Channeling MacGyver: London Pride Meets Yankee Ingenuity


As I sit typing this blog entry I occasionally look outside the window to the San Francisco street scene below.  Among the kids scampering down the hill to school, the couples walking their dogs, the pick-up trucks driving to their next construction site (the new housing market doesn’t seem to be hurting in Noe Valley) is the fog.  The milky soupy hazy veil envelops The City By The Bay every evening and sticks around in the morning long enough to render commutes a little more precarious, flights less likely to take off on time, and writers with time on their hands (i.e. yours truly) to wonder at its majesty.

The fog also reminds me of Charles Dickens, and by way of him the city about which he wrote so forthrightly in his novels that it became a character in its own right: London.  I will be in London over Thanksgiving and look forward to eating the turkey dinner (yes, there will be turkey) while downing some fresh ale and cider with friends in what is sure to be cold and dreary weather.  And foggy.  Dickens wrote about the London fog in his novel Bleak House and it, too, becomes another character in the tale.  It is a bit of a long quote but well worth reading:

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”

Ahhh.  Dickens’ power of observation.  I swear I can feel the fog around me.

Steve walking down Commercial Road, London

In thinking of foggy London I am brought back to a memory from our time there last Christmas.  This is the time where Steve shone.  He salvaged the day.   He used all of his ingenious resourceful skills to save us from paying £250 for something that was worth a smidgen of it.  I know I have you hooked now, so here’s the story:

We decided to end the European portion of The Grand Tour in London, the city from which we started our journey several months before.  The flat we rented for the two weeks over the holidays was on a busy thoroughfare called Commercial Road in Aldgate in the eastern part of the city, an area with which we have become quite familiar mostly because of the many good Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants within its environs as well as locals’ pubs, and its proximity to Tower Bridge which Steve ran across and back almost every day (I don’t possess that masochistic streak; therefore, I walked.)  We were walking back to the flat from one of these pubs (The Pride of Spitalfields,  I believe) on a cool evening.  The streets were still glistening from the earlier rains and smelled like wet stone and rust.  Before leaving  the pub I located our building and flat keys in my purse, a trusty sturdy black leather travel satchel that I have had since high school and have no problem slapping around a bit because it can take it.  Something you should know about me: I like having keys in my hand before heading back to whichever domicile I call my own for it saves me from scrounging around for them while standing in cold and the dark with the person who is with me, sighing and muttering something he probably shouldn’t be under his breath (it is unnerving and unhelpful, don’t you know.)

Something else you should know about me: I have a tendency to swing my arms a bit when I walk.  Sort of the opposite of Molly Shannon’s character Sam in Seinfeld.   Steve makes fun of me for it as over the years I have bashed my hands into walls, railings, sides of tables, car doors and even precious ceramics (I really shouldn’t go into museums or glass shops.  Ever.)

With these two things in mind picture me walking down Commercial Road in London on that wet evening, with a few pints in me and eyes that were more than hinting that I needed to go to bed. As we approached the front door to the building, the hand that was holding the keys hit my thigh, and as my arm swung up the keys flew out, bouncing on the ground a few times before making a bee-line for the grate next to the side of the building.  I watched this in slow motion but yet did nothing for I was paralyzed by the sheer beauty of watching this clunky jingling mess smoothly careen down the street, joyfully bouncing before plunging through the slots into the drain grate where it settled into a shallow grave below.  This is no ordinary drain grate. This is a London drain grate.  Newspaper, masticated gum, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, toothpicks, pieces of cardboard, leaves, twigs, grey grime, silver sludge orange ooze and a liquid which I can only hope was water.

All I could think about was the £250 that we would have to pay to replace the damn thing.  Maybe we could lift the grate up and then reach down and grab it. After all, the grate was pretty rusty. (No.) Maybe this longish twig I just found is able to extend down far enough so I can scoop it out. (No.) Maybe…just…maybe…

Aw, crap.

I felt awful. I felt guilty. I felt stupid. I felt irresponsible. Then I quickly resigned myself to forking over the £250 and learning from this expensive lesson that being prepared isn’t always the best course to take. Neither is a wayward gait.

Enter MacGyver.  The scientific Superman. The troubleshooter extraordinaire.

Fortunately MacGyver aka Steve had the spare pair of keys on him so we were able to get back into the flat and retrieve the travel flashlight (or torch. This is London.)  After peering into the grate with the flashlight he determined that we were better off waiting for the daylight to see exactly where the keys landed and all the muck the gunk it managed to snuggle up to.  In the meantime, he got to work, fashioning a contraption to retrieve the keys.  A key-retriever, if you will.  This contraption is something the likes of which I have not seen and could never imagine.  Like MacGyver, he used tape, but packing tape rather than duct tape (Note: Always bring packing tape with you when you travel. ALWAYS.  It is the most useful item to possess after a Swiss Army knife and wicking socks.)  He then got a pair of shoelaces, a corkscrew (I believe this was courtesy of the flat.  Shhh, don’t tell. I think we still have it.) and a carbineer.   (What, you ask?  A carbineer?   I didn’t know either.  Well, a carbineer, or carbine hook, is a metal clip with a spring that attaches to such things as belt loops, straps and the like.  I would just call it a hooky thingy.   A carbineer is also soldier equipped with a carbine or rifle. Since there were none about we had to manage with the hooky thingy.)  A few deft moves and presto!  We had our key-retrieval contraption.

A panoply of carbine hooks

But it didn’t work. The corkscrew provided the necessary weight and was able to fit in the grate slot, and we had plenty of shoelace slack to make it to the bottom of the filthy drain.  But Steve was not able to maneuver the opened carbine hook to snag the key loop. After an hour of futile attempts in the rain Steve exclaimed:

“Magnets!  We need a magnet.”

My only contribution to this rescue effort other than moral support was the magnet.  (Note: Always bring a magnet with you when you travel. ALWAYS.  It is the most useful item to possess after a Swiss Army knife, wicking socks and packing tape.)   I remembered I had a Sephora  make-up tool compact that had a magnet clasp.  After a few months on the road the compact was worn, and the tools old. But the magnet still worked.

“I’ve got it!” I shouted.

MacGyver Key Retrieval Contraption

Steve affixed the magnet to the end of the corkscrew with the packing tape and we both prayed it would be strong enough to hold the keys.  As Steve lowered the contraption for the second time I looked up and noticed a few people had stopped to watch us.  No one asked us what we were doing and I didn’t offer.  I simply smiled, they returned the pleasantry and then went on their merry way in the cold drizzly morning.

Snap!  The magnet locked the keys.  As Steve slowly pulled the shoelace up, I continued to pray for the magnet, that it would find some fortitude within its dark mass to aid us in our time of need.

It did.  Steve pulled the key-retrieval contraption and the keys through the slot and put them into my hands.  They were full of dirt and leaves and that liquid I can only hope was water.  I didn’t care.  We had gotten them back.  Phew!

To celebrate we went back to The Pride of Spitalfields for a victory drink. Victory over despair.  Victory over my clumsy walk. Victory over having to pay £250 for lost keys to a company that wouldn’t let us extend out stay for a few more days at the price we were already paying. (They raised their rate. Booo.  We ended up staying elsewhere the last few days.)

I still marvel at Steve’s ingenuity and his determination.  It is what got us through this little hiccup, and a good portion of The Grand Tour and I do appreciate him for it.  Besides we have an entertaining story to tell future generations.

From that moment on I resolved to not take things for granted. Not to take keys out of my purse too soon.

And to walk a bit more like Molly Shannon.


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