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THE URBAN MAN - Ten Minutes in Leicester Square

by Marc Porter Zasada

ONCE UPON A TIME, I’m told, parents could very nearly pass themselves on to their children. You could take your wide-eyed boys and girls out to the same moonlit wheat field, almost on the same summer night you knew at ten. You could send them to play in the same stream, comb a horse born of the same horse, or stoke the same cook fire in the same fireplace on the same winter night you knew at eleven.

Even urban men and women could sometimes work this miracle. Your child could know the same crowded streets, join the same civic clubs, and pass the same corner where the same beggars gathered. You could watch them squeeze into the same poorly-lit sanctuaries, mumble over the same copies of the same prayer books, and later that afternoon learn to whistle in the same city parks.

Once upon a time, I’m told, a child could almost inherit your soul.

But I don’t have to tell you that modern humans rarely manage this feat. I needn’t explain how modern humans, equally restless in city or countryside, grow up with a hodgepodge of experience, often incoherent to any but ourselves. It’s no good talking of the same stream you knew at ten – it’s probably been paved under an industrial park. The dance club that meant the world to you at eighteen has since changed hands eight or nine times – later a liquor store, then a shoddy boutique, and I think there’s a glass-and-steel tower on that corner now.

You’ve moved eight or nine times yourself.

And what, precisely, created the you that you know today? There was that mad trip to San Francisco in 1975. That filthy apartment in Tribeca during the me-decade. Those sing-alongs on that beach in Baja. That long Autumn with the leaky convertible in the Northeast. That inspiring midnight conversation with…what was her name?

Few of these experiences can be reproduced, touched, or even understood by your children. Even now, you can hardly explain them to yourself.

No wonder the institution of school has taken on such a central role in our society: at least our kids can share the same misery at the same scratched desks in the same bright cinderblocked rooms with the same unhappy teachers we ourselves knew at their age. At least we can watch fondly as they scratch on workbooks long into grim nights.

Just like us.

But the Urban Man, homeschooling father to four, does not accept this definition of his soul. No, I try the impossible.

Picture full summer in London, England: red double-decker buses, stone monuments, swarming tourists. I have taken my family all the way from L.A. with the secret goal of standing for ten minutes in Leicester Square on a crowded afternoon of uncertain weather. We are six, and more than slightly comic with our little knapsacks and held hands, here at the gateway to the Theatre District and all the wonder and disillusionment of a great city.

Yes, we’ve been touring the obvious sites, and yes we have tickets to a musical tonight. But just now, I have my ten minutes. And with some ceremony, I explain to my children – ranging wide-eyed from six to sixteen – that I am about to give them a vocabulary lesson. I insist that "Leicester Square" (pronounced "Lester") is just as important a word as "grandiloquent" or "perspicacious." I tell them it means "restless youth, jumbled cafes, big hand-painted signs for new productions, bad street performers, currency exchange artists, ticket hucksters, hipsters, sloppy Americans and natty, umbrellaed financiers."

Or maybe, I suggest, we’re doing history: "Dear Homeschooled Children: Here you may find Western Civilization. Please note that it represents no stately timeline from Beowulf to Bacon, but a cluttered curio shop filled with milling crowds who tend to break things, then rediscover and celebrate them 100 years later."

But I am deceiving them.

Actually, I want to work a kind of modern magic. In this ten minutes, I desperately want to reproduce a moment which occurred in Leicester Square a quarter century ago, when I stood on this same spot at the age of twenty. On that equally uncertain afternoon, I was graced with a scraggled beard and an empty wallet: alone, overwhelmed, and leaning on the sleeping bag rolled atop my oversized backpack. Later, I spent some time sitting on a bench – maybe that same one just over there – pretending to read a Graham Greene novel. I remember feeling a tremendous sense that something important was going on behind each door of each West End theatre, but I could not afford to find out what it was. I sought out random conversations with foreigners. I sampled falafel and chutney. Pregnant clouds blew overhead. And with the wide eyes of my own youth I saw the open possibility of everything and the size of the world stretching out from this square. I saw how anything was possible in such a place: success and failure, theatre and empire….

Twenty-seven years ago, it was one of those moments that made me into myself. It constitutes a part of my soul. And don’t you see? I have no horse, no moonlit field, and no pot over no family cook fire to offer my children -- only this same smell of wet cobblestone on a partly cloudy afternoon, this same roar of shouted conversations in the same hundred accents I heard 27 years ago.

But of course, because I am a modern human, I am not allowed to pass on such a moment. No, the magic fails, and standing here for my ten minutes, I cannot even begin to convey that lost afternoon to my offspring – be they wide-eyed or otherwise.

Instead, I give them my awkward history lesson. I point out the restless energy of the crowd. I mention how it searches ceaselessly for new wonders. And I make a joke of it: I tell them that I myself was here several times before -- once at twenty, broke and lonely with my backpack, reading tattered paperbacks or writing letters back to their mother, then a girlfriend I had met in college. And with my little parental laugh I tell them "I remember sitting on that exact stone bench, just over there, eating falafel and chatting up foreigners." They smile indulgently at this picture of their father. They tell me they’re not particularly fond of falafel, but they wouldn’t mind one of those pizza slices for sale on the corner. I eagerly point out that nothing has changed here in 27 years except the titles on the hand-painted theatre and movie signs -- and dutifully, they look up, and try to be impressed.

Soon, a light rain breaks from the pregnant clouds, and after my apparently unsuccessful ten minutes, they’re ready to move on to Trafalgar, where my wife wants to drop into the National Gallery and see the Van Goghs.

But even though I have attempted the impossible, the Urban Man has not been entirely defeated. As we push down past the churches and the monuments and lose ourselves again among the buses and taxis, I offer myself a brief vision of an otherwise unknowable future.

I look forward another twenty-seven years, to a time when my children are themselves middle-aged modern humans, trailing souls built with jumbled memories. They will never know the me I knew at 20, but I figure there’s a pretty good chance London will still be here. I figure my wide-eyed ones will remember their parents taking them to famous squares to make ornate speeches about vocabulary and civilization. I’m sure they won’t forget the uncertain weather, or the six of us standing together, hand in hand, and more than slightly comic with our little knapsacks.

Maybe that will be enough.

You can read more from Marc Porter Zasada at www.theurbanman.com, and if you live in Southern California, you can hear his radio commentaries each Monday evening at 6:44 pm on KCRW, 89.9FM. You can write him at marc@theurbanman.com. © 2004 Marc Porter Zasada.