Thursday, March 1, 2012

The George Bush Bet - Part One

Elizabeth, Jessica, my older sister Kristie and I took a trip to London in the early spring of 2004.  We were there for about a week, and had a great time exploring the city, at least as much as can be seen with a two-year-old in tow.  The following story relates an incident that is really just a sidebar to the overall trip, but it's interesting for being one of the more bizarre (and expensive) casual encounters I've had.  I wrote the whole thing down shortly after returning home, so unlike the tale of Uncle Day Weekend, this one won't be dragged out over the course of many weeks, but will be posted in four parts in an orderly and timely fashion.  Promise.   

The George Bush Bet - Part One

Let me say right upfront that I am not a gambler by nature.  I just don’t have the personality for it; I get no adrenaline rush from the idea of making or losing money on the outcome of a game of chance. 

It’s not that I’ve never known the pleasures to be found in lady luck’s boudoir. The first money bet I ever made was for twenty dollars when I was in the eighth grade.  That was almost a weeks’ worth of profits from the collection receipts on my paper route.  The bet was on an NFL game in ‘81, and happened to be one where the 49’ers came back from behind to win at the end and, more importantly, cover the spread.  I remember the intense emotional roller coaster I went through during that game:  the wrenching impact of every handoff, the agonizing anticipation of every five-step drop, the life-and-death implications of every third and long.  My dad had never seen me so involved in a sporting event before, and I think it made him happy, or at least a little relieved. 

I remember feeling the hopeless despair when it looked like the game was over and I was going to somehow have to pay off this bet and pay for the newspapers this week as well.  I couldn’t believe I was so stupid as to bet all my money on a football game. 

But it wasn’t over yet.  There was the flickering glimmer of hope, building with each completed pass by Montana as the Niners moved down the field, and then – miracle of miracles! – the touchdown, and the game was over!  I knew in that moment the thrill of victory that ABC always talked about.  It was electrifying, heady stuff, and instantly addictive, at least until I lost a bet a few games later.  Somehow, the cold sobriety of losing killed any further desire to taste the intoxicating bubbles of winning.
There was still an occasional bet, but more for fun and bragging rights than anything else.  In ’93, when the Suns played the Bulls in the NBA Finals and the whole city of Phoenix was going crazy with Barkley and basketball fever, a co-worker and I made a bet on the outcome of the series.  Financially, there was nothing more at stake than the cost of a lunch, or was it five?  The problem was, as the series went on, we kept embellishing the deal, first with lunches, but then by adding things intended to publicly embarrass the other, neither of us seriously considering the possibility that we would lose. Of course, Phoenix eventually lost that series (damn you, Jim Paxson!), and it was I who had to endure a month of looking at a Bulls background on my computer, and a custom marquee display which read, “Kevin Thorson loves the Bulls! Phoenix sucks!  BULLS RULE!!!”  I also had to answer my office phone for a week by saying, “Thank you for calling Caliber Bank, Electronic Services department.  The Bulls are world champions again, and the greatest basketball team ever.  My name is Kevin, how can I help you?”  Just to make sure I didn’t slack off, my associate would call at random times throughout the day.  He’d call from different people’s phones, but I could tell it was him because as soon as I finished announcing myself, he would just start giggling, and hang up.  And then there was the day I had to wear a pair of silk Chicago Bulls boxers to work over my dress slacks.  Somehow I managed to encounter every coworker in our building that day, all sent over by my compassionate pal on the pretext of there being some phantom profitability report I wanted them to see. 

In spite of these exceptions, allow me to reiterate that I am not a gambler by nature.  So when I tell you that when I was in London a few years back and met a man who convinced me to make a bet with him regarding, of all things, George Bush, in the amount of 100 pounds (almost $200 at the time), which is probably more money than I had cumulatively bet in my entire life, it should in no way be interpreted as a run-of-the-mill event.  It most certainly was not.
The day of the George Bush Bet began auspiciously.  I was on my own in London; my wife, my sister and my daughter were all back at the rented flat (you have to say flat when you’re talking about an apartment in London; I believe there’s a hefty fine and/or possible jail time involved if you don’t).  Jessica, who was two at the time, had come down with a cold almost immediately upon arriving, and my sister Kristie refused to leave the flat (sorry, I just don’t want to lose any more money in connection with this trip) with her being sick, and my wife Elizabeth felt guilty about leaving Kristie there alone with Jessica.  I, however, felt no such compunction.  I had the better part of a day to enjoy myself in the manner of my choosing.  I walked to the closest tube station (same rules apply for using the word ‘tube’ when referring to a subway), which happened to be Hammersmith.  I needed cash, but the ATMs in the mall surrounding the station were out of service.  Time was of the essence, and I had enough pocket money to at least get me started, so I hopped on the subway (oops!), and set off.  I arrived just in time to join a walking tour called “Secret London!”  It was great fun.  Our escort showed us dainty courtyard gardens tucked into the shadows of thick office towers and tenements, architecturally significant buildings, old churches, and oddly-named pubs.  Afterwards, I went to the Churchill War Rooms, which was where the British coordinated the war effort from underground bunkers in WWII.  These bunkers were situated beneath a prominent government building just a few blocks away from Parliament and Big Ben. During the years of the Blitz, German missiles would come raining down randomly all over the city, terrifying the British people in anticipation of an all-out invasion by the Nazis.  It was an amazing experience, and filled me with renewed admiration for British resolve and obstinancy, not to mention craftiness.  I used the last of my cash to get in. 

My plan had been to walk across the bridge next to Big Ben, and head for the London Eye, the incredibly huge Ferris wheel along the banks of the Thames.  But since I needed money, I headed in the opposite direction, towards Trafalgar Square.   I walked a few blocks until I saw an archway which led out to Whitehall Street.  The arch was guarded by uniformed soldiers wearing shiny silver helmets with dual blonde locks of horsehair flopping from the helmets’ peaks.  Several were mounted on enormous black steeds, from which they surveyed their surroundings with unfocused scrutiny.  When I saw them guarding the archway, I almost stopped and turned back, but then I thought that would look suspicious, so I proceeded as nonchalantly as I could manage.   It turns out I needn’t have worried; they royally disregarded my insignificant presence.  Upon reaching Whitehall, I turned back towards Big Ben, scanning for a bank or an ATM machine along the busy street. 

That’s when I saw a man standing alone on the sidewalk, in defiance of the pedestrians who flowed steadily around him.  He appeared to be contemplating the Cenotaph, a war memorial to the British soldiers who died in World War I, which stands on an island in the middle of the street.  I tried to walk by him at a respectful distance on the sidewalk, but as I passed, he pointed towards it and asked, “Excuse me, sir, but can you tell me what that is?”  Pleased both by being referred to as ‘sir’ and by the opportunity to appear knowledgeable to a stranger, I told him what I knew about it.  He thanked me and considered it again.  Just as I began to walk away, he added, “You Brits must have to know your history; this city’s got so much of it.”  Now this threw me, because at the exact moment he said that, I was thinking to myself, How rich is this!  An American teaching an Englishman about his own monument in his own country.

“I’m sorry,” I stammered, turning back.  “I’m not British, I’m American.”  We stared at each other in mutual confusion for a moment.  For my part, I felt justified in mistaking him for British.  I mean, he completely fit the profile, or more accurately (yes! I admit it!), the stereotype.  He was a man who appeared older than he probably was, with a ruddy, weather-beaten complexion, close-cropped, wind-tossed light brown hair, and the clincher, bad teeth.  And I do mean bad in the classical British sense:  yellow, stained, crooked, missing.  He was dressed in several layers of wool, and he was wearing fairly nice shoes.  Plus, he had something akin to a British accent, where clearly I had not.  My utter American-ness was completely exposed when I spoke, and how anyone could mistake it for anything else astounded me. 

There were only two times in my life when I had even attempted a British accent, and both turned out badly.  The first was on a youth group bus trip to Disneyland, where, on the way to California, a friend and I began to recite phrases culled from Oliver! and Monty Python episodes in call and response fashion:  “What’s up, Guv’na?”  “Please, sir, may I have some more?” and “Say Lionel, catch!” It was silly and stupid and adolescent and obnoxious, and we continued in a self-reinforcing loop despite the loud and increasingly threatening objections of our captive audience.  But we were on a roll; it was impossible to stop.  It ended only when we were physically restrained from speaking by several large passengers after the driver threatened to abort the trip entirely.  In retrospect, we got off easy.  We probably deserved to be beaten, thrown from the bus, and forced to live the remainders of our lives in Blythe, or Indio.  The other time was a few years later when another friend and I decided to start a band whose only goal was to get on “Late Night with David Letterman,” perform the song; “People are Dumb” (it was, co-incidentally, the only song we ever actually wrote), and then conduct the interview segment with Dave exclusively with British accents, as a goof on all those British bands who somehow manage to sing without an accent.  (As an aside to any aspiring musicians out there, let me warn against basing an entire musical career purely on your enthusiasm for one potential gag, however great it may be; apparently, more is required to ensure professional success.)  We used all our practice time rehearsing our interview responses instead of the song.  In both cases, I loosed upon the world what is probably the worst fake British accent of anyone in possession of two working ears and a moving mouth.    

Anyway, while I continued to look confused over our mutual misjudgment of each other’s background, his expression quickly turned into a smile, and he introduced himself brightly.  “Hi,” he said, extending his hand.  “My name’s Sandy.  I’m from Australia.”  I responded reflexively with my hand and my name.  “An American in London,” he mused, as if the idea was somehow more fundamentally far-fetched than an Australian in London.  “So what brings you to London?  Business?” he asked.  I started to explain that we were on vacation, but stumbled when I couldn’t remember whether Australians used the word ‘vacation’ like we did, or the British word ‘holiday,’ and ended up murmuring something like “just kind of traveling for fun...”  He gave me an odd look, as though he didn’t believe me, so I began explaining our (my wife’s and mine) interest in English history, culture and people.  His mystified expression remained steady on his face, so I continued on to say that many people considered London to be one of the great cities of the world, and well worth a visit in its own right.  This fact didn’t put a dent in his quizzical visage.  Suddenly feeling that he was, in some unspoken way, beginning to challenge my mental competency, I switched tactics and revealed that we got a great deal on airfare, only eight hundred dollars and some change for the four of us to fly round-trip from Phoenix to London.  But, I admitted, even though the airfare was a great bargain, everything else was really expensive, and the current exchange rate was eating us alive. 

Somehow, that did the trick. “Yes, well, the dollar is getting knocked around a bit these days, isn’t it?” he replied, his face melting into a grin.  I found out that Sandy was from Sydney, divorced, a dealer in some form of antiques and collectibles (did he say coins?), and was here for a business deal.  He told me that he traveled a lot on business, and that in fact, he would be traveling to the U.S. in a couple of weeks to Santa Barbara, California, and then to Las Vegas.   I casually mentioned that he would be relatively close to Phoenix, approximately a five hours’ drive from either of those places.  He replied that he had been to Arizona before, and that he had had a good time with his then-wife at a resort in Sedona a few years back.

Suddenly aware that we were rapidly approaching the time limit for most superficial conversations between strangers, and also that I still needed to find an ATM and get to the London Eye, I shook his hand again, told him that it was great meeting him, and attempted to begin moving in my previous direction.  Sandy saw nothing conclusionary about any of this and fell in beside me, talking the whole while.  He couldn’t seem to get over the fact that my main reason for coming to London was my interest and appreciation for history and politics.  I reminded him again that many people considered London to be one of the great cities of the world.  “That’s true,” he admitted, almost grudgingly, and then told me that he had won several thousand pounds in a casino earlier that day.  To prove it, he pulled a thick wad of bills from his pocket, flexing it to show its depth.  “Needless to say, I’m in a very good mood today,” he said, smiling, and shoving the wad back into his pocket. 

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