by Laurice LaZebnik
I landed in London in a sleep-deprived blur, my lids heavy, my eyes shifting in sockets of sand. Three movies were too many. Two meals were too much. The Delta flight landed at Heathrow and I shuffled from the plane in low gear.
This was not my first trip across the pond. I had been in England on business trips with my husband. Those junkets were a whirl of taxi rides, boardroom discussions, high-end restaurant meals and factory visits. This trip was different. It was personal.
My Ancestry.com DNA results came back showing 33% UK. According to their records my ancestors’ exodus occurred between 1700 and 1750. I know that was a long time ago, but when I stepped onto British soil I felt like I was coming home.
The second reason I came to the UK was because of my good friend Tracy. She lets me call her that because my Midwest tongue is not capable of forming her melodic Chinese name. We would be visiting her son, Chris, whom I’ve known since he was two. He is studying computer science and discreet mathematics in Southampton University.
Chris met us at the airport. That’s when the first day of our vacation shifted into high gear. He gave each of us a hug and a, “Let’s go. We can talk on the way.” This 20-year old had pre-planned our time together. We would see everything worth seeing packed into 10 fun filled days. He told us our first stop would be Buckingham Palace and the changing of the Queen’s guards. London’s Tube, the Brit’s subway, would take us to a station near the palace. Our centrally located Airbnb was a short jaunt by bus from the palace. “Follow me,” he said, leading the way through the crowds.
Tracy and I maneuvered our suitcases down escalators. We dragged the bags as we stumbled up stairs. We rolled them over immaculate marbled pedestrian walkways while Chris explained how this “smart” vacation would work. Accommodations and theatre tickets had been booked and prepaid months ago to get discounted rates. We would use Google Maps on our iPhones to navigate the city.
Tracy nodded agreement. She was so happy to see her son. It had been six months. While they caught up on each other’s news in Mandarin Chinese I reminded myself to download the app, and then fumbled for my phone inside my overstuffed carry-on bag.
“Laurie, let’s pick up a SIM card so your phone will work here. ” Chris stepped inside an airport shop reappearing moments later with a microchip the size of my thumbnail. He removed my SIM from the side of my phone with what looked like a paperclip, and slipped the new one inside. He explained while we walked that we would now be able to talk on our cells. This cautionary procedure should prevent one of us from getting lost. He warned me not to call home unless I wanted to be slammed with roaming charges. “This SIM allows you to send data, like emails or text messages to the U.S., but no calls. Got it?”
“Got it.” I was about to ask Chris if I could text photos, but when I looked up from my phone he was gone. “This way,” came a voice from the crowd ahead.
Chris explained the wisdom of buying a multi-day Tube ticket while we continued our trek. This passport to the tunnels and trains of London was available at Tube station kiosks with a mere swipe of a credit card.
“A swipe?” I was experienced at paying bills by sliding my card down a channel. I had learned how to pay by shoving my card up a slot. I had downloaded an app to pay with my phone but hadn’t used that one yet. And now I was to learn a new technique for spending my hard-earned cash? Chris demonstrated the bent wrist and follow through technique he used to swipe his card. He oversaw us buy our tickets, warned us to hold on to them and headed into the city’s bowels.
The escalator steps were steep. We descended nosebleed deep into London’s people-moving network. At the bottom I slipped my Tube pass inside a pocket on a new raincoat I had purchased for this trip. I was prepared for London’s fog and rain, but not for this damp cold. The small card fit into a discreet inside flap that I suspect had been designed to secure credit cards. It would be safe next to my heart.
I loved the color and cut of this coat. The soft blue-gray tone made my pasty white skin look rosy. The coat was nipped in at the waist to make me look thin. Despite our pace through the underground tunnels, I was uncomfortably cold. My new raincoat had limitations. It lacked a lining.
I shouted ahead for Chris to stop, pulled two sweaters from my case and slipped them on over my head. I zipped the coat closed from my knees to my chin and glanced at my reflection in a shop window. OMG! I looked like a boiled bratwurst ready to burst.
We changed underground trains a few times before arriving at the station near Buckingham Palace. “Mind the step,” a recorded message blared. We followed Chris to an up escalator that took us up, up and up some more. At the Tube station Chris demonstrated the procedure for exiting the subway.
He inserted his ticket at the near end of the turnstile. When the card popped up on top, the turnstile arms opened. Chris snatched his ticket and charged through the baffle gate before the arms came back together and crushed him. “Got it?” he said from the far side.
Tracy and I watched. The sequence of steps looked like a choreographed dance: pause and step, insert and wait, regain with a wrist snatch and dash. In my mind I could hear the choreographer call out, “Try it one more time, but this time with energy.” Tracy sensed the rhythm and deftly paused, inserted, regained, and then twirled through the baffle gate. She disappeared into the crowd like the other dancers in this underground production. The process was entertaining to watch. We had nothing like this at Clark Lake. Just before it was my turn, I reached into my heart pocket.
No ticket. What? I was horrified. I checked pockets, fumbling inside and outside my raincoat. The long line of commuters funneled through gates to my left and right. Still not ticket. And no help would be forthcoming from my friends. They were long gone in the crowd.
I was blocking the turnstile so I stepped aside. “I can do this,” I said aloud, and recalled Chris describing this as a smart vacation. I didn’t feel so smart right now and I didn’t want to be the weak link in our chain so I pulled out iPhone. “No Service” was displayed on the screen. Of course. We were still beneath the city in London’s worm world. No cell phone reception here. I looked up at the concrete ceiling. No blue sky either. I was beginning to feel buried. I could use a peaceful Clark Lake sunrise right now. I took a deep breath. I would not be defeated by the limits of technology or the thousands of tons of earth over my head.
There was a way out if I could only kept calm. The commuters streaming around me looked somewhat familiar. One man looked like my father with his long skinny face and mousy brown hair. I warmed, feeling safer around family, and then got back to the crisis at hand. I have experience resolving complex manufacturing and business office bottlenecks. I know how to make and implement a flow chart. I thought it through. My goal was to find Chris and Tracy. To find them I had to exit this station. To exit I needed that ticket.
My action plan was to search for the ticket, again. I rummaged through every orifice in my coat, my bag and my jean pockets a second time. Zero. I must have dropped the ticket on the train. There was no going back. I would have to think of another approach. What was I missing?
The solution came to me like a lightning strike. It was quick and simple. The first stage was to lift my heavy suitcase and rest it against the fence. Then I hefted it up and over. Step two was to wait by the turnstile for an unsuspecting pigeon. A thin man with mousy brown hair and pasty white skin came along and was about to enter. Yes, he looked like my family. He inserted his ticket and paused. He snatched his card and was part way through the baffle when I pulled my best credit-card-slide-move. I slid through the channel and slipped out behind the man, a free woman.
BEEP. An alarm abruptly blared. BEEP. The man who had unintentionally shared the turnstile with me whipped around with his hands on his hips. Not happy. The crowded station became suddenly silent except for that incriminating BEEP. Commuters paused in their dance long enough to point at me. BEEP. I could tell these folks who looked like my families were not ready to admit sharing my DNA. BEEP. I felt like I did as a kid when I couldn’t remember my lines at the Christmas pageant. BEEP. These stiff people that were glaring at me are of the same pedigree as America’s founding fathers, the folks who made our laws. We use common sense at home. I don’t think we are this rigid. BEEP. How I wished that ear-piercing sound would stop.
A security guard appeared out of nowhere. BEEP. Could this be serious? She wasn’t smiling. BEEP. I lifted my hands in the air. BEEP. “I lost my ticket,” I explained, knowing honesty was the best policy. BEEP. I felt trapped and was beginning to sweat under all those layers. BEEP. “I am feeling claustrophobic. I have to get out of this tunnel,” I said as I read her badge. “City of London Transportation Authority.” BEEP. Could that be Scotland Yard?
Chris must have heard the commotion and was at my side. He apologized for me, and told the official I was a tourist unfamiliar with the Tube system. BEEP.
“Ignorance is never a valid excuse,” the officer said.
Chris told her he would see to it that I purchased another ticket and inserted it into the turnstile. “That will make everything right, right?” BEEP.
She grimaced and with a tip of her head toward the kiosk said, “Follow me.” She found an open kiosk and tapped in her code. When the annoying alarm abruptly stopped the crowded room became silent. It was a pause and a beat before the dance resumed and the crowd dispersed.
Chris took charge. “Laurie, get out your credit card.” He said to the officer, “She is a senior citizen.”
“Age is not a valid excuse.” The officer heaved a sigh and thumbed a poster over her shoulder mounted to the wall. It listed the consequence for inappropriate language, drunkenness or for disobeying rules on any UK trains. Perpetrators would be red-carded from all forms of transportation throughout the kingdom for a year.
Chris assured the officer he would see to it that I would never do this again. I don’t know how this brilliant young man could make such a flagrant generalization, but I didn’t argue. He nodded for me to proceed.
The uniform watched me. I tapped the screen and with my bent wrist and follow through technique, paid for another three-day ticket to replace the one I had lost. Then she escorted me back to the turnstile. “Where are you from?”
“America,” I said and inserted the new ticket in the slot.
“Canada or the United States?” She pointed to the ticket when it popped from the slot.
“Oh, I live on Clark Lake.” I retrieved the small card. “It’s in southern Michigan, in the U.S.”
“Americans on Clark Lake travel much?” She pointed toward the exit sign.
“Oh sure.” I glanced ahead and saw Chris and Tracy waiting.
“I’ll remember that,” she said.
I looked at this incident as a humorous hiccup in an otherwise enjoyable vacation. But while doing research for this story I found news articles that changed my outlook. I had no idea my resourceful escape from London’s Tube was a criminal offense. Hundreds are and have been arrested and jailed for turnstile jumping across the globe. That officer of the City of London Transportation Authority let me off easy. Remember her words on your next trip abroad: “Ignorance is never a valid excuse.” And, I wouldn’t mention you live at Clark Lake.
Clark Lake’s Laurice LaZebnik lives with her husband, Bob, on Kentucky Point. She has written three books. The most recent is Minnie’s Potatoes, which is an historical novel that focuses on the life of her great-grandmother.