The Tower of London, that giant penal castle in the heart of the city where three queens of England lost their heads and all who entered abandoned hope, is open to the public most days until 5:30 p.m. I went there yesterday, since I am in England, and it was really cool. As usual, the thing I found most interesting wasn't the obvious (though it was cool to be next to Anne Boleyn's DNA). My favorite (sorry, favourite) part was the moat that surrounds the Tower. It used to be filled with water, but now it's just a grass embankment jutting against the tall brick walls of the fortification. The grass grows green, guvnor, because of all the nitrogen-rich poop that took years to sink into the soil when the moat was basically a gigantic toilet. All the waste from the Tower was thrown, tossed, and plopped into it, which on the surface doesn't seem like that bad an idea. At least there was water to mix with the sludge, unlike the rest of London, which wasn't called the Great Stink for nuthin'.
Actually, according to the Beefeater who led our tour, the moat was designed pretty well — in theory. Every so often, a watergate was supposed to open into the Thames, and river water was supposed to rush in and whirl around the castle, flushing out the old waste and replenishing it with fresher water. However, the gate was too far up on the moat, so all the piss, shit, beheaded corpses, and abandoned hopes that gathered therein merely sank to the bottom and had a right good time festering into something far more disgusting than anyone could have imagined. Methinks the sweet release of an axman's blade would be a welcome trade for having to endure that smell. Yet endure they did, until Queen Victoria came sniffing 'round and declared it a disaster area to be filled and covered immediately. Problem solved.
So, now that the metaphor portion of this column has been introduced (surprise!), I will move on to the meat of my argument, and hopefully tie it into a discussion I had at Kezar Bar and Grill on Cole. The bartender was talking to a man on my left about the BP disaster in the Gulf — the incompetence, the greed, the loss. Who will sweep in and fix the oil spill that British Petroleum hath wrought, due to poor engineering, after basically making our coastline its toilet? Whose heads will roll? Where is our Queen Victoria?
"They make billions of dollars a year," the man said.
"Fining them isn't going to make a dent," the bartender said, in so many words.
"They say boycotting BP-owned brands in the U.S. is pointless," I added.
(There is something about sitting at a bar that invites a person to interrupt others' conversations. Happily, they didn't seem to care.)
We all sort of sat there, drowning in the seeming futility of any action we could take against the Man.
At this point, I suppose I should describe the Kezar. It's a restaurant on one side, a bar on the other. The french fries are the best in the city. As for the saloon area, it's cozy and warm, with a nice selection of beers. I like to sit at the bar and order dinner, which I did on this evening. A drunk guy on my right kept elbowing me in wild, World Cup–fueled revelry, but happily he finally got up and left. I scooted my stool over a few inches in his wake with a delighted sigh. An older African-American gentleman in a newsboy cap peered at me out of the corner of his eye as I moved closer, making sure I didn't encroach too far into his space. He had to deal with the drunk guy on his left, too, so I didn't blame him.
"Why couldn't they come up with some trapdoors in case of spillage?" I asked the man on my left. "You know, like if one barrier bursts, there are two others in place to catch the problem."
"Yes, why not indeed," he said.
"It doesn't seem to be technology that is the problem, but human incompetence. This is why we are supposed to have government regulation, and why I am a Democrat and not a Republican or a Libertarian." I could tell I was starting to lose him. There's a difference between making small talk about big issues and really starting to have a discussion.
"Would you mind scooting over a bit more?" said the African-American man, who wanted to make way for his friend who had just arrived. I said sure, and scooted a few more inches over. "You get any closer, and we gonna have to have a talk," he said. He was smiling ever so slightly.
"Don't worry," I said. "I brought protection."
Yessirree, I was really enjoying myself, but then, as has happened a lot since the oil spill, I suddenly remembered what was happening in the Gulf and felt bad for having fun. It's a bit like 9/11 in that way. This disaster is a Great Stink that hangs over us.
Eventually we moved off discussing the spill, and the people around me, perhaps facilitated by their beer intake, changed the topic of discussion to soccer. This was a bar, goddamnit, which we are supposed to use to forget our troubles. For once I was glad for the endless muck and mire of being caught amid sports talk — the sweet relief of the axman's blade! I might even, maybe, enjoy watching the match. Maybe.
The game started, and like penguins leaning back to watch an airplane fly over, we all turned and gazed up at the television, suspended in anticipation.
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