Excerpt from Bound East and West -- Cambridge

I slipped off the stone ledge and headed back to King's Cross. At a British Rail information booth I looked up the departure time for trains to Cambridge. The next one left in an hour. I crossed the street and went into a Wimpy's, a fast-food restaurant.

I got in line with a group of high-school students. They were talking about their biology instructor. From speakers hidden in the ceiling came warbling, youthful pop songs. The woman at the register repeated my order into a microphone, sending my request out over our heads. My order, briefly, mingled with the pop tunes.

I carried my tray to the sitting area by the front door, where the windows looked out upon Euston Road. Across the street was a Thomas Cook agency. When I finished my hamburger, I leaned back and laid my head against the imitation brick wall. I nodded off. When I woke, I was sitting slumped in my seat. I was surprised. Rarely do I fall asleep sitting up. Lying down, I can fall asleep anywhere. I envy those who can sleep sitting upright, no matter whether on a bus, train, subway, or airplane. Well, I had triumphed at Wimpy's. I looked around with a sense of achievement. I leaned forward and hung my head over the steaming cup of tea. I rubbed the stubble on my chin, feeling agreeably dishevelled.

This mood of indigence was heightened when I crossed the street to St. Pancras station and joined a rushing horde of suburban commuters. I was the only one not wearing business attire. In comparison, my black jean jacket looked rumpled. The nylon bag I had retrieved from the locker at King's Cross had a rip along the zipper. The further I traveled the larger it grew. With these evident deformities, I ran shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of a corporate brigade, getting my knees jarred by swinging briefcases.

I boarded a car at the end of the platform and was fortunate enough to find a seat. Settled down, I pulled a paperback out of my bag and began reading, elbows pressed against my ribcage. A shadow from a towering London Times covered my page. A whistle blew, the string of cars shook and then started rolling north out of the station. Leaning forward -- to the displeasure of the man standing directly in front of me -- I looked out the nearest window. The sky was pink along the horizon. The sun hung behind a gray cloud. The blackened, two-dimensional cityscape -- as though drawn by a five-year-old -- contained the shapes for a church spire, a factory chimney, and several rectangles representing apartment buildings. At each station, as we moved away from London, a few more commuters squeezed themselves out between the doors. The light left the sky quickly. Soon there was only a handful of people left in the rocking compartment.

A woman across the aisle from me was examining her shoes. She studied each one for a considerable amount of time, turning them this way and that, rubbing off a dirt spot and checking the heels. In spite of myself I, too, became interested in their shape and construction. But then I turned my head and looked out the window. A reflection of the car's interior. I moved by face close to the window pane. A blackened landscape. A few kitchen lights on the plain. Dinners in progress.

A couple rows in front of me sat a scholarly-looking man with an open book. He had a long head and wore a pair of black-rimmed glasses that he kept pressing back into place. Placing index and second finger on one corner and thumb on the other, he slid them back up his slender nose. He was reading a book of poetry.

At the next stop we had to transfer to a different train. When the poet-scholar stood up, I was shocked to discover that he was wearing a bright yellow halter -- the kind that traffic cops wear at school crosswalks. Why was he wearing one? Surely there were no more children left to direct safely from one side of the street to the other. Had he forgotten to take it off? I decided that, in England, absent-minded scholars are required to wear warning jackets at night in case they step out into traffic while deep in reflection.

I followed him out of the car. His gait was abstract, suggesting either meditation or dormant insanity. I later found out that bicyclists in England commonly wear these jackets at night.

A smaller train with rattling windows carried us to the edge of Cambridge.

Inside the station there was a map of the city behind a piece of plexiglass. The street index listed a "Belvoir" and gave its coordinates. I was looking for a Belvoir Terrace. I decided it was the same street. Using the coordinates, I brought my index fingers together on a spot in the northeast section of the city, just over the River Cam. I scrutinized the streets and figured out the quickest way there. Tenison to Mill Road; left at Mill until reaching East Road; then right and straight over the Cam, turning left into the neighborhood where Belvoir was. I had decided not to call my friends and surprise them at the door.

Tenison Road was lined with red-brick two-story cottages. White curtains hung in the dormer windows. The street was narrow and only had a few streetlamps. Mill Road was wider and had shops that were doing business. I passed a pizza parlor and a health-food store and then came to East Road, wider still and bearing heavy traffic.

I followed this street, anticipating the Cam. I went over a small hill. Oddly, I found myself walking along the edge of a highway on the outskirts of town. The dark countryside surrounded me. Silence. Where was the Cam? Had I missed it? I turned around, went back over the hill, checking the street signs. I discovered that I was on Newmarket Road, not East Road.

I made my way back to the corner of Newmarket and Elizabeth. A woman in her fifties, wearing a heavy, knee-length coat and a black hat was passing by. I asked her if Elizabeth would take me over the Cam. She said that it would and pointed me it that direction.

Crossing the bridge over the river, I looked down and saw several freshly-painted, domesticated boats resting serenely on the motionless water. A single lamp hung over a dock with a gas pump.

On the other side of the Cam, I turned onto a cement path that led between two houses and into a residential area. I found at once the street I was looking for: BE VOIR ROAD. The "L" was missing. And it was called "road," not "terrace." I took the slip of paper with the address out of my pocket. The numbers on the sides of the houses did not correspond at all. Obviously I was in the wrong part of town.

I went back over the Cam and flagged down the first taxi I saw. "Belvoir Terrace," I said, pronouncing the "l."

The cab driver looked back at me. "You mean Beaver Terrace?" That's how he said it, "beaver."

"Right," I said, leaning back and blowing my nose on a tissue.

We crossed over to the southeast side of the city. He pulled up to a house that I recognized from a snapshot I had seen back in San Francisco. I went up the flagstone walk to the front door. I lifted the knocker and brought it down three times. On the third knock I heard a window sash open somewhere above me. I stepped away from the door and looked up.

Two young women, their hands resting on the window ledge, gazed down at me. I called up to them, asking if Don and Sarah were home. They replied in broken English that they would be back later. I was about to give them a message when they shouted, "We come down!" The sash was lowered and a minute later the door in front of me opened. One of them held the doorknob, while the other stood in the dark of the hallway.

I slowly explained my situation, adding that I would take a walk through the downtown and return at eleven. The woman at the door listened and then asked me if I'd like to use a bicycle instead of walking. Surprised by this offer -- somehow one of the least expected incidents of my travels so far -- I said that I certainly would.

I followed her down the flagstone walk, through the iron gate, and down a driveway to a brick garage. I stood by the entrance while she continued on into the pitch-black interior. The dark inside was impenetrable. I heard a chain striking a fender. Her figure emerged with a bicycle. She wheeled it out to the street, handed me a key for the lock, and said she hoped I'd have an enjoyable ride.

While all of this was taking place, I was trying to contain my joy. The day's progression of events had led me to a kind of upper register of elation.

I dropped the vinyl bag into the basket on the handlebars and swung my leg over. I pedaled off down Trumpington Street, laughing to myself, for myself, and with myself. Clanking along, I thought of a song by Syd Barrett, who had grown up here in Cambridge. One of the verses goes:

I've got a bike,
You can ride it if you like.
It's got a basket, a bell that rings,
And things to make it look good.
I'd let you have it if I could,
But I borrowed it.

At the same time, I was thinking of that young girl riding her stingray in Nebraska and how she swerved around the rain puddles.

The ends of my open jacket flapped in the sharp nighttime air. Although my cold was getting worse, I didn't care in the least. It suddenly occurred to me that my life was an unmitigated success. I felt sorry for those who had to continue living their miserable lives while I, somehow, had reprieved myself. What a joy to ride a stranger's bicycle! In another country. At night. How far away my despair in San Francisco seemed.

I passed a museum and a church. Everywhere I looked there were bicycles. Some were chained to the iron fences that surrounded the front lawns. Others rested against low walls. I reached the downtown, where students were walking around in small groups.

I was riding slowly down a quiet sidestreet when I happened to look through a doorway that led to a pub with a courtyard. There were picnic tables filled with students hanging over mugs of beer. I found a place to lock the bike and went through a pair of large wooden doors. I crossed the courtyard and went inside, where I had to push my way to the counter. The place was noisy. All the faces were glowing from alcohol.

My state of exaltation had made me extremely thirsty. Between sniffles, I ordered half a pint of Guinness stout and a chaser of John Barr. Someone left the counter and I secured a seat. I settled down and began drinking with a convalescent's sense of duty. More people pushed into the bar. The clamor increased.

I attended to my cure, sampling the whiskeys and scotch on hand. Instead of inebriation, however, lucidity followed. I eavesdropped on conversations, capable of constructing entire dialogues with just a handful of overheard words, a phrase, an ambiguous reply. My elbows rested on the edge of the bar and the lowest rung of the stool supported the heels of my shoes. Silently, inwardly, I toasted the barmaid who drew the mugs of beer and poured out my shots.

Sometime later, I decided that I had better get back to Belvoir Terrace. Don and Sarah would be waiting. I went back through the courtyard and crossed the street to the bicycle. I was puzzled by the absence of effect the liquor had had on my system. Contrary to reason, I felt clear-headed, as if I hadn't touched a drop. I squatted down and inserted the key into the lock. I turned it but the lock didn't open. What was wrong? Suddenly I realized that I was crouched down in front of the wrong bicycle. Well, I thought to myself, maybe I am a little drunk. I went down several paces to the right one and unlocked it.

At Trumpinton Street, I veered south and rode in the direction of Belvoir Terrace. The church slipped past, then the museum. I rolled the bicycle back into the garage. Walking to the front door, I saw that a lamp had been turned on in one of the ground-floor rooms. I brought the knocker down, thinking of the surprise on my friends' faces. I heard steps coming from inside. The door opened and a man in his early sixties stood there, his figure half-illuminated by the lamp above the porch steps. He was wearing gray flannels and a cardigan. He eyed me owlishly from behind a pair of glasses. The set of his mouth suggested peevishness and impatience.

Assuming that the women upstairs had already informed him of my situation, I asked for Don and Sarah. He told me that they were in London. They had been living there, in fact, for almost a month now, he added.

I hadn't expected that, of course. Now what? The last train to London had already departed. Besides, I was tired. I hoped he'd offer me a bed for the night.

Bill, Sarah's stepfather, remained at the door. I stood with one foot on the front step. Our conversation was marked by a basic misunderstanding. I thought he knew who I was and that I had just come from London. He wondered why I kept standing there. We were talking at cross-purposes. I mentioned my arrival from the United States. He didn't budge. The repartee became more and more pointed until finally he demanded, "What exactly do you want?" His hand still gripped the doorknob.

I grinned. "Well, I could either go back into town and look for a hotel or, if you have a spare bed or couch . . ."

He held my eye. "Why don't you step in, then. It looks like we have something to discuss." He stepped back and let me pass inside.

He guided me into the kitchen. I took a seat at a small table in the center of the room. A lamp hung from the ceiling and shone directly on the wooden surface of the table.

"First things first," he said. "What are you drinking?" Before I had a chance to answer, he added, "You don't have a choice, really. We only have wine."

He poured me a glass of wine and then took a seat across from me. It was decided, almost at once, that I'd sleep in the guest room. I told him about my difficulties in locating Belvoir Terrace. He listened attentively. When I finished, he took up the bits that interested him. The missing "L" intrigued him. To amuse myself, I asked him whether this could explain the local pronunciation of "Belvoir." He shook his head and said it was unlikely. He was amused, though, in his own grave and ironic way of looking at things, by my little adventure.

He showed me the guest room on the second floor. I thanked him for his hospitality and carried my travel bag inside. I suddenly felt exhausted. I climbed into the double-bed and turned the lamp off. I had no time to reflect on the events of the day. Filled with liquor and cold medicine, I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

The next morning I ate breakfast with Bill and Sarah's mother Lavinia, a librarian at Trinity Hall. Over tea and toast with jam, she listed a few sights I ought to take in while visiting Cambridge. Then, while we talked about the United States, she told me about a Medieval History student at Trinity Hall. This young woman had received a scholarship to study Stateside. She spent the first year at Harvard. But she found the people stuffy and conceited. She transferred to Berkeley for the second year. "And she really enjoyed Berkeley," Lavinia told me. "In fact, she was quite taken with the United States. I admit that this puzzled me. At Trinity Hall, she had devoted all of her time to research in Medieval British history. One of the brightest students we've had. And she had a deep feeling for England's historical dimension, too. This historical dimension, I thought, would be the very thing that the United States lacked."

I asked her what the student was doing now.

"She never finished her degree. She had inherited a small cottage in northern England. She moved there and began writing fiction. She's living there right now, working on a novel."

When Lavinia left for the library, Bill assumed the role of guide. His face wore a taciturn morning expression. We were standing in the kitchen. He placed a piece of paper on the table and took a fountain pen from his shirt pocket. He began to draw a map of Cambridge. Two parallel lines represented Trumpington Road. The course of the Cam was then added. Major reference points followed. At the end of two lines labelled "Senate House Passage" he drew a rectangle and bisected it diagonally. Near the feather-end of an arrow pointing to this rectangle he wrote "Trinity Hall." One of my destinations for the day.

He picked it up, scanned it once and then handed it to me. Next came a tour of the garden. We strolled on the dewy lawn as he told me about the history of the house, stopping every few feet to admire the flowers.

He recommended walking into town along the Cam and came part of the way with me. We passed a garage in back. A large American station wagon was parked there. It was, to my surprise, the car that I used to drive on my newspaper deliveries in the Bay Area. I had forgotten that Don and Sarah had driven it across the country and onto a ship headed for England. I told Bill about the familiarity of its steering wheel, the hours spent racing through heavy traffic. He nodded but glared at the car. He viewed it, I believe, as an uncouth interloper. A large metal carcass with blotches of brown primer paint. It stood next to a two-story Georgian house with a well-tended English garden.

A muddy path took us to the river. Puddles here and there. Bill was concerned about the destruction from the recent storm, pointing to toppled trees and detached branches. Because of his preoccupation, he stepped directly into a puddle. The mud came up over his handsome leather shoes.

He glanced over at my combat boots. "It looks as though you have the requisite type of footwear."

We came to a road with autos, the point at which he would turn back for home. "Just keep to the path," he said, "and soon you'll return to civilization."

I'm not sure whether he considered Woolworth's part of civilization, but that's where I ended up. There was a cafeteria on the second floor. I bought a roll and a pot of tea, taking a seat against the wall. From where I sat I was able to watch the shoppers strolling up and down the aisles of goods. In the music department a young couple were flipping through the album bins.

After Woolworth's I walked over to Trinity Hall and visited Lavinia at the library. She took me to a small room upstairs. It was, she said, the original library for the school. There were wooden benches with cumbersome books chained to the side. The floor was polished smooth by centuries of pacing in front of the bookshelves. Lavinia pointed out for me a complete edition of Diderot's Encyclopedia, Johnson's Dictionary, and several early travel narratives.

The book I lingered over the longest was a first edition of Cooke's Travels with illustrations by William Hodges. I had always admired his drawings of minutiae encountered in New Zealand. There are, for example, detailed renderings of different styles of arrowheads. I wish that more contemporary travel books would include photos or drawings of these minor differences -- like matches, for example -- because these aspects of the material culture, though seemingly insignificant, often help create the sense of foreignness we seek.

Back downtown I changed some more money and visited a couple bookstores. In a place called Heffer's I came across an edition of collected stories by Raymond Carver put out by Picador. I read parts from several of those characteristically spare stories about the lower end of America. His people live with reduced expectations. The middle-aged couple in "The Idea" watch the next-door neighbor window-peek on his own wife. "We were hunkered on the floor," narrates Vern's wife, "with just our heads showing over the windowsill and were looking at a man who was standing and looking into his own bedroom window." That night, unable to sleep, Vern's wife cleans the kitchen and finds a line of ants beneath the kitchen sink. She sprays beneath the sink and inside the garbage can. She watches a talk show but can't forget the ants. "Pretty soon I imagined them all over the house. . . . I looked under the sink again. But there was no ants left. I turned on every light until I had the house blazing." She looks out the window at the neighbor's house. "'That trash,'I said. 'The idea!'"

Thinking of Carver's stories and that part of America I was so familiar with, I began walking aimlessly around Cambridge. I was passing along a large gray wall of cement to a parking ramp when I came across what looked like an alternative cafe. Spray-painted graffiti-style was its name: The Ghetto. In Cambridge? Curious, I pushed through the door.

A few of the town's troubled youth were sitting on chairs and a ratty-looking couch. They were wearing leather jackets and plaid bum-flaps. Sitting with them were two bona fide bums, in stained greatcoats, their noses purple from drink.

I went up to a counter where there were large jars of butter, peanut butter, and jam. A young man with a social worker's kindliness explained to me that the first sandwich was free. After that, each additional one would cost thirty pence. Odd policy, I thought. I questioned him about it and he told me that this shelter was partially funded by the city government. I bought two sandwiches and talked to him at the counter.

A distinctly criminal-looking man entered The Ghetto and joined us at the counter. Pat had, indeed, done time. He knew I was an outsider and addressed me almost exclusively. He said that he had certain tendencies that always got him into trouble. Just then one of the bums rose from the couch. Pat engaged him in a little friendly sparring, flexing his knotty muscles, stretching his green T-shirt. The bum disengaged himself and sat back down.

Pat turned to me and said that his problems had really begun a few months ago when he had almost killed his old girlfriend's new boyfriend.

"I 'ad problems wid me ex," he said, grinning and pointing to his temple.

And then, a week ago, while on probation, he was pulled in by the police. "I nicked a brelly and broke my bender, din I!"

So now he's in more trouble, possibly one or two years for breaking his probation. He wanted an unbiased judgment from an outsider. I absolved him by shaking my head back and forth a few times in commiseration.

Before returning to the station, I took a last turn through the town. I was passing by a restaurant when I noticed a sign in the window. It read, "No Denim Allowed." I went up to the window and peered inside. A waiter in a brilliant white shirt and a black vest turned around. I waved to him, grinning idiotically, and then resumed my walk to the depot. Pat, I recalled, had been wearing denim. Wise policy, I thought. I doubted that they wanted any of their customers' umbrellas nicked.

The sky was so clear and the air so light that I sauntered along with a minimum of effort. I passed a large playing field of level grass. On the far side were grayish stone houses. Schoolchildren were crossing the field on their way home. I stopped and watched them until they reached the other side.


On the train back to London, a commuter sat across from me, reading an issue of Boat Owner. The closer to London we got the heavier his eyelids became. Out the window I saw a man in a heavy coat and a red cap driving a tractor, turning the autumn ground.

The commuter was sleeping, the magazine held in limp hands, when we pulled into St. Pancras station. I returned to the Wimpy's across the street, where I studied my map over a hamburger and a cup of tea. I located West Hampstead station and then the street, Lyncroft Gardens.

By the time I exited the subway car at West Hampstead, the sun had sunk below the horizon. At the top of the steps I turned north, following the sidewalk as it wound itself into the town. The shop lights were on and people were buying groceries for dinner or ordering take-out food. On an opposite corner stood two middle-aged men in gray slacks, black cutaway suitcoats, and bowler hats. They rested their hands on shiny black canes. A third man in the same outfit came out of a darkened doorway and joined them. At the corner he raised his hand and signalled for a taxicab.

I walked on, reaching and then turning up Lyncroft Gardens. Sarah's surprised voice came over the intercom when I announced myself. Upstairs, we sat in the living room with a roommate and his six-year-old daughter. This thin, lively, blond-haired child wondered who the stranger was. While her Dad fiddled with the television set, she came over and sat down on the floor in front of me. She moved right up to me, lying on her back and placing the backs of her calves on the tops of my thighs. As we sat in this peculiar, symmetrical position, she asked me questions. The way she moved on the floor reminded me of children's intimacy with lower surfaces. We crawl around as babies and children and get to know the region quite well. Martha was in the transitional stage, somewhere between the upper and lower strata.

Later, her sister Rebecca stopped by. She was twelve and with one glance I could tell that she was completely initiated into the upper realm. When Don arrived, the three of us went up the hill to a pub, where we spent the rest of the evening. I was given the girls' bedroom that night and slept cramped in a narrow bed.


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