B is for Evasion of the British Invasion

My mother was friends with an elderly couple when I was in grade school.  I knew they were ‘Survivors’ because they had numbers printed on their arms.

Their grandson lived in England.  Each year he spent a few weeks with them alone.  They asked my mother if I would take him around the neighborhood, to the playground, have some ice cream, play some games…that sort of thing.

Despite the fact that the concept was presented to me as an opportunity to participate in a mini-exchange program, I was not thrilled.  There was nothing attractive about being rented out to entertain someone I didn’t know – let alone a boy.  Mom suggested that I come up with questions about the English lifestyle.  She added an undertone that I was a representative for The Youth of the United States.

I showed up to the dim and faded apartment with two boxes of Cracker Jacks.  I thought they would serve as a good vehicle to introduce our American culture – the candy, peanuts, baseball, the little toy inside, the strangely dressed boy on the box.

Kingsley was a year older than me.  He was sort of cute and ugly at the same time – I couldn’t tell and really I didn’t care.  He had a long face, dark brown hair, deep hazel eyes.  His lips were rich and almost purple. They set below a nose that seemed older than the rest of him.  Kingsley seemed equally thrilled about me interrupting his day as I felt about interrupting it – maybe I was projecting.

Despite the initial mood, the old faces beamed at us, shaky hands rested on our shoulders, phlegmy voices yelled at us to sit down.  I sort of felt bad for him.  I was feeling bad for myself.  Old people scared me.

Once acquainted, we were set free for a New York City show-and-tell session of the blind leading the blind.  Once on the sidewalk things eased up a bit.  I gave him his Cracker Jack – suddenly it didn’t seem like such a good idea.  I hated everything about Cracker Jacks except for the toy.  The sinking feeling or realization that I wasn’t going to be a good spokesperson was temporarily devastating.  Don’t endorse what you don’t believe in.  That was the crux of the issue – though the words weren’t that sophisticated.  The words were more like Why did I bring this junk? I hate it.  I wish I had brought a York Peppermint Patty, something I can really enjoy and talk about.  I hate those peanuts..I need to show him how to avoid accidentally eating one.

I had to recoup.  It seemed easy for me to take him to the Cloisters.  It was once virtually my second home.  We stopped at a playground for on the way.

Aside from forbidden bits of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Kingsley was my only exposure to British culture.   He wore strange pants and an odd jacket.  Maybe his grandparents dressed him.  He handled it well, didn’t seem remotely uncomfortable in what he was wearing at all.  His shoes reminded me of the ones the boy wore in ‘The Red Balloon’.  Mostly was struck by the fact Kingsley had a British accent, not a German-Jewish one.  This observation provided me an ‘a-ha moment’ some years later when I studied World War II.  Until then, I was in the dark.

Kingsley was soft spoken and moved delicately – yet he wasn’t delicate. He was a boy – taller than me, bigger than me and stronger than me (playgrounds reveal a lot).  He liked to eat hot dogs from street carts which, to me, was totally disgusting.  I got a hot pretzel.  Later on I noted that he missed the point of pizza altogether.

My British culture inquisition focused on language skills.  I loved his accent.  His teeth might have been a bit twisted up behind those lips, but the created poetry with every word.

Before dusk, I returned him to a table lovingly set with tea and cakes by his grandmother.  The cakes were, well, gross and I had to eat one.  It was very hard.  It was a very long visit.  The apartment smelled like old cheese.  Everything looked like it was made with parchment paper-mache.

This scene replayed for years.  As my awareness of the city grew – so did the range and length of our outings.  He picked the touristy places to visit.  I came up with side-trips, odd facts and insider shopping and eating suggestions.

In time, the city became the backdrop of a budding friendship.  He had a driving appreciation for fancy cars and monetary items.   I could listen to him say ‘Jog-gew-wah’ 1000 times and not get bored.  He was funny in the classic British way – hitting you from left field with a contrasting comment or dry observation.  We each listened to the other’s life plans.

The year we were 19 and 20 he requested that we go to Tiffany.  I happily took him there.  At the counter he requested assistance in purchasing  ‘something for the lady’.  I knew he was joking.  But the sales staff fell over themselves to assist him.  Apparently, I was not the only one who fell for his exquisite accent.  He would inquire and like magic it was placed on me.  He would lean back, hum, stroke his five o’clock shadow and say “No, no…this simply won’t do”  A casual wave of the hand – and it disappeared.

“This may send the wrong message.  Lets try it on to be sure. Shall we”?  Next: “What would Mother think of this…”

Soon we were upstairs in a private showing room.  He would conduct business, I would silently model. Next “Can you find something that may compliment the sparkle in her eye?” Next: “This one is quite nice…indeed.”  Everyone would get excited.  He would smile at me appreciatively.  It felt sort of weird.  I thought about it again, surely he was amused at the farce he had us in.  Once we got tired, he left his card assuring them that he would be back provided all were in agreement.  With a fine restaurant recommendation from the staff…we were off.

When we hit the sidewalk, he took me by the arm and we fell into a taxi. It was as if it never happened.  Well, lets see, I got up, took a shower, hopped the train, went to Tiffany and tried on thousands and thousands of dollars of jewelry, grabbed some lunch, went to the museum, had some martinis in the sky bar and hit the sack early..

The following year we met as two fully committed and entrenched University students.  He was becoming a proper British gentleman who was reading law.  I was a co-ed living the American prolonged childhood while maintaining a decent GPA.  We went out to dinner.  We walked the streets, heard some music and visited a few bars.  It was a great night.  We both eagerly spoke about Law.

A few months later my mother had met Kingsley at a funeral.  They had the chance to speak.  She reported back to me that, among a host of other things about his life, that Kingsley worried that I ‘was in need of some time to mature’.

I was crushed.  Crushed by the casual nature in which my mother delivered the news.  Crushed by him switching allegiances – to speak of me like a child and to her like a peer.  Or did he?  He was my friend, a friend which was cultured for years – and now this….an invasion, of privacy, of confidence, of something that belonged to me…

He might have been right.  The following year when Kingsley came to town I claimed I was too tied up to see him.