Monday, August 25, 2008

Homes - Part 2: London

My dad died on December 30, 1982 and was buried the next day. About a week later I started back to college in Little Rock. I know this had to be a tough time for my mother to deal with losing a spouse and having no one around to help her get all the financial matters under control.

I was dealing with the loss in another way: plotting to leave the country. As a student I was able to secure a student exchange work permit which granted me the right to work in England for six months. Late in the summer of 1983 I packed my bags. In retrospect, this was terrible timing on my part. My mother was still struggling with various issues and didn't like living alone out on the farm. In fact she moved in with my aunt who had also lost her husband awhile back.

I arrived in London and immediately began searching for a place to live. I don't remember if I was shown any other flats. This may have been the first one and I took it.

My room (and it was just a room) was on the 4th floor, and I believe it had two of the three windows. The landlord was a proper and meticulous woman. She asked me to sign some papers agreeing not to ever sue her for anything because, as she put it, "Americans are so litigious."

And then I moved in. There was a bed in one corner, a big dresser, a table with a couple of chairs, a small sink and a little cooking unit. And a small refrigerator. That was it.

The location was perfect for me. South Kensington is so convenient to everything in central London. I could walk to Chelsea. Harrods in Knightsbridge was only a 15-minute walk.

In September I was offered a job as a sales clerk on the 3rd floor of the HVM Shop's flagship store at 363 Oxford Street. (Yes, I still remember the address.) That floor housed the video portion of the business as well as a tiny PC department and the fledgling compact disc offerings which at that time were limited to a rack smaller than my current storage needs!

The HMV attracted tourists from around the globe as well as celebrities and musicians. The most notable one I remember seeing was George Michael who caught my attention because he was checking me out! Once while I was cashiering I looked up and a guy I knew from the University of Arkansas was standing there. He was a Londoner though so I guess it wasn't that much of a coincidence.

London was a very happy place for me. I was comfortable enough to come out of the closet with my co-workers and I wanted this to continue indefinitely. Unfortunately, you can't easily live in London (not with my tastes!) on a sales clerk salary.

As my six-month work permit was nearing the expiration date, I learned of an option to request an extension. It was a long shot, and would likely be rejected, but I could continue my employment while the extension request was under review. That process took months. In the end I remained employed there for about 13 months, but the end was not sweet.

My biggest mistake was to schedule a vacation in August to travel back to Arkansas to visit my mother. I stayed a week or two, and upon my return to London, I was nabbed by immigration authorities for overstaying my visa. I was put on a bus and sent to a detention center for almost the entire day where I was questioned repeatedly about my purpose in coming back to England, etc.

At the end of the day I was released on the condition that I adhere to the one-month visa extension and then return to the States. And since I was no longer permitted to work, that basically brought an end to my life in London.

Back in the early 90s, txrad and I went to London on vacation in November. He took my picture on the front steps of the building where I lived.

It was an odd feeling then and it still brings back so many vibrant memories. Even those steps are fresh in my mind, as if all this happened only three or four years ago.

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