When Tommy was 17 months old we spent the entire month of October in London. We did a lot of fun things while we were there, but today I’m not so much dreaming of these things as the entirely new way I experienced the city. On my previous visit to London, I had gotten around mostly using the Underground, and when planning expeditions on this trip I expected to do the same. But after one or two trips up and down the perilously steep and long escalators with Tommy in his stroller, I avoided the Tube at all costs. (I later discovered that the stop nearest us, Angel, Islington, has the steepest, longest escalator in all of Europe, so my vertigo was legit.)
Although London traffic has to be among the worst in the world, I stuck to surface transport on double-decker buses. The glamour quotient for this kind of travel is certainly low, especially given the Londoners’ bizarre acceptance of public drunkenness, even on weekday afternoons. But I quickly developed an abiding affection for these cherry-red buses, which are fun to watch in a way that I never appreciated before I had Tommy. Traveling above ground meant that I got to know the street plan and the neighborhoods, to understand where Stoke Newington (our home base) became Islington and then Finsbury and then Holborn. And as these neighborhoods represent entirely different faces of the city, from working class to rapidly gentrifying to solidly upper middle class; from seventeenth-century row houses to Georgian townhouses to postwar apartment blocs—each trip could feel like a trip through culture and history, giving me an understanding of the city I would never had if my journeys had stayed subterranean.
I also learned what it means to be stuck Friday afternoon on the High Street. I shivered at bus stops, exposed to the fall winds. But I saw canals, which more than compensated for the inconvenience (I had no idea London had canals). And I discovered the delights of riding on the top deck, which is a little bit like being on an amusement park ride with its sudden shift in perspective. Street lights and second stories are at eye level and one is suddenly transformed into a giant, striding the city at a height no one else achieves.
There was no such thing as isolation on the often crowded buses. On one occasion we ended up sitting next to three teenage girls holding bulging Woolworth’s bags and sucking on candy pacifiers. They giggled to see that Tommy had one in his mouth as well (plastic, not candy) and one asked me what pacifiers were called in the United States. I told her binkies or nuks and she laughed and said, “We call them dummies here!” Smiling at Tommy, she added, “This must be the dummy section.” Another time, an older woman with a nut-brown face who looked and sounded like she might have stepped out of a Dickens novel couldn’t keep herself from admiring Tommy: “Oh, ahn’t you goh-jus! Jus’ goh-jus! Look at that blond ‘air! Oh you ahr sweet ahnt ya? Ah’ve nevah seen a baby before—you’re the mos’ bee-yoo-tee-ful baby ah’ve evah seen!”
My increasing knowledge about the buses—and Tommy’s delight at traveling on them—made Matt and me bolder about playing tourist in London than we had been anyplace previously. We visited the London Transport Museum, home not only to any number of trams, buses, taxis, trains, and subway cars, but three large train tables as well. We went to Greenwich, where we posed Tommy for a picture with one foot on either side of the Prime Meridian and then rushed through the Royal Observatory so that he could get some time on the playground down the hill (this photo is from there). Tommy and I also spent a happy afternoon wandering around Hampstead while Matt visited a friend in Wales.
But we also used the bus for many routine trips to the grocery store or park. Often, Tommy ate a lunch of cold hot dog and cheese sitting in my lap as the city moved past us. We may have spent only four weeks in London, but during that time I acquainted myself with all of the routes for the buses that stopped in Stoke Newington where we were staying. I rode on many of them and compared their relative quality and ride time. I knew which lines had the nice new buses with a bin up front where I could stick the stroller. I knew which buses ran every ten minutes, and which ones tended to run late. I spent many evenings with bus schedules and a map of London spread out before me. I would play with different routes like a mathematician working out an equation. By the time we left England I had absorbed enough information about the routes that I was even able to make snap decisions about what bus to take when plans changed or a bus passed a stop without taking on passengers because it was too full.
We were explorers, Tommy and I, enjoying the ride as much as we did the destination, encountering alien populations, some of them hostile, but most of them friendly and happy to chat with my blue-eyed boy. I wish we could go for a ride on one today.
(And of course I didn’t think once the entire time I was there to take a picture of Tommy in front of a bus! the one above is used courtesy of FreeFoto.com.)