Once Upon a Time in America

Life in your twenties is a series of revelations. The realisation that I would never play football for England was a bitter pill to swallow. But, when I could only make the bench for Red Star Camberwell, it had to be faced, especially when they were a man short. 

Free from the yoke of family, I’d taken those first steps toward independence by the traditional route of getting a job, a bass guitar and a flat with mates. It didn’t take long for the next revelation to strike. Work – it just wasn’t for me. 

So in went my notice and out went my income. What, I asked myself, would a new-born foal do, shorn of its parents, left alone in the wild on unsteady legs? Then I remembered foal rhymes with dole and signed on to get money for nothing. 

I say, nothing, but of course it was a period of intense artistic gestation, at least once I’d got up (around 1pm). I was poor, but with a wealth of time for messing about, daydreams and fomenting ideas about daydreams and messing about.

1984. Or was it ’54?

Existential quandaries were broken up by exhilarating bouts of activity in the days following the arrival of the fortnightly cheque, when I would drink and smoke and go to gigs and clubs with others at the same happy junction in life. But the gaps between cheques felt like they were getting longer, and I realised it could not go on forever. I longed for adventure – to find out if there was anything more interesting than life on the scrounge in Penge and being in one of a million too-lazy-to-practice, post-punk, melancholic synth bands.

It felt like nothing could alter this cycle of big dreams and faint action. And then, at a party, I saw a strikingly beautiful woman gliding towards the exit. I was compelled to follow. I just had to ask her… ‘Got a spare cig?’

She did. I thanked her. I was welcome, she said, as she revealed an accent from the American South. Elegance, style and a Southern drawl, y’all. Plus ample fags. A knockout combination.

At our first date, we bonded over Bowie in the pub where David and Angie held their wedding reception. Ava revealed she lived in Bromley with her twin sister, Amy, and that her UK visa was about to run out. So I married her. We’d known each other for about a month. I was 22 and unwise beyond my years.

Coming to America

Her offer of a two-week holiday in Richmond, Virginia, was too good to turn down. The warmth of the people was a contrast to home, where coolness trumped kindness. I went to the ball game. I went to a drive-in movie. And I was stunned by the sheer scale of things; the cars, the fridges, the sandwiches, the arses. We stayed for six years.

The three of us lived with their mother, Evelyn, in her ranch house just east of the state capital of Virginia. Richmond was a mid-sized city desperately trying to become a modern hub. When your history is tobacco, the slave trade and being the capital of the Confederacy, you’ve got to look to the future.

Give my regards to Broad Street

Evelyn was a lovely woman and quite a character. She worked at a tobacco factory, had 50s hair and a vocabulary that included ‘Dagnabbit!’ and ‘Doggonit!’ Unusually for a country woman of her age, she was obsessed with Boy George. It completely baffled her peers, but she loved Eltham’s finest. We took her to see Culture Club play before she passed, which was almost too much for her.

My first culture shock came when I walked several miles to buy a paper, wondering where the pavement had gone and whether its absence was connected to my being the sole pedestrian. 

At the shop, enthusiastic American customer service threw me. Where was the resentment at having to serve people that I was used to? 

‘Hey buddy! What’s going on?’ asked a cheerful good ol’ boy, brightening his day with friendly patter. 

The correct response to this, I later learned, is: ‘Not much, man. How you doin’?’

Unaware of this format, I looked around to ensure he was talking to me, a stranger, about what might or might not be occurring, and replied: ‘I have no idea. What the fuck are you talking about?’

Nightclubbing

The twins must have got their sense of adventure from their mother, as they left their redneck friends behind to explore the music, clothes and clubs of London. As they dressed more for The Batcave than the Dukes of Hazzard, we soon found ourselves at the centre of Richmond’s nightlife. All our new friends were gay, apart from the beautiful women that hung out with them. Only some of them were gay and all of them were exciting.

We had hit on a crowd dedicated to having as much fun as possible. We rode a wave of non-stop partying. We made lifelong friends and lengthy hangovers. We did vast amounts of drugs and courted disaster before our eventual escape. 

Paul, a mate from home and the Best Man at our wedding, came out for a visit. He decided to stay too and is still there, in fact. He got a bar job at the British pub downtown, the Penny Lane, run by Terry, a scouser. Terry would point to Ian St John in a Liverpool team photo and tell locals, ‘That was me as a lad.’ His football career was quite a feat, given he was also the fifth Beatle.

Best Man

We had previously run a club night in The Crypt at Deptford, which was great until all our takings were stolen and we were forced to spend the night sleeping in an actual crypt. We tried to bring a bit of London nightlife to a city that was open to new ideas. We formed a collective called Propaganda and our first event was a Londonish DJ set that included a thrift store fashion show, with second hand retro clothes and student ballet dancers as models (it was the 80s). We lucked out getting a renowned choreographer and some talented dancers who made the show a spectacular success. It drew 750 people to Scandals, the biggest of Richmond’s gay clubs. I think we knew then there was no way we could top it, but it was amazing to see what you could achieve when you thought, ‘Why the fuck not?’ 

Not being eligible for welfare, and with only the occasional newspaper article for income, I had to get a job. Working behind the counter at Jungle Jive, selling vintage clothes, was about as easy a gig as you could get. I even got a return trip to London on a buying trip out of it. Jungle Jive was just up the road from Rockitz, a brilliant bar and venue that the girls had put some money into. Rockitz hosted upcoming bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and touring Brits like The Jesus and Mary Chain. It may not have been Camden Palace, but it was a big step-up from the Penge’s Crooked Billet.

Rockitz and roll

After Evelyn died, the three of us bought a handsome period house in supposedly dangerous Church Hill, in the city’s East End. Yes, there were three shootings in one weekend, but the murders were all drug-related or domestic, so as long as you paid your dealer and didn’t shag his missus, it was all kushty. 

Now we had a mortgage and a baby on the way, I had to get a real job. The girls opened a men’s clothing store, selling designer gear more suited to New York City than Richmond. Between the shop and our habits, we burned through money. But boy did I have threads. 

My office job was excruciating, but also fascinating. I’m only from South London, but I was an exotic oddity. The accent for which I could take no credit meant beautiful girls had terrible crushes on me. One middle-aged woman, the wonderfully-named Wilma Crump, would make a song and dance of crossing the office to give me a kiss, every single morning. I was spoiled by Southern kindness.

Racism was covert but everywhere, unsurprisingly given that Richmond’s most handsome thoroughfare, Monument Avenue, is lined with statues of Confederate ‘heroes’. I had a very different relationship with my black colleagues than the locals did. I got on with everybody, apart from obvious Republicans, but even some of the sweetest people there had such a depressingly parochial view of the world that would at times leave me speechless. It was the start of the AIDS epidemic. The Department Head gathered the staff to assure them they could not catch AIDS from using the same phone as the office lesbian. So yeah, speechless.

The past should be behind you

At a work social I came to realise that cocaine was not just for the beautiful boys and girls of clubland. It was everywhere. The mums, the dads, every fucker. And it was out of control. A normally responsible redneck colleague who I was really fond of went missing for days, cleaned out the family bank account and left her husband and kid behind on a week-long coke bender. The cracks in paradise were starting to show.

The fall

There came a time when we wouldn’t leave the house without our Man bringing us at least a gram. As the shop started to fail and our lifestyle became more expensive I had to take on a second job, as did both the girls. This really was the American Way. Pathetic annual leave, two jobs and a massive coke habit. 

We were headed for trouble but the partying would not stop. One night on our way back from a club, we stopped on a whim to get a room at the swanky Jefferson Hotel and have an impromptu party. When we woke the next day, we had missed work, the carpet in our room was sodden with Champagne and our car had been towed to the pound. 

I tried to rein it in a little. We had a gorgeous daughter by now. At least there were three adults in the house, so one could babysit while the other two went out. 

Fat white guys

Raider has joked before about me being married to twins and sometimes it seemed like it. If my missus didn’t want to go out, someone who looked just like her did and they were both hard to refuse. One night Amy was desperate to go to The Pyramid, a happening club we liked on Boulevard and I was persuaded to escort her on the condition that we leave at 12, as I had an early start. We stuck to that, but unfortunately had also dropped some acid, which was much stronger than anticipated. Driving on blotter is not to be recommended. Trying to sleep likewise. I got both the girls up in the middle of night as I was convinced the house was burning down. 

It was also the dawn of ecstasy, a revelatary new drug that led to euphoric dancing, affection and eventual stupefaction. A seemingly profound bond developed between everyone you popped it with – a deep love, respect and loyalty. Would it be so wrong to stick it in the water supply?

My second job was delivering Domino’s, where I got to see how the city was divided into black and white and rich and poor, plus make my car smell permanently of pizza. The high standard of living I enjoyed was not shared by everybody. Also, during the 18 months I worked there, I was the only driver who hadn’t been robbed at gunpoint. One driver, Baby Jack, 45, kept an Uzi submachine gun in his car, just in case. If I ever had a superpower, it was knowing when to leave the party and there were clear signs overstaying this one would not be wise.

Creditors were circling and we struggled to find a way to enjoy life without getting off our tits. If we were to get out of this hole, we would have to knuckle down, work hard at both our jobs and cut down on the booze and drugs. And so, instead, Ava and I decided to do a runner back to London.

To plot a course to leave, I jacked in my job, took another, and left that in a hurry, to make my trail harder to follow. Ava cleared her decks, but I left a string of debts and an unpaid-for, pizza-scented car at the airport. I posted the keys back to the bank with a note on where to find it and a hope they wouldn’t find me.

I miss Richmond and would love to go back. Hopefully the Wanted posters are down now.

I was a baby when I was there – naive and oblivious – but it beat being a grown-up. And I learnt that given the opportunity to step out of the straight and narrow, you should take the red pill, the blue pill, the Drink Me potion and Eat Me cake. Then, put on your red shoes and dance the blues.

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Image credits: Main image – SomeoneSaidFire, Lombardy and Broad by Bill Dickenson both used under this license, cocaine by Rotorhead at Free Images.