“Ta,” she said, giving me her change after she ordered her McChicken, “that should do it!” But, sensing this would somehow please her—and I will return to how I could possibly have thought such a ridiculous thing later—I asked, “Didn’t you want extra McChicken Sauce with that?”
She said “I have no clue what you’re on about—let’s get out of here!” So, we spirited our McDo’s in a cab and went up to her apartment in Shoreditch. I could never get over my embarrassment at having to call a London apartment a “flat” or having to call the London subway “the tube” or having to call a London candy bar a “sweet mop” or whatever the hell they called it.
To me, then, the British were just like normal people except they talked about Susan Boyle a lot more. It wasn’t that long ago, but long enough that subway-riders still read newspapers and, as I took the train from Heathrow to the Camden “flat” where I’d be staying for more than a month over the Christmas holidays, people were buried in tabloids splashed with the latest about the Prince and Kate Middleton.
The automated woman’s voice that announced subway stops was kind of sexy and, when you take the Piccadilly line, she keeps saying, each time the door closes, “This is the Piccadilly line in service to Cockfosters.”
Cockfosters, Cockfosters, Cockfosters.
London had all these hilariously phallic place names:
The night before, in Montreal, Canada, by an alleyway where aging hipsters smoke, I found myself talking to somebody I was proud to call my “archenemy.” I told my archenemy, Bee, I was headed to the UK and was going to read from a book published fifteen years ago. “It’s all set up,” I bragged, “I’m on sabbatical!”
Bee just laughed and she said “How on earth would people in Britain relate to your old writing? Your recent writing is unreadable here!” I told Bee, the reading was an excuse, that I was going to England for the holidays and to finally get away. It wasn’t California, it wasn’t even Myrtle Beach, but at least it wasn’t Canada. I had a free go of an old colleague’s flat while he was in Italy (where else?) and it would be all the blood sausage and David Beckham underwear ads anybody could ever want.
On the plane to England, I watched the movie Beverly Hills Chihuahua and cried three times—but noticeably only once.
It was December, drizzly all the time, and I was walking back and forth from Camden Town, smoking Dunhills in the rain, sneakers sponge-wet, happily muttering to myself stupid Britain, stupid Britain. There was a heigh-ceilinged touristy pub where I started to go, thinking maybe I would start chatting with locals, but I usually just sat there quietly, diffidently making love to my cellphone until, at last, I dared text my archenemy, Bee:
In London. Watched Beverly Hills Chihuahua on the plane. It’s all I think about.
It was much later, in a King’s Crossing gentleman’s club with a pub-like name (“The Horrid Lion”?), when I finally got a response.
I don’t believe you.
I knew not to protest but, having not been myself for quite awhile, I wanted to yell out my Beverly Hills Chihuahua knowledge to anyone who would listen, including the dancers at the Horrid Lion. One dancer, a friendly woman going by the named “Wicked Tina,” who was trying to sell me on a fifty pound value private show, calmly said “I respect writers but that sounds like a really awful movie!”
I left the Horrid Lion a hundred pounds out (or “£400” if you believe something called “AmEx”), and went and ate a boiled dinner in a diner full of taxi drivers. Boiled bacon, boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes. It was delicious but I ate it as fast as I would have if dining with my old father-in-law, Matt. There, as the cab drivers went on about Pippa, I responded to Bee by texting my favourite line from Beverly Hills Chihuahua:
“She’s not just any chihuahua, Angela. She’s a bossy, arrogant, manipulative, Beverly Hills chihuahua!”
It made me so sad to be up late in London, knowing my friends in the Americas were just having their start at the same night and that they would do a lot more with it.
As the days moved on, as the staffs of about three nearby clubs began to recognize my face and, as I inevitably started to shoot my mouth off, I began to see Britain as the Jan Brady of the world.
The stick-in-the-mud, “Who ate all the ice cream?” crying, rule-obsessed, unloved middle child of the Western World. Everybody loved the West’s over nurtured oldest child, the continent, what with its inventing of democracy and its foods that were not as fervently boiled, and everybody loved the youngest, America, what with its learning how to make a coating for fried chicken out of Doritos.
Poor Britain, once smart enough to conquer the world, now was just looking at the world and shouting Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!
Everywhere I went there were reminders of protocol, how to stand on a train, how to wait in line, how to order food properly. When I did something wrong, particularly with my American accent, people were not at all shy to remind me of how it was “properly” done. They weren’t jerks about it, I should say, but sensitive and trying-to-be-loved. I generally found Londoners—when they weren’t shitfaced—to be shy, difficult to approach and, often enough, you had to work to get beyond “Wot? Wot? You’re a Yank?”
Rule Jan Brady
Jan Brady rules the waves.
I was at a Starbucks in Smithfield with Anna (who I knew first as “Wicked Tina,” the dancer) and her friend Libby who, it turned out, was a writer and had “sort of” heard of / Google searched me. They were talking quite intently about property in London, wondering how far they could possibly live outside the city, how long before either one would just say “Fuck it, let’s move back to Thailand!” Anna and Libby talked about Thailand as if it was an outskirting neighborhood or a nearby college town, with attentive detail to Thai rent, Thai transportation and Thai health care.
I was looking at my phone while they talked (this was when you had be a brave pioneer in defending the etiquette of texting while someone else was talking) when my archenemy, Bee, wrote back.
“I’m sure this will make a fascinating lecture, Mr. Chips!”
For the first time in maybe ten years I was not going to be lecturing during the winter term. I had been on a contract at the English Department in Montreal for so long, when my contract was suddenly not renewed, I didn’t know what to do. I knew I wanted to just watch television and not respond to emails and, blessed be, I had enough cash to maybe make that happen. I was too old to look for a new career, my parents were long dead, my sisters were certainly not going to help me, certainly not after Linda left and spent that entire summer telling them stories—even the one about the “beauty contest” money I had stashed away.
So, I told everyone I was on sabbatical. I probably had some fantasy that I could start writing healthy, paying, non-fiction essays about the nice things I liked but did I like anything besides locking myself up and watching reruns of Cheers? Did I have anything left to say? What would a serious think piece by me sound like anyway?
When wealthy cosmetics magnate (Jamie Lee Curtis) is called away on business she reluctantly puts her beloved and extremely pampered pet chihuahua, Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore), in the care of her niece Rachel (Piper Perabo). Rachel is young and irresponsible and rather than keep to Chloe’s regimented schedule, she takes the dog along with her girlfriends to party in Mexico, where, Chloe is dog-napped and brought to Mexico City. Rachel sets out to rescue Chloe and, in so doing, learns responsibility and respect for Chloe. And Chloe, in turn, through her friendship with the hardboiled German Shepherd Delgado (voiced by Andy Garcia) demonstrates her ability to survive in difficult circumstances as well as learning about herself as a breed of Mexican heritage. As such, Chloe also learns to respect the amorous interest of her Beverly Hills suitor Poppy (voiced by George Lopez) a less-assimilated and less-pampered chihuahua.
Anna said she was going to go to Thailand after Christmas where, she added, she had friends. I had a reading and a book signing scheduled for the first week of January, when my friend would be back in England and I’d have to go back home, or wherever it was I was going that was not home. My friend’s apartment was as professorial as leather elbow patches on a tweed jacket. Hand built wood shelves, brass curios, framed landscapes and a stupid globe. A globe! Hahaha. I treated the apartment as if I was in a grandparents home, positive that touching things would inexorably bring me to accidentally breaking a tea cup that was the only thing they refused to sell in the depression. But Anna went right into the book shelves and took out a stack of art books and put them on the kitchen table with great excitement. “I could live here forever. It’s like a library.”
While she was flipping through, she asked “Do you have kids? I mean, you have Beverly Hills Chihuahua downloaded to the desktop of your computer so I imagine you watching it with your daughters, and you all laughing in that loud American laugh.”
I did not have kids. But, I told her I thought it was not proper to be my age and to not have kids—that some part of the human mind is meant to be occupied with raising a family, telling kids to not stick their fingers in electrical sockets and, without that, the human mind gets filled with sad, stunting things like souvenir spoon collecting or going to Martinique to bet on cockfights.
“It’s okay,” she said cheerfully; “your writing is your children!”
“You mean my children would have been sold in a remainder bin?” I said which was really stupid but I was really worried we’d end up talking about Thailand again.
There were white and pink Christmas lights in the streets, there was a display about “cool holiday kids” in Selfridges, there was beef marrow salads and full English breakfasts, there was a sale on a Santa lingerie set at Ann Summers “knicker stop” and some small book store in Marylebone which had copies of my 1997 novel The Coarse Air.
I’m not going to lie and say hearing Annie Lennox sing a Christmas carol on an Oxford Circus loudspeaker makes me, or anyone, feel festive, but it wasn’t so bad. Walking in a light snow, I got a text from my archenemy, Bee:
Listen, Dee. Do not watch BHC on Christmas! You ever coming back?
Early on Christmas Eve, I e-mailed her a full reply:
“Don’t you speak any Spanish, chica?” Delgado sarcastically asks Chloe, knowing full well she’s a Beverly Hills chihuahua. Later, he explains the significance of The Day of the Dead to the culturally dislocated and fully anglicized Chloe. In Beverly Hills Chihuahua’s forceful argument about Latino-American marginalization, canine forms of communication are not liberated from matters of colonial language or ethnicity. Whereas one may have romanticized butt-sniffing as a kind a universal parlance, Delgado is not speaking a naive “dog language” but the proud language of the self-aware other.
Comparatively, In the live-action canine version of Under the Volcano, the Consul is a British Bulldog (voiced by Mel Gibson) who finds himself in Mexico on the Dio de los Muertas, gorging on kibble in spite of dire directions for him to give imitation diet kibble a chance, when in comes a doberman (voiced by Faith Hill) from the Consul’s past, which puts him in a difficult position . . . London is a busy but lonely place. Delgado is kind of an asshole but I wish I was certain as he is.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day passed without roasts and puddings but there were plenty of hilarious “I wish I was dead” jokes at The Cursive Fox Pub in Camden. For a man whose computer once crashed because he was illegally downloading an episode of Whitney, I can say it wasn’t bad at all. I stayed away from the Horrid Lion because Anna was going and I didn’t want it to look like I was checking up but, Anna’s friend Libby would come to the Fox with her friends and we would get drunk “the American way”—filling any awkward silence with the question “Shots?”
On New Year’s, I went with Libby and her friends to a Shoreditch night club that played the same songs I was hearing (and hating) in 1988. Bang a Gong, Let’s Go Crazy, Rock Lobster and, of course, a rack of Phil Collins favorites. When the Phil Collins songs were playing, the club, which always seemed in the throes of imminent closure, I could see couples making out in the dark.
When I was twenty I couldn’t bear to dance to a Phil Collins song, even when doing so would have meant something nice to my girlfriend. Why was that so difficult for me? There isn’t a single Evelyn Waugh novel that’s any better than “In the Air Tonight” so why was hating Phil Collins something I had to see through to the point out of sitting one out? Not that my girlfriend, her eyes in a perpetual law-school squint, cared a whit about Phil Collins, but that she wanted me to not care so much about stupid things and that, maybe, I could actually enjoy l’espirit du temps and, maybe, become the kind of man who would not use phrases like l’espirit du temps. I actually heard a rumour that Phil Collins himself was near suicidal about how he became the target of music snobs, as if he was the Montovani of his generation or a precursor to Nickleback. That’s sad, of course, for someone with literally millions of fans but even I have felt something similar with my mildly respected long ago novel—appreciated, even loved, but ultimately dismissed, nothing a serious person would dance to.
Libby said: “I’d punch Phil Collins in the face just for Sussudio.”
Libby said my Jan Brady joke was bosh and “not just because people in Britain don’t get Brady Bunch jokes.” I told Libby, who read a lot of book reviews, if you could imagine Jan Brady but without such fantastic parents you can imagine why somebody would become something like a book reviewer. “Oh, fuck off, silly,” she said.
I sat in my friends flat a lot and made up stupid sounding British equivalent sayings that I would text to my archenemy:
– In proper British, a “coffee shop” is called a “biscuit and bevy parlour.”
– In proper British, a “cross town ride” is “a tower ambulance.”
– In proper British, a “baseball cap” is “a dorry snood.”
– In proper British, a “wifi signal” is an “electro chat-up light”.
– In proper British, “going off the grid” is “the full Florence Nightingale.”
The bookstore reading, to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh, was it for me and England. Unlike the British in the new world, nobody ever says “I could listen to your Canadian accent all day long!” But I summoned my own inner Beverly Hills chihuahua and read from my old novel in that dowdy Marylebone shop as proud as a German Shepherd. I read from a section of my novel where the protagonist is trying to sell cars and, to be honest, I felt embarrassed for how I lost the nearly biblical spirit of that character.
“When you really think about it,” Steve McAn says, “car salesmen are the only truth-tellers in the world.”
There were about twenty people, mostly old members of a book club for the reading but Libby was there too and that made me happy. I sold about eight copies of the book and, with the exception of the one book I saved for Libby, I signed each and everyone the same way—”Juggalo 4 Life!”
Afterwards, all the book clubbers off, I walked with Libby to the Strand and she was telling me this marvellously detailed story about how proud she was that, after getting in trouble for nicknaming somebody “‘Camel Toe,” she repented by committing herself to calling this person “Raging Camel Toe.”
Libby said, “You weren’t expecting me to have a heart of gold were you?”
“A heart of drywall would be a lot more than I deserve. So, no, I don’t think so.”
“You know that she has a husband and a son in Thailand, right?”
I didn’t know this but there were lots of stories I was determined to avoid so I said: “Oh, Anna? That makes a lot of sense. I mean I would have found out it if . . .
“If you weren’t so busy wondering how the movie Eat, Pray, Love differs from the book Eat, Pray, Love?”
“No I mean it’s just difficult for me to be honest when. . .”
“When you’re already exhausted from playing truth or dare over a few crantinis?”
“Yes,” I said, trying to not completely crack up. “Libby, you just gotta let Wicked Tina be Wicked Tina. I thought we were talking about you. Why are you telling me this anyway?”
“My friend, Jeffina, told me maybe you and I should clear that up.”
I stopped in my tracks outside some pastry shop called Tasty Thames and I put my hands on Libby’s shoulders. I said “Hold on. Wait, Libby. This is serious. You know a girl named Jeffina? Like the feminine form of Jeff?’
“Seriously. Like as George is to Georgina, Jeff has a Jeffina?”
“I think so.”
“As Paulina is to Paul, there’s a Jeffina to Jeff?”
“It is a lot to take in, Shakespeare.”
Like the worst people in the world, Libby and I stared at the overhead menu at a McDonald’s as if we didn’t know what they had. I\kept hoping I would see some only-in-Britain item like McCreamed Eels that I could tell people back home about. I had a lot of cash on me and I gave her a fifty pound note and said “If you don’t mind the line-up, Lib, please get me a Big Mac and get whatever you want!”
“Right on,” she said, “I’ll give you back your change but then let’s get the hell out of here!” As I put my wallet away she asked, “Where do you get your money, Papi?”
“I won a beauty contest, chica.”
“At a sexy seniors pageant in Miami? I hear those are extremely lucrative.”
I had no idea, even then, that the next day I would be on a train to Paris by myself watching some Asian woman who spoke Russian and her Russian girlfriend passing a quarter gallon bottle of cider between them, but I was reflecting deeply on McDonald’s McChicken sauce.
McChicken sauce is not mayonnaise.
Mayonnaise is not McChicken Sauce.
But it exists as a special condiment for McChicken sandwiches that you must ask for specifically. If you are nice they may not even charge you extra for the extra McChicken sauce. If you are not nice, it’s like the price of a Super Bowl ticket. I only knew this because about a year and a half before, in the summer in Montreal, with Bee, we had gloriously escaped this party of writers she knew who were, you know, nice people. People who described every writer they knew as “lovely” and who complimented each other’s homemade hummus. We actually screamed with delight to be on the street away from them and we ended up sitting on the stoop of a old stone church across the street from a McDonald’s to chain smoke.
At some point, I went in to grab her a McChicken and brought it, in a bag, back to the stoop. She rifled through the bag and looked up and said “You didn’t get extra McChicken sauce?”
“No. I forgot.”
“I’m afraid, Dee, from now on I have to consider you my archenemy.”
“I can’t say I blame you, Bee. But, sadly, I have no choice but to follow suit and declare that you too are my archenemy.”
David McGimpsey is a poet, a travel and short fiction writer, and a Ph.D, who teaches at Concordia University. His most recent collection of poetry is 2015’s Asbestos Heights (Coach House Press.) He is also the author the following books of poems: Lardcake, Dogboy, Hamburger Valley, California; and L’il Bastard (a Governor General’s Award finalist,) and one collection of short stories (Certifiable). Additionally, he wrote the critically-acclaimed and award-winning study Imagining Baseball: America’s Pastime and Popular Culture. His travel writings frequently appear in The Globe and Mail and he writes a regular column for EnRoute magazine.
A distinguished, international lecturer and performer, McGimpsey is the frontman for the Montreal-based rock band PUGGY HAMMER and is a stand-up comic and food connoisseur.