105. A Road Not Taken

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Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

This was probably the twentieth taxi we’d been in on this trip, so we’d experienced a fairly mixed range of drivers, but this was by far the most enjoyable. It’s not often that the driver wants me to sit upfront, and I wouldn’t do it if I was on my own, but I guess it’s an easier audience. Saves my husband having to pretend to laugh at some potentially cheesy gags. He kept his Stetson on and drove quickly and smoothly. Automatic movements over and over down those same streets, leaning back in his seat, one arm straight, the other hand chucking printed laminated paper in my lap for me to read. His well-rehearsed speech about his comedy career, who he’d met and how surprised he was that we hadn’t seen him on TV. “Look at the pictures!”

When we got to the diner, which was one of the few places left in Vegas still with a parking lot in front of the building, he told me to wait while he got out and opened my door. Taking my hand, he swung me round and we danced for a few seconds. Then he kissed my hand and took a bow. I was giggling. My husband appeared bemused but never said anything. A few seconds later the driver was juggling. Actual juggling. This guy sure loves living his life. Joy comes easily to me, which, coupled with my baby-face, is often mistaken for sycophantic anxiety, but I’m no fool. He earned every penny of that tip.

When you’re spending over a hundred dollars on slot machines every day, and more than two hundred a day on food, a few twenty-dollar taxi rides won’t break the bank. it might sound extravagant, but doesn’t even touch what some people get through here in a week. People can spend their money on whatever they like. This took me a year to save up for, so I’m going to enjoy this week. A year of packed lunches and taking the last bus home to save the taxi fare. This week is not for skimping. We’re on holiday after all.

Even though the resort we want is less than half a mile away, we would still ask a doorman to hail us a cab. Who wants to spend an hour trying to cross the road, avoiding the attention-grabbing, persistent slap slap of the soft porn trading cards being handed out in the street? Sometimes they try to hand a card to him, when I’m right there. Holding out a prostitute’s card to my husband. In front of me. There’s no point saying anything. They’re just doing their job. The pavement is littered. The cards must work, or why would they keep doing it?

I saw a young woman walking quickly through the sauntering crowd. Long raincoat. Full make-up. Glitter and huge eyelashes. Hair tight in a headscarf. Possibly late for work. No time for any nonsense. Some young men, you know, those who sip all day from the big plastic, oddly shaped promotional glasses, wouldn’t let her pass. One said “How much do you charge?” to back slapping whoops from his friends. Quick as a flash, she replied, “Ask your mom. She’s my best customer,” then managed to hurry away whilst the youths laughed and high-fived their buddy’s backfired everyday sexism. If it’s funny, who cares which person is the butt of the joke?

Our first driver at the airport, told me that this was her last trip of the day. She chatted about her kids and how she had to go home and pick them up from daycare then study for her exams. That she’d never even stepped foot in most of these hotels, but one day she would take a vacation here. I’ve never hugged a taxi driver before or since.

Whenever they ask me what I do for a job, I find it’s easier to say I work in the DA’s office, but that’s just to get a conversation started. They usually like talking about themselves more. Like waitresses, this isn’t how they want to be remembered. It’s a side hustle, a way to make money. It fits in around their real lives.

The ex-marine with a red MAGA sticker on his dashboard, who wants to build the wall. The man who never showers. The one with the facial tic. Lots of students or men sending money back home. The woman with a faint London accent, who supported Chelsea, and talked only of “soccer” for the whole trip. The woman who told us that people still try to pay their fare in poker chips. She declines, saying her religion prevents her from gambling. Makes more sense that implying that those chips might be fake. The man who told us “you gotta take a tour” whenever you visit a new city. We still say that to each other.

The cabs here are way better than the yellow taxis in New York. Roomier, with a telly that shows adverts all day long. I think they all buy their air freshener from the same place. As if I’m going to know whether taking ‘Frank Sinatra’ is going to be quicker than Boulevard or we’re being taken for a long-haul ride. It’s a scam for a couple of bucks, not my soul. We certainly saw a different side of life just one street away from all the action. Those hot, tired, chefs and kitchen porters resting in the shade, with Gatorade and cigarettes. Admittedly I was a little scared when one driver took a service road as a shortcut. Then I saw a black limo, and realised that VIPs do these dimly lit side-roads all the time.

We’d never have gone to this diner if we hadn’t seen it in that film. Pink, neon, squishy purple booths, flamingo light shades, palm trees. Old school glamour. The familiar dimmed lighting of 24 hour restaurant/lounge bars. Giant cocktails to last all day, waitresses with 100 denier, flesh-coloured, shiny tights, pretty ankle socks and trainers. Sticky-out short french maid dress. Pencil poked into hair-sprayed rigid dos. I doubt they could be any quicker if they wore roller skates. Everyone had take-out boxes as the portion sizes were way off –  one plate could feed three. Out waitress was sweet as pie until someone didn’t tip enough, then I heard her say, “Was there something wrong with the food, honey?”, at which point my husband told me to stop being so nosy. When I looked again, the man was searching in his wallet for the right note to give her.

If this was my first day here, I would have left most of my three pancake stack , six rashers of streaky applewood bacon and three fried eggs. The jug of maple syrup was bigger than the bottle we had back home. As we’d been here for nearly a week stuffing our faces, I could manage most of this meal. The holes in my belt are an inch apart and the buckle was already straining at a new hole. There was plenty of time to sort all that out when we get home. We thought we’d walk everywhere to build up an appetite or burn off those calories. Then my husband got a blister. Plus, we are on holiday after all.

Time could very easily have no meaning here. I didn’t dare to try or I’d be worried about not knowing which day it was and missing my flight. Arriving mid afternoon when it’s already past my bedtime. I’m too cold and wired to eat. It’s not late enough yet to sleep. Strange how winning seventy dollars in the first hour made me believe that there might be a chance of leaving here with more money than I brought with me. I’d never even consider putting a tenner in a slot machine back home. Penny arcades all the way. But we are on holiday after all.

 

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86. Early Adopters

“They’ll make you whatever you want to eat here, Grandad.”

The menu is quite impressive. Every egg dish you could think of, either duck or hen. Bacon and sausages of a named breed from a Norfolk farm. At least six kinds of tea. Runner-up in a barista championship. Bakery on the premises. I can see a royal warrant before too long.

“I think that’s them.” I say. His Grandad turns stiffly to see the camera crew that’s just walked in. “Your interview’s not for an hour, so we’ve got loads of time. Have you decided what you’re having?”

It’s no coincidence that this restaurant is called ‘RE.’ It’s both the initials of the original company that owned it, and the beginning of every word used to describe the concept and evolution of the building.

His hands tremble a little as he holds the paper, but his eyesight and hearing are way better than mine, thanks to modern technology. “I’m going to try a fried duck egg, thick cut bacon, field mushrooms, home grown tomatoes and toast, and I want some marmalade. If it’s that same marmalade that you got me at Christmas, then I want another jar to take home with me.”

Half an hour later, we’re sat in that contemplative silence you get when you’re comfortable in each other’s space. He hasn’t set foot in here for over fifty years.

He’s studying the 1970s school chair, stroking the grey and red heavy felted wool fabric on the seat. “These are just like the blankets we had in the war.”

I think of festival stalls piled high with old hospital blankets in mint green or bubblegum pink. Quietly stored for decades in a building just like this one, waiting to live temporarily in a gated community. Life had no meaning outside of those walls. Cloaked, comforted, cherished, then casually discarded.

He’s too polite to ask why the floor is concrete and pipe works are exposed. Air ducts instead of a ceiling, overhead cisterns with pull chains in the loos. Why none of the taps match along the long institutional, animal trough sink. The amber, oval transparent bar of Pears soap with the unmistakable smell like spicy coal tar that transports you back to childhood. A towel machine on a roll next to an airblade hand dryer.

He points out parts of the warehouse where industrial machinery once stood, and why it looks like there’s a door to nowhere halfway up the wall. The hoists that swung out over the canal. How two men lay on their backs on the boat and “legged it” by walking along the inside of the brick tunnel to move the boat along, in the years before the towpath was built. No-one cared, then or now, how hard the job was. The only story everyone wants to hear is how he saved a man’s life by pulling him out from a grain bin, where he would have otherwise suffocated.

I couldn’t have predicted that audio cassettes and vhs tapes would make a comeback so soon, but it’s only a brief glimpse into his world. The working red telephone box in the foyer, next to the second-hand bookshop. A booth selling sweets by the quarter and a florist with exotic blooms for £4 a stem. Offices of companies that only exist online, next to artist space, the obligatory bicycle repair shop and a combination wine and vinyl warehouse, with barely anything for less than a tenner. A cut-throat barber shop complete with tweed knickerbocker-wearing Victorian gents and their twizzly moustaches, straight out of ‘Peaky Blinders.’

Sanitised nostalgia, packaged and sold back to us in red and white striped paper bags for more than we originally paid.

Even this meal didn’t exist back then.

A woman, looking like she’s about to do a Ted talk, wearing loose flannel trousers, a silk shirt, and an expensively scruffy hairstyle strides over, followed by a younger, nervous youth carrying a clipboard and phone. Their lanyards have the name of the TV production company on it. She sticks out her hand and says, “William? I’m Jessica. Pleased to meet you.”

47. And I Feel Fine

*This post contains descriptions of killing animals for food.

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I am the child of a pair of post-war natural preppers. Survivalists. Hunters, farmers, make-do-and-menders, be grateful for what you have got, eat it or go without. Keep calm and carry on is their outlook on life.

My mother grew up on a farm and went to an agricultural school. She can raise, kill, cook animals. Nose to tail. Nothing is wasted. Seasonal vegetables, preserves, chutney, quilts, saved string, hand knitted jumpers, mended clothes. Honey and beeswax. Bread and yoghurt. Smoked meat and bulk meals. It’s where I get my maker’s streak from.

One time when I was a child, I remember saying I didn’t want to collect the eggs because there was a particular goose that kept trying to get me. My aunt reassured me that it wouldn’t be pecking me anymore. We had goose for that evening meal, but it never occurred to me that it was the same one…

My father grew up dirt poor and often went hungry. Last one up didn’t get shoes that day. Everyone who was in the house at meal times got fed, whether you were in that family or not. If you missed the meal, you could have bread and apples. Grammar school wasn’t an option. The uniform was too expensive.

He can make anything out of bits of wood. Tell the time by the sun. Dig and plant the garden, long after others have given up with fatigue. I’ve seen him ride horses bareback, herd sheep, feed baby rabbits with an eye dropper of milk and swim half a length underwater without coming up for breath.

The sense of community, compassion and sharing culture featured strongly in his upbringing, which I am grateful to have inherited. Job options were to go down the pit or join the army.

Going for a walk whilst camping, we would collect everything we needed for a feast. Foraged greens, nettles or pine needles for a hot drink, watercress, tiny crayfish, mushrooms, elderflowers, dandelion leaves and petals. I’ve eaten grubby maggots and zingy citrus ants.

Later in the summer, free, brown-limbed, in that very particular golden afternoon light, came the real treats of scrumped apples, plums, cherries, cobnuts, chestnuts and blackberries. Then the weird and wonderful pumpkins, that always looked better than they tasted.

My attempts at trying to grind tiny amounts of grain from grasses always failed.  I think I was trying to make some sort of cracker or biscuit. Whilst I was trying not to lose my efforts to the wind, I failed to notice the creation of a rope from the plaited grass stalks, miraculously strong enough to take a person’s weight. Dad’s hands red and sore from twisting.

The humanity of dispatching a rabbit kindly with a few moves was not lost on me. Dangle the rabbit and hold its back legs, push the head back. Pull. Two minutes later, a clean pelt in a single piece with perfectly butchered, jointed game ready for the pot. Innards used as fish bait. Prepare your meal during the day so you’ve got time to cook it properly, bury the pot under the fire, so animals don’t dig it up. Rub an upside-down can on a rock until you see bubbles of liquid. The top levers right off.

We did once find a small stash of canned food with a knife and a little tobacco tin of interesting bits and bobs (fish hooks, half a candle, beef stock cubes, nylon thread, a piece of flint, matches, needles, aspirin, and a single cigarette) wrapped in a tarpaulin in the woods. We left it, because it wasn’t ours, but if this was the real deal, then we would have definitely taken it. I’d like to hope that we would have left them something, but then who knows until you’re actually in the survivalist mindset? When there’s no law, what do you do? What would other people do?

My parents have incredible stories from the early eighties, when the threat of a nuclear war was very real. Preparing for the possibility. Protocol and structure. Systems organised. Plans made. We tried inventing our own 24-hour ration packs as the official ones were pretty disgusting.

I read a book written by a family friend, about how to track people, whilst staying hidden yourself. The fascinating descriptive consequences on his body of living off the same foodstuffs for too long. Competitive games of being holed up in pitch black darkness for days, with no way of knowing the time except through hunger, with the winner being the one who timed their stay to the closest predicted minute.

Resilience. Getting through this. Mind over matter. Positive attitude. Grit. Dry socks. Hot drink. Sleep. Repeat. I’m still not sure if dowsing for water works.

These things have definitely influenced my life. I’ve sometimes trudged though snow in my Sorel boots and Fjällräven parka to work on days when other colleagues ring in saying they can’t get in because of the weather. I buy food for homeless people. No-one who visits my house ever goes home hungry.

As a child I never realised that the end was not definitely nigh and it’s left me with constant low-level anxiety and a continuing obsession with the apocalypse. Many years of rumination followed, but once I had rationalised that I would probably die early on, I felt strangely relieved.

Odd as it may seem to spend hours locked in enthusiastic debate with one’s parents about recent films and TV shows depicting the aftermath, it is something we all enjoy doing as a family, so will continue to baffle others with our tales of conspiracy theories. Just saying the words, “What would Sarah Connor do?” can spark a whole afternoon’s conversation.