Excerpted from the memoir Girl to City, out now from Southern Domestic.
“How do you like the band?” the man asked me. “Good, aren’t they?”
He had an English accent, one of the first I’d ever heard directed toward me. He would’ve been my height if I hadn’t been wearing four-inch stiletto-heeled boots. Dark, close-cropped hair and long nose, rosy cheeks. He wore the crispest, whitest shirt ever seen on the Bowery, the kind of shirt a businessman would wear, with the sleeves rolled up. Fine black hair on his arms. He smelled like Aramis.
“You’re from England,” I said, no doubt impressing him with my wit. “I love this band! Do you like them?”
“I’m their manager. We went to art school together.” He took a cigarette out of a scrolled blue, white, and gold box, then held the packet lid open to offer me one. I read the brand name—Rothmans—and felt a thrill.
What did a manager do exactly, I wondered. I’d read about Malcolm McLaren and how he masterminded the Sex Pistols and earlier put the New York Dolls in red patent leather. I looked back at the stage for the last song—it started with a shout and ended so fast I almost missed it. It was the show of the summer, 1978, my first summer in NYC. I’d left my hometown of Pittsburgh to study at Parsons School of Design but spent most of my time at CBGB, seeing bands and wondering how to make something of myself.
The Manager pressed a piece of paper into my hand. “Would you like to have lunch tomorrow? Please, call me.” All the erotic, romantic feelings that had swirled around inside me from the first time I heard Peter and Gordon sing “A World Without Love,” saw Michael Caine as Alfie—even (or especially) Davy Jones shaking a tambourine in the Monkees—went straight to my head like the smoke from a Rothmans cigarette: my own, real live Englishman.
I spent the next few days with him at the Holiday Inn, only going back to my apartment to get my bikini so I could take advantage of the rooftop swimming pool. A pool, on a roof, in New York City! I was living the high life. I met the band and their girlfriends, pale as a band should be, lying on lounge chairs by the pool. They were charming and polite, and their girlfriends all seemed the height of effortless cool. But whenever I saw them, I felt a ripple pass around the group and could only assume it was because they’d decided I was a shallow American jackass.
Then the Manager said a line so unexpected yet so hackneyed, I only repeat it as proof of what an innocent I was: “The thing is, love—I’m married.”
I’d known he was older, ancient—30, at least. But who was married? My parents, their friends. No one else I knew. Even my teachers at Parsons weren’t married.
He flew back to England and moved into his office in Covent Garden. He told me over the phone that he hadn’t been in love with his wife for ages, and in the long run it was the best thing for everyone. I was 19 and thought as long I was happy, he must know what he was doing.
I flew to London and the Manager picked me up in a borrowed car (his wife was keeping theirs). We checked into the Hilton near Heathrow. I felt like we were on the run from something, like Humbert Humbert and Lolita, only I was of legal drinking age in at least 40 states and all of the United Kingdom. Still, it was easier to think of him as the adult, and to absolve myself of any responsibility.
England, a place I’d fantasized about from watching Upstairs, Downstairs, was only elegant in contrast to America—scrolled gold type on a box of Rothmans cigarettes versus a red-and-white pack of Marlboros. It more often looked like the inner sleeve of the Who’s Quadrophenia come to life: dull brick buildings low to the ground, a cigarette stubbed out in a plate of greasy fried eggs. I’d never known everything could be so much the same. Everywhere were multiples: houses, red buses, cups of tea, hotel beds with me on one side and the Manager on the other, busy making phone calls. I drew dark lines around my eyes in bathroom mirrors and pouted. I was afraid to speak in stores and restaurants because everyone would know I was from somewhere else. I didn’t want to be the Ugly American, but I didn’t feel great about myself when I saw the cold corner of the loft office space above deserted Covent Garden where the Manager was living now. Because of me?
The band set off on a U.K. tour, and the Manager and I traveled with them by train to a few towns that were even colder and grayer than London: Manchester, Liverpool, Leicester. I saw these musicians as brave and uncompromising when performing their more oblique new songs for fans in torn T-shirts and spiked hair who just wanted to pogo. They were met with crossed arms and abuse, but they played on defiantly, looking over the crowd to the back of the room, as if toward some brighter future light.
Mostly I felt cold. At night we checked into grim hotels whose only positive feature was a bar that was obliged to remain open until the last guest was drunk enough to survive until morning. In tiny hotel rooms, I listened to the Manager alternately shouting into the phone and telling people what they wanted to hear—there didn’t seem to be a middle ground in the business of music. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed he looked like someone from the TV drama I, Claudius—something about his cropped hair and hooded eyes suggested chariot races. I disappointed myself, too—I was not the wanton siren I’d imagined myself to be but a failed cheerleader on the sidelines of an ancient civilization I would never understand.
Back in London, we checked into the Strand Palace Hotel. It sounded grand, but, like most things I saw in England in 1978, it wasn’t. The room was small as a jail cell, dark-green carpet with purple chairs. Lukewarm water trickled out of the shower head in the tiny bathroom. I stood looking out over the Strand and asked when we could go to the Kings Road. I wanted one of those red-and-black striped mohair sweaters I’d seen Johnny Rotten wear in photos. The Manager tried to dissuade me, saying the moment had long passed. But no one in New York would know that there were cheap tourist shops in the Kings Road selling knockoffs of the clothes sold at Seditionaries, the shop Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood ran selling her designs. Punk was provincial, passé. “Nooooo!” I wanted to scream. I still hadn’t seen the Clash.
Setting off for a walk by myself, I dressed in my new red-and-black sweater, black jeans, and red bowling shoes. I brushed my long bangs into kohl-rimmed eyes and packed my Polaroid camera in an old fishing bag. The sun was out for the first time since I’d arrived. I felt happy on my own, moving along with the crowd near Marble Arch. I almost felt like myself. Then I heard someone calling my name.
In a Pittsburgh accent.
“Amy McMahon, is that you?” the female voice shouted above the traffic noise, the packed pavements, and a speaker on a box at Speakers’ Corner. “Look, Mom! It’s Amy! Amy McMahon, over here!”
I looked all around and saw them—Claire, one of the few girls from high school who had qualified as a fully fledged friend, and her mother, father, and little brother, all in navy-blue windbreakers, flared jeans, and sneakers.
“We can’t believe you’re here, in London!” they all cried cheerily. I was surrounded. Part of me was horrified at the thought of being mistaken for one of their number. I mumbled something about a school trip, and what a great surprise but that I really had to be going. The other part of me wanted to beg them to take me back to Pittsburgh.
The Manager told me that he’d be back over to New York in a month to see me and we could break the news to my parents then, at Thanksgiving. “The news” being that we were going to be together. I’d scaled my fantasy down from manor house to row house to flat in Kensington. Even in a bedsit, we would be happy. It was the exotic words rather than any experience we’d shared together that still had me convinced. And the way he smelled of Aramis. That cologne became a cliché for everything macho in the ’70s and ’80s, but in 1978 to me it was the scent of possibility, of transcending all the hard work that went into becoming someone myself, and just letting a man do it for me.
Weeks passed and I waited for the phone to ring.
It did. But it was my mother on the other end, fresh off a conversation with Claire’s mother in the Giant Eagle. “What were you doing in ENGLAND?” Her voice rose to a scream.
I tried to explain about the Manager and how wonderful he was, even though I was starting to think he might actually be dead. It had been weeks since he’d dropped me off at Heathrow. “You’ll meet him when you guys come to New York at Thanksgiving, and it’ll all make sense then,” I promised.
011. 441. 846. 5769. Brrrp-brrrp. Brrrp-brrrp. Maybe he’s out on the road, I thought. I tried his office again.
011. 441. 846. 5769. Brrrp-brrrp. Brrrp-brrrp.
Let’s see, if I call at 5 a.m. New York time that’s … 10 a.m. London time, so for sure he’ll be there. If I call at … 10 p.m. New York time, then that’s 3 a.m. London time so he’ll have to be there.
A dozen times day and night. The exotic double ring that two months ago was the most delicious sound in the world was now the rhythm of heartbreak.
Then it was Thanksgiving. I kept leaning out the window, looking north up Seventh Avenue, watching for a Yellow Cab. There were a lot of Yellow Cabs. When was the one that smelled like Aramis and Rothmans going to stop outside my door?
I called one more time.
“Hi!” I said. I could hear my voice coming back at me, the inescapable echo of trans-Atlantic phone calls before the introduction of fiber optic cables. Did I really sound that young and desperate?
He’d gone back to his family, he said. It was better this way. I was in school; he was married.
I hung up the phone and came out into the living room. My parents, who’d been waiting for their moment to have it out with me about London, took one look at my face and never mentioned it again.
After dinner, one of my brothers threw up, so I didn’t have to. I was sure my life had ended and I wasn’t even 20 yet.
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