The People You Meet.

elvisWhen friends ask me, “I’m going to England, what should I do?” my standard answer is “Go to pubs.” Most of the time they already know their itinerary and a guidebook will list the touristy sights to be seen better than I can. Going to a pub will enhance their experience because, in my experience anyway, it was the best place to meet interesting people.

One night I was in a pub and had just ordered a pint when I heard a voice next to me ask, “Are you American?” Some people advise responding to this question by pretending to be Canadian, but I found that most of the time anyone who asked was interested to meet an American and didn’t want to berate me about my country’s political and military policies, although sometimes when they learned I was from Nashville they’d have so much to say about Elvis I’d wish I’d said I was from Toronto, but that’s another story.

On this particular occasion I said “yes” and looked over at the guy who’d asked. He had a blonde mullet, going bald from the front, and was wearing the kind of tracksuit I associated with 1980’s-era Al Sharpton. In Britain they’re called “shell suits.”

“All you Americans are a bunch of wankers,” he said. As he tilted his pint glass back to drain the last golden drops from it I was tempted to say something like, “No, just the guys,” but he was glassy-eyed and had slurred a little.

“You Americans are all wankers,” he said again, then he turned to me and moved a little closer. I got a little bit of a buzz when he exhaled. “But you listen to me. I was in America the other day.” The other day? Did he just pop over there for a day trip? He’d leaned toward me menacingly and I thought I’d better hold my tongue. “Everybody was trying to sell me ice cream.” It was really hard not to laugh, but he was so serious I kept still. “But they took care of me. You know that? The Americans took care of me, and I want you to know I’ll take care of you. Anybody gives you trouble I’ll fix ‘em.”

“Steve, your cab’s here,” someone called from the door. Steve—that was who I’d been talking to—stood up. He was six feet tall but looked like he weighed about eighty pounds. I appreciated having a potential bodyguard who could be knocked over by a stiff breeze. As I turned back to finish my own pint I noticed the bartender was red-faced from laughing.

I’ve always been fascinated by Marx’s statement that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. There wasn’t anything tragic about meeting Steve, apart from the fact that the pub was in a remote town I’d been passing through and that I’d never go back to, but events in life sometimes have echoes. A few nights later I turned on Spitting Image. The episode ended with a song about the county of Essex, and there was Steve! Or at least bulkier versions of Steve wearing shell suits just like his. I laughed until I hurt.

One of the wonderful things about the internet is for years I’ve been able to tell the first part of the story but there was no way to convey the second part without actually having the Spitting Image video on hand. And here it is.

9 Comments

  1. Chuck Baudelaire

    Are…are those puppets having sex at the end of the video? I’m trying to work out the local equivalent of Essex. I’m guessing it’s something like Plano, Texas. I get it.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Yes, they’re having sex. The monkey noises are an added bonus. I imagine that only slipped by the censors because there’s so much going on.
      And I think of Essex as not just a place but a state of mind. You find what might be described as “Essex types” everywhere. The pub I was in was, in fact, way up north.

      Reply
  2. Gina W.

    OK, just wondering– if people ask that you are from Nashville and then ask about Elvis, do you tell them that they are thinking of Memphis? I’ve been to Graceland (when I was a teenager) so I can say without a doubt that it was in Memphis. I guess Elvis recorded music in Nasvhille so maybe that’s what they are thinking of??? And when I was abroad, I too got bombarded with opinions about the American military and political system. It was like, “Dude– I’m a college student. I don’t make foreign policy.” I was never tempted to call myself Canadian, though I had people tell me to do that. I could never pretend to be Canadian because there’s no way I’d remember to say pronounce words like “about” as “aboot”.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I can’t tell whether they’re thinking of Memphis or whether they just group all of Tennessee together. Maybe it is because Elvis recorded some music in Nashville, but he recorded music in a lot of places. Maybe they just think of Nashville as “the music place”.
      Also I learned the hard way that, when you’re an American abroad, you should never mistake a Canadian for a fellow American. The sighs, sneers, and groans that elicits make it clear how terrible an insult that is, but, hey, he wasn’t wearing a toque in the hoose, so how could I know?

      Reply
  3. kdcol

    Funny, I’ve always turned away from the hideous shell/track suit. I don’t think I’ve ever really taken a good, close look at them before and I didn’t know they had multiple names either. I watched the video and checked out all those pictures of tracksuits in the link, and I do believe I am scarred for life. Thanks.

    Also, I don’t think I’d get away with telling anyone I’m from Canada. Pretty sure my Texas twang would give me away. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I wish I had more of a Southern twang–or just more of a Southern accent. Having a mother from Detroit and going to college in Indiana seems to have given me an accent that’s impossible to place. The only person who’s ever told me I sound even slightly Southern is a friend from Utah.

      Reply
  4. Spoken Like A True Nut

    The entire year that I lived in England, not one person asked if I was American. It was always, “Are you Canadian?”

    I was surprised that so many were able to guess correctly on the first try, and after the third or so time it happened, I said as much to the asker. He replied, “Oh, I couldn’t actually tell. We just find that Canadians will get very upset if someone assumes they’re American, whereas Americans don’t really care if they’re mistaken for Canadian, so most of us ask everyone if they’re Canadian from the start and spare ourselves a potential earful.”

    He had a point.

    Of course, after I got a few drinks in me, I would start to involuntarily adopt bits and pieces of the local dialects, and then it got REALLY amusing when the other pubgoers would try to place my accent.

    Also I am now extremely homesick for the excellent Sunday carvery at the Bay Horse and I think I need to find a reason to go back to York for a visit.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It’s surprising to me now that I was never “mistaken” for Canadian. I would have considered it a compliment. Maybe I did sound just Southern enough that they knew I wasn’t from north of the border. I also had an ear for the local lingo and sometimes impersonated people I knew, in a few cases with such accuracy one person suggested I should be doing voices for Spitting Image. Now THAT was a compliment.
      I only spent one very nice afternoon in York and would love to go back. No matter where I was I enjoyed Yorkshire Bitter if it was available. Of course I also have some unfinished business with an old friend in the southwest of Wales, but that’s another story.

      Reply
  5. Ann Koplow

    Here’s an echo for me: This post made me even happier that I’ll be in the UK in less than three weeks. I don’t remember seeing many shell suits before at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but I’ll be on the look out for them (and people from Essex).

    Reply

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