After I had been in London for a little under two months, I decided to revisit the first place in the city where I got lost. Waterloo Station, for most of my life, had been nothing except an old Kinks lyric processed via an American urge to borrow someone else’s nostalgia. Now I saw Waterloo almost daily, and thought about it on days when I didn’t. Since my first anxious time in the station—when I entered but could not find my way out, the building seeming to loop back in on itself as I was carried almost involuntarily along the flow of commuters, hungry, denying my extreme jetlag as I tried to find the bureau de change, which I found and decided not to use, finally being expelled into the Enterprise lot on the back side—it had come to reflect almost all of my emotional and intellectual responses to the United Kingdom. It felt as if my heart’s rhythm simultaneously controlled and was controlled by the flow of people on the steps outside. It sounds silly. A man waiting for a train with a tall, thin potted plant; the plant waiting by itself.
I made some laps around the perimeter and the adjacent area—Southbank, Lower Marsh—weaving through the station’s entries and exits without reason. A lot of people were photographing, so I didn’t, but after a while I started to stand where people had taken their pictures and tried to see whatever they were looking at. A lot of people look at crowds, busses. These things tend to move, and I never seemed to see them right. I noted the closest pub was called the Wellington. I passed under a brick arch where I’d once photographed and stood still facing the station’s main entrance for a while, the one with the names of all the dead people. My thoughts drifted; I walked back to the house where I was borrowing a room.
What happens when we stop getting lost in a place? Do we? I certainly felt in control of that outing to Waterloo. I knew the routes. I didn’t get trapped in a human feedback loop and I wasn’t tempted by a bad £8 burrito. But what had I been hoping to find, and did I find it? Did I find anything? Sure. But how to ever put it into words? I was in a bed, asking these questions to a cat named George, when I remembered seeing a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost upstairs. I knew her from home. Doctoral students in American Studies had brought her to Austin the year before to eat sandwiches and brownies in a seminar room, and I’d read a fair amount of her work as an undergraduate. I grabbed the book from the pile and—for some reason—the one immediately under it, Samuel Beckett Short No. 2: Dramatic Works and Dialogues. I took them to my room and got on with my day.
The next evening I picked up the Beckett off the dresser and turned to the first piece, a one-act play called Human Wishes. A room in Bolt Court. Wednesday, April 14th, 1781. Evening. Mrs. Williams is meditating, Mrs. Desmoulins is knitting, Miss Carmichael is reading, and the cat, Hodge, is sleeping—if possible. The scene begins:
Mrs D. He is late.
Mrs D. God grant all is well.
Mrs D. Puss puss puss puss puss.
Mrs W. What are you reading, young woman?
Miss C. A book, Madam.
Mrs W. Ha!
Mrs D. Hodge is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.
The last remark disoriented me. Googling ‘hodge cat’ told me that I’d recently visited the Wikipedia page for Hodge (cat), so I visited it again.
It is very possible I over-walked during my first couple weeks in London. It could be colored as a noble endeavor, an attempt to see and feel as much of the city’s complicated, overlapping history as possible. But while that was part of my reasoning, I was unabashedly motivated by my desire to save money on transit. I also wanted to save money on food, so my lengthy, all-day walks across the city and back were mostly done without eating. I got dizzy. I got lost a lot. On a Sunday evening I came upon a life-size bronze cat. It sat dumb and proudly upright above two lumps of metal oyster, looking with dead eyes down an empty old alley. Below, the plinth said Hodge. I didn’t take his picture, which I regretted and attempted to correct via Google.
Wikipedia told me that Hodge was the cat of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), and that the statue was outside the doctor’s former home, and that the house was now the Dr. Johnson’s House Museum. I’d missed this upon becoming fixated on the cat, or I’d noted it but let it slip. Either way. A man, Boswell, wrote about Johnson, and by extension about Hodge, saying:
I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr.Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”
So Boswell and Beckett were directing me back to Dr. Johnson’s house. The bus from Waterloo was fast but I missed my stop and had to backtrack, passing a statue of a dragon and some other things. There was $5 American on the pavement. William Wallace was drawn and quartered around the corner from what is now a café called Bagel Point; only in a place this close to Greenwich could time feel so compressed.
Admission at Dr. Johnson’s House cost £3.50 with my student ID. A nice house! I’d live there happily. An original copy of Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language: in which words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers was good to look at, but the picture I took to remember some of the text came out blurry; not much light gets into that room. Two facsimiles of that same Dictionary were available to peruse but failed to hold my interest. An old woman in one of the rooms grabbed what was probably her grandson by the sleeve of his windbreaker and told him that he was supposed to be looking. He turned to her and said, I was looking!
I left. The sharp autumn air made me feel like a clean-edged thing and influenced my decision to walk, as opposed to bus, back to Waterloo. On the way, completely by chance, I ran into around a dozen acquaintances on the stairs to the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. They were on the penultimate stop of a university-sponsored day’s tour around some central London curiosities, and I was invited to join for the remainder. We wound up forty stories above Liverpool Street in an expensive cocktail bar as the gray haze of dusk gave way to a brighter, electric night. All except one of us were underdressed, and she left promptly. Two people let me taste their identical tequila drinks. My hands trembled, either because of altitude or because I’d forgotten to eat. Grabbing two handfuls of bar snacks, looking out the window over centuries of architectural reconsiderations, over cars and people fulfilling their innate duty of looking like ants from this height, I settled into a conversation that I only partly remember:
Don’t overthink it.
There are no unique experiences.
Is there such thing as a collective experience?
I feel very lucky.
I can’t drink my drink, would you like it?
No thank you, I think I need to go.
I need to eat.
There’s a Paul’s downstairs.
They have sandwiches.
I think I need to go home and eat something.
I was on my way to go write.
Go right, is that an expression?
No, go write.
Oh, oh, oh, yes—you should go!
Thank you for indulging this happenstance.
On my phone I can look at a photograph of me in the mirrored wall of that skyscraper bar. I take up about 1/8th of the frame, far left, top to bottom, sitting in a tall chair with my knees just outside the picture, my back to an empty space. It is dim. There is nobody else in the photo. I look tired and shiny and I have a goofy grin. I’m watching myself in the mirror as I take the picture with my phone, held horizontally chest level with both hands in front of a tan western jacket, several intertwined collars. Boots I bought because London is rainy. A spotlight just misses me, instead catching the gray carpet at my feet. Two empty chairs, positioned at the right edge of the picture, complete the frame. Behind me, or in front of me—I can’t make out which—London is reflected as science fiction out a window. It is nothing special. It is nothing special unless you’re me, seeing myself taking the photograph and wondering how the hell I got up here, so high above the busses and crowds that remain in motion.