Saturday, April 25, 2009

Five hours in the Underground

Don’t ask George for directions. Or, if you do, at least buy one of his papers – they’re only 50 pence.

George, more cockney than elderly, has been vending papers at the London Bridge Underground station for 50 years. And for just as long, he’s begrudgingly given directions to strangers who’d rather ask him than read the station map. Paper-selling is the only job he’s ever had. I know, because I spent a few hours with him, promoting The Evening Standard on one of his many days. Paid £13 per hour to harass unwitting commuters during the rush, it was my first job in London. I’m not looking to make a career of it.

I’d signed up as an on-call promotions person with The Network. All I had to do, according to the Gumtree ad, was speak English and have good hygiene. Sweet. Most other jobs require a three-month unpaid internship and degree qualifications that don’t translate into Canadian. Hygiene I’ve got covered. Still, I wondered what I might be getting into. The Network. To me, it rang of The Matrix. Or, something more Orwellian. The Network. As it turned out, David Lynch should buy shares.

When The Network called, I’d been in London for a month already, and I was desperate for human interaction. The city’s too large and disjointed, and its population too rushed to allow much in the way of casual encounters. All fun is pre-scheduled, plotted on Google Maps and timed with the Transport for London journey planner. Everything between my house and my destination is white noise – queues, buses, underground trains, and swarms of bone, blood and flesh churning to Point B.

Occasionally a high heel gets stuck in an escalator and a woman topples backwards, or a fight breaks out, police dogs sniff for drugs, and drunks sing football anthems. When I began to cherish these interruptions, I knew I was really, really bored.

Then I discovered The Network. Fully ready to take London’s eye contact-avoiding culture head on, the prospect of having legal permission to harass thousands of Londoners at one of the city’s busiest stations sounded positively dreamy. So I agreed. From 3:30 to 8:30 PM the next day, London Bridge would be mine. And George the paper seller would be kind enough to share it.

Determined to suck the marrow from the experience, I began drilling George about his half-century of selling papers as soon as I arrived. I had time to kill anyway, while I waited for further instructions.

“Who’d you kill to get this primo spot, George?” And with this, my first question, George became an instant, unwavering ally. He didn't deny killing off the competition, so that was the last time I brought it up.

My team leader, Jessa, greeted me by the pitch – that’s promo lingo for newsstand – and introduced me to my fellow promo-girl, which is apparently what I’d become. Jessa’s skin was orange, her nails acrylic and hair platinum – a poofy synthetic coating over a solid Pinochet centre. When it came time to decide who was to work at which pitch – the one inside where it was warm, or the one outside in the rain – George insisted on keeping me. Bless him.

After introducing me to the team supervisors – a pale, balding thirty-something and a heavy-set bearded lady – who’d oversee my performance, Jessa handed me my sash and steamrolled off to be orange somewhere else. I was now an Evening Standard princess, as the sash implied, and I was about to promote the paper with all the sardonic pomp of a working migrant.

“Go on,” said the bearded lady, gesturing toward the turnstiles where thousands of people would emerge from the Northern line beneath the station. “Tell them the Standard is half price today.”

My amusement gave way a little, to make room for humiliation. A mob of tailored suits began closing in on me and I knew, to get through the next five hours, I’d have to seriously self-entertain. So, I made fun of myself, and it went over big.

“The paper’s half-price today,” I’d call out, then pause before finishing with, “and I came all the way from Montreal, Canada to tell you that.”

Most people laughed, but some just looked sad for me. I told them they were allowed. Then I moved on to soliciting candies and drinks, because I’d been yelling in an Underground station for hours.

“My mouth is really dry,” I’d yell in my new-found promo voice. “For a donation of candies or drinks, I’ll let you have the paper for half price today.” They liked that one, but no one offered me anything. No one but George who, with the profits from three papers sold, bought me a bottle of water and gave me a ink-smudged thumbs up.

So, I started making eyes at people, going saccharine, “You know, the paper’s half price today.” Some were suckered in. A few stopped to chat, which was for the most part regrettable. One even asked for my number, but he’d never have aced my hygiene requirements. Most smiled despite themselves, and a few just looked terrified. Those ones I prodded with, “But I’ll give it to ya cheap,” thrusting my hips a little – just enough to not get fired. Anyway, I was talking about the Evening Standard.

When people started asking me for directions, I knew I’d been there too long.

“If I knew how to get around in London, I wouldn’t be promoting The Evening Standard,” I'd answered. They gave me a look that said, fair enough, and queued up to ask George instead. He didn't mind so much though, because that night, his sales were up.


London Bridge Tube Station, originally uploaded by Fundo de Garrafa.

4 comments:

carmen said...

hahaha! oh man. london is a hard city. but there's plenty to keep a girl amused, no?

wyliekat said...

If nothing else, you're getting excellent blog fodder, and stories to tell your grandchildren.

But really? You're going to enjoy telling these stories when you've moved on to an infinitely better gig in London.

Stuff said...

fun blog! I'll be back to read more... I don't know London that well, but I'm very fond of Montreal---great city!

Thought you might like my writing. Check it out when you have a chance.

http://thecorner33.blogspot.com/

Kate Savage said...

Carmen - Yes there is! And I do so love making fun of it.

wyliekat - I did have a "real" job at the time, but I couldn't write about it because that gets people fired. Especially since everything I have to say about it is ridiculous. The tale of my quitting (as above) is likely just the beginning.

Stuff - Thinly veiled plug. You'll find an equivalent on your blog riiiight about ... now.