I saw the old timer taking aim, but I couldn’t believe he was pointing that thing at me.
And then he took my picture.
I gave him a “what the hell?” look and he took another picture of me.
This was London, 1993 and I was finally visiting the grand old city after threatening to make the trip for ages. Apparently someone had alerted the local media.
The old fellow approached me and explained that he was a photographer who wanted me to have a memento of my trip to his hometown.
It pains me to admit this but my appearance must have screamed “tourist” as I was bearing a camera, guidebook, and a rather clueless look on my face. New Yorkers are obsessed with being in the know so it was a little disheartening to be pegged so easily by one of the locals.
The old guy wasn’t taking snaps of my mug out of the goodness of his heart, of course. He offered to send me copies of his work for a nominal fee.
But instead of telling him to get lost and that no one had asked him to take my goddamn picture I asked if he had a smaller package.
We agreed upon a price, I gave him my address in Pennsylvania where I was living at the time and a couple of pound notes, and he promised to mail the photos to me as soon as possible.
This was back when people used film instead of taking photos with their phones and you had to wait for your pictures to be developed.
“I could tell you were a gentleman,” he told me. “And you know what they say: You can always tell a gentleman, but you can’t tell him much.”
We both laughed and I walked away, so proud of myself for negotiating this deal. I went another few feet before I realized what had really happened.
I had just given cash to a total stranger in a foreign country.
I couldn’t believe my rank stupidity. Yes, I was living in a small town, but I had been born in Brooklyn for God’s sake, I was supposed to be street smart. I wasn’t supposed to be out-hustled by an arthritic retiree with an Instamatic.
I was so furious with myself that I wanted to march right over to Trafalgar Square and ram my head against Nelson’s Column while shouting “schmuck, schmuck, schmuck!”
However, I decided to forgive myself and refrain from bleeding all over the admiral. No vacation would be complete without some kind of blunder or slip-up and I’d just had mine.
Now it was time for me to meet another colorful character. I was walking through Piccadilly Circus when I ran into an Australian man who was also on vacation. As soon as I told him I was from Brooklyn, he pretended to be horrified.
“Get away from me,” he declared. “You people are so violent!”
I laughed and we wound up going to lunch together. I don’t remember much about our conversation after all these years, but I do recall that this man had a great sense of humor and a propensity to gamble.
It seemed he wanted to bet about just anything that came up. Somehow we started talking about Gerald Ford, who became president after Richard Nixon resigned and who lost to Jimmy Carter—so he was never actually elected to the office.
Well, this man was convinced that Ford had been elected president and bet me 20 pounds that he was right.
“We’ll get to the library after lunch,” he said, since there was no Google back then.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t want to bet with you. We’re having a good time here, let’s just enjoy ourselves.”
My friend smiled and shook his head.
“You’re a good bloke, Rob,” he said, “but don’t you take enough chances.”
That’s a safe bet. I’ve always been far too cautious and it’s cost me dearly. It took me three years to get to London because of my fear of flying.
We wrapped up lunch without making any more wagers, I wished him well, and I returned to Pennsylvania to regale my coworkers with endless vacation stories.
And then one day I get this envelope in the mail with funny-looking stamps on it. The spelling of my last name had been butchered beyond belief—Levitlav? Seriously?—but it was most definitely addressed to me.
I was shocked. I tore the envelope open and they there were, a handful of photographs of me wandering around London. So I hadn’t been ripped off after all.
My street corner shutterbug had come through like a real gentleman and I was so glad that I hadn’t head-butted Admiral Nelson.
I brought the photos into work the next day and told my friends about the whole episode.
“That’s one vacation story we hadn’t heard before,” one colleague sarcastically noted.
Well, yes, I wasn’t about to proclaim to the world what a rube I had been.
I recently found that envelope with its atrocious spelling, but the photos themselves are missing and presumed lost somewhere in my apartment.
I’m thinking more about that man’s advice on taking more chances. I’m at a crossroads in my life right now and ready for something different.
Maybe I’ll go to Australia. But I'm not posing for any pictures.