This Great Society - Nonfiction Contents


Illustration: Nadra Ginting

Sharon Bala: West London. Early Evening.
Illustration: Nadra Ginting

A man in a striped toque wails mournfully on his saxophone outside the Shepherd's Bush Tube station. This small corner of London is oddly modern: A futuristic transportation hub as envisioned by the 1960s, or one of those artist's renderings employed by architectural firms pitching for business and later superimposed on construction hoarding.

It happens sometimes in London. You turn a corner or emerge from the Underground and come face-to-face with steel and glass structures. The aerodynamic Swiss Re Building. St. Pancras' swish new design. Airy spaces, sleek and shiny, incongruous among the stolid architecture of Portland stone. But turn again and the illusion shatters as London reasserts herself: grave and regal and coated in centuries of grime.

Sometimes, this city seems almost a stereotype of itself. Red post boxes and phone booths. Trundling double deckers. Even first-time visitors must feel a jolt of recognition. Ah yes, I remember all this from the movies. It looks just like the postcard.

The 207 bus arrives and a queue materializes to shuffle forward in an orderly manner. On board a man clutching a beer can converses loudly with an imaginary companion. Those around him do their best not to notice. Their body language speaks louder than the drunken man. We're English. We keep ourselves to ourselves.

Later, when I recount the tale of my commute, my cousin Sinthu asks: "Was he Irish?"
"No. Jamaican."
Only a foreigner would speak out of turn.

This westbound bus is colourful. A group of Sikhs in turbans tap-tap-tap on their mobiles. Elsewhere, a woman in a burqa and blinding white tennis shoes stares into space. How can you spot the foreigners? Not by skin colour, accent or headgear, but by actions. The locals sit quietly. They do not make a scene.

"Who wants to come with me to Ealing Hospital? I'll introduce you to all the doctors." The offer is extended to the bus at large and finding no takers, the man turns his attention on the hapless passenger beside him. I think of the wild-haired vagabonds who sought refuge in the halls of a downtown Toronto hospital where I once worked. How on the subway, I always avoided the window seat: a beacon for mad proselytizers seeking an unwilling audience.

In some ways, all big cities are alike. I once met an American in Portugal who claimed Lisbon reminded him of LA. Later, I learned he was from a small town in California and it was his first trip out of the country. Lisbon, of course, bears no resemblance to L.A. apart from those qualities all cities share: heterogeneous populations, a vague malodorousness and the sharp thrill of possibility.

A small child wails, stung by a sharp reprimand from her mother. We pass the hospital. The inebriated man does not alight. His beer is finished now. He crushes the empty can and tosses it down on the floor. "My daddy — a judge — taught me one thing: never show up drunk in court. Unless you are the judge. Ha ha ha." The people around him move aside quietly, eyes fixed determinedly on the ground or out the window. We are Londoners. We refuse to engage.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

I wonder if the driver can hear this one-sided exchange. If this guy is one of his regulars. I recall a former co-worker who had a phobia of public transport. I try to picture her on this bus and find the image impossible to summon. Even in my imagination, it would seem, she refuses to board. Finally, my stop is announced. I ring the bell and disembark into the blissful quiet of the dark night. The rush of traffic and the footsteps of a fellow passenger walking ahead are my only accompaniment as I traverse a street of identical mock-Tudor homes.

At a house on the corner, Sinthu answers the door. Two dark-haired cherubs peer out. "You didn't see us in our school uniforms," my nephews chorus, disappointed that I didn't return sooner. The six-year-old has a football. He does his best David Beckham impression, in front of the glass sliding doors so he can watch — and presumably perfect — his form. Yesterday, while playing Jedi warrior, he gave me the following advice: "Don't put your sword in your pants. You might eject your backside." Indeed.

The telly is tuned to the BBC. Stephen Fry rides a hot air balloon over a forest in North Carolina. Sinthu's husband tells me that Fry was once Wooster to Hugh Laurie's Jeeves. We recall Black Adder, Mr. Bean, Monty Python. Sinthu bemoans the lack of comedic genius in contemporary England. I remind her of Simon Pegg, urge them to watch Spaced.

Tomorrow I will wake up early to catch the train to Belgium. And I will see the boys in their uniforms. London is not my home — only a frequent pit stop, a preferred way station. A place where I can both marvel at the imposing architecture and look past it to appreciate the rituals of everyday life. The unspoken rules of the evening commute. The comforts of family life and the BBC. Walking a darkened street under a quiet mask of anonymity. You won't find it on any postcard, but this is my London.

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