” was extraordinary. Instead of just flying out of San Diego and changing planes in New York or wherever, we were now to fly out of Vancouver BC. This is because Mimi had an 87-year-old grandmother in a nursing home in New Westminster. Mimi had been hit with a panicky fear that if she left North America, she might never see granny again. So we were going to drive all the way up from San Diego to New Westminster. It didn’t make much sense to me, but how could I turn down a friend’s maybe-last opportunity to see her grandmother? And how often do you get to drive 1400 miles? What an adventure! Why, we could bring our cameras!
At this point in my life I was easily distracted. I had lots of busy-work in the San Diego office and all sorts of springtime trivialities: do my taxes, change my mail-forwarding service; participate in an Encinitas script-reading with someone I once took a screenplay class with. (Holy hell, why did I say yes to that?) Then I came up with the time-wasting idea of taking my Cannondale mountain bike out of storage, and finding if the bike shop in Sorrento Valley could box it up and ship it to my office in London. Well, they could. But it was going to cost more than the bike was worth. So back to storage; a half-day wasted.
And finally . . . I had to go visit Frankie Laine! I had casually mentioned to an editor in London that I sort of knew Frank, and could probably call on him at his house in Point Loma and write up a little interview. The editor agreed eagerly. For whatever reason, Frankie Laine was still a much bigger name in England than in America. Brits still remembered him as a late-40s crooner (“That’s My Desire,” “Lucky Old Sun”) rather than as a “cowboy” singer of movie themes (Rawhide, Blazing Saddles), the way we do in America.
One minor problem was that I didn’t really know Frankie Laine. However I knew someone who knew someone who knew Tom Blair at San Diego magazine, and Tom had Frank’s number.
The visit to old Frank’s house on Point Loma was something of a downer. I’d read in San Diego magazine that his first wife had died of cancer some years before. Now wife number two had a pink turban on because she was going through chemo. So they were both bald now. Eighty-two-year-old Frank didn’t wear his toupée—it was Sunday, the day of rest, he explained—and covered his pate with a red Lucky supermarket cap. I remember Frank spent a lot of time talking about how he used to own the house next door . . . but then he bought this house . . . and sold the old one to the writer Joseph Wambaugh.
A couple of days later I got into my old car to drive up to British Columbia so I could fly out of Vancouver the following weekend. I was in something of a fog regarding how that arrangement came about. Mainly I was telling myself I’d scribble a draft of my Frankie Laine profile as we made out way up the coast.
Halfway into our road trip we stopped for an early dinner at a Chili’s in Redding, CA. While we waited for food and sipped our beers, I unzipped my black leather Tumi portfolio with the yellow legal pad. (A present to myself I’d recently bought at University Towne Center when I dropped by Williams-Sonoma to see my old co-workers.)
“Are you making notes on our journey?” Mimi asked.
“No,” I snarled, “I’m writing an interview with Frankie Laine.”
“Oh! So you don’t want to talk to me?” she said.
No, I said, I was sleep-deprived, and very stressed out. Mimi then asked if I was mad at her for making us drive up to Canada, and I said it was more complicated than that.
Which it was, of course. She had complicated everything. For some reason she had done no packing at all until two days before we were to leave. When we got to the storage space where we were putting her boxes of belongings, it was evening and the facility had just closed, just as I said it would be. So Mimi threw a fit, blamed for the closing time, said she didn’t want to travel with me anymore. She jumped out of the car and just walked by herself, by a long, desolate stretch of Morena Boulevard, going no place in particular. After a half-hour I calmed her down, we had dinner in Pacific Beach, and the following day we went to the storage facility again and finally set out on our journey.
I did not write my Frankie Laine interview at that Chili’s in Redding, CA. In fact I wouldn’t write it for a couple of weeks.
When we finally got to Canada, Mimi explained to her relatives that we were a day late because I didn’t get her to the storage facility on time. I let that go, didn’t argue; her relatives in New Westminster were going to store my car for me till I flew back next. (I made up a story about how I’d always wanted to spend a few days in Vancouver.) Nor did I write about Frank on the airplane, since I was busy drinking all the red-wine miniatures I could get.
For much of the past year I had been living in an expensive furnished “service flat” in Chelsea, which as I told everyone was a five minutes’ walk from George Smiley’s house at 9 Bywater Street in the John LeCarré novels. But I’d given that up when I went back to San Diego. I dreamt of something cheaper, more sordid, less pretentious. I have a weakness for nasty one-star hotels, one rung above a doss house, where they do a heart-stopping fry-up in the morning with greasy little sausages, dessicated ham, and lots of toast and margarine. It’s always margarine at these places. Looking for accommodations that were even cheaper, I’d booked us into a nasty b&b for a week, in a dark corner of North London called East Finchley. We arrived in a state of extreme jetlag, and was totally delighted with its squalor.
However, I was with Mimi, and Mimi was in full tourist-mode. So we bagged East Finchley and spent the next few weeks and much of my bank balance living in overpriced b&b’s and hotels, and then a friend’s place in Hampstead, where I finally calmed down enough over a bank-holiday weekend to write about Frankie Laine.
It was around my fourth or fifth night back in London, after I’d gone back to work but hadn’t slept much, that I realized I was on the verge of an emotional breakdown. It was Friday, and I went out drinking with a guy from the office. I needed those drinks. This guy, Andrew, did ventriloquism at comedy clubs, using sock puppets that really were just white tube socks that he drew features on with a felt-tip marker. That was part of the act. Andrew was a total scream. I slid off my pub stool, laughing. My skirt rode all the way up my butt when I landed on the floor. I was a mess.
Back at the hotel, Mimi was very cross because I’d gone out with someone from work and didn’t bring her along. She watched an old 1950s film on TV and refused to speak to me. I don’t know what movie it was, but a young Jack Warden was in it, and he kept saying, “I guess I’ll be on my merry way.”
I passed out in my clothes, then woke up a little later to find my nose bleeding. Nothing to get excited about; I always get nosebleeds, and I’d been picking my nose a lot ever since the plane ride. But when I went to the bathroom to wash, I found there were no towels to dry my face.
Mimi had used up all four of our towels and thrown them on the floor. She was one of those people who can’t shower without getting the floor wet, so when they step out, put towels on the floor to dry their feet. The bath mat’s not enough; they have to throw towels down too. The thinking is, in the morning the maid will come in and pick them up and give you fresh clean towels.
“What happened to the towels?” I shouted. Mimi, now half asleep, shrugged and grunted. No problem, she said, just call the front desk and say you need more towels.
“Hully gee,” I said, in words of greater ferocity, “this ain’t the Ramada Inn. This is the Hotel La Reserve in Fulham, and no one’s going to be at the desk at one in the morning.”
So she rang the desk, and got no answer, while I patted my face with toilet paper. I into my bed, with a wad of toilet paper stuffed up my nose, and I quietly sobbed to myself. I had completely screwed my life up. I was caught in a full Bobbi.
A week or two later, Olivia flew in from San Diego, checking out new eateries and sleeperies. We met at a place in Fulham Road called Riccardo’s, which specialized in Tuscan food and great big balloons of red wine by the glass. (I believe Riccardo’s did make the cut for the next Cheap Grub.) I told my sorrows to my older and wiser friend. Olivia found it all hilarious. The obvious thing to do, she laughed, was to take Mimi to Paris, and lose her.
Which is pretty much what happened in the end, though this took a few bumpy months.
“I Want Her Out!”
I leased a ground-floor flat with a elderly coworker called Malcolm. I am using “elderly” in the British sense. Malcolm may have been only fifty but easily looked sixty, at least. He needed a new place to live because he was six months behind on his Battersea flat, and he didn’t feel like paying his back rent. Better to spend the money on the new address, which was a step up socially. Redcliffe Gardens straddled upscale Chelsea and South Kensington, as well as the rather downmarket Earls Court. The neighborhood had some literary associations. Beatrix Potter and Robert Lowell had both lived around the corner, although not at the same time.
On the plus side, the flat was spacious enough for Malcolm, and his baby-grand piano and wide assortment of musical equipment (he played weekends in a “Scottish dance band”); and Dylan, his ancient, incontinent Persian cat; and me; and Mimi. And since it was ground floor, we got the back garden with an old barbecue grill where we eventually threw some sparsely attended parties. (“Just a simple cookout; we’re inviting all our friend.”)
On the minus side we had an odor problem. Not only were we living with a diarrheac cat, we had a Peruvian Indian in the basement involved in some activity that generated a chronic stench. “I think she’s boiling nappies,” surmised Charlie Hardaway, the flat’s owner, when he phoned in. Charlie was with a bank and had recently been “seconded” to Hong Kong. It appears our Peruvian had been burrowed-in down there for years, claiming some refugee status, and thus defying all attempts by freeholders and the borough council to dislodge her.
But the worst aspects were the fights between Mimi and Malcolm. It was cats-and-dogs from the start, and they kept it up for weeks, till other crises intervened. Even before we moved in, Mimi was summarily demanding that Malcolm, a pack-a-day full-strength Silk Cuts smoker, not smoke inside the flat. Because she was allergic to cigarette smoke. Yes, folks: the old allergy scam again. Not being American, Malcolm had never heard such nonsense. But Malcolm smoothly agreed, smoked anyway, and we muddled through.
Mimi also took issue with Dylan’s stinky litter pan. Malcolm liked to place it in the kitchen. Mimi would move it to the hallway toilet (the “kitty loo”) then Malcolm would move it back. This went on for a long while, till Malcolm disappeared on holiday to France.
“I want her out!” Malcolm hissed to me about three days after we moved in.
I sometimes caught a ride with Malcolm to and from work, since that was quicker than the 55-minute journey riding the Underground and then the Docklands Light Railway. In theory we lived and worked in Central London, but the journey to the office could take as long as driving from Golden Triangle to Costa Mesa (another tedious journey I once had to do every day). Malcolm’s little Peugeot often broke down, but it was much faster and more reliable than the delay-ridden, strike-prone, bomb-enhanced London Transport.
On the way home to Redcliffe Gardens in the evening, we’d sometimes stop at the Queen Mary, a decrepit old steamboat café anchored along Victoria Embankment. Over my wine and Malcolm’s espresso, and a couple packets of salt-and-vinegar crisps, we’d discuss what to do about Mimi. She was now fighting with us both, with rude, uncontrolled, screaming tantrums.
As an oblique way of offering advice and working out possible solutions, Malcolm would tell me personal, coded, stories of his own past: how he had fallen in with difficult, demanding characters who pushed him to near-madness before he finally sloughed them off. There had been a number of these, all young men, one of whom had run a nightclub with him in Bournemouth many years ago and evidently stole from him, possibly occasioning his bankruptcy. I didn’t poke around for the seamy details. Somehow Malcolm had spent his adult life in thrall to spongers and rent boys.
“I want her out,” he’d say again, then assure me it was for my own peace of mind.
“Oh she’ll be gone in a couple of days,” I said in my evasive way.
There was little point in telling Mimi to leave. She acted out that farce every day. She’d dramatically pack her things (two enormous rolling suitcases), generally in the evening, when I was home; only to return an hour later. She’d tell us she’d rebooked her return plane ticket for such-and-such a day, then the day would come and she’d still be around.
When this routine got old, she’d come up with baffling excuses for hanging around. One day she went down to the immigration office in Croydon to see about getting a work visa. This was going to be harder than my attorneys let on. Then she got herself an off-the-books job at a restaurant we knew (supposedly a “Mexican” dive, but named Arizona). She never actually started work, though, because that would mean finding her way back to Redcliffe Gardens from Camden Town at two a.m., long after the Underground shut down.
Then it occurred to her to do some freelance writing. She’d never done it before, but obviously if I few pieces here and there, anybody could. For the Observer magazine, or maybe the Guardian, she tried to pitch an article about a waiter she knew at the Arizona restaurant—this was the guy who offered her the off-the-books job—who looked a bit like Keanu Reeves. And not only that; this guy, Damien, claimed to have worked as Keanu’s body double in a film! No takers for that proposal. So she thought of doing a profile on yet another almost-famous person we’d met in Camden Town. This was Josh Irving, the son of Clifford Irving. Clifford Irving, you may dimly recall, was the writer who wrote the fake Howard Hughes biography around 1972, and went to jail for it. This was slightly more promising material, but when Mimi approached Josh about it he was totally appalled.
We came up with some other vague, evanescent ideas for Mimi. There was Dr. Sooch, the garrulous East Indian who’d briefly been my company’s head IT guy in San Diego. Sooch was now living in Omaha, but was always passing through London on one errand or another (“I cover seven countries in five days!”) and always claimed to be amazingly connected. He said his best friend was managing director at NatWest—Sooch had been at Harrow with him—and this selfsame best friend could give Mimi a job, as well as handle any visa problems. Great news! But then I remembered that Sooch seldom followed through on anything, and anyway it was unlikely the National Westminster Bank would have a place for Mimi, a theater-studies graduate of San Diego State. Sooch promised us a big slap-up dinner next time he came through town, but in the fullness of time this turned into a lunch at Burger King. Of Mr. NatWest we heard no more.
Sometimes Mimi would phone me at the office, about nothing in particular, not even about how she was still mad at me, and thinking of flying home real soon. Or she would phone family and friends in British Columbia or California, again about nothing in particular. I was supposed to have cheap-cheap international calling on my home landline—I worked in the industry, after all—but I was always being surprised by these £20 calls on my bill. Even for those days, £20 was a helluva long-distance charge. Mimi would ring up her stoner brother and talk to no purpose for a full hour, completely oblivious to cost.
But as Bob Hoskins was always saying on the BT television commercials, “It’s good to talk.” That was BT’s equivalent of the old AT&T slogan, “Reach out and touch someone.” Indeed, talk mindlessly for no reason at all. This, this, is the business we have chosen.
Eventually, to occupy her time more constructively, Mimi decided to try standup comedy. She’d taken classes with Sandy Shore at The Comedy Store in Pacific Beach, so she wasn’t going in totally cold. But after listening to some of her shtick, Andrew (my friend with the tube socks) advised her that she didn’t have the personality for comedy per se, not in London, anyway—but maybe she could be a compére—that is, an emcee. So once or twice a week, in far-off pubs in Islington or Crouch End, Mimi turned up in front of a microphone to introduce whatever grab-bag of soused comedians had turned up for open-mike night.
Holiday in Brittany
And then, for a little while, our flat was quiet and peaceful, because Malcolm had taken a week’s holiday in France. That week turned into two weeks and then nearly three. This also improved the ambience at work, where I now discovered that Malcolm was roundly disliked. It had come to everybody’s attention that he spent most of workday on the telephone about matters that had nothing to do with corporate sales for our company, Titanic Telecoms Ltd.
Our clients had begun to ask if they could deal exclusively with me, rather than Malcolm. The clients were fairly tolerant folk, and pretty weird themselves, but Malcolm seemed to have too many distractions on his plate. And I think they’d heard rumors that Malcolm was about to get the sack. These clients were all shapes and sizes: Pakistanis, Nigerians, Sierra Leonese; former photocopier hucksters who dwelt in the leafy suburbs or Chelmsford or High Wycombe; retired army men; and a washed-up investment banker who had gone to Eton.
They’d all heard there were big £££’s to be made in corporate-telecoms reselling, mainly because that was the hype they got from me and others who were in on the same game. My oddest clients were a jolly pair of Hasidic Jews, one tall and one short, who intended sell comms to the small-businessfolk in their community, who were way the hell up in Stoke Newington, northeast London. The tall one called himself Mister Schneider, the short one was Mister Taylor, and they both wore baby-blue chalk-striped suits with coats that hung down to their knees. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Schneider were my only agents who fully understood that our service was crap, but they really didn’t care.
A word or two about Malcolm’s “distractions.” Basically, he used his work landline as a convenient “office number” where he could be reached for his other businesses. (He had a big Nokia mobile, but in those days that was expensive, something like 40p a minute.) His main outside venture was his folk-music combo with squeeze-boxes and fiddles. His stationery read: “Malcolm Laird and His Scottish Dance Band.”
Back in the 1970s, there had been a craze for this stuff—much like the American fad for bluegrass music—and bands with names like The Border Reivers or The Highland Revelers. Malcolm’s group almost made it to the big time. They performed at the World’s Fair in Spokane in 1974 and then did a North American tour. An experience he was hoping to reprise someday. Like others in our London office, Malcolm imagined that working for Titanic Telecoms would lead to a paid vacation in San Diego.
By the 1990s, the Scottish music fad had mostly drifted off, but Malcolm’s name still carried some weight amongst an ever-aging crowd. Thus you’d see him at his desk, cupping his telephone handset, speaking softly as he lined up future weekends for the big Scottish dance band. “I’m playing KP next weekend,” he once told me triumphantly, suggesting he’d just booked a Princess Margaret party in Kensington Palace.
Alternatively Malcolm might get a ring from his other moonlight job. That was an evening gig as visiting rep for Moben Kitchens. This involved long sit-downs with people in country houses in Wiltshire and points west, where he tried to nudge them into investing £20,000 for a new kitchen with stone-top counters and chef-grade cookers. Often the prospect was just too far away, and Malcolm’s soft coo would break into a yell: “What do you mean, it’s just across the Bristol Channel? You mean it’s in WALES!? I’m not driving to bloody Wales!”
And then sometimes he would hear from his garage mechanic, often bringing bleak news about how the Peugeot had flunked the Ministry of Transport registration. The carburetor “sprayed petrol.” The Peugeot would be “condemned” by the MOT if the carburetor weren’t replaced immediately.
Malcolm led a very busy life on the office landline.
But as I say, he went on holiday, and then was gone for weeks. When he finally reappeared he had a crazy tale. It seems he was in Brittany, dining out one night with his aunt and uncle when the uncle collapsed from a heart attack. The uncle clutched at his wife as he fell to the floor. They must have been in their 80s, at least. Anyway, now Uncle Bob was dead, Aunt Dorothy had two broken ribs, and Malcolm had the job of bringing the uncle’s coffin, the invalid aunt, himself, and their red Honda back to Bournemouth via the ferry from Brittany.
Only he couldn’t do this for days and days . . . because they were in France, you see . . . and there was a dockworker strike. I don’t know if the story was true, but at least it wasn’t a sick-note you could use a second time. Regardless, he didn’t get much chance to tell anyone at work, because when he at long last turned up, he was shortly advised that Titanic Telecoms Ltd was terminating his employment.
“Oh that’s too bad,” I said, impassively, when he told me the story that evening. He was in the kitchen, furiously scrubbing scale off the bottom of the plug-in teapot.
“Well you know,” he said, they’re going to give you the sack too. I knew that when I went away. But of course I told you this before.”
Of course he hadn’t said anything of the sort. Anyway I couldn’t think of anyone at work who would vouchsafe such confidential information to Malcolm Laird.
But now he was gone from Titanic Telecoms, and had no need to be in London during the week. So he went back to staying with Aunt Dorothy in Bournemouth, the elderly widow with the busted ribs. He didn’t take his decrepit cat with him, of course. As for weeks past, I was left with the chore of feeding Dylan, that messy, disgusting feline. Malcolm would leave me with a cupboard full of canned, gourmet cat food he bought by the case at ASDA. I figured this stuff was responsible for Dylan’s chronic diarrhea, which more often than not fell outside the litter pan. So I switched Dylan to cheap, hard discount kibble instead. This improved his digestion (and the atmosphere) immensely.
On return visits Malcolm would surreptitiously count the remaining cans to make sure I was giving Dylan his daily fare. What he didn’t know was that Mimi and I were throwing the canned food away. Not in the household trash or a waste bin, though. We’d put a dozen cans in a sack, and stroll around the neighborhood, leaving gifts of Pricey Feast cat food on the doorsteps and pillar boxes of Chelsea and Fulham.
Another bit of mischief Mimi and I enjoyed at Malcolm’s expense was going through Malcolm’s correspondence files. On my landline I’d begun to get dunning calls from Malcolm’s old landlord in Battersea, who told me Malcolm still owned rent for his last six months. I did a little hunt through the Laird files and I found Malcolm had a deadbeat dossier going back years.
And it was around this time that I began to receive invoices, for council taxes and water rates. As I was the non-bankrupt leaseholder, Malcolm and our landlord had put my name down at the householder of record. This was a smart move on Malcolm’s part; no wonder it took his old landlord months to find him. But when the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea or Thames Water kept dunning me for taxes and water bills, I started to think of an escape strategy.
Somewhere in the files of the Royal Borough, there is a black mark against the name of one Meg Burns, who never paid her poll tax.
At Titanic Telecoms Ltd. there was always talk of sending me to run the Paris office—or, latterly, the Istanbul office, since we’d just acquired one. These were probably cover stories, office jokes really. I’d come to terms with the fact that Titanic would be vomiting me out me soon. So the question was, should I vamoose back to San Diego right away, or play the odds in London?
It was hopeless to think that I could make a living as a freelance writer. I was painfully slow, and my stuff was never Quality Lit. There was that lugubrious Frankie Laine interview, and similarly toned pieces on old timers I knew (an early-1960s London scandal girl; a late-1950s Angry Young Man), as well as a few San Diego-themed pieces, for which there is always a market in London. I remember a column about Bill and Hillary Clinton visiting Coronado, and staying, inevitably, at the Hotel Del Coronado. This sounds like thin gruel indeed, except they were the guests of Democrat fundraiser and Hotel Del’s frontman, M. Larry Lawrence, who was good enough to give me a couple of cute stories.
But then an angel appeared in the form of one Mohammed al-Fayed. You’ve heard of Mr. al-Fayed; he owned Harrod’s, and his son Dodi’s inamorata was none other than Princess Di—at least until some Dark Forces did them both in, in a Paris tunnel, September 1997.
Technically I suppose the banks really owned Harrod’s, as Mr. al-Fayed was supposed to be mortgaged to the hilt. But he had enough loose cash to afford such indulgences as buying the library and rights to the old Punch magazine, which had recently gone out of business after 150 years. And then, deciding to attack the British Establishment through satire after nothing else succeeded, he hired a few veteran Fleet Street scapegraces for about £150,000 a year, acquired some offices across the street from Harrod’s; and announced that Punch was returning.
Yes! Mister Punch himself! And it would be better than ever! A four-color glossy weekly, filled with cartoons and fun, bigger—thicker!— than The New Yorker. And the best part was the freelance pay scale. They were going to pay £600 per printed page. Now: figure you write two pieces a month, each one a bare two pages. That’s £2400 (maybe $4000 American), middle-class income by 1996 hooligan standards, and a hairsbreadth more than I was getting at Titanic Telecoms, where I did work I despised (the joyous Messrs. Taylor and Schneider notwithstanding).
A London journo whom I slightly knew invited me to a Literary Luncheon at the Groucho Club in Soho. We had maybe a dozen people at the lunch—old hacks and young hacks, and freelancers who eked out a respectable living in advertising or something worse. And it turned out that most of these people, my peers I guess, were all a-hankerin’ to get sumdat lovely £600-per-page pay rate.
I don’t think anyone had written anything for the new Punch yet—launch date was still a couple of months off, and the new editors and art directors were mainly busy hiring staff and choosing cover illustrations—but there were an awful lot of people who were already measuring drapes in their heads, so to speak.
The managing editor had me to his office, and we shared a bottle of wine and built castles in the air about how great this new Punch was going to be. I did eventually write a little for them, and these pieces were handsomely compensated, just as promised. Unfortunately the well-lubricated managing editor was soon gone, Punch was cut back to a much thinner biweekly, and the whole thing turned into a fiasco. Mohammed al-Fayed’s business manager figured out that this escapade was going to lose money at the rate of two million pounds per annum, even with the big, glossy, New Yorker-calibre [sic] advertisements when the advertisers finally started to pay. (They were giving away a lot of ad space to start.) So I did well, briefly, but it wasn’t something I could build a life on. Oh well!
I’ve tried to trace back how I got involved with the Punch adventure, and keep coming to the conclusion that, like so many things in this world, it began with a gentleman by the name of George Mitrovich. George was founder of something called the City Club of San Diego. I long imagined the City Club was like the Racquet Club or the Union League, a place where I’d have to enter on a member’s arm. Actually it was a kind of speakers’ forum. Every month or two he’d bring some noteworthy savant to a hotel in Mission Bay, where you’d eat lunch and then listen to a talk and maybe buy an autographed book.
George had the kindly air of a lay minister, coupled with a delightfully droll way of speaking in rolling periods—sentences that soared and took flight, so that where they were going to land was anybody’s guess. Eric Sevareid, the late CBS newsman, used to talk this way; maybe the still-with-us George F. Will is a close equivalent. A writer I knew at San Diego magazine used to imitate George’s introductory style thusly:
“Of course it should be noted that, as the renowned English journalist Peregrine Worsthorne once confided to me, ‘there is oft a slip between cup and lip,’ an observation I am not prepared to gainsay.”
The real joke here was that you’d soon find out that Peregrine Whatshisname was an actual person of note, and George knew him, and George knew an awful lot of other people as well, across the 48 states and in the London journo world. I suspect this had less to do with George’s having once been a Senator’s press secretary, than with his ceaseless quest for speakers at the City Club of San Diego.
Early in my Titanic Telecoms adventure, circa 1993, I was in London for some non-business reason, and I phoned George up to show off. George said, “Oh you should go see my good friend Xan Smiley at The Economist, he’ll take you to lunch, a really fascinating man. I have his number here…’
That sounds like a made-up name, maybe from one of the LeCarré books set in Hong Kong. But Xan was and is a real person. He had just moved over to The Economist from the Sunday Telegraph. Unfortunately Xan couldn’t take me to lunch; he was about to dine with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
When I finished banging my head against the wall a few hours later, I walked down to the World’s End pub and reflected that perhaps it wasn’t all that humiliating—no, not really embarrassing at all—that the new senior political editor of The Economist had brushed me off because his mind was frazzled by an imminent summit lunch with Norman Lamont. I drank another pint of bitter and wended my way back to my luxury-service-flat accommodation. A day or two later I had another connection (via George) and some years later I ended up at Punch, however briefly. But of course I wouldn’t have been there unless I’d been working at Titanic Telecoms.
It was during the early Punch weeks that I got canned from Titanic. Actually, very very few didn’t get canned that season. Meantime, as I scribbled away in our sunlit lounge (furnished mainly with Malcolm’s ancestral leather sofas and cherrywood dining table) Malcolm would suddenly reappear from Bournemouth, count the cat-food cans, and propose some new venture in which I could play a part.
Through some friend of his, we had the Golden Opportunity to run a call-center in South London, off the Old Kent Road (as in the old song). One of those nasty little shopfronts where Africans could call home to Sierra Leone and Nigeria for two pounds fifty. All we needed to do was outfit it with some plywood partitions and second-hand phone equipment, and off we go!
A real non-starter, so far as I was concerned. Another Malcolm plan was to start a cardboard-box factory in Uzbekistan. Why Uzbekistan, for heaven sakes? Well, Malcolm had a friend—the story always began like this—with interests in Tashkent. The friend had explained to him in glowing detail how in Uzbekistan they grew a lot of oranges—the finest, biggest oranges in the whole wide world! But they had trouble exporting them. For, alas, they had no boxes! So we would build and operate a corrugated-cardboard-box factory, and the Uzbeks would export their oranges, and everyone would get rich.
As with most Malcolm proposals, investment capital had been promised by a mysterious benefactor. All we had to do was say the word and it was hey presto, off to Tashkent. Actually I’d be the one going off to Tashkent, because it was imagined that as an American I’d have more credibility. Very Brit thinking, at least for those born before 1940.
San Diego Dreams
About a third of the people in our London office of Titanic Telecoms were American, either temporarily stationed on London but paid through our San Diego HQ (techs and ops people, mostly), or else locally hired, long-settled Americans with dual nationality or resident visas.
The locals were a broad mix. Some were idlers and buffoons, recruited through the Job Centre, a nationwide quango that forced the workshy to take jobs for a while so they could qualify for the dole. (In the old days the Job Centre was called the Labour Exchange. It pops up in proletarian novels as a grim bureau full of cloth-capped drudges “signing on” for their 15 shillings per week.) I believe the Job Centre subsidized our lucky hires for a little while, maybe a month or two, by which time they were usually long gone.
One of our Job Centre cuties was Dawn, an 18-year-old near-albino elf from the council estate down the way. Dawn was forever handing us new lists of international tariffs—that is, wholesale costs—because the old ones were “wrong” for whatever reason.
“So what do we do with the old one?” someone would always ask.
This was just so Dawn would reply, “Aaoh! Just frow it awye. Frow it awye!”
We had some intelligent, capable souls, too, though most were slightly delusional. They were under the impression that after putting in a year or so here, they could get a transfer to sunny San Diego, California. This is a very London way of looking at things. All those City people, you know, working at Lloyd’s or NatWest—they always get “seconded” to overseas offices.
But that’s banking for you. We, however, were not the National Westminster Bank. We weren’t even the Woolwich Building Society.
Aiding my colleagues’ transfer hopes was the fact that some of them knew the San Diego area pretty well. Certainly they knew it better than most Americans do. Everybody had a sister who got married at the Hotel Del, or an uncle who was putting up McMansions in Olivenhain for Barratt American, or spent three weeks in Pacific Beach a couple of years back.
It was all so sad and poignant; they were working for a San Diego company, but the only way they were getting to San Diego was on their dime, or florin or whatever.
Speaking of which: I always paid my own damn airfare from San Diego or Vancouver; I was supposed to get reimbursed, but almost never did. My T&E’s had a way of being bucked back and forth between accounts payable and CFO before finally disappearing behind a potted palm or water cooler.
No, at Titanic we didn’t really do expense accounts. We didn’t “second” or transfer people; we hired ‘n’ fired. No performance plans, no career-path nurturing. If you came in as a file clerk with a masters in statistics, a file clerk you remained.
Some of this corporate weirdness came out of the fact that our company founder, J.J. Hughes, had never had a normal, corporate job. Before Titanic, J.J. worked for his father, or sold cocaine, or ran a boiler-room outfit that flogged precious metals to golden-agers. J.J. didn’t know or care how companies in the real world worked. Apart from a few accountants and telephony engineers, almost no one at Titanic—in San Diego or in London—had ever had a “real” job or career. Most were drifters who’d only done loser-work in sales or admin or “retail”; or maybe they got some basic technical training as military enlistees.
But there I go, forgetting Rocky Doogan, our head switch-tech. Wherever I went—London, Seattle, Los Angeles, probably Istanbul if they’d ever sent me to Istanbul—there would be Rocky, with his ever-ready rolling toolkit behind him.
To the Paris Office
Rocky the Switch Tech: he was round-faced and jug-eared and bore a slight resemblance to the 1890s funny-pages character, The Yellow Kid. I would tell that to Rocky, and he’d shake his head, and I’d go: “Before your time!”
Rocky had a way of turning up wherever I went, and whenever we saw each other, Rocky would always ask why I hadn’t done switch-tech training yet. Actually I had done some switch-tech training, but not much, because the company didn’t want to pay for the rest of it. It would have fine with them if I paid for it myself, then submitted another T&E to join the others behind the water cooler.
Back in our San Diego days, we worked out of a string of high-rises along La Jolla Village Drive. It seems whenever I crossed Genesee Avenue to get from one building to another, there would our Rocky . . . crossing the street from the other direction . . . dragging the rolling toolbox behind him. We’d wave and say something tiresome, like “Same shit, different day.”
Rocky remained on my radar for a long time after I left Titanic. A year or so later I was working in Seattle, and trudging up the hill on lower Third Avenue, when—lo!—a half-block ahead of me, coming my way with his wheelie boxes, was good old Rocky. I was doing donkey-work for a failing firm called Midcom Communications, but Rocky was still with Titanic Telecoms, dropping by to visit the Seattle switch. We did our little wave-thing to each other—just like crossing Genesee—and moved on.
(Out of curiosity I decided to visit the Titanic switch office myself. It was a tiny place, with two kids in it, one white and one colored. They were stoned out of their minds. I was dressed like an accountant and they couldn’t stop giggling.)
A little later I flew down to LAX for some job interviews. (Not very successful ones; I moved down there anyway and worked in a coffee bar near Santa Monica.) But at the airport, about thirty seconds after I’m out of the Jetway, there’s our Rocky again. He’s coming up the mile-long concourse with his suitcase and toolbox. It was beyond weird. This time he gave me his new business card. He said he figured Titanic might be going down the tubes, so he was advertising himself as an independent tech.
I also saw him once in Paris. We had a Paris office and it didn’t have much, just a big empty space and a telecom switch. But I used it as a pretext when somebody asked what I was doing in London. “I’m going to be head of the Paris office,” I’d say.
Gradually, though, I decided that Paris was the solution to all my problems. I figured Malcolm Laird was going to skip out on the rent eventually, leaving me as the leaseholder of record, unless I got out first. And if I moved to Paris, it would be that much harder for Titanic to fire me. They couldn’t just pull me into a conference room on a Tuesday morning and tell me to hand in my building pass. Weeks and weeks would go by before someone remembered I was still working for the company.
But that’s all beside the point. Paris would be the perfect ruse to get of Mimi. I could go down there to take a look at the office, and then put Mimi on the plane!
So one day when Malcolm had been away for two weeks and we tired of changing Dylan’s litter box, I put it to her: “Redcliffe Gardens is falling apart. Malcolm’s not paying his rent, he’s ready to skip out. The company’s moving me to Paris. I have to visit Paris in a few days, so why don’t you come with me with me, so you can fly out of Charles de Gaulle?”
I was dead-set on going to Paris by train. The Channel Tunnel train had been open for two years, but it didn’t get much use and wasn’t making money. But the people at Eurostar (for such was its official name) advertised aggressively. The current campaign had posters and television commercials featuring a suave Frenchman, an Alain Delon type, with devil’s horns and a pitchfork. “Meester commuter, don’t take thee train to work. Take the train to … Paaarees!”
Some future Max Weber will interpret this as a French attempt to impose the French work-ethic upon the doughty, hard-working Brits.
So exciting! Mimi was glad to pack her rolling duffel-bags one more time and headed out to Waterloo Station with me. All I carried was a totebag and briefcase. I couldn’t actually move to Paris (I explained) until my company found me accommodations. She kept talking about going to the Louvre, but the afternoon was getting on, and I first checked us into a tiny three-star hotel in the Rue de Saussaies, opposite the Ministry of the Interior. It had three stars because it boasted a teensy elevator that could barely accommodate two nonfat people.
Coming out of the hotel, I noted that No. 11 Rue de Saussaies, a side door to the Interior Ministry across the street, had been Gestapo headquarters, way back during the Occupation.
“The Gestapo?” said Mimi, concern crawling all over her face.
“Oh yeeah. I heard they still have, like, torture chambers in the basement.”
“I’d rather go to the Louvre!”
So we found our way over to the Louvre, following some mental points-of-interest map I remembered from a French school-text I’d had when about twelve years of age.
At the Madeleine there was a silvery-white Citroen DS parked against the gate, its front wheels up on the pavement. Nearby begged an ancient she-gypsy who was got up in what I took to be an approximation of a nun’s habit. She shook a cracked coffee mug half-filled with coins and franc notes in our general direction.
“No thank you, sister,” said Mimi. “You need it more.”
I suggested to Mimi that the Madeleine was must be having some kind of a church raffle, and the grand prize was this snazzy, space-age voiture that Charles de Gaulle tooled around in, in that movie The Day of the Jackal.
We passed the American Embassy and the Hotel Crillon, where George Orwell used to wash dishes in the basement (as I, in tour-guide mode, informed Mimi) until he caught pneumonia, went to the public clinic, and nearly died. I told Mimi how my Uncle Walt, a Briggs & Stratton heir from Grosse Pointe Farms, would stop at the Crillon every year. Walt would boast about how he spent 27 or 28 thousand francs in just a week. Walt always laid in a goodly supply of Crillon letterhead when in Paris, and sent out notes on it throughout the year. In an early novel, Hemingway joked about doing just this kind of thing, but it was serious business to Walt. I made fun of him for it once, in my teens. It was one of those private family jokes; I shouldn’t have said anything. Anyway, a few days later I got an FU letter from Walt, probably drunk, scrawled on Crillon notepaper. I treasure it to this day, or would if I could find it.
Years later, catching up with Mimi again, I found her telling relatives in New Westminster about how when we were in Paris we stayed in the old Gestapo headquarters, where you could book a suite for 27,000 francs; and how she even got to touch General de Gaulle’s car.
The next day, after depositing Mimi at CDG via the airport bus, I made my way over to the Titanic Telecoms office. It was just outside Paris, in an office-park enclave called La Defense. The French didn’t want their attempts at modern architecture to mess up Paris, so they crowded them all together behind a cordon sanitaire that nobody has to visit unless they actually work there. It seemed to be mostly banks and telecom companies in shiny skyscrapers, along a broad, sterile, potted-tree promenade.
And on the promenade, coming toward me as usual, was Rocky the Switch Tech. Wearing his usual beige windbreaker, and rolling his cases behind him.
“There’s nothing to see, really!” he said, meaning our Titanic offices, just a hundred meters in the distance.
I said I’d take a look anyway, and he said, “I’ll see you around then. I thought they were sending you to Istanbul.”
Rocky was right. I punched in the entry code and went upstairs. Nothing to see. Our Paris-La Défense office was a lot like our London Docklands digs, though not quite as cozy. Basically brutal, utilitarian space with industrial tile-carpeting, and the inevitable spaghetti-cables and electrical conduits sprouting out of the floor. It was completely devoid of people. Its furniture was one or two metal folding chairs, and a couple of packing boxes up against a far wall. Still, I could hide out there if I needed to.
“Eddie Really Really Wants to Speak to You”
In an earlier episode of this story I mentioned how our company’s founder tried to keep himself under wraps, and put up a series of front-men to play senior executives on the financials. One of these was Eddie Kant, whose real name was no more likely to be Kant than mine is Chu-Chin-Chow. Eddie Kant, of Philadelphia and Rancho Santa Fe, was nominally President and Chief Executive Officer of Titanic Telecoms, but he had very little to do with the actual workings of the company. Mostly he sat around his office and talked basketball.
Nevertheless Eddie was the point-man I had to talk to if I wished to continue my stellar career at Titanic Telecoms. Basically, the Big Boss, the company’s secret founder, didn’t wish to speak with me.
Eddie’s office was in the main Titanic building, across La Jolla Village Drive from University Towne Center (a shopping center that was then quite nice, but far less upscale than it is today). So when I finally landed in San Diego, a couple of months after being fired from the London office, I holed myself up in the Carlos Murphy’s at UTC and put coins in the pay phone. I still had my mobile phone from London, but in the mid-90s a London mobile was completely useless in America.
I’d call, and I’d get Eddie’s secretary Sophie, who would assure me that Eddie would be right back and I could speak with him as soon as he got back. And no, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to trudge over the concrete bridge over La Jolla Village Drive, and cool my heels outside Eddie’s office.
Surely I hadn’t dirtied my copybook at Titanic Telecoms. But it appeared they didn’t want me back, just on general principle. But Sophie encouraged me to stay in touch. “Eddie really really wants to speak to you.”
Eventually Eddie and I did speak, but there was no job in the offing. No, Eddie proposed that I go move in with him in his mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, “till you get settled.” I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded shifty.
In the meantime, Punch wanted me to interview Bill Gates, so I flew off to Seattle. I never got to meet Bill Gates, and my Punch editor was canned shortly afterwards. So that’s the end of that story. And I’ve already told you the rest.