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Abby Rabinowitz: The Elf Diaries

December 19, 2013

On a season spent in turmoil, transition, and the glitzy winter wonderland of Harrod's of London.

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Image from Flickr via therealmikeyboy

When I left for London, no one knew what was going to happen. A few days before the flight, my mother and I had gone to the mall, where I bought a wine-red, double-breasted wool coat. I wanted to look glamorous in a shabby, melancholy way, like Julianne Moore in a movie based on a Graham Greene novel set in wartime London.

Driving home, my mother told me, “I wish you’d just stay here with us.”

“England’s our ally,” I reminded her. “London will be safe. I’ll be fine!”

It was late autumn, 2001. I looked out the window of the half-empty plane to the Manhattan skyline. Although it was October, the air where the towers should have been was still smudged with smoke. At the time, I didn’t understand just how nervous my mother was when I left home three weeks after September 11. But if I didn’t leave my parents’ house in New Jersey, it seemed possible that nothing would ever happen again—that I might go on as I had in the weeks after college graduation, taking painting classes and seeing a therapist to unravel a gnawing anxiety: after a lifetime of school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, or who I wanted to do it with. My only plan was to go to London, and so I went.

At the time, I didn’t know how long it can take to set up a life, even a temporary and playful one.

From Victoria Station, where pigeons wander freely and which is so wide you can’t see from end to end of it, I took a black cab past Westminster Abbey. We drove over the Thames and through the endless south suburbs of London, with their identical corner shops and cramped Victorian row houses made of ashy, yellowish brick, to Tooting Bec, where three friends shared a flat. They had invited me to stay until I got a job and a place of my own. “I should be out of here in a week,” I told them, sipping tea on the couch.

But it took me two weeks to find work as a Christmas elf at Harrods, London’s famously ornate department store, and a month to find a flat share with an actuary and a barrister both named Jonathan. At the time, I didn’t know how long it can take to set up a life, even a temporary and playful one.

The place where we decide to begin our independent lives can really be anyplace at all. I chose London because I loved the city long before I saw it because of the books I’d read and re-read, starting with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, which begins, “Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lights were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night…” I loved Sara Crewe’s London for the contrast between the damp, dreary streets and the cozy world of safe houses, with their plush couches, teacakes, fireplaces and books. Sara was a reader, like me, and London, as it turned out, was a city of readers too.

I loved England because its writers had dreamt up those fantastical adventures, which were so good to read when the papers were full of anthrax and Afghanistan.

While reading may be optional in sunny cities like Los Angeles, in London, where trains are daily crowded to a level that in New York would indicate track malfunction or worse, imaginative escape is mandatory. On the tube that fall, everyone was reading the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials—fantastical adventures about those ultimate battles between good and evil where, even if you wear spectacles or weigh less than 90 pounds, you can make a difference with your pluck, inner resolve and self-sacrifice. I loved England because its writers had dreamt up those stories, which were so good to read when the papers were full of anthrax and Afghanistan. I loved Londoners because they read these books on the way to their serious financial jobs in the City. It made me forgive the smell of cigarette smoke wafting up from their hair, and the overheated tube with its sticky upholstered seats, the dreariness of streets themselves, and the food (which, while not as bad as everyone says it is, is still pretty bad).

***

That fall, I had high hopes of falling in love with an English person myself and staying in London forever or else importing him to New York, which is where I assumed I’d end up in a vague sort of way. That fall, I did everything I could to organize my life in the direction of men, which is why I took the flat with the Jonathans on the outskirts of posh Clapham, even though it was expensive: £400 a month, which was far too much for an elf paid £6 an hour. But I had some money from my grandparents that I spent without guilt, considering my six months in London as a part of my education as a writer.

Because everyone knew that to be a writer, you needed to live. And I was worried that I hadn’t lived, which seemed to be almost a sin that fall, when life seemed newly fragile. By lived I meant everything I hadn’t done yet, namely falling in love.

Neither of the Jonathans fit the bill. (Jonathan the barrister, a conservative, was prone to saying things like, “Those natives stole my grandparents’ farm in Kenya,” and infuriated me by mocking Americans for eating “spray cheese,” while he himself ate meat paste out of a tube. Jonathan the actuary was given to bouts of melancholy, in which he listened to David Gray songs or washed the dishes with a passion he displayed in no other aspect of his life.) Still, I was infatuated with the country overall: the reading habit, the accent, even the curious habit of “taking the piss” out of close friends with caustic jokes—anything the English did was fine by me.

Perhaps because of my infatuation with the whole nation, English people seemed to like me too. At the sparkly department store, I was popular with my fellow elves. I crowded a dozen of them along with my university friends into the flat at and served everyone their first Thanksgiving dinner. The elves liked my accent, they liked when I said pants (which for them meant underwear), and liked that when our managers named me Elf of the Week, an institution we’d loudly condemned as divisive, I shared out my £20 Harrods gift certificate in the form of gourmet peppermint sticks.

Maybe I was not so much angry that they were protesting the war, but that they did not see what I saw: the world was a harder, darker place than we had thought.

The elves were a friendly crew: about forty actors, students on their gap years, and travelers from Australia and South Africa, all between the ages of eighteen and thirty. It felt special working at the monolithic department store with its gilded Egyptian escalator, legendary food halls selling everything from oysters to marzipan watermelons, and mysterious upper levels, where lords shopped for riding crops and tourists wandered wildernesses of tweed.

For nine hours a day, we entertained and placated families on the hours-long queue that snaked around the teen clothing department to the glittery gates of the Christmas grotto which opened on a bare corridor lined with store windows featuring bears with moving arms, and finally to the reindeer stable, where six Father Christmases were on shift behind green doors marked Rudolph and Dasher. In the stalls, we tried to charm three-year olds into smiling for photographs, exchanged wearied glances with Father Christmas, and ushered their parents out to the cash register.

The job was infuriating, and funny, and enjoyable largely because it was temporary.

Sometimes, I’d steal away to stand on the roof by myself, to catch a glimpse of the thin, blue sunlight before the dark closed in at 4 o’clock, to look out over the roofs and gabled towers of Kensington at a glittery snatch of river and the low sweep of clouds. I’d take a swig of Day Nurse, my preferred cough suppressant. That fall, I caught everything—flu, bronchitis, conjunctivitis, but I didn’t mind: when I got laryngitis Vicky, one of our resident beauties, told me that my voice sounded sexier, and when I had to wear my glasses Lee, a handsome thirty-year old who moonlighted for a semi-obscene comedy show called Puppetry of the Penis, told me I looked more sophisticated in them.

There were massive peace protests in Hyde Park and I had vicious debates with Heather and Mike, who went to the marches and said (piously it seemed), “Can you really say that an American life is worth more than an Afghani’s?”

I sort of liked Lee, in the way I sort of liked a lot of my fellow male elves. Lee and I had kissed a bit in the pub once or twice, uninspired sessions in which I did my best to ignore his cigarette breathe.

We all went out after work almost every night, sometimes to a karaoke place in SoHo but more often to a warm, worn-out pub called the Gloucester, and consumed endless pints of beer and glasses of cheap red wine and stacks of crisps, flirted, and made out (or snogged, as the British put it), in ill-lit corners.

By the time Christmas rolled around, the number of elves I’d kissed had grown to a pleasantly disreputable number. I loved the general cheery debauchery of it all, which was so different from the more measured debauchery of college which—no matter how carefree it seems in retrospect—was my real life at the time, with all of its weightiness and repercussions.

So, my stint as an elf should have been the perfect time to fall in love. But no one perfect arrived. In his absence, I indulged in a dreamy crush on our red-headed manager Daniel, who looked very sleek in his suit and wore expensive cologne. Daniel was just the kind of man I liked when I was twenty-two, being an authority figure and safely unattainable. But to be fair, he was worth liking. Daniel looked out for us. And he looked out for me. Once, when I was so hung-over at work that the flashing lights and the blaring carols made it impossible to do anything but lay on the floor and moan, he sent me home. And on that awful afternoon in November, when someone ran to find me in the cafeteria to tell me that a plane had crashed in Queens and I ran straight down to the manager’s office, Daniel said, “Don’t worry about work. Make sure everyone at home is all right,” and handed me my red wool coat.

Just a few afternoons earlier, I had stood on Waterloo Bridge with a crowd of people and stared at a plane that seemed to be flying too low, and sighed with collective relief when it pulled up into the sky. Even in London, people were waiting for something horrible to happen. That fall, there were massive peace protests in Hyde Park and I had vicious debates with Heather and Mike, who went to the marches and said (piously it seemed), “Can you really say that an American life is worth more than an Afghani’s?”

And I’d shake with rage, and say, “Yes, I really can.”

Afterwards, I cried and felt homesick. And I felt something else too: changed from the college senior I’d been just a few months before, lolling on the Main Green in the sunshine, reflecting with a friend that America would probably never have another real war. Because where would it come from? Now I knew that trouble could come from anywhere and the politically correct, humanist view I’d assumed—that my pacifist London friends still assumed—felt naïve and fatally flawed. Maybe I was not so much angry that they were protesting the war, but that they did not see what I saw: the world was a harder, darker place than we had thought. It would demand difficult choices.

I never felt as American again as I did those grey fall days—in the moment of silence that we observed on November 11, on a red double-decker bus speckled with rain, just before we crossed the bridge at Battersea.

Sometimes I felt guilty being away from New York, but most of the time, London was the right place to be. And as the days hurried towards Christmas, Harrods felt like the very heart of the season and the city. Walking into the store from the predawn gloom and gliding up to the fourth floor on a back escalator, I felt like I was moving into the center of something cheery and vital.

The day after Christmas, the elf job over, my sister arrived from New York with homemade cookies and presents, and the next day we wandered around a quieted London. In the new year I found a job as a salesgirl at a fancy chocolate shop off Old Bond Street, the epicenter of posh London, where I arranged a box of chocolates for the Queen herself and learned of her predilection for hazelnut, learned to tie a perfect bow, and got to eat as many chocolates as I pleased. But over the next few weeks, I noticed that something was missing.

I realized it in small increments—in little moments that, taken alone, meant nothing much at all. But it crystallized one day in the shop, when a woman said to me in the dry flat bored tones of the truly wealthy in Britain, “I’ll have another nine of those.” And as I extracted the truffles from the case, chocolate dust clinging to my white gloves, I reflected that the cost of this one box of chocolates was much as my day’s salary. I looked at the woman’s fine wool coat and thought of my own coat, which really wasn’t warm enough as it turned out, and—just like that—I was tired of it all. I wasn’t a shop girl; I was using the money I had from my grandfather to subsidize a life of service that was actually more like playacting. It was absurd.

I felt abruptly lonely. Though I had friends in the city, an evening without plans felt like cold exile. At twenty-two, I didn’t know that occasional loneliness is a general condition of cities in the first years you live in them.

I was twenty-four, and I’d never been in love, and London was where it was supposed to have happened. So London had failed me.

I began to dream of my New Jersey town and the City, as we always called New York. At home, I knew, clean snow would be falling on the backyard. I missed my friends and my family, and I missed America viscerally, for reasons that could only have occurred in London. The streets are broader, and the cars are bigger, and the houses aren’t so cramped, and the trees are healthier, and the people are somehow more vigorous. The horizon really looks wider in America, something I’ve puzzled over for years. Maybe it has something to do with the latitude; maybe it’s because you’re not hemmed in by low clouds.

I went back home in February, before my visa expired.

New York in that first winter meant slogging through melt-water, getting a marketing job that confined me to a new, dull, plodding schedule that everyone informed me was normal for adult life. New York was angling my way into bars where my American accent did not make me special. It was that same deep loneliness that even living with high school friends couldn’t mask. That was New York, when it seemed cold to me.

And I began going back and forth between New York and London, on the plane and, more constantly, in my thoughts.

On one London visit, while my friends were at work, I took long walks on the south side of the Thames, and drifted into art galleries full of uninteresting paintings, and spent hours in bookstores looking for the perfect novel to take me out of my thoughts, which were, most unexpectedly, anguished.

On that trip or maybe the next one, I stood on the west side of Waterloo Bridge, looking out over the river to the slender, fluted buildings of Parliament and the fairy-tale towers of Whitehall and the oversize Millennium Wheel. Even with red double-decker buses whizzing by and the perpetual wind, it had always been my favorite place to think. And here’s what I thought: I was anguished because somehow, I had failed in 2001. I hadn’t lived, and I still wasn’t fully living. That’s what I told myself. I still wasn’t in love with anyone, and had never been in love. So maybe it was that: I was twenty-four, and I’d never been in love, and London was where it was supposed to have happened. So London had failed me. Or somehow, I’d missed my chance. At least, that’s how it felt.

It took me a few years and a few more trips to realize why my walks through the city felt like the meanderings of a ghost, why I was always hoping for a man in the Tate Modern to catch my eye, why I wanted to sit in the Gloucester joking with the former elves. I wanted to walk back into the London of 2001, when the world was not safe and not certain, but where decisions felt momentous and everything alight with possibility.

Abby Rabinowitz has written for the New York Times and teaches writing at Columbia University.

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3 comments for Abby Rabinowitz: The Elf Diaries

  1. Comment by Joe on December 19, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    This was a great read as I can relate to the overall feelings you conveyed. I’m glad to have happened upon it via digg.
    have a great holiday!

  2. Comment by Nick on January 7, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    I’m afraid the only portion of your article which moved me to comment was your suggestion that an Afghan life is worth less than an American one.
    Whatever one’s thoughts re the war, I think such a sentiment either worryingly unconsidered or indicative of a mindset incompatible with human decency.

  3. Comment by John on July 25, 2014 at 3:14 am

    ”Driving home, my mother told me, “I wish you’d just stay here with us.”

    “England’s our ally,” I reminded her”

    Sorry, this is totally wrong. Britain or the UK is your ally in criminal wars. (to our eternal shame). You really should brush up on basic political geography.

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