The Theory of the London Tubes

The Theory of the London Tubes

I saw an old friend, one I hadn’t seen in a long time, while attending a photography workshop this weekend. She just got back from a long photo shoot out in Terlingua. I asked her how it was, and we got to talking. She said she was traveling out there with another friend of mine who, “didn’t hold up too well under the travel.”

“What do you mean,” I asked?

“Well, about two days into the trip, I could tell she was feeling stressed,” she said, “and then she accused me of stealing her toothpaste.” The friend in question had, apparently, purchased one of those “trial sized” travel tubes of toothpaste, and it was, apparently, misplaced. I just got a mental picture of these two ladies, both fairly well-to-do, with big Texas hair, fancy jewelry, fine grained leather Coach bags, out in the middle of nowhere Terlingua, fighting over toiletries. “Colgate Thief!” “It was mine!” They would shout as they each emptied their collective high grade leather, $300 travel bags, while frantically searching for a 68 cent tube of toothpaste which somebody probably just forgot to pack, mere seconds shy of killing each other.

I have a theory about this. I think that everybody who travels a lot has, embedded deep within their psyche, a story about toothpaste. Now, I don’t know what it is about this particular toiletry in question but, I swear, there’s something about toothpaste and travelers that just inspires oddness and strange behavior. At least, it doesn’t appear happen with hairspray.

To support my theory, I too have a strange story involving toothpaste. Once, when I was traveling to London with a group of friends, I realized (after I was already on the plane) that I had forgotten to pack toothpaste. No big deal, I thought. After we land, I’ll stop off on High Street, at a Chemist (what we, in the states, call a pharmacy) in one of the little country towns that dot the landscape, to get me a tube. Every little town in England has a High Street, and every High Street in every little town has a Chemist and every Chemist sells toothpaste. If only I had known then what I know now about the evil lurking in those London tubes.

The plane landed and we boarded a bus, which stopped, predictably, in some little town, with a High Street. The High Street had, you guessed it, a Chemist. I told my friend Hugo, a fellow traveler, “Man, I forgot to pack toothpaste. I’ll be right back.” I purchased a tube, got back onto the bus, and thought the whole incident was behind me.

That evening, there was a knock on my hotel room. It was Hugo, “damn you. I forgot toothpaste too. I should have gotten some when you did.” I loaned him a squirt and told him we could easily get some the next day, on another bus trip to another little town with a High Street and, presumably, another Chemist.

Fast forward to the next day. Hugo runs off the bus, when it stops, on High Street, in some little forgotten town, and brings back toothpaste. Sitting behind us on the bus was a fellow photographer from Japan who didn’t speak English too well, and who also happened to ask Hugo what was in the bag.

“It’s the best souvenir,” Hugo joked as he proudly held up his newly purchased tube, “Everybody’s got to get some!”

So much for the joke. The poor helplessly lost Japanese man literally thought that Hugo was instructing everybody to get toothpaste and that we, in fact, HAD to get some, or the bus trip would somehow grind to a halt.

At the next stop, in another little town, on another High Street, inside another Chemist, the Japanese man literally ran in to purchase his very own tube, thinking it mandatory. Like the old telephone game, by the time the toothpaste message was conveyed to the back of the bus, tourists were frantically purchasing toothpaste as fast as their yens could be converted into British pounds. It morphed into some kind of scavenger hunt, where the lucky traveler at the end, the one in possession of the most Crest, would win some kind of door prize, or so they thought. We had people frantically yelling, probably in seventeen different languages, none of which Hugo or I spoke, “Stop! I need a Chemist!” in the middle of nowhere, England. I believe the poor bus guide thought that everybody had taken ill. The bus made frequent random stops at random Chemists, on random High Streets, where helpless non-English-speaking tourists bought as much toothpaste as they could carry, and probably more than would fit in a standard sized carry-on bag. I unknowingly took a lot of pictures on High Streets in the general vicinity of the Chemists.

As you could guess, there were a lot of non-English speaking tourists on the trip, there was no door prize, and, presumably, at least one Chemist, somewhere in some sleepy little town in England was puzzled as to why there was a sudden run on Colgate. I’m guessing the only good news to come from this is that somewhere in Japan there now exists at least one savvy tourist who knows how to ask for “more toothpaste” in something closely resembling proper English.

Chew on that the next time you pack.

Until next time…


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