Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sunday, July 4 YORK

At 2.30am a small group of men return from a night of drinking. They have all the rooms around me. They then engage in typical “too much to drink” behavior – shouting, laughing too loud, slamming doors, more slamming doors, etc. It takes them about 30 minutes to settle down. About 20 minutes later another group arrives on the floor. They are further down the hall but just as noisy. Finally at about 3.45am things quite down again. I, however, am now wide-awake.
I toss and turn for about an hour. At 5am, just as I am about to get back to sleep, comes a very sound pounding on my door. Thinking that the first group of drunks have forgotten which rooms there in, I ignore it, hoping they will go away. No luck. More very solid pounding on the door.
I get up and answer it.
“Who is it?”
“It’s the police. We need to ask you some questions.”
Standing at my door are two policewomen.
“There has been a rather serious allegation made about the people in the room across from yours and we want to ask you some questions.”
“Were there any disturbances on the floor tonight?”
I tell them the story of the rowdies who came in tonight. They get very interested when I tell them that I think they were in other rooms in addition to the one across the hall. Radio communication to the troops in the lobby. While I’m telling them about what I have heard, I’m going thru all the noises I have heard in the last couple of hours in my mind. It couldn’t have been a fight – if drunks start throwing punches around in small spaces you are going to hear it. I run thru a list of what a “serious allegation” could be given the noises I have heard. The list gets real short real fast.
Oh no. Not that. Please don’t ask the obvious question. She does.
“Did you hear any women with the group that is in the rooms around you?”
So, it’s likely to be rape. In fact, I didn’t hear any female voices. They take all my contact info, thank me and start working their way down the hall. They have a lot of legwork to do.
I keep going thru everything I heard, playing it over and over again. If a woman was being raped and fought back, there is no way I would not have heard what was going on. I have been wide-awake since they came onto the floor. That can only mean one thing - she was in no condition to fight back.
Well, I am not going to get any more sleep. More officers coming and going from the room across the hall keep up a steady noise. I take a shower and go down to breakfast. Upon opening my door, I find two police officers sitting in chairs immediately outside my door. (Actually they are outside the door opposite mine, but the hallway is so narrow, they are blocking both doors.) Guarding the crime scene.
After breakfast I decide there is no point staying here any longer. I pack and leave.
In less than 48 hours I have had a man make a pass at me on the street, a panhandler scream insults in my ear for not giving him any money and am a witness in a rape case.

“What’s going on?
What’s going on?
I really don’t believe what’s going on.
What’s going on?”

Al Stewart

The train ride to Durham is less than an hour. I put on some music, which helps calm me down and start to focus on what is about to “go on”. After 11 months of planning, studying and waiting I am about to come face to face with a whole new world, my home for the next month.
A cab ride to St. Chad’s College, University of Durham. As the cab pulls up the door opens a familiar face steps out of the door, Gary DeVore, my professor from Stanford, whose classes have ultimately led me to here.
First up is check in and room assignment. This moment is the one that I am most nervous about. Who is going to be my roommate? How I am going to adapt when the only “roommate” I have had for the last 30 years is Alex?
A couple of folks are ahead of me and Gary hands them their keys and tells them the name of their roommates.
My turn.
“Michael, you are not in the main building, you are in building #1, which is down the street. Here’s your key, I’ll walk you down there in a minute.”
“And who is my roommate?”
“You don’t have one, you’re in a single.”
That sound you hear is five months worth of angst on this subject crashing to the floor and shattering into a million pieces.

As we walk down the street to #1 the handle on my suitcase, damaged in a Paris Metro turnstile three months ago, finally gives out and snaps. But of course.

My room is on the ground floor, all the way in the back. The English love to add fire doors to old buildings and this one is no exception. There are three between the front door and my room. My room is in the back of the building, at the end of the hallway and has one adjacent room.
I quickly realize that I have been assigned to Social Siberia. No point in leaving the door open for folks to stop by and say, “What’s up?” or “ We’re going to … want to come along?” No one will ever come down this hallway. In fact, most of the people in the rest of the building won’t even know that there are rooms this far back in the building.
In addition, for most of my time here, I won’t even have next-door neighbors. I am told that the room next door will be occupied by two girls from a college prep school in Palo Alto for about a week. Which means that the oldest person on the trip will be rooming next to the youngest. Oh sweet irony.
A quick survey of the room. A single bed, a small chest of drawers with a bookcase on top, a wardrobe with no hangers, a sink, a desk with a lamp whose bulb is burned out and a chair. The northeast facing window looks out on the fire escape with a stand of large trees blocking the view of the river.
There are two pillows on the bed, each about an inch thick. I sit on the bed and sink straight down to the piece of plywood that makes up the frame. The springs in the mattress are all broken, completely smashed.
Well first things first. I quickly make a shopping list and bolt for the town. The good news about being in #1 is that it is closest to the commercial center of town (there is a sports pub four doors down). I find the local equivalent of Macys and buy pillows. Then I find a Tesco and begin stocking up on food. I race back to the house, drop off my purchases and go out again.
This time I can take a little time to explore. I couldn’t be more centrally located. There is a restaurant two doors down called the Veg Den Cafe. Too funny. An Indian one across the street, Italian just down the street. Several ATMs, coffee shops, no less than three camping stores and numerous pubs. It’s a two-minute walk to the town square.
On going in town over the next two weekends is “BRASS”, a music festival featuring brass bands. Today they are setting up shop on the streets and playing for free. I encounter one called “Mute Ants”. They are dressed up with large red ant like heads, red suits and weird red shoes. They are actually pretty good. There are several more bands around town and I take time from my frantic shopping to listen for a while. It helps to calm the nerves for what is coming next.
Six o’clock rolls around and it is time to face angst producing events two and three – meeting 40 new friends and dealing with the food issue.
We are dinning in the main hall, cafeteria style. It is as I feared – British food. The most bland, unimaginative, overcooked cuisine on the planet. Gary has done a great job prepping them for those of us with dietary issues (there are half a dozen veggies, including Gary himself) and several others with food allergies. Gary has made sure that the veggie entree (of which there will always be one) will never have potatoes in it (a huge concession for the British). Tonight is lasagna and it so bland it hardly seems to be there. (Off to Tesco the next day for Tabasco.)
Now, about my 40 new friends. As expected, I am the oldest. As expected, the gender ratio is about 70% female, almost all of them in their early to mid-20’s, with a couple of teenagers.
Everyone is a little nervous. We just sit down, say, “Hi, I’m Michael” and go forward. Everybody laughs at so many introductions in such a short period of time, saying, “I’m never going to remember all these names!” One woman blurts out, “I need an awkward pass, I am so bad at meeting new people!” Well, at least there are a few who are as uncomfortable as I am.

Gary explains how the program will work for the next four weeks.

- Breakfast starts at 8.00am.
- We leave the hall at 8.30am for the 5-minute walk to the bus that will take us to Binchester.
- The bus ride will take about half an hour.
- We will get on the bus at 4.30pm for the ride back to Durham, arriving at 5.00pm. (This will be a bit of a pain, as most of the stores close between 5.00pm and 6.00pm.)
- Dinner will be served at 6.00pm.

Dinner ends and I walk back to #1. I am so worn out from events of the last week (and today), that bad mattress or not, I go straight to sleep.

About the images:
1. A first glimpse of Durham Cathedral - aka "Hogwarts".

1 comment:

  1. we need more Hogswart's pictures plus brass bands!