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Arts and Culture

Americanface, Episodes 21-24

All this week's episodes in one.

By Andrew Struthers 27 Nov 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew Struthers is a filmmaker and writer in Victoria.

21: Endurance

Ben Johnson once said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." I was tired of both. Exhausted, actually, because instead of sleeping, I spent my days drawing mummies and asteroids at the British Museum.

At 10 p.m. each night, I sat with my fellow guards in a tiny room off Ravenscourt while behind a pane of glass a roomful of men with telephones crooked in their necks moved pins around on a giant wall map, like D-Day was in progress.

When my number came up the dispatcher scribbled an address on a piece of paper and stuffed it through a slot, then I fought my way through the Underground like a salmon spawning in a brickyard and came up near the job site.

Each night was a different horrorshow. A half-built TV studio near Elephant and Castle. The cellars of the Savoy. The Royal Albert Hall. I slept on boxes of paperwork in a fur wholesalers at The Angel, Islington, a name I dimly recalled from the British version of Monopoly. There it had been upscale, ripe for hoteliers. Here it was half-rubble, with the hulks of extant tenements looming through fog.

The most dodgy of these situations was a high-end clothing store named House of Fraser, recently purchased by some scion of Arabia and rebuilt, the cavernous concourse cut in two by a plywood wall, the other side guarded by a rival security company with better uniforms.

No nylon parkas; they wore woolen greatcoats. Men from the two companies glowered at each other over the plywood wall Cold War style. My fellow guard, a Welshman named Valerie who was reading a book about serial killers, was not impressed by their style. "Fuckin' ponses. Who needs a hat that fancy to guard a fuckin' building?"

The Branch Manager told me everyone was tense because there had been a break-in the night before. I didn't care. I huddled over a three-bar heater in one of the changing rooms, too cold to sleep. At 2 a.m., the Branch Manager from the other company hammered on the plywood wall, yelling. Soon both Branch Managers were going at it.

Turned out it was two guards from the other company who had broken in. All they stole was a box of Mars Bars from the cafeteria, and our men hadn't stopped them because they were asleep. The enemy Branch Manager wanted us to retract the charge of theft, unless we wanted our somnolent habits to become widely known. I Dirty Harry'd his ass, pointing out that sleeping on the job was one thing, breaking and entering quite another.

He buckled. My Branch Manager told the division head, and they promoted me to a "plum" position at a site that had a guard room with a couch and a huge wall poster of Samantha Fox. Luxury.

I lay there thinking, This is how they trick you into becoming a team player.

22: Grace

One of those suits belonged to me. The other belonged to Steve's Landlord, Eric.

Mine had once been a fine chartered accountant's suit from Harrods. It belonged to my cousin Hugh, who was 10 years older than me and married a woman named Sheila when I was nine.

That year, thanks to the Crab Thing, I couldn't get out of bed without standing up and leaping clear of its pincers. And not just my bed. Park benches, theatre seats, anything with an overhang. My parents took me to the doctor. He said the problem was my IQ.

Hugh had a different approach to the problem. After the wedding he and Sheila moved into an apartment with modular furniture. No overhangs. Nowhere for the Crab Thing to hide. Luxury.

A year later he died of leukemia. The minister who had married them buried him, then he became obsessed with Sheila and followed her all over Glasgow. Nowadays they call it stalking. Back then there was no word for it.

I don't know how the stalking thing worked out, but I inherited Hugh's suit. I took it with me on my trip, slept on benches and in doorways, and wore a large hole in the seat.

Eric the Landlord, whose suit helped save my ass, was an odd fellow. When I first arrived at Steve and Sung Ha's, they were out singing, so Eric let me in. I sat on the couch while he forced warm English beer upon me and waxed lyrical about the apartment. Everything in it was a priceless antique. Even the crappy little spice rack I broke once I was drunk came from the estate of D.H. Lawrence.

Eric had plenty of money for antiques because before he became a landlord he had been a nuclear physicist, until the power plant he ran flushed a million gallons of coolant into a slough somewhere in England. The press ringed the building and the government told him to say nothing, which led to a nervous breakdown.

When I told him I was flying out via Moscow, he became very excited. He had been there many times in his capacity as nuclear engineer, and once found microphones hidden in all the chandeliers at his hotel. He said Russian tickets were cheap because it was a planned economy, they had no safety standards at all, planes were dropping out of the sky like plums.

I don't know if he ever found out where his suit went. But as far as I could figure, half of what he told me was true.

23: Splitting Apart

The plane swooped in over Moscow at a sickening angle. Her weary metal wings creaked and shuddered and people actually cried out in fear. We barely cleared the rooftops for miles and miles. The architecture was spectacular, romantic, grotesque, black stone, slush and snow, street after street, Tolstoy central.

The guy next to me was Irish. I forget his name because he started drinking at Heathrow and it seemed unfair to make him do all the work. Booze was free on planes in those days, and there was as yet no word for passenger rage. Good times.

Moscow was dark. Darker than London. Electric light was rationed like biscuits on a lifeboat. The cash registers were the size of farm machinery and worked in five currencies. I bought the cheapest vodka I could find and drank it with the Irishman in an odd little vestibule where old ladies were handing out towels.

I told the Irishman my businessman plan and he laughed till vodka shot down his nose. "Have you seen Narita? It's like a bloody fortress."

Actually, I had. Gwen and I went to Japan on our honeymoon. Our plan had been to stay and work but we had to rush home when her father got sick.

Narita was indeed scary. There were tanks and soldiers everywhere. The government had requisitioned the land for the runways from farmers, who, dispossessed, spent the next 20 years trying to blow the place up. It became a cause celebre. Activists formed human pyramids at the end of the main runway to spook the pilots. Hence the gauntlet of tanks at airport security.

But it was too late to back down, so I drank till I blacked out in a hostelry full of fellow travelers, where for some reason the beds were free, although they took my shoes and jacket at the door like I was a prisoner, and all night a behemoth TV in the distance broadcast an old Russian general in an oversized military hat muttering something about the latest Five Year Plan.

Next day on the plane a beefy stewardess passed around a plate of bruised apples. I declined. "Please!" she barked. So I took one, and a warning light clanged on:

NO SMOKING! FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT!

It smacked of the Gulag, but I wondered if in Russia an explanation mark also meant please. Perhaps this whole Cold War situation was predicated on similarly subtle semantic rim shots.

24: The Turning Point

At dawn we crossed the frozen coast of North Korea. I crept into the bathroom, shaved, scrubbed, preened, and emerged Fortune 500. The Irishman was furious. He had been looking forward to epic chuckles at Narita customs, but my shtick was so fine he realized it might actually work.

I swept past the customs desk with my new diplomat friend, past the Irishman, who looked up, bewildered, as the uniforms rifled his paperwork and shaving kit. For a moment I thought he was going to Bodysnatcher me, then I was swept into the executive lineup, where they examined nothing except our apparel.

Unlike the Soviets, Japan has an entrenched class system that harkens back to the court of the first emperor, Jimmu, a contemporary of Nebuchadnezzar. Some Korean families have been there hundreds of years and still must carry alien ID.

But all this national insecurity was undone by my businessman disguise. The guard collected my passport and the diplomat's and snapped a rubber band around them, at the snap of which I dared to hope.

Then the stamp came down and I fled along a hallway to the Tokyo train tunnel. The London tube out to Heathrow reeked of urine, but this one smelt of rain and vegetation.

I spent my last cash on the night bus to Kyoto. Even the bus was special. They gave you slippers and a cotton robe called a gikata, and the seats went way back, and we raced through rice fields and along coastlines through the dark into the Kansai.

Kyoto was fogbound and empty. There was a giant red and white radio tower, like the beginning of a RKO movie, ripe for destruction by Gojira. From it broadcast a strange, plaintive voice that seemed to recite a list of grievances.

But it turned out the voice came from loudspeaker on the roof of a black Winnebago parked at the foot of the tower. It was the RV of the Japanese Fascist Party, who wanted the U.S. out of Okinawa.  [Tyee]

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