When I was a sophomore in high school, I was fortunate enough to spend nine days in the UK. While the trip itself is well worth its own essay (I had a gun pulled on me during an attempted mugging), there is one moment that will always stick out in my head whenever I think of London.
Well, two moments, actually. When I think of London, the first thing I usually remember is how it poured rain every single evening, and how I lurched through the back alleys on a nightly basis like Jack The Ripper for the sole purpose of slinking from my hotel to a nearby Burger King. For nine straight nights, I ate nine straight Bacon Double Cheeseburgers by myself, clothes soaked and very much alone. But hey, that’s the Morrissey-esque portion of the trip; we’re talking about funny stuff here (of course, Morrissey’s a vegan, so he’d never be caught dead inside of a Burger King).
Oh, and I also tried to purchase a replica of Excalibur at the Stonehenge Gift Shop, but was told that it was impossible for them to ship a five-foot long, diamond-encrusted weapon back to the United States. Pricks.
On one particularly beautiful Friday morning, a few friends and I took a walk to a nearby courtyard that was bustling with children, pigeons and random British passersby. Our goal was to relax for a few hours, take in the scenery of a foreign country and maybe purchase some souvenirs for our folks (my mom got a crystal paperweight, proudly endorsed by the Queen Mum herself!). The vibe was gorgeous. The elderly were feeding breadcrumbs to birds, the uniformed schoolchildren were laughing and skipping about, the architecture was stunning and the sun was shining. It was something I’ll hopefully always remember as a truly beautiful moment.
However, when in Britain, do as the Britons do. For Americans like us, our only experience with English culture was Benny Hill and Monty Python. Fortunately for me, I was about to see the epitome of slapstick from a first-person perspective.
From across the courtyard, about 20 yards away, my buddy Vinnie spotted an empty, single-occupant park bench in the shade. At the same exact time and distance away, an elderly woman, maybe 80 years old and sporting an armload of groceries, spotted the same bench.
Now, when this normally happens in life, one of two things occurs. One, the younger man backs down, gives the bench to the old woman and continues about his day. Either that, or they exchange in an awkward dance that consists one of person offering the bench to the other until someone gives in.
Neither of these things happened.
Vinnie’s eyes tightened and locked onto the old woman, who in tune, tightened and locked onto Vinnie. They took turns darting their glare back and forth from one another to the distant bench. It looked like the beginnings of an Old West shootout, only instead of gunfighters, we had a scruffy punk kid taking on a geriatric with a basket full of vegetables and bread. I was in between them with a front-row seat, and quite frankly, I was already laughing. I knew exactly what was about to happen, even though I knew it made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Like nothing I had ever seen before, both Vinnie and the old woman started moving towards the bench. Slowly and unassuming at first, always keeping a peripheral on one another, then breaking out into a saunter and eventually a full-on sprint as they, honest to God, raced each other to the abandoned bench.
I didn’t know what was more hilarious; that Vinnie had no intention of giving up this bench to precisely the type of person that you should give a bench up to, or that the old woman had clearly been in these types of battles before, and knew it was kill or be killed.
Like a car wreck, time slowed down as these two sprinting idiots reached the bench at exactly the same time (I still have no idea how the old woman was able to move so fast). Akin to the grand finale of Musical Chairs, Vinnie’s left ass cheek and the old woman’s right ass cheek rammed into each other and hovered inches over the bench, as they tussled, tug-o-war’d and fought for sole possession of, apparently, the only empty bench in England. Had I not been around Vinnie all morning, I would have sworn that I was on a hidden camera show. Normal people don’t act this way.
We’re not even at the best part. The old woman won.
With a swift, LeBron-esque shimmy, she rodeo-clowned Vinnie with her bag of groceries, confusing him just long enough to claim the seat for her own, as he stumbled and shuffled over to a drinking fountain, a defeated, embarrassed and completely classless man. As long as I live, I’ll never forget the look on that old woman’s face when she lowered her head and started running.
That final night in London, we spent the last of our money on cheese, bread and tin foil, and made grilled cheese sandwiches by cooking them in the complimentary trouser presses that were in every room of our hotel. We had five different sandwiches going in five different rooms, which led to a particularly surreal quote by Vinnie as he chatted with me in the hotel bar. After complimenting him on the deliciousness of the sandwich, his wristwatch started beeping.
“Crap!” he exclaimed. “I’ve got to go; I have a sandwich up in room 108!”
Every now and then, it doesn’t suck to be me.