I. The Lighthouse
It is spring 2005 and my roommate, my older sister, wants me out of her house yesterday. I leave dirty dishes in the sink and drink every night at O’Patricks on Dale Mabry Boulevard in Tampa, Florida. When I come home in the middle of the night, I enter through the ratchety garage door which wakes her and her husband up. Late at night I eat food out of her fridge and then pass out on her couch in front of her big-screen TV. I sleep on the couch until the Florida sun pierces through the sliding glass windows and warms my face awake. I have become a waste of space. She is not charging me rent and I am abusing my privilege. She yells at me, often.
For weeks I flounder, twiddling my Yamaha acoustic guitar in my sister’s pool area. On a Thursday in early April, in a burst of inspiration, I drive to Sears and buy a video-camera and return home to record myself playing my original songs on guitar. On the video I sing and play every song that I have “written.” I emphasize written because I do not know where my musical ideas come from and I have yet to write down firm lyrics. Instead I am improvisational. I do my best to sing what sounds good. The words that leave my mouth sound depressing and negative but I am not depressed.
I play my heart out in front of the video-camera. My recorded voice sounds nasal and suppressed; I have not yet learned how to free my inner beast. In addition to my original songs I play a minor pentatonic scale in the first position, the only scale I know. I make my demo tape in an hour and return the camera the next day to Sears no questions asked. But the video is not in the right format. I need to change the film from Super 8 to DVD and I do not have the technology. I look online and find a guy in Clearwater who does.
When I arrive at the guy’s studio I see large murals of spaceships hovering above lush vegetation and futuristic buildings. He talks on the phone while he makes my DVD.
“The consultant says I have too much heavy metal in my system,” I hear him moan into the receiver.
After minutes of eavesdropping I realize he is a Scientologist. It creeps me out but it is reasonable, Clearwater, Florida being the world capital of L. Ron Hubbard’s fleet of parishioners. He makes my DVD and I leave.
My goal is to send the video to The Guitar Academy, London. I had looked it up on the internet the night before. It is much cheaper to go to a similar school in California or Florida but I am one of those typical American Anglophiles having grown up on The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and upbeat British New-Wave pop. I must want to waste the rest of my savings because the current Dollar/Pound ratio is $1.89. Anglophilia is very expensive.
I send the DVD via overnight mail to the Academy on Friday, just one day after buying the video-camera. To my surprise I get a phone message the next day from the Academy’s headmaster saying that I have been admitted to the March-December diploma program. The demo has worked. Later I would not be so surprised as I learned that the school, like most art institutions, was barely afloat and needed students however inexperienced or talented. Regardless, when I get the phone call from the headmaster I am ecstatic.
Upon receiving the news I drive two miles to a Sam Ash where I pick out a black natural Stratocaster from high on the wall. I buy it without even playing it in the store. It is an American made rosewood fretboard 2004 Fender anniversary edition so I trust that the quality is assured. I buy a jumbo black hard case with purple fur lining into which I place the new guitar. The total cost of the guitar and case is $2,000 dollars, a significant cash outlay. That night I go on Orbitz and purchase an expensive ticket to London departing in two days.
Early the next morning my sister watches me, bewildered. On Thursday I had made the demo, on Friday sent it to The Guitar Academy, on Saturday was admitted, and now today, Sunday, I am packing up all of my belongings for a Monday departure. She takes me to the airport Monday morning and I do not even kiss her goodbye. I check the guitar and backpack, grab a coffee at Starbucks and take a monorail to Terminal C. I finish my coffee and chug three draft beers at the Chili’s Too before I board the plane. After a two hour delay on the tarmac, I am cleanly off. A whim in the air.
BA flies direct from Tampa into London, Gatwick. When I arrive, my backpack arrives with me but there is no guitar. I go to baggage services where they kindly instruct me that they will deliver the guitar to my local address once it arrives. Over the internet, using Craigslist, I have found a weekly rental in Acton, a town West of London, for 90 pounds a week. From Gatwick I ride the train into Victoria Station and then take the Underground to West Acton where I then walk up a street north of the Overground train station to a brick row-house. The landlord, Anup, is nice and charges me for the month up front before letting me into the house. Less than 48 hours ago I was living rent free in my sister’s house. I pay him his 90 pounds in cash and he shows me my room. I share the house with a white Rastafarian film student and an Indian woman who is also the maid for the house. Anup’s house is for sale and he is waiting for a buyer so he can then kick out us renters. In the meantime he is making some extra cash as our landlord.
I show up the next morning for the first day at The Guitar Academy without my guitar. It is kind of like showing up for the first day of class in elementary school without a pencil. I feel like a dipshit all day. I have to borrow the house guitar, an ugly, brown GS with a humbucker from hell. When I plug in to play Key to the Highway by Ellmore James, a routine blues number, I sound like a pig in tornado. For the first time in my life I find out I stink at guitar.
After the first day of class the guys go to the local, The King’s Den, for a beer. The 19-year old kids in my program, nearly ten years my junior, drink heavily. I try to keep up with them. In the first week a kid named Dusty and another kid we call Snake sneak in beers at the Den between classes. They end up dropping out of the program a few weeks later, their tuition paid in full. Of the twelve people admitted to our class only six end up completing the Academy’s one-year diploma program. Among the survivors are John, 34 and Ben, 32 both of whom become my best friends at the Academy. I am a fresh 27 years old, not wide-eyed, but nonetheless excited with my life decisions.
After a month and a half in the Acton row-house I connect with my friend Bryan, who I know from The College and we decide on an apartment in Kings Cross. We find a two-bedroom, one bath at Ice Wharf, two miles upstream from Camden Lock. Ice Wharf is where men used to deliver block-ice on the weak stream of a system of canals that wind South from Birmingham to London. Few people know that canals snake through modern London. History books will tell you that London was built on top of dingy streams which once fed into the Thames. Even today buildings leak on Fleet Street and filthy waters trickle down from Birmingham, England past Kings Cross through Morningside Crescent and into Camden.
At the time when Bryan and I move into Ice Wharf it is the pressing duty of London city developers to conclude renovations of nearby St. Pancras station. St. Pancras will host a Eurostar line between London and France passing through the famed Chunnel. But the project of renovation lacks momentum and passion. St. Pancras station was built in the 1860’s in two years yet in 2005 it is taking twice as long for contractors and their sub-contractors and their own sub-sub-contractors to renovate it. Kings Cross fares no better under this spoiled contractor system. In Kings Cross, only the McDonalds on Pentonville Road looks new.
My roommate Bryan works in finance in Canary Wharf. When he gets off of work we drink at a neighborhood bar we nickname “Satan’s Asshole” because it brings in the dregs of Kings Cross. We love to people watch and judge the locals. At 2:00 a.m. the “slags,” and “punters” pour into the cold street, their alcoholic breath steaming up the air. This neighborhood is horrible.
On the main corner of Kings Cross, at the bisection of Caledonian Road and Pentonville Road is a lighthouse. Everyone who has visited this old neighborhood has seen it. The rebirth of the neighborhood will be when this lighthouse shines again.
At the Academy I start with the normal spring module of core courses: Rock, Blues, Music Theory, Fingerstyle, and Sight Reading. For the first few weeks I cannot believe that I am in London taking a course in Rock. What did you study in school? Rock.
A gentle-spoken South African teaches us Music Theory. I pounce on the material. I find Music Theory fascinating. Even though I stink at guitar I can still put my full effort in the academic thrust of theory. I learn it quickly. The simplest analogy that I can give to people struggling with the basics of music theory is that playing a scale is like playing hopscotch. To play a major scale from its first tone you begin the hopscotch game from the beginning square and hop all the way through to the end. To accomplish Dorian, the second mode in a major scale, you begin your game of hopscotch on the second square and when you finish you make sure to circle back around and step on the first square of the course. Only when you step on this first square are you done with Dorian. For Phrygian you begin on the third square and, once finished, circle back and hit the first two squares. And so on through to Locrian. This idea seemed to help me.
One day in Rock class guys start having a discussion about their favorite bands. Rikki, the kid from Jersey (not New Jersey but the English Channel island) says he loves the Stereophonics and Bon Jovi. Ben, my best friend, says he likes Pink Floyd and The Band. I keep silent but want to say I like Jimi Hendrix and TheThe and The Beatles and The Ocean Blue and Aphex Twin but all of these tastes strung together sound weird. Meanwhile our instructor, boiling in his skin and tuning his custom Ibanez guitar, listens in on our conversation. When the boy we call Snake says his favorite band is Oasis, the instructor, seething in frustration, offers his opinion.
“Oasis is your favorite band?,” he yells, “That’s like saying my favorite meal is shite on toast.” I get weak with laughter. He proceeds to rock our faces off and speed through the lesson in order to punish us for our terrible music tastes.
In the spring I barely pass Rock, fail Fingerstyle, and ace Music Theory. I could have studied Music Theory at a community college in Tampa but instead decided to come all the way to London. My instructors think I am either wealthy or courageous or stupid or all three. Wealthy, courageous, and stupid. Life, like music, works in triads.
In the summer I decide to get part-time work and am hired at a small gym in Russell Square, a neighborhood just blocks southwest of “Kings Crotch” as Bryan and I now call it. A Kiwi named James hires me to work at the gym. London is full of Commonwealth expatriates like James who get to legally work in the UK for much longer and for more hours per week than Americans.
At the gym I operate the front desk and hand out towels to the patrons who walk in to workout or swim. I also take down appointments for waxings, facials and massages at the spa. The job is effeminate but I enjoy it. I love to sweet talk the ladies who work the spa. People like me. I lose a ton of weight over the summer as I have a free membership to the gym and access to group fitness classes. My favorite group class is “Legs, Bums and Tums” which exercises these obvious places and is populated with milky, obese, but determined English women. That summer my bums and my tums get shredded.
On June 7, 2005, two months into my job at the gym and during a break from classes, a bomb goes off in Tavistock Square, just meters away from my receptionist desk. I feel the air split, compress and then whoosh through me. This is the feeling of a bomb. When it detonates I run outside and see a scene out of a disaster movie. People near Tavistock Square flood South, some with camera phones documenting the scene and others running full speed away from the bus. From where I stand in front of the gym’s entrance I see the broken bus just 100 yards to the North of me. The red bus looks like a cooked lobster, its frame split down the middle, smoldering with steam. The blessing is that the bus explodes out the windows of the British Medical Society building across from Tavistock Square, spilling out doctors. The other irony is that the bus explodes right in front of a statue of Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi, sitting in the lotus pose, forever staring at traffic on Woburn Road between Tavistock Square and the British Medical Society building, literally sees the Number 3 bus explode on 7/7.
The police evacuate us from the gym hours after the explosion. Tony Blair, the prime minister of the UK leaves the G8 summit in Glasgow and flies directly to London where he addresses the people of the world. Besides the bus bomb another suicide bomber has detonated himself in a train full of people on the Piccadilly Line headed West from Kings Cross station. This spooks me out because if the Academy were in session I would be taking that very same line at a similar hour as when the bomb goes off. Simultaneous with the bombings in Kings Cross and Tavistock Square another bomb goes off across the city at Edgware Road. London is in chaos. Once released from the gym, I walk with the Kiwis across town to where they live in Pimlico, many miles away from Russell Square. I spend the night on the floor of a Kiwi’s apartment. After the bombs, London becomes a police state. Sirens flare every hour for months. Even I get arrested later that fall.
That summer of ’05 I would often go to the Camden Library, a gray, industrial building across from the British Library to check out CD’s and burn them. The library has a small but comprehensive collection, with albums as far ranging as the greatest hits of Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery to ambient technician Brian Eno’s seminal album Another Green World. I learn at the Academy that Wes Montgomery used only his right thumb to pluck the guitar and that Brian Eno is a verified sex addict. Clearly I was doing official research at the Camden Library.
When school begins in July, I enroll in a variety of classes, from Jazz to Funk to Country to Metal. Metal is impossible. Metal musicians take the instrument to orchestral heights, playing etudes at insane beats per minute. Not fun work, but nevertheless the instructors at the Academy swear that with patience, perseverance and training that anyone coordinated can build up rocket speed. For two weeks I practice legato finger exercises with a metronome but after missing a few days my speed drops and my accuracy falters so I give up. Ben, who is an infinitely more talented guitarist than I am, never even tries to do the exercises. Ben hates Metal. But I am enamored with these Metal workhorses, tacticians slowly ratcheting up the metronome by fractions each week. They are extremely disciplined and cocksure that they are walking a straight, logical and efficient path. The long-haired Metal instructor was fantastic, a real ball-buster too, but he lost me and the rest of the class when he insisted on talking about the Illuminnati and the New World Order during lessons. Despite his worldview I liked the guy.
Country music was fun but also impossible to pull off. It is easy to get confused playing only G’s and C’s and D’s and the occasional dominant 7th over and over and over again. And, oh the verses, so many to remember. Good country singers are worth every penny. They have so many words to commit to and enunciate. Each country ballad tells a sad, uplifting or humorous narrative. It is as if country music is the modern equivalent of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Funk was the best. Just imagine the joy we had taking a class in Funk! I finally gained confidence in my rhythm playing. We checked out the sounds of Earth, Wind, and Fire, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the music of James Brown. James Brown always had the tightest bands because if a player screwed up he would point at them onstage and fine them after the show.
When it came to Jazz there was no hope. Our class became, at best, enthusiasts. Trying to play Jazz was like trying to play a chess game in hell. I understood the theory well enough but I felt like my hand was made of block-ice when I began to play. Once you fell behind in the song it was impossible to catch up. Playing Jazz was like continually missing the ball in a game of tether ball.
One night at Satan’s Asshole, piss drunk, I meet a couple of Irish guys. They tell me they are visiting London. I tell them I live in the neighborhood. We leave the bar, pick up a few two liters of White Lightning and head to my fancy apartment in Ice Wharf. At some point I pass out.
When I wake up I have no recollection of the Irish guys until I walk into the bathroom. There I see fresh stubble in the sink and written on the bathroom mirror in shaving cream the word “Fuckhole.” When I walk into the living room everything looks normal which relieves me. All told, the Irish guys had taken a Hungarian porn magazine, a fifth of Jack Daniels and my CD player with the new Franz Ferdinand CD in it. I learned a lot that day. I learned that when hanging out with Irish guys be sure to be the last one to go to sleep and the first to wake up. They are less likely to steal from you if drink with them all night and surprise them with bacon in the morning.
Though I had lost weight doing Legs, Bums and Tums, there was no end to my drinking that summer. A few times, like Snake and Dusty the kids who had left the program, I would sneak in a beer or two between lessons. I felt guilty but did it anyways. When classes ended I would circle back to The King’s Den and have a few more with my best friends Ben and John. Then I would say goodbye to Acton, strap my guitar on my back and walk the two miles to Turnham Green station where I would take a series of Tube lines to Tottenham Court Road and walk North or connect with the Northern Line to Camden Road and walk South. I know every street between Tottenham Court Road and Camden. With my black Stratocaster in my gig back on my back I entered gastropubs and nice restaurants where I feasted on fine food, ales and wine, wasting away my savings. I loved the places I frequented that summer (The National Museum, Charlotte Street, Angel). I was happier than ever, yet I was drinking like an irreverent monkfish.
II. Tier 1 Visa
I do not know what to do with my nagging love of London except tell people that I miss the city and would move back there immediately. I would move into a flat next to the shit refinery near the Academy in South Acton if it meant I could eat at Wagamama and catch a Friday night art-rock band’s show at the Carling Academy in Angel. I miss London that much.
In March 2009 I am unemployed and living in Manhattan. I stay busy applying to every London job I see posted on mediabistro.com, Monster,.com, Doostang.com, CareerBuilder.com, TheLadders.com, individual blogs, and, of course, company websites. Because of my lack of success in the online job search I have developed a couple of theories. First, I believe that there are no jobs. Instead, companies are scanning the environment to see who is paying attention to them. Advertising “open” jobs is cheap and effective marketing. Second, I believe that the man designated as the main contact for job applications is so worried about losing his own job that he throws away the resumes of candidates more qualified than him. “Where are the fucking jobs, man?,” I ask daily.
I harbor grandiose dreams of living and working in London. I even pretend that I still live there. I imagine climbing the stairs of Bank station in a perfectly fitted suit from a renowned Hong Kong tailor. I have a well-paying job in reinsurance. My office is across from Lloyds of London. I am a serious businessman having given up the dream of playing music. Nevertheless, after work I change clothes and take the Tube to play an open-mic set in Camden in front of no one, burping up dirty kebab vapors into the microphone. On a wine-soaked Sunday I sit in front of a Titian canvas in the National Gallery and fall asleep on a viewing bench. I imagine inspecting Islamic urns on the ground floor of the British Museum.
Sometimes I am married. I imagine that my wife is a smoking hot English woman born and raised in London. She works in finance and holds a law degree and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and the U.K. Meanwhile, I make my wage as a columnist for The Independent and am a moderately successful transatlantic author. Though my wife earns more than I earn and has a greater claim to stay in London, I demand that we raise our kids in America because I want to give them the same upbringing that I enjoyed. She insists that we stay in London and I yield. We have three kids and while they are still young she has an affair with an Arabian web 2.0 entrepreneur who often meets with her in a dimly lit French restaurant in Sloane Square, in front of everyone. We have a horrible divorce, she gets the kids. This is how detailed I muse.
In New York I purchase both The Times and The Wall Street Journal every morning. As a devotee of the English language I find reading an English newspaper an uplifting experience, an exploration into the capabilities of highly literate people. Though I would never incorporate their many feminine words like “mod” or “bits” into my speech or insert letters like “u” in harbour, I do love England’s English. What I do not love now in 2009 is how difficult it is for a competent American to get a job in London. I have applied to Charles and Wentworth, a boutique financial services firm, Wentworth and Charles a stalwart insurance brokerage, Cutlip and Brown an privately owned public relations firm and Brown and Cutlip a premiere literary agency in Bloomsbury. If a firm has two last names connected together and an office in the City of London, I have applied to the sonofabitch. “Please check our website for future openings,” is a euphemism for the economy sucks, fuck us all, you’re first, kind regards. Humans are more connected than ever yet no one can ask a human being for a job.
As I demonstrate on my impeccably formatted resume, I live at 12 Avenue A, Apartment 3 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York, New York 10009 (references available). I have exhausted my rolodex of personal contacts. I have no leads. Unemployed, I find myself watching copious amounts of daytime cable television news. I am an addict. After watching many hours of the news I begin to form new, generalized opinions on life.
From daytime cable news I gather that there is enormous duplicity in America. I develop my own remedies to this. I say that a politician with some balls needs to assert that she is centrist, brilliant and correct. That would be a more noble straddling of opinions than her saying that she is Republican yet socially moderate or a fiscally conservative “Blue-Dog” Democrat. Our current President is eloquent but so what, I have no fucking job anymore. Give us something, man. I have better ideas and skills than these guys in office. I yell at the television while drinking Miller Light. I watch daytime cable news until the slate of daily shows repeat themselves in the middle of the night. By then I am drunk and writing my campaign speeches.
I need a job. I am swimming in credit card debt and my savings from my old job at Colson/Franklin, a healthcare consulting firm, are running out. I have exhausted my New York contacts and am beginning to accept that I must move to Bumfuck, America in order to find work. I would prefer to stay in New York City, my home for three years, hiding amongst the dervishes in the Lower East Side. But let me be clear, I tell employers in my cover letters, I am open to any work opportunity that will bring me out of my student debt. Though I ardently seek a Tier 1 Visa back to the U.K. I am now compelled by necessity to apply to jobs outside of New York City and to schools throughout the country for more education. But I already have enough education. What the hell would I study anyways?
Back at The College I made the mistake of studying English. When out with friends in New York City I laugh and tell people that I am fluent. But, unemployed for three months now, I no longer find my joke funny. Were I 18 and in college again I would study Romance Languages because at least I would graduate with an arsenal of languages and make for a more versatile job candidate. I would better fit the profile of a diplomat or an international marketing executive, both sexy sounding jobs. Instead I am fluent in English, stink at math, and now face limited choices. In 2009, unemployment nationwide is a searing 9 percent. At least I am in a cohort of millions. Nevertheless I am filled with an unhealthy amount of jealousy as it seems that none of my close friends in the City have lost their jobs.
III. The Technician
In June 2009 the weather and my mood both lift. I get work as a copy editor for a local news magazine called NYCBlast!. The magazine appeals to a 20 to 25 year-old crowd so I zip my lips, adapt to fads, follow pop stars, modify sex tips and edit stories about NYC’s best bartenders and restauranteurs written by people nearly 10 years my junior. I am happy, though, because my salary is enough to keep my decent apartment in Alphabet City on the northern threshold of NYC’s Lower East Side.
My goal is to write features for NYCBlast! but this will take months they tell me. First I have to prove that I am a competent technician. In the first weeks I mess up editing some short blurbs and they threaten to let me go. I thought I would be good at this type of work, given my background in English, but they find me too short and too bland. They want more fluff, more purple colored prose.
I decide to go along with the game. I begin to use banned words that my public school 6th grade grammar teacher warned me about (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, can, could, shall, should, will, would). My 6th grade teacher, Ms. Harp burned these words into our minds in this exact order. She also taught us to avoid extensive use of the words “these,” “those,” “that,” “this,” “things,” “it,” “really,” and other words and phrases shunned by the master technicians Strunk and White in their seminal book The Art of Writing. At NYCBlast! I begin to incorporate these dead words and phrases into my editing. I have permission to add as many adverbs, cliches and ribald analogies as I wish, as long as they are grammatically correct. And I get to cuss and use contractions, thus I can be relevant to the audience of other popular young writers. For once I am writing to a market. Like a musician evolving to stay relevant, I am learning new chops.
Over time I begin to enjoy the writing of the younger feature writers at NYCBlast!. They are cocky, blunt, and irreverent, their worldviews shallow and askance. After months of reading them I cannot wait until I can put my own name to critical and crude stories for the 20 to 25 year-old market. I can write like this, I tell myself. The name to be added to the end of these feature stories will be Andy. Andy Candor. That is my name.