LONDON – I was the interloper, the ball writer on vacation who'd show up for lunch at the Italian place across from St. Paul's Cathedral or for a pint at Canary Wharf, with nothing to do but, I guess, eat lunch and have a pint. The rest of the sportswriters had chafed eyelids from the hours. They'd hoist their backpacks on their shoulders, give a mild wave and trudge off to make some sense of badminton or men's field hockey. I was off to the Tate to see Damien Hirst's artistically rendered severed cow's head.
Several of my pals, it seemed, gladly would have traded places.
With the cow.
I was in London for a week, a guest of my wife's. She was working the Games, would be there for the better part of a month, and someone had to counsel her on the intricacies of prolonged habitation in a Marriott hotel. I was her man.
So, while she – and everyone else I knew – went off to work at dawn each morning and returned perhaps in time for last call, I discovered London in and around the Olympics. I did not witness a single event. Not a dismount landed, a goal scored, a flip-turn navigated, a tape broken. Not one athletic achievement did I see live, unless one were to count the street herding of foreigners, whose degree of difficulty was extended due to the fact speeding automobiles were launched from the entirely wrong direction. This, presumably, is what it would be like if you were an NFL quarterback and your left tackle was a gold medalist Ping-Pong player. Or, say, a St. Louis Ram.
The city was beautiful, clean and alive. The people were kind. When I tell friends I mastered the subway system, what I really mean is when I wandered the tunnels and platforms seeking the proper train, not only was I not shoved onto the rails but a concerned official in a vest would always see to it I did not end up in France. I believe it works the other way in France.
My knowledge of architecture is limited to having read "Pillars of the Earth," but I'm pretty sure I know old when I see it. Anything built by men with ropes and donkeys four centuries ago that is still standing, that survived fire and winter and Hitler's whims, that's damned impressive. It was like spending a week in my grandmother's apartment, only outdoors and without finger sandwiches.
By far, however, the most wonderful part about being a wandering ball writer during the Games was the people stumbled upon, and the conversations that followed, those having arisen because of the Games, but in between them.
Sam, the bartender at the hotel, would assist my planning for the day. You must see Greenwich, he'd say. Or Camden. He spoke proper English and wore a vest imprinted with the Union Jack. He was a fan of a soccer team I'd never heard of, but in whose stadium he'd once seen David Beckham play. He didn't get cricket either.
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Mark, the cabbie, introduced me to the West Ham United Football Club, the team that returns to the Premier League beginning next week. Over a 20-minute ride, he went on about the 1966 World Cup, how the Hammers carried that day, along with the current roster, the stadium and the fact that the owner is some sort of porn magnate. The final 10 blocks or so he sang "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," the club's anthem. I swear he got misty.
Upon arrival at the hotel, I pledged my undying support for the colors of West Ham (which I didn't know until Sam the bartender called them up on the computer behind the bar.) Touched, Mark said, "I have something for you." From his sun visor he drew a neatly clipped piece of newspaper, folded twice to about the size of a business card. "I want you to have this," he said as he placed it onto the cash tray as one might a communion wafer. I thanked Mark and unfolded the article. It was West Ham's schedule, along with some key facts about the upcoming season, including our odds to win the league. My Hammers go off at 1500-1.
Mark had gathered me up outside Punch Tavern on Fleet Street, an old newspaperman hangout a short walk from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub where the evening had begun. Charles Dickens had been a regular, in the very corner of the very bench on which I sat. This was a fact brought to my attention by three American Airlines flight attendants who arrived with a book of London's 100 best pubs. Their plan was to have a pint in each. Not all in one night, however.
When the evening begins in the Charles Dickens chair with three stewardesses who also happen to be budding pub experts, it's hard not to kind of love London.
It was with some regret, then, that I left my wife to her Marriott, Sam to his bar, Mark to his (I mean, our) Hammers, the ladies to their extended pub crawl and the Olympic wind-down to my overcooked colleagues. At the airport, a woman with a shining smile exchanged my pounds to dollars. She asked about my stay, what I'd seen, if I'd be back.
She'd been born in South Africa and counted out 20s with a British accent. I asked about her identification tag. She said her name was pronounced just as it appeared, that she had been born prematurely and her parents were unsure then if she would survive. She smiled to say she had.
I said farewell to "Maybe."
On the flight home, I sat beside a gentleman from Manchester headed to Hawaii through Los Angeles. He educated me about England, the places I missed and what I must see next time. Early in the flight, he returned from the restroom with the news that the zipper on his new slacks had failed, so we discussed that for a while, along with Team GB's triumphant Games, golf in the U.K., and more golf in the U.K.
We shook hands at customs, him off to one line, me to another. We decided that when the U.S. agent asked if there was anything he would declare, it would be best not to announce, "Only that my fly's been open since Wolverhampton."
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