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St. Catherine's Wheel Alley

A tube strike walk in 2001,
or, Walk to work you lazy sods!
or, Read this or the bomb at the end will go off.

There was another london underground strike, starting at 8 pm last night, until 8 tonight (which pretty much means until tomorrow). This issue this time is for safety reasons, drivers wanting better standards for themselves, no worries for the rest of us: just either calling in sick, driving, busing, or walking to work.

It's about the same to me, I always support strikes. Hey, power to the people, fight the powers that be! and all that. Besides, the tube is in deplorable condition. I live three stations from work (seven minute walk from either end of the terminating station) and it really should just take a ten minute ride, but often it stretches to a half hour or more. The ten minutes between trains becomes twenty minutes. Due to the way the stations I go through (Aldgate East, Liverpool Street, Moorgate, the Barbican) the train I'm on often waits in the tunnel for tracks to switch. And sometimes down the line someone's jumped onto the line, or dumped leaves on it or something. I'd walk, or bike, but the past few months have been the most miserable weather straight out an Edgar Allan Poe dream: biting wind, spitting rain, hail, sleet, falling sheep.

But today was the first proper spring day since, oh, about last june. Clouds so bumpy you want to lie on some greening lawn and search for cathedrals and menageries among them. Sun that flashes off office building windows, dappling the streets in movie set filter glow. A warm breeze just at the right speed to keep you comfortable on a brisk walk. I didn't know how long the strike was, so I'd popped down to the north end of Aldgate East station, just past the Whitechapel Gallery. Gates were shut, so I grabbed a ginger beer and headed off inthe the general direction of work.

Ok, if you're not familiar with labyrinthine London, I should direct you to a good street map, like the London A to Z (pronounced ay to zed). Find where Whitechapel road and Commercial Road meet, move the tip of your finger to the right a millimetre (or a quarter inch to find Osborne Road. Look, there I am, ginger beer in one hand, lighting a Gauloise Blonde with the other. Off we go!

Up Osborne Road to turn before Brick Lane left onto College street. An EasyEverything training center and headquarters is being put in there. There used to be a great graffiti gorilla on the corner wall, with a cartoon speak bubble saying GO HOME! Cross Commercial Street onto Wentworth Street, which is pretty much what is known as Petticoat Lane now: lots of clothing tat. It's all crap. The road was just refurbished, and today they are putting in some concrete slabs randomly in the street, about a half a meter square, with really stupid line drawings of clothing sold here: a cyan tie, a magenta bra, a green striped shirt, a pink handbag, a yellow checkered sock. And that's exactly the garbage they sell in the stalls here. Oh well, it's a living for some of them.

Wentworth Street Bottoms out into Middlesex Street, although I cattycornered from Bell Lane to Cobb Street to Leyden Street to Saint Peter Street into Middlesex Street. There's about six ways from here to Bishopsgate, all of these involving going through the Cutler's Gardens, a collection of office buildings I worked in last year, grave shift for a bank. But I found a seventh way today: following Middlesex Street north, and bearing left into Saint Catherine's Wheel Alley, which is wide enough of one at the start, but whittles thinner and thinner, wriggling left then right, until it's literally popping out of a doorway right in front of Liverpool Street Station. Cut through the station to Liverpool Street. The station itself is filled with confused, frantic, and upset travellers, who should know by now that anything that can go wrong with London Transport will, right when you most need it. Lines of people wait futilely for buses and cabs, which are all queued in traffic together with lorries, white vans, rentacars, and police vans for several kilometers away.

Me? I'm twenty minutes into my walk, halfway to work. My hands are sticky from the ginger beer, and I think, yes, I'm smoking another cigarette. Right at the end of Liverpool Street onto Eldon Street, still going vaguely northeast. Eldon becomes South Place, cross Moorgate, down Ropemaker Street, right onto Moor Lane, left onto Chiswell Street. The traffic is still backed up. Right onto Lamb's Passage, left onto Sutton's Way, I sort of triangulated a few extra steps. Back right onto Whitecross Street, going north. Another market street here, but most everyone's packing up; I glimpse at a rack of old silver rings a woman is covering with a blue canvas, but stride up to a cenotaph topped church. Left to a deadend on Warwick Yard (i should have known better), down Roscoe Street instead to and right on Golden Lane, crossing Old Street, turning left. Another dead end just past Red Cow Yard, so instead, right onto Goswell Road, and zlipzlop I'm on Compton Street and up to work. The sun is shining, the carpenters on the floor above have left a bunch of flourescent light tubes by the entrance. Later someone steps on one, and a poof of glass dust clouds up.

If you are looking at a map and wondering why I didn't just go down Commercial Street to Great Eastern Road to Old Street to work, well, trust me, it take a few more minutes, and the way I took today is more scenic.

A marvellous sunset thunderstorm and dull work shift later, I head home, basicly retracing my steps (minus the deadends). Lots of drunken suits ambling along. Lots of people talking to each other, laughing. Cabs wait by office buildings, holding yellow signs for the suits partying on the day's travel misbehaviour. I reach Liverpool station again, and head down St. Catherine's Wheel Alley. The bar is playing 'I put a Spell on You' -- not the Screaming Jay Hawkins one, or the Diamanda Galas version, but that new one, really poppy, and for shame I'm singing to it... 'I put a spell on you, 'cause you're mine.... I can't stop the things you do... You better keep me satisfied...' I squiggle down the alley, and near the end, behind a tailor's shop, is a clear blue cleaner's bin bag, beeping. I stop. The bag is beeping! I think of moving on, but stop again. Peering at it. What to do?

There's signs everywhere around here about suspicous packages. They tell you to: 1. Stop 2. Don't touch it. 3. Inform Police.

A woman pops out of a side alley that twists into Devonshire Square, but I feel too stupid to ask her about it. There are two busboys at the bar's service entrance, and I go back to them and find myself asking, 'Say, are Bin bags supposed to beep?' Hey, how would I know? Maybe it's some newfangled technology for a certain rubbish company to be able to track bags left specifically for them: a little homing device signalling 'Pickup at Sector 3niner0.' One of the guys says, "what, beeping, like a bomb?" "Yeah, there's a rubbish bag beeping down there." "Well, I'm not going to touch it!" We chuckle about it, and so it's up to me to pop back down to Bishopsgate, where there's a handy dandy Police Station a few doors down from the head of the alley. What seems to be a chamber quartet is being ushered into a police van (along with instruments). At the entrance desk, I tell a perky desk sargeant about the bag, who jokes about that being something to make the evening more exciting. I laugh, and she thanks me, saying they'll send someone right away to nose it out.

I plucked up my courage and went down the alley again. In the back of my mind the whole time were little scenarios. You know, looking too close and then, BOOM! So I had to walk by it again, listening to the beep like a sad digital alarm clock. Which --hang on--, hmm, maybe it was. Leaving it behind, I looked back, hoping it was nothing. The rest of the walk home, my ears were tuned northeast. Nothing but sirens in other directions, people booted out of the pubs laughing about the day and night, and cars heading out of the city.