London Calling

I’ll preface this post by saying that I’m fully aware that around this time of year, the internet, and more importantly, our lives, are saturated by the images and ideas associated with travel. Of course this is the case; it’s summer, and for a lot of us, time to get away and see new things. But even if the experiences we’re having are new to us, the experience of seeing someone else’s picture of Buckingham Palace isn’t new at all. It’s the opposite of new; and, dare I say, maybe even a little bit annoying. Unless it’s an immediate family member or a very close friend, someone else’s experiences abroad are about as interesting as hearing about a trip to the grocery store. A bit harsh? Maybe. But I say these things more out of awareness of my own position as someone who continues to ask for your attention regarding the things I’m experiencing in other parts of the world. In light of this dilemma—that someone else’s travel exploits becomes increasingly less intriguing with every episodic development—I’d like to reaffirm the notion, which I continue to learn anew with every passing day abroad, that travel isn’t interesting in itself; at least not for anyone but the person doing it. I keep writing and asking you to listen because life itself continues to befuddle me. That’s why any of this stuff is worth sharing.

All that being said, I’d like to share a bit about one strange day I recently had in London. After the conclusion of the semester in Orvieto, I hopped on a plane to London for 6 days of solo traveling. “Solo traveling” essentially means stepping out every morning at 9 AM and wandering around the city all day long, looking and listening and drinking coffee, with just a few set destinations to give myself a loose agenda. After I’d patronized most of London’s free museums in the first few days, I downgraded my sightseeing ambitions from casual to very casual. The only thing on my list for this particular day was a temporary exhibition of the infamous graffiti artist Bansky at Sotheby’s auction house in the Mayfair neigbhorhood. Upon arriving at the small gallery, I realized that I desperately had to pee. I asked the security guard if the gallery had a restroom, and he pointed me across the street to Sotheby’s official auction house gallery; the Bansky show occupied the smaller space for temporary exhibitions. Upon entering the main Sotheby’s gallery, I quickly became aware that I was vastly underdressed. I asked again for the restroom, and a refined looking security guard directed me down a series of ornate, carpet-clad stairs. The guard himself should have been a sign of what I was getting myself into with this brief detour; only in London’s swankiest auction house do the security guards look and sound like art critics. I descended the staircase and found myself in the main room of the gallery, which was full of what appeared to be buyers and curators, all of them in bespoke suits and sleek dresses. It was 10 A.M. They seemed to turn in unison and give me a collective once over, and for the first time in my short suburban life, I felt like a peasant at the ball. It’s not like I was in rags, though, just typical travel guy attire: jeans, a fleece sweatshirt, baseball cap, a backpack and a few days’ scruff.  I retreated to the bathroom and gave myself a non-verbal pep talk in what appeared to be a crystal mirror. This is a public gallery, I thought. I have every right to be here as they do, which was definitely true.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating the social dynamics of the situation, but the sophistication of the space and the people in it were right on point for what the gallery actually held. I stepped back into the small room and decided to have a look around, and I quickly realized that the people there had little interest in my intrusion; they were too consumed by the fact that of the 30 or so pieces in the room, one out of every four paintings in the gallery was a Picasso, the cheapest of which was estimated to sell for a staggering 600,000 pounds. Not to mention the handful of Paul Klee etchings, Renoir nudes, Max Ernst panels, Degas sketches, and an early Van Gogh. I was in the hall of unknown, modern masterpieces, and the people around me, as far as I could tell, were interested in hanging them above their mantels. For a few more minutes, I basked in the glow of all the concentrated brilliance, and in the sense of surprise at having discovered it because I had to pee. Then I walked back across the street to see what I’d come for in first place.

As I’m sure you know, Bansky rose to fame in the last 10 years for his anonymous, politically subversive street Graffiti. He creates stencils of figures, often authority figures or children, adds another element, like a balloon slipping from a little girl’s hand or a palm tree in the crack of a wall, and spray paints them on a carefully selected place in a city under the cover of night. They usually pop up in impoverished or conflict-ridden urban zones, or, conversely, in swanky commercial parts of cosmopolitan cities. The effect of Banksy’s work is mostly a result of its context, and of the apparent bandit-moves it must have taken to place there.

So, upon entering the small gallery, it quickly became obvious that seeing a print of bandana-masked man about to hurl a bouquet of flowers like a Molotov cocktail in a well-curated auction house was about as poignant as seeing it on a computer screen in a library. Meaning, an image like that doesn’t hold the same power when it’s so blatantly out of context. But that’s the natural trend of any art that originally grows out of conflict and subversiveness: once it’s recognized, commended, and eventually considered valuable, it becomes something else entirely. But in light of my recent bathroom/modern masterpiece detour, Banksy’s guerilla art was suddenly relevant in an entirely different context: as a literal foil (but also somehow a cog in the machine) to the absurdly lucrative commercial art scene. Passing onto this print seemed especially probing and hilarious, but still also a little strange, a little ironic:DSCF1885

Suddenly, Bansky’s painting was the shit that he couldn’t believe people were actually buying. It was like seeing English Noblemen of Nottingham pay Robin Hood so they could watch him steal from them. Either way, Bansky Hood was laughing all the way to the bank.

I bid a curt adieu to the classy security guard on my way out, and as I glanced back at the main Sotheby’s gallery, where the buyers and curators were filtering out of the place for lunch, I couldn’t help but smile a little; because even though I left there empty handed, I suddenly felt a bit like Robin Hood myself. I’d gotten much more than what I’d come for.

I left Sotheby’s and headed for the nearest Tube Station, still chuckling a little to myself, befuddled by the convoluted display of authentic beauty in the midst of extravagance, of anonymity becoming fame, and of a name becoming everything. In my five days in London, the Tube became a place of momentary solace for me, mostly because it allowed me to space out and enjoy the company of strangers while still progressing swiftly towards a new destination. The destination, in this case, doesn’t really matter. In fact, what happened next was so sharp and memorable, so haltingly beautiful, that I couldn’t tell you now where I was going afterwards. I think it must have been one of the many coffee shops that I checked out, but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you which one it was.

The doors swiffed open at the Holborn Stop, where I had to transfer from the Picadilly line to the Central line. Transferring lines in a Tube station is often a journey in itself, because most of the multi-line stations are like massive underground villages, with multiple levels of tunnels, signs, escalators, and occasionally, performers. It can often take 5 to 10 minutes just to get to your other train. So, as I made my way up one these tunnels, hands in my pockets, strolling deliberately to feel a sense of distance from the hustling commuters, I heard a high-pitched, perfectly tuned whistle carrying down the corridor. It was piercing but pleasant, and it was so loud, I thought it had to be coming from the loud speaker or an amplifier. After just a few strong, warbling notes, I realized that it was one of my all-time favorite songs to whistle, none other than the southern classic Oh When the Saints Go Marching In. Now, to hear this song is nothing out of the ordinary. But what struck me, while I made my way up that tunnel amidst the chaos of a hundred other bodies lurching forward to a hundred different destinations, was that this single whistle had the power to silence everyone. It was full-bodied and rich, vibrating like an opera singer’s voice. I started to sing along under my breath as we approached the tunnel’s end—oh when the Saints gooo marchin’ in— which opened up into a wide room with two towering escalators, rising on the left, descending on the right. The whistle got louder with each step,  and when I crossed into the larger room, it boomed. Oh how I want—to be in that number. I looked to my right to find the whistler and his amp, but saw nothing. And then I stepped out of the flow of foot traffic, swiveled to my left, and there he stood.

He was a big guy, with a buzzed head and a white polo shirt tucked into blue dress pants. He had a long, thin stick in his right hand, which leaned against the ground in front of him. He rocked back and forth to the rhythm of his music, using the stick like a kind of extra-long conductor’s baton. The other hand was curled upwards at his side. I thought at first that he had his eyes closed, but with a closer look, I realized that they weren’t shut, but squinted—one open slightly wider than the other, both cloudy and glazed over. He seemed to be staring at something invisible on the ground. And at that moment, I knew. He wasn’t staring at anything at all; he was blind. He had no microphone and no amp, just his cane to keep time, his lips perpetually fixed in that relaxed O shape as he rocked slowly back and forth. I turned around to gauge the rest of the crowd’s reaction. People were still streaming onto the escalators, and one by one they turned around to see where the whistling was coming from. In just a few seconds, every head of every ascending body had turned to see the man. Most of them turned completely backwards on the escalator. The people on the descending steps to the right were looking at him the second they came into view: and in that moment, the two sets of moving steps looked like a kind of alternating chorus line; one line of bodies moving up, turned around to listen and to look, the other moving down at the same speed, equally transfixed on the whistling blind man. His breath filled the giant room.

He finished the first song with final flourish in a higher resister, then paused to catch his breath. I took this as my cue to move onto the escalator, because I realized that I was on the verge of committing a faux pas in Tube etiquette. Now I know I should have stayed. But still, I took my time, studying the man. And then he began again; this time it was Amazing Grace, and he delivered the melody with equal precision, but somehow, more emotion—just barely swaying now, the hand without the stick clenched and lifted higher. I stepped onto the escalator, but joined the rest of the crowd in turning completely around to watch him. Hundreds of strangers streaming past at a nauseating clip, all of them mesmerized by his music. Still, he couldn’t see our awe. I like to think that he could feel it, though; that he could feel in the silence of the place, in the way we held our breath so we could listen closer to his. He had turned a subway station into a sanctuary, though he might never know it.

Here’s what I should have done when I left that Tube station: I should have booked it back to Mayfair, barged into that Sotheby’s gallery in my sweat-drenched travel-guy getup, grabbed the first guy in a well-tailored blue suit that I could find by the collar, and said:

See this stuff? Forget it. Picasso and Banksy can wait. We’re going to the bottom level of the Holborn Stop. And then I’d wave my hand to the rest of the people milling around the auction house like, all of you are coming too! And then we’d run 3 or 4 miles back to that stop and I’d let them use my Oyster Card to get into the station, and we’d charge around the corner to the top of the escalators. But I’d stop them right there, I’d let them listen first. I’d let them hear the first few piercing notes of whatever song he’d moved onto, then I’d lead them slowly, one by one, down that moving Chorus line into the station, into that makeshift sanctuary. And I would watch it all from behind—their heads turning in unison towards the man in the white shirt at the bottom of the escalator, rocking gently back and forth to the sound of his own music. And I wouldn’t push the issue at the bottom of the steps, because I don’t think I’d have to. We’d gather round the man, and all those people from the gallery would dig into their pockets and find whatever Pounds and Pence they had to drop in that man’s hat. And then I’d  let him know, like I should have the first time, that he’s a bloody revolution.

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