The kindness of strangers
In a compulsively thumbed pocket copy of Nicholson's Guide to London, I find this business card. There's no logo, just a few lines of text in capital letters: CLOTHING DISCOUNT COMPANY MENSWEAR, it proclaims, along with an address, 6 Southampton Row in Bloomsbury. This leaves plenty of room for white space. And in that space, there is a signature in a debonair hand, "Cyril," underlined with a single, confident stroke.
"Hell is a city much like London," wrote the poet Shelley of this metropolis. The city is vast, crowded and, on most days, pretty dark. It's a city where great things are promised, but anonymity is the rule. London can put a spring in your step, but it can also beat you down. Which is why every kindness that is offered there seems to count double.
My wife and I found ourselves in London at the end of October. We had been traveling for three weeks, were running low on cash and depending on plastic to carry us through the last days before our flight back to the States.
Somewhere along the way I got it in my head that I wanted to get myself a jacket as a kind of keepsake. Wherever we had gone, it seemed the men-about-town were wearing velvet blazers - the sorts of things Georgian squires might once have donned before adjourning to the study for brandy, cigars and a grumble about the burdens of Empire.
Such a jacket, I thought, would suit me to a T.
I found exactly what I was looking for hanging on the wall in Harrod's department store. It was the color of a beaver pelt and soft as a hound's ear. Then I looked at the price tag. Based on the conversion rate of pounds to dollars, I figured the cost of this garment to be slightly less than $1,000. While I might be willing to pay that for, say, a bulletproof vest, this amount for a velvet jacket seemed decadent, even for yours truly.
In this case, though, as in so many others, self-indulgence would be the mother of invention. I remembered a corner shop near our hotel in Bloomsbury that we passed going to and from the Holborn Underground. It was an unassuming dive, rather dark and a little worn around the edges. Its display windows were crammed with menswear - it was like the place had been hit by a haberdasher's storm.
I saw the jackets almost immediately. They were a mere fraction of the price I'd come to expect. And then I met Cyril. Cyril was tall with a shock of grey hair. He wore a pressed white shirt, silk tie and tailored trousers. He was every inch the gentleman's gentleman, what some of us today might call "old school." In another minute he was looking over my shoulder, advising (not telling) me about the proper fit.
We exchanged a few stock pleasantries. I handed Cyril my credit card to seal the deal. He ran it through his machine. "Oh dear," he said without a trace of sarcasm, "your card has been declined."
Finding out that your credit is tapped out is never good news. But getting this word in London, with two days to go and a hotel bill looming, does wonders for low blood pressure.
Cyril suggested we go down the street to the Barclays Bank. "They're Visa," he said. "They'll get this cleared up."
But at Barclays the manager stared at us like we were from another galaxy. And when we tried calling 800 numbers in the U.S. and the U.K., we couldn't get through. We went to an Internet café and tried to inquire about our balance via e-mail, but that was a bust.
Cyril greeted me when I returned to his shop: "Well, is it good news or bad?" I told him what had happened and he frowned. "That's horrible," he said. Before we knew it he was reaching for his phone. "I travel a lot myself," he explained, "and I know how terrible this can feel." He began pounding the buttons on his plastic phone. "It's old," he apologized, "you have to hit it rather hard."
After several false starts, Cyril's eyes flashed and he handed me the receiver. He had managed to do for us what we had been unable to do for ourselves. Our credit card company in New York City was on the line. The card had been declined due to an abnormal spending pattern - we don't often eat out in Amsterdam and Brussels and I've never tried to buy a velvet jacket. "Call us next time you're going on a trip like that," the voice in NYC yawped.
I tried to pay Cyril for the cost of that call. He wouldn't hear of it. He seemed more keen on recommending a show of Degas and his contemporaries at the Tate. "If you ask me," he murmured, "that's painting."
I told Cyril that if he ever traveled to Indianapolis, dinner was on me. But odds are you, dear reader, will visit London before Cyril comes here. If London Pride is what you're looking for, stop by 6 Southampton Row. Kindness is on offer there.