First Minutes in Oz

Here is one definition of happiness.

A caravan of adolescents—French if my ear is correct—perched on their luggage outside the San Francisco Downtown Hostel on Mason Street while the chaperone of the trip—their English teacher?—is inside at the desk arranging for check-in. It is mid-afternoon. Probably they have just arrived on the United or the Air France or the KLM flight from Paris—all of which touch down at 1:00 p.m—and are now, on this sparkling summer Saturday, absorbing their first minutes in California. They are jet-lagged, but at this age new experience trumps fatigue. They are chattering and laughing and horsing around like kids on a picnic—which is what they are.

Each of us experiences this picnic exactly once: your first minutes abroad, your first moment of discovery that the world is bigger and richer and more delicious than your own little life has up-to-now suggested. I can unreel mine like a film loop:

There I am perched on MY luggage on the sidewalk outside the Can’t-Remember-What Hotel in Earl’s Court, London, 1969. It is late evening. Cold. I am there with my buddy Burton Bock, the only two high school sophomores on a trip sponsored by the drama department of a community college in southern Missouri. We are tag-alongs, younger than everybody else in the group and maybe a tad more hayseed, though not by much.

We are waiting for admittance to a tall, mid-Victorian confection of stacked wedding-cake architecture with a lobby so tiny it can’t accommodate the 20 or so corn-fed Americans in our party. A red London phone booth is right there on the corner. Black London taxis keep swooshing by. It is just like a movie!

The driver of the bus from the airport, a scrawny, thatch-haired bloke who I remember as horse-faced and freckled (or am I thinking of Michael Caine in “Alfie”?), is flirting with the only other tag-along in our group, a young divorcee. She had answered an ad in a St. Louis newspaper, thinking she was signing on to a trip with other like-minded singles—hey, this was “the swinging 60s!”—and now finds herself in the company of earnest Shakespeare students from rural Missouri. Plus two high school sophomores. This Cockney seems no great catch to me, but she is hanging on his every dropped “h” and stretched vowel. Nobody in St. Louis has ever called her “Luv.”

Now from the lobby of the hotel the drama professor in charge of our trip steps out to return to us the passports he collected to get us all checked in. One of the last things my mother told me before I left was to keep my passport with me at all times, so handing it over to this elderly, dithering, frankly goofy man felt like a foreign catastrophe in the making. But, no, he hasn’t lost it; he hasn’t pulled it apart. I will be able to return to the United States safely.

At his signal we all stand and troop into the hotel. Because the last leg of our flight was on Air Pakistan (after an unscheduled weather-induced layover in Geneva), the girl at the front desk is technically not the first young woman in a sari I have ever seen, but she might as well be. There are no girls like her in my home town. My heart pounds as I carry my over-packed bag past the tiny reception desk. What if she speaks to me?

There are too many of us for the creaky lift, so we head single file up four or five flights of twisting, elbow-bumping stairs. I have since imagined what this climb must have sounded like to the hotel’s other guests— elderly pensioners on holiday from Yorkshire or a traveling salesman over from Berlin, all snug in their beds and suddenly jolted awake by excited young American voices and the bump of big suitcases dragged up stairs. We must have sounded like an invading army.

Here, I’m afraid, my film loop ends. I have no memory whatever of what the room looked like or what the view out the window was (if there was a view; if there was a window), so let me re-shoot a slightly fictionalized finish that captures the spirit of those first moments in a city that would forevermore be my Oz:

Burton Bock and I step into our room. We drop our bags with thumping disregard for the people in the room below ours. We look at the faded Victorian wallpaper. We look at the sink with faucets and fixtures from the 1930s—and a brown, water stain blooming out from the drain. We try the springs on the narrow, cot-like beds—very possibly also from the 1930s. We are wide awake. We have seven days ahead of us. All of London is out there. Not in our remotest dreams have we ever imagined the world could be so fine.


Written By Al McKee
Image Sources: Distan Bach Photography,Kevin Coombs/Reuters, Justice Gap, and Maps International