I was sixteen, and on the adventure of a lifetime. My friend Dan, a year older than I, had just graduated high school. His parents were divorced. He lived with his Bolivian mother in Fort Lauderdale. His dad, originally from Nebraska, was living in England with his new, pregnant wife. Gladys used to be his secretary. It didn’t take an expert mathematician to add two and two to figure out why his folks broke up. Gladys was from Puerto Rico. I guess Dan’s dad had a thing for Spanish women.
Jim, Dan’s father, flew to Florida for Dan’s graduation. He’d invited Dan to come stay with him and Gladys in London for a couple of weeks now that school was over. Dan was understandably angry about Jim’s infidelity and not anxious to spend time with The Other Woman, especially when she was eight months pregnant. His parents had only been divorced five months, after all. He needed a buffer.
That’s where I came in. Bob the Bufer.
Dan asked me to go with him and stay at Jim and Gladys’ apartment. I’d never been out of the country before. I thought such a trip was out of my parent’s financial means. Dan reminded me that room and board was already covered. All I had to come up with was airfare and entertainment expenses. I’d been working at McDonald’s for over a year, saving up for a car. I had a modest savings account that I could use for entertainment, but I doubted it would cover the plane ticket, which I assumed would be in the thousands of dollars.
But no. Sir Freddie Laker, whom I’d never heard of before, had recently founded Laker Airlines, a no-frills airline with service from Miami to London. A roundtrip ticket was only $217, well within my budget. They weren’t kidding when they said no frills. Everything was extra. Checking your luggage? Extra. Meals? Extra. I bought a lunch and dinner and when it was time to eat gave the flight attendants, who were still called stewardesses back then, a red chit in exchange for my no frills meal. I’d forgotten to pay extra to have it heated.
During the two weeks we were there we explored the city, traveled by taxi and by the Tube, went to museums, fed the pigeons every day in Trafalgar Square, visited the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, saw Yul Brynner in The King and I. I had my first taste of alcohol. We went to the Playboy Club. I gambled for the first time. We visited the Red Light District where I saw my first X rated movie. We saw our first punk rockers with green hair shaped like the crown of the Statue of Liberty. We ate horrible food. We got lost. We shared tables in restaurants with strangers, who have nothing to do with this essay.
And we went to bed well past midnight every night.
Each morning I woke up before Dan. The first two days I tried to rouse him, but he made it clear I was to let him wake up of natural causes. Gladys, with her belly about to pop, was not only a stranger, but the reason for my friend’s unhappiness. We had nothing in common and it felt strange hanging out with her in the flat. Instead every morning I went walking on my own.
I established a routine. When I left the apartment building I went first to a little café where I ate breakfast. It was similar to what I ate back home—eggs, sausage and coffee, but it tasted nothing like the eggs sausage and coffee I was used to. I still marveled at the glass bottle of milk with the layer of cream on top that the waitress fetched from behind the counter for me to pour into my coffee. The yolks of the eggs were a darker yellow than I was used to. I never did figure out why. The sausages had a different taste. I liked them better than what I had back home.
After breakfast I walked to Victoria Station where I bought two Nestle Shortbread candy bars, a confection that wasn’t sold in the United States, and a cold bottle of Coke. Ice is unheard of English restaurants, but I’d managed to find a little shop in Victoria Station that sold liter bottles of Coke in the refrigerated section. The liter bottle alone was enough to make it stick out. Sodas were still sold in quart bottles back home then.
Every morning I carried the soda and two candy bars back to the flat. By the time I got back Dan was up. I gave him one of the shortbreads and ate the other one myself while I sipped the wonderfully cold soda, and the two of us mapped out our day.
Each day when I left the train station I had to cross a divided street. The first lane was marked BUSES ONLY, then there was a median, then there were two lanes for cars, another median, and two more lanes for cars going the other direction. Every day when I got to the first lane a huge sign said STOP! BUSES DO NOT STOP! CHECK FOR BUSES BEFORE CROSSING STREET!
Every day for ten days I stopped and looked to my right looking for oncoming buses in the buses only lane.
Every day for ten days that lane was deserted. I doubted it was ever used at all. Some prankster had gone to a lot of trouble, paving the street and putting up signs just to slow down gullible tourists like me.
Nevertheless, even though not ONCE in ten days was there ever a bus in the buses only lane, I stopped and looked, before strolling at a leisurely pace onto the first median.
There I did indeed have to stop and wait before it was safe to cross to the other median. Cars zipped down that road like they were competing at Talladega.
On my eleventh day in London I was tired of being a chump. I left the shop in Victoria station with my cold soda and two Nestle Shortbreads and didn’t slow down when I got to the Buses Only lane. I kept marching across the street without so much as a cursory glance to my right. When I got to the median, I waited as usual for a gap in the traffic before jogging across to the next median.
Day twelve. Only two more days left in London. I was going to miss it here. It would be nice to have iced drinks again, but I’d miss those tasty sausages and cream topped milk bottles. I paid for my Coke and candy and wondered why Nestle didn’t sell those shortbread things in America?
I’d have to remember to tell Dan that we needed to stop at Harrod’s today. I promised my mother I’d buy her a tea cozy and a teapot from Harrod’s. I could probably find one that was more typically “English” somewhere else, but she’d insisted on Harrod’s. That’s like asking someone to go to K-mart for a souvenir, thought Isn’t it? Still, if that’s what she wanted, that’s what—
A woman grabbed me and with strength I doubt either of us knew she had jerked me back to the sidewalk a millisecond before a double-decker bus raced where I would have been, horn blaring, if she hadn’t grabbed me. I hadn’t forgotten to stop and look for the bus, I knew damn well there wasn’t going to be one. There never was.
Except of course, there was.
The stranger who saved my life was maybe nineteen years old. She was as scared as me. Her eyes were opened so wide they had to have hurt. She didn’t ask if I was okay. She didn’t yell at me for not stopping, she didn’t ask if I hadn’t seen the sign, or was too stupid to read it. She still held my should where she’d yanked me backward onto the sidewalk.
For my part, I just stared stupidly. I was very much aware that if not for her I’d be dead. Not hurt, but dead. No way could I have survived being hit by a bus going that fast. After a few seconds I said, “Thank you.” She nodded and let go of the handful of shirt that she now held, instead of my shoulder.
We both checked for oncoming buses and the lane was as deserted as it always was. We crossed the street. When we got to the other side we went in different directions. She was out of my life as suddenly as she was in it.
Just a few seconds.
I owe her my life.
I wonder if she even remembers it.