The wallet’s leather folds wink beneath the shuffle of feet on Tottenham Court Road. Tired feet, anxious feet, melancholy feet, sweaty feet tromp around it, step on it, oblivious. An ant hobbles across its surface, and Lewis is the one who bends down to pick it up and flip the wallet open. It’s filled with cash, so he quickly shoves it into his coat pocket. In the middle of a line of paused traffic, black-suited businessmen stare blankly out of the immaculately clean windows of a white sedan. A poodle on the sidewalk yelps as a leather boot accidentally trods on its paw. Seconds later, a tall, bald white man approaches us, asking Did you just find a wallet? I lost mine. The outline of a soft, rectangular object protudes through his shirt pocket, though, so we shake our heads no and run back home.
Lewis and I lock ourselves in my shared bedroom. We lay out the wallet’s contents on the floor. My roommate is out (her purse and studded motorcycle boots are gone), but I do not know when she will return, so Lewis and I have to act quickly. I am only slightly relieved to see the man in the photo of the ID in the wallet is a stocky and dark, not bald and white. The ID tells us Hameen is from Saudi Arabia. Hameen has a beard. Hameen has a nose that curves slightly to the left. Hameen has a dimple in his left cheek. Hameen is not an organ donor. Hameen doesn’t carry photos of children, spouses, or membership cards. There is just an ID and cash. I say, We should bring this to the police, right? and Lewis says, We could…but we don’t have to. We count the money inside. Two-hundred British pounds.
Lewis says, Hameen is probably a drug dealer. Why else would he only carry cash and an ID?
He could be new to the country, I say, or a minimalist.
If we give the wallet to the police, they’ll probably just keep the money, Lewis says.
I let myself believe this, even though I know that Lewis’ conclusions are flimsy and dripping with stereotypes. We decide not to tell any of our classmates about the wallet. We don’t tell our study-abroad program director, or our professors, neither do we mention the wallet when we make our weekly Skype calls to our parents.
I don’t want to keep the wallet in my room. It feels alive, although I cannot explain why. I don’t want it watching me undress, staring at me as I sleep, do homework, or listening in on my conversations with my roommate, so Lewis takes the wallet back to his flat. In his twenty-one years, Lewis has bought drugs, sold drugs, skipped class, driven drunk, publicly urinated, and assisted in feeding a teachers’ lounge a pan of marijuana brownies. I have jaywalked and rolled through a couple of stop signs. Lewis is reckless with the kind of freedom that his privilege allows him—son to a family that owns multiple luxury shopping centers and malls around the U.S.A., and parents who not only live next door to Dick Cheney but have had him over for tea. Lewis’ hometown is located within the wealthiest zip code of Texas. I am quiet and careful in my Arkansas middle-classness. I pay my overdue library fines immediately and attend every class unless I am rendered absolutely useless and bedridden. I do not even urinate with the bathroom door open.
The next day, Lewis and I meet up in Bedford Square Garden. The pigeons that sit on the edge of the fountain are silent today. Since Lewis is the one who actually bent down to pick up the wallet, this justifies letting him plan the events of the day. A pair of policemen sip coffees on a bench next to us and argue about whether or not the roast was too dark or if the beans were burnt, and even though Lewis has ditched Hameen’s wallet and ID somewhere and stuffed the cash into his own plaid, monogramed wallet, I feel my palms start to sweat.
Shhh, talk quietly, I whisper to Lewis.
I tell myself I am less guilty than Lewis is in enjoying the wallet’s contents if I am not carrying the cash, if I am a mere follower and not actively planning a day of fun on Hameen’s dime. I follow Lewis to lunch at Spaghetti House, through clam and oyster appetizers, plates of pasta alla norma and pasta primavera. Lewis orders a carafe of cabernet, not the house stuff. I can’t help but wonder if Hameen likes his spaghetti with cream sauce or red sauce, if he drinks wine or is sober, if he slurps clams between a small gap in his front teeth like I do, or if he chews them slowly. I am seated facing the street, watching as a mother and her young daughter pick up dropped change from the cracks in the sidewalk. Lewis is across from me at the table, but I am only half engaged in our conversation, one minute fixated on the lamb ragù that speckles the corner of his polo collar, and the next scanning the street for a bearded man with a left-cheek dimple.
I am not sure what I would do if I did see Hameen pass by, though. Invite him to eat with us? Sheepishly offer him our leftovers? Toss the rest of the cash at him quickly and then run away? Nothing at all? Our extravagant lunch alerts our waitress that we are cashed-up customers and she flirts with Lewis, touching his arm and laughing at his overwrought oyster jokes. Drunk and ego-boosted by way of money and a little flirtation, Lewis leaves her a generous tip.
At the tube station, we wait behind the yellow line. A man stands too close to the tracks, and a porter guides him away by pulling gently at the elbow of his frayed army coat. I cannot see the guys’s face, but his hair is dark. He is bent over homelessly, Lewis says, crafting his own adverb. The late afternoon sunlight slips through cracks in the walls, lighting up the man’s face. He looks like a dying dog gasping for its last breath. Lewis is texting, and a part of me wants to say, Let’s just give the rest of the money to the homeless we pass on the streets, but the louder part of me remains silent, and I wonder what is wrong with me.
Lewis has never been homeless, but I have been, or so I am told. After my parents split up when I was three, mother left my father and took me on the road with her, although we had nowhere to stay. We spent two weeks alternating between sleeping in the back of her covered truck bed and on the couches or spare bedrooms of friends. I have no recollection of these times, and as a three-year-old, I probably didn’t notice the difference between a weeklong vacation and those weeks of being homeless. Although I don’t remember the two weeks of homelessness, I can picture my adolescent years spent living in mice-infested Arizona rent houses with grasses sprouting up through cracks in the floor, and roaches crawling across our countertops in the summertime. Lewis remembers having his socks ironed and folded by a maid, and waking up to a clean uniform waiting for him at the end of the bed for the beginning of each school day.
The porter walks along the perimeters of the tube station, using his baton to nudge to life each sleeping pile of rags and plastic sacks, shooing them through the tall tiled archways toward the parking lot, toward the alleys off Regent Street, the Camden Town underpass, to the East End or the underside of Tower Bridge. We climb into the train and watch as the mounds blur into each other, into the walls of the station, into concrete floor and dust speckle and greyness as we speed away to Trafalgar Square.
To find a penny on the ground is normal, a nuisance even. The penny might even symbolize a day’s worth of good luck if it’s facing heads-up, or it might follow you home by clinging desperately to a piece of chewing gum flattened to the bottom of your boot. Many people toss pennies into the trash to avoid dealing with them, to lighten their purses and wallets. To catch a one-dollar bill blowing in the wind is happenstance. To find a twenty-dollar bill on the edge of a gutter is lucky, and to pick it up and pocket is only natural, sane. To find an envelope with a bit of cash in a parking lot and no possible way to identify the owner is fortunate, and to keep the money is legal. To find a wallet, filled to the brim with cash and an accompanying ID and to keep the wallet is, according to British law, to commit theft, since the owner’s identification is attached to his or her missing contents.
Lewis and I spend the rest of the afternoon watching Jurassic Park, one of his favorite movies, in an IMAX theater. Since it is a Wednesday afternoon matinee, we have the entire theater to ourselves, with the exception of a weary-eyed mother toting three sticky children. She reclines in her overstuffed chair, leans her head back and sleeps through the roars and clangs of the surround sound system blasts that penetrate our ears. Lewis and I eat popcorn out of an 85-ounce carton. We slurp down white and brown and yellow sodas on Hameen’s money. I decide that, like me, Hameen is probably not a Jurassic Park fan, but more of a Titanic fan. It has something to do with the way the ends of his hair flip upward, or his slightly crooked smile, or the way the flash of the camera reflects off of his hazel eyes when the photographer says smile. At this moment, he is probably watching Leonardo and Kate through his 80’s era tube television in his rent-controlled flat in Camden Town. He’s new to London and doesn’t have much furniture yet, so he’s watching them from beneath a pile of blankets in his futon bed. Maybe, if Lewis is right, there’s a pile of heroin on the table. And a few packets of high-quality cocaine. Perhaps Hameen has had an extremely busy day, with strung-out customers knocking on his door nonstop. Hameen is just starting to settle in to the mattress, allowing himself to get lost in the familiarity of Leo and Kate’s drama when he adjusts his position and notices a flatness around his ass, an absence of mass and square and weight in his back pocket.
Lewis roars with laughter at the witty banter between Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler. I sit back in my chair, gorging myself with sugar and butter and salt and oblivion. I think about dinosaurs and their extinction, how they once ruled this earth on two and four and six feet, but after 230 million years their existence has been reduced to grainy fossils illuminated beneath fluorescent lights for greasy fingers to tap at from behind museums windows and animated purple and green characters who sing the alphabet for children’s television shows. Dinosaurs are immortalized into a pattern on a button-up shirt that a hipster might wear tucked into a pair of high-waisted denim shorts. I wonder if Hameen owns a dinosaur-print shirt, then decide no, of course he doesn’t. He’s more practical, a flannel type of man. Maybe, when he’s feeling dressy, he throws on a denim jacket.
By the time we leave the theater, Lewis’ collar now wears a collage of the stolen meals that we’ve stuffed ourselves with—thick red spots, yellow grease, brown liquid. My stomach bulges into my waistband, painfully not pleasantly. Lewis smiles and a popcorn kernel protrudes through his teeth.
We walk to the Tate museum and spend more of Hameen’s cash on a twenty-pound entrance fee. We do not even ask for the student discount. Lewis and I stroll through the white hallways observing the pieces of artwork, Lewis lingering longer than I do at each exhibit. But when we stop to take in a piece, it is not just Lewis and I looking at the art, Hameen is there too. As we stand in front of a sculpture of a horse constructed from splitting 2x4’s, slabs of rusty metal, and tires, Lewis says, Damn, I say, Powerful, and Hameen says, Painful. In front of an exhibit of a naked man sculpted into existence by thousands of Skittles glued onto the plaster body of a man hailing a taxicab, Lewis makes a Marxist critique of the piece, and I comment on the unusual arm placement–surely this is some feminist commentary. Hameen says, It’s a metaphor for the artist’s inner sadness—notice the cluster of red candies in the pit of the sculpture’s stomach? The green near his throat and the yellow on his foot? In front of a water jug creation that just barely illustrates two people making love, Hameen says That’s not how to do it; no, her arm should be bent and his face should be closer; his legs should be pointed to the ceiling and her fingers should be behind him, that’s it, that’s the right way.
I tell Lewis I’m thirsty and need to take a short break from the art. Inside a brightly lit downstairs café, to the chorus of screaming babies and clanging cash registers, I slam a beer down my throat, hoping the alcohol might erase Hameen from my mind, but he is right there with me saying No, choose the Stella Artois instead of that Blue Moon; do not drink so quickly, look, there is beer all over your chin now; no, never lift the bottle with your left hand! Lewis, always eager for an alcoholic afternoon beverage, is thrilled about my unusual decision to continue day drinking. He slams his Pabst BR and belches afterward, proudly stating his victory at beating me in a race that I did not know we were having.
We keep strolling through the museum, and once the alcohol starts to pump its way through my bloodstream and up to my head, Hameen disappears for a while. Perhaps he leaves to take a nap, or to make some lunch. I do not know if Hameen is religious or not, but maybe he has just disappeared to a quiet corner to locate the direction of the Kabba for his afternoon prayer.
An hour later, Hameen reappears. When he reappears, he does not tell me where he went. I drag Lewis inside a Crabtree & Evelyn because I want to look at bubble baths and shower gels. He disappears to the back of the store, and I don’t follow him. I stay in the front, smelling bubble baths of “Caribbean Island Wild Flowers,” “Classic Rosewater” and “Jojoba” when I hear Hameen say, My wife uses a shower gel that smells like patchouli, it’s very nice. When we give the twins their nightly baths, we wash them with a hibiscus-smelling soap. Why don’t you try one of those?
Hameen is no longer Lewis’ drug dealer, no; he is now a family man, a father to twins, a husband.
I grab a hibiscus-smelling bubble bath and Hameen is behind me at the checkout counter, saying Good choice, that will smell nicely on you. The scent will cling faintly to your woolen sweater.
Hameen is close behind as Lewis and I walk to the London Eye. My walk turns into a slow run, and Lewis is panting behind me, grasping his own full stomach, telling me to stop walking so quickly. I am trying to ditch Hameen; maybe, if I walk quickly enough he will not be able to keep up, but no, past a telephone booth and there he still is, past a street light on the corner of Beldevere and York, Hameen is asking for the time, and as we run through a tunnel on Waterloo Hameen is admiring a graffiti of a Joshua tree.
At the line for the Eye, Hameen is standing next to us, saying, Thirty pounds a ticket? Outrageous. I could pay for two week’s of Kalil’s piano lessons with thirty pounds. I could buy Duman that new pair of khakis he needs for the start of Primary 4. Thirty pounds?
I turn to Lewis and say, Let’s use our student discounts this time, okay?
He looks at me, slightly annoyed, and I realize I have interrupted his story about the time he attended a Phil Collins concert or a time that he beat his best friend in a game of “Civilization V” or guitar lessons.
Even with a student discount, you’re still paying twenty-five pounds apiece. Fifty pounds total. You’re Americans, right? Isn’t that equate-able to one hundred American dollars? Isn’t that ridiculous? My wife needs a new winter coat. It’s almost December, and she is still wearing her fall rain parka.
Finally, we climb into the capsule, Hameen, Lewis, and I. Within seconds, Lewis has his iPhone out and snaps panoramic views of London, angling his camera to capture the setting sun, the boats passing down the Thames river, the light reflecting off of my hair. He waves his phone around until he is able to catch a WiFi connection, instantly throwing his pictures onto Instagram with hashtags about #birdseyeview and #LondonInTheEvening and #StudyAbroad.
We share the capsule with a group of Japanese tourists and a short Norwegian family. It’s a tight fit, and the capsule rocks back and forth as people pace from one side to the other side, trying to capture the most artistic photographs, trying to project their most happy and carefree faces, the good sides of their noses, their most wholesome family poses with arms circling waists and teeth protruding from lippy grins. A group of people from all over the world share recycled air, standing encapsulated together dangling five-hundred feet above the city, dressed in similar variations of denim and polyester, contorting our lips and eyes into similar shapes, before the flash of the camera.
Lewis and I stand by the window and take in the city. We point to the neighborhoods we recognize, other neighborhoods we want to explore. Beneath us, Big Ben chimes, double-decker busses fly across hundred-year old bridges, and barges honk their horns as they sail through the thick, brown Thames. We capture photos of the city until our phones blink “Memory Full” at us, and then, finally, we can put our devices away and just stare.
As we are descending, Lewis checks the time.
Shit, he says. I forgot I was supposed to meet Carl in front of our stoop an hour ago. He said he has some of the best green in the city. Might as well buy that while we have all of this cash to burn.
I hear Hameen make a disapproving click with his tongue.
The massive amount of junk food Lewis and I have consumed throughout the day, combined with the endless back-and-forth swaying of the glass capsule has my stomach on the verge of tossing all of its contents onto our scenic, family-friendly ride.
Loopy from the lack of fresh air and the height of the Eye, Lewis and I stumble out of our capsule as it pauses near the ground. But I can still hear Hameen, his thoughts, his observations, and his sadness, so I tell Lewis I want to stop in a pub on the way home, and then one bar, and then a club, until the night is dizzy and Hameen’s voice is static-y and broken; the fragments of words and sentences that are audible are hollow and dim. They are easy to block out when my ears are clogged with the sounds of a jukebox or the deafening noises of a dance club.
By the end of the night, Lewis tells me we have just about spent all the money.
Wasn’t that fun? he says. Aren’t you glad that we didn’t try to give the wallet to the police?
The streets are blurring around me, lights from cars and buildings and cell phones seem to be glaring ferociously, the city is spinning and suddenly the taxis and busses are driving on the sky.
I lean into a gutter and throw up, feeling nothing but relief as clam and oyster, pasta primavera and 85-ounce popcorn and soda, soda, soda, beer, wine, vodka, leave my stomach. The contents of the day empty into London’s sewer system—what was once a nice meal, an afternoon drink, a white-tablecloth appetizer is now trickling through the metal grates and falling heavily into the four-hundred and fifty miles of sewers beneath the city that carry waste from Buckingham Palace, from Spaghetti House restrooms and port-a-potties and the asses of the homeless who have no choice but to squat directly over these grates. Below our feet, below these streets, families of rats swim through the sewers, picking grain and piece of fruit and vegetable and nut from human waste and garbage disposal mush. These rats scurry to catch what my body is expelling, to benefit from the labors of Hameen, a man who neither the rat nor I have ever met, as I am sick with the very things that should sustain me. The night ends late and we are tired but trying not to say so, just sitting next to the sewer grates, letting the early morning emptiness of London wash over us, wondering if it’s time to give up and go home.
Ania Payne is a Guest Writer for Panorama.
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