Saturday, July 23, 2011

An American Shakedown in London

Caution: There are some minor adult themes in this one.

I love Guy Ritchie films. My favorites are Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Both of these involve some kind of con, danger and lots of action. They’re fast paced. While I like these aspects in my movies, they strike a little closer to home because they remind me of some time I spent in London, a place where cons and fast money seem to run through the streets.

As the millennium was coming to a close in 1999, my friend Chad (aka The Chad) and I were going off to India to celebrate the change. (Please keep all technical references to the actual millennium date to yourself, nobody started counting our calendar at 0 or 1.) My wife Saum had already arrived there several months earlier with two other friends, they were leaving, we were coming. Our flight left Minneapolis around 4 am, which meant we stayed up and left for the airport around 2 after a long day of packing and preparing. The first flight went alright.

When we arrived in Chicago, we had a 2 hour layover with American Airlines. Waiting at our next gate, our flight to London became delayed – and delayed – and delayed. Seasoned traveler that I am, when the crew stepped off the jet-way, I was first in line to rebook. “Sir, the flight hasn’t been cancelled yet,” the agent said, “it’s about to be,” I replied; then came the announcement as I stood before him.

The agent offered to rebook us by flying us to New York, take a bus from one New York airport to another, and fly out from there. I asked when the next one out of Chicago was: 12 hours. When do they both arrive? Same time. I opted to wait at O’Hare. As the day wore on and we waited, JFK had a fire in the airport that closed the terminal (the one we would have flown out of). All those passengers were stranded again. We made the right choice. I called my friends we were staying with to let them know we’d be half a day late.

If you’ve never travelled trans-Atlantic before, drinks are free. Like Dennis Farina’s character Avi in Snatch, we tied one on. Another nine hours later, we arrived in London. After tube, train and walking we made it to our friend’s house and were greeted to a traditional English breakfast – it didn’t go well with the sourness in our stomachs.


PC130064Me sitting on one of many trains in London
Photo courtesy of Chad

It is getting on to late morning, and with the exception of two brief naps in O’Hare and on the plane to London, we have now been up for a long time. We clean up a bit and take the train into London. We end up in Soho.

I have never been to London before; Chad had been here for a summer a few years back for a theatre internship. We wander like a bunch of tourists (think Shawn of the Dead). Day stretches onto evening, and that’s when we have the brilliant idea of going to a strip club.

Chad’s been telling me about these legendary clubs. We set out our search: in Soho. The streets in London aren’t like American ones all straight and proper like someone put a ruler down, they wind and curve, meet at star-like intersections. It’s easy to get discombobulated. Add to that an utter and complete lack of proper sleep and now you can begin to understand how we feel: tired, disoriented, freshly over a hangover and in a new part of the world. After scoping out two or three places, we decide on the one that looks like we can afford it, it has a moderate line to get in.

The Shakedown

The wait isn’t that bad. We walk down a flight of stairs into the basement of a club. It’s dimly lit, tables with patrons, a bar and girls walking in lingerie. There’s a curtained off wall that looks like a stage and we appear to be in an anti-chamber, with some patrons being escorted into another room. It’s exciting.

We are very briefly shown a menu with prices way out of range of our wallets. I settle for a coke. An eastern-European woman offers to sit down and tell us about the club. She asks where we’re from, talks about London. We have our drinks. When it’s our turn to head to the other room, we quickly realize we can’t afford this place. We decide to leave and settle our bill. The price: around £200 (around US$350 then). Knowing that my coke and Chad’s drink wasn’t that expensive, we ask for an explanation. It turns out, our hostess’ company is worth around £150 for her pleasant companionship. This was shown to us on the menu they explained, showing us the small print at the bottom.

I refuse to pay.

At this point, we face “the manager”, and another two burly men. Suddenly, I’m wide awake. The manager demands the money. I argue I don’t have it. He threatens to call the cops; I call his bluff and tell him to. He tries to posture saying we’ll end up in jail, being foreigners, not knowing the local laws and all. I’m not buying it, this is looks like an illegal con to me and I welcome some lawful assistance. He asks for our passports to hold saying we can return tomorrow with the money, I lie and say they’re back at the hotel. He asks the name of the hotel, I make one up (so many chains). We are in a standoff and I’m not backing down. Things look like they are about to get ugly.

Chad wants to get out of here and offers $50 saying it’s all he has. They take it and show us the door, not to the back alley as it could have gone, but out the front. We pass by the line of people waiting to get in. I’m convinced that those people, that flow of cons waiting to be had are what saved us.

We exit the club both at nerve’s end.

It takes a little oven an hour and a bitter in a nice pub to calm our nerves. At this point, we take the trains back to our friends’ and sleep.

To this day, I can still recall the place, the feeling of standing eye to eye with the man. I recall the look and feel of him with my blood pumping. It’s a feeling that adds steel to my nerves when I stare someone down today (a rare thing but it happens).


PC150069Me on a bridge in Paris
Photo courtesy of Chad

We budgeted about a week in London and the rest of the trip was a lot less stressful. We took a train to Canterbury, the Chunnel to Paris for a day. We walked in evening rain. Eventually it was time to embark to India, which has its own stories.

I shared my experience with Saum and she laughed: being taken in London is an old tradition. My brother and sister-in-law, being from London also laughed and shared some stories. It was a good lesson to learn.

PC150071My partner Chad on the same Parisian bridge
My story used to stop here, but recently I spoke to Chad warning him I was going to write about this. He shared with me that the same thing happened to him that first summer he spent in London, news to me. I've learned my lesson: get the low down from the locals before walking into such a place; I’m not so sure about the Chad.

When I watch these Guy Ritchie films, they remind me of that point, standing there with adrenaline staring someone down, ready. I remember what it felt like. I’ve been there. London can be like that. At least for me there was no Desert Eagle, and no pigs.

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