My second day in London, at the Italian sisters’ café, I saw a garish, parti-colored, P. T. Barnum-style poster hawking the annual vernal equinox dawn show at Madame Tussaud’s Planetarium.  I went, and the star-lit dome was nice enough, but I couldn’t see the point in straining my eyes at a zillionth-scale copy when the real McCoy was right outside.  The clockwork that shot stars around the dome was interesting–there was some big gadget in the middle of the rooom, looking like a statue of an overgrown bug.  It clicked and whirred and put everything in place just so.  A fistful of cables ran from it to a brushed aluminum console with mysterious knobs and buttons.  Behind the console sat a tiny old guy swaddled in scarves and sweaters, huddled up in a creaky swivelling chair.  He had a full head of snowy white hair but shaggy, jet-black eyebrows.  Underneath them were icy blue eyes, impossible to ignore, like a spotlight shining out of a cavern.  Every now and then he’d sneeze, and when he did, he’d take a little silver spoon and a jar of MacGregor’s Mint Jam out of his cardigan pocket and have a taste–folk remedy for the sneezies, I guess.  That’s the only time he moved–he never touched the console; he just looked at it.  I thought about trying to strike up a conversation with him, but he didn’t look like he’d be interested.  He just sat there inert, breathing, sneezing, and dipping into his little jar of mint jam.

Leaving the planetarium was kind of a shock–walking out of the warm, surrounding darkness and into the cold glare of the city.  The planetarium’s on Baker Street, quite a hike from Marchmont Street, but I made a morning of it by wandering and poking around, exploring.  One of the nice things about  London is that it’s full of unexpected little parks and groves, and I enjoyed stumbling across them–I felt like an urban Magellan–and I liked seeing things beginning to blossom.  True to astronomical phenomena, the sun was a little stronger that day, and I could already see little shoots coming up from the dirt and leaning east, where the sun was rising.  It was brighter than the day before but still cold, so I was happy to make it to the café, say hello to the Italians, and have my usual two cups of Imperial Pinhead Gunpowder tea.

I was nineteen at the time, but something about London made me feel like an old man–the weather, the buildings, the old women waiting for buses (English women reach a certain grumpy age and look like Richard Nixon in snow boots).

After my two cups I took my passport out of my pocket in order to get to my wallet.  The guy sitting near me saw the passport and asked what part of the States I was from.  When I told him, it turned out that he had an Aunt Olive who had lived in El Paso, on Montana Street–precisely my neck of the woods.  He asked if I might have known her (of course not).  He then introduced himself, in a way that struck me as weirdly formal, as Mr. Lawrence Weymyss Blodgett.  “Trochaic trimeter,” he said, grinning broadly.  “You’ll never forget it.”  And he was right–I never did.