When I arrived at Heathrow in September, with eight-five hundred bags and no place to live, a guy at a counter booked me into a hotel, and got me a shuttle to boot, cheaper than the cab I assumed I would need. I don’t really remember what the shuttle driver looked like, but I have this vision of him as Hal Holbrook in the old English man uniform: golf cap, cardigan, baggy trousers. In my jet-lagged memory he is smoking a pipe, but of course he didn’t smoke a pipe with a dozen bleary-eyed passengers swaying behind him, did he?
This old gentleman loved driving his shuttle and talking to the tourists aboard, pointing out the sights. Driving from West London into the City, there aren’t really many sights: neutered motorway, exhausted, dark brick row-houses. It was raining, an appropriate baptism for my rebirth into British life, but there was even less to see as water streamed down the windows in defiance of the semiotics of “drop.” As we drove through Chiswick, our driver told us not to pronounce the “w.” He pointed out the Mercedes headquarters. We passed a pub as we honed in on the western edge of London proper (near the West Kensington Tube; I started my painful reckoning with London’s geography a week later when I returned to this intersection to look at a flat). The pub was called the Famous Three Kings. He made us guess which three it referred to, and told us one was Elvis. I don’t think that was true.
We drove through central London, dropping various passengers at various hotels. As we puttered along the northern border of Hyde Park, I knew we were close to my undergrad housing on Edgeware Road. Out the window artists sold their wares against the park fence, huddling under tarps, deflecting the blood-letting-ish streams of rain from their paintings. Finally Marble Arch rose to our right and the Odeon cinema on the left and I had such a strange feeling of familiar and unfamiliar rubbing elbows in a way that was bound to produce an Indian burn.
The driver mentioned to someone directly behind him that the “Arabs” had taken over Edgeware Road recently, and he didn’t seem too happy about it. Later, when it was just me and him, and he motioned me forward so he could chatter and entertain me the final few minutes to my hotel, I didn’t mention that when I lived on Edgeware Road a decade ago, it was already full of fluorescently-lit shwarma shacks with their spinning spits of meat, as well as more elegant Lebanese restaurants. The guys running the front desk of our student flat building, who always smiled at me as I passed, were certainly “Arab.” I told the driver why I was in London, to study, to travel, and he wished me well, helping me lug my eight-five hundred suitcases through the sepia puddles and up my hotel’s eleven unnecessary steps.
Several days later, admitting defeat in my magic plan to magically find a magical flat, I switched hotels for the duration of the search. Apparently I wasn’t going to avoid that monstrously expensive taxi ride after all. It wasn’t a proper black cab, either, not the quintessential London taxi experience, but just a car, a compact silver everyday car with a reasonably sized trunk.
My journey west to east across the city continued with those eight-five hundred weary bags, concluding at a small hotel in Walthamstow, all the at the end (or the beginning?) of the light blue Victoria Line in Zone 3 – but I had a private bathroom. This time my driver was a thirty-something Iranian dressed in business casual: white button down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, black pants. The same questions came up: why was I in London, what was I studying.
I asked him about himself; his English was excellent but not quite inflected with Britishness, despite the twelve years he had spent in the country. He had intended to stay for five, to study finance, but the economy had collapsed. He warned me to be careful or I’d find myself with a mortgage, as if mortgages were insidious grass-covered pits hidden throughout the city, something I might fall into unawares and find myself trapped for life.
He had friends who were doctors, and he claimed even they couldn’t save money in London. He drove the taxi part-time while also working at a gym; he wanted to become a personal trainer. We reinvent ourselves, then reinvent ourselves again.
As we continued east, far beyond the edges of everything I had ever seen of this urban sprawl, the Olympic Stadium loomed up on the right. It gave me a little thrill; Michael Phelps and the Fab Five still danced like sugar plums in my memory. But no, no, the stadium was a mistake too. My driver didn’t understand why “they” had built it here, in this part of East London, where no one comes. People don’t even go to all the casinos in East London; they prefer betting on dog fights.
I didn’t say that the gentrification “they” were hoping to attract around the stadium probably didn’t include him anyway.
He lived on Edgeware Road. He hated it there.
He dropped me off just around the corner from the hotel’s entrance, and helped me carry my eighty-five hundred bags to the door. I was once again hunched over against an implacable rain. My luggage begged me now to stay still, to unpack, to lighten their load. But not yet. For all our journeying, we still weren’t home.
I was hopeful that we would find one soon. A home. But my drivers had me wondering: the first, a native, cheerful, proud to show off his city. He was born here, he owned this town, he would never not have that deep sense of confidence inherent in belonging. The second, an immigrant, hoping for a better opportunity, a new life, a rebirth. Like me. After twelve years he still didn’t feel like he was home.
I wondered (I still wonder) if I ever would either. But still I dream. I burn myself to ashes and wait for something new to rise.