when pictures fail me…
Some of the fissures in my aging brain are actually ever-widening fjords—none scenic—and all for sucking in whatever trivial factoid is just on the tip of my tongue, ready to garnish a conversation with something I hope passes for zest. Unfortunately, the Zamboni of my brain also sweeps my cranial surface of really, really important stuff. Recent MIAs include the obvious—glasses, keys, user IDs and pin numbers—but also my passport and the printout of my entire travel itinerary (ticket to and from London with a stopover in Reykjavik, as well as proof of payment for the JFK airport bus). I didn’t actually lose my e-tickets, I just assumed I had packed them along with my (never-found, reissued) passport into my handbag as I did one last house run-through before a nine-day trip overseas. Lists? I got ’em in triplicate. I only trust paper, but without my brain as a sidecar, their bulleted points are moot. Anyhow, never assume.
To balance out those moments of full-blown sheer panic (usually unveiled in public), my grey matter rallies at the strangest opportunities to prove it’s still got the goods. My tried and true area of expertise is film trivia. I could always trot out a character actor for his second closeup, usually to people who never knew him on the first go around. “You know, that guy who always turned up in Fred Astaire films, stealing scenes as the butler, and later on did a guest stint on I Love Lucy . . .” You know. I know you know. I used to know. Edward Everett Horton!
Now my sharpest area, the one my remaining brain cells rally around, is “Name That Tune.” Upping the stakes beyond song title, singer, and year, there are bonus points for a new category: Am I listening to a cover version?
At a recent Easter egg decorating party (wine, women, songs from our youth, and a creative outlet that embraced pagan fecundity), all was rolling along merrily until “Spooky” came up on the hostess’s playlist. Love is kinda crazy with a spooky little girl like you. My ears pricked up instantly. Next thing I knew, I was collecting forensic evidence that I was indeed still in command of retrieving aural stimuli from 1965.
“This is not the Zombies,” I said, to no one’s apparent interest. Well, one. One (with whom I’ve butted heads in trivial differences of opinion before) disagreed. I stated my opinion again, as did she. Then I zipped up. After all, she is a good friend and reliable cat-sitter, not to mention my witness and savior from the missing travel itinerary meltdown. It was J. who dropped me off at the train station and then returned to whisk me back home again, where in a tornado-frenzy I found my printout right next to my computer.
A few days into my trip, I was fading somewhere near the British Museum on a chilly, grey day (what else?), famished at an odd hour and in the mood for some solid comfort food. It was 5:30 pm and I was in front of a place unfettered by happy hour, called Munchkins. What lured me in was the promise of a veggie burger for under ten dollars. I gave the benefit of the doubt to a Brit equivalent of a watered-down faux diner, proclaiming to be in business twenty-five years. Doing the math, I also noted corroborating proof: laminated newspapers in English, Arabic, Japanese, etc. circa 1997. Not an exciting time graphically or journalistically.
My coffee arrived first. Like a native, I had taken care to say “white,” and not “with milk.” It arrived frothy and hot, and a bargain at £2.50. I sipped happily while taking in the atmosphere, such as it was. The young waitresses lounged near the dessert counter, a miscellany of accents wafting over that might have been Turkish or Polish or Estonian or some other sign of recent immigration. Two Japanese men about my age (i.e. starting to take advantage of senior discounts) were seated across the room in a booth, when a group of four young adults (from Turkey? Poland? Estonia?) settled into one next to mine. They had a better command of their waitress’s native tongue, but were not quite in sync with the menu. Another waitress stepped in to help translate, and the diner atmosphere livened up a bit. I finished my meal in this Diner of Babel with the universal “check please” sign language, eager to make my long-awaited pilgrimage to Marks and Spencer before closing hours, whenever they were. I wasn’t about to miss my chance to stock up on undies. All I knew was that I had been booted out of the British Museum just before discovering Munchkins.
I noticed that I was charged £2.95, the price of a cappuccino, yet the note was coffee white. Pointing this out to the Turkish or Polish (or Estonian) cashier, I simply wanted to know what in fact I was served, as it was the best coffee I’d had so far on my trip. A mild misunderstanding ensued—the new menu had coffee white at the price I was charged, while I had been given an out-of-date menu. The cashier offered the lower price as I pointed out the discrepancy, not quibbling over 45p, just trying to know what to order in the future. I couldn’t help but feel I was now being perceived as a difficult customer—an older, single American woman—the type of tourist normally invisible, poring over a fold-out map and picking through unfamiliar coinage with nearsighted obsession. The type of woman who leaves her entire travel itinerary sitting next to her printer.
Flashing my “never mind” smile, I realized that they didn’t want to understand my point. As I gathered my considerable gear, the canned American music elicited from the one seated Japanese man the proclamation to all within earshot: “I can survive!” He eagerly nodded his enthusiasm as I tuned in to the song. It was a cover group. In fact, subconsciously I had processed this throughout my (pretty lame) veggie burger. The music and deep-fried cauliflower or whatever patty sprinkled with shredded iceberg lettuce and carrot had me a bit bemused, knowing that my last meal in London was by detour of an imitation American experience.
Stopping by the Japanese gentleman’s booth, assessing his age and imagining him forty years ago in a Tokyo disco, posturing uninhibitedly in a white John Travolta suit, I said in my friendly solo tourist way, “Actually, this is a cover version. The original is by Gloria Gaynor.”
“No!” he retorted adamantly. This is Gloria Gaynor!” I stopped, listened again.
“No, actually, it’s not.” Still smiling.
Was I getting into a battle of saving face? I knew I was right but I let it go, aware that by now I was most likely pegged a troublemaker by everyone in the diner. And something else dawned on me. It wasn’t important that they realized I was right; it was only crucial to me. The brain cells were still cranking—at least some of them—in a specific area of grey matter where I am still young and can name that tune.
And, by the way, it’s I WILL Survive!