Martin opened his eyes. He squinted between his zippered lashes, stuck together with sleep. A small army of shoes marched past his face, which was half-hidden inside a dingy blue sleeping bag. His first instinct was to place a limp, protective hand on his red knapsack. He was inside a short tunnel that lay beneath a busy London street beside Hyde Park. He didn’t look up. He knew what their faces would convey, their cowardly faces. He was experiencing the real Europe, instead of peering out at it through heated hotel windows or hostel bunk beds or tour buses. He didn’t have to pay anyone for his space of concrete bedding. He was free. He closed his eyes. Martin was free.
He ignored his growling stomach as he smelled the subtle waft of fries from the nearby Hard Rock Café. Tourists, he thought. They were all missing the local colour. Except Joe the hotdog vendor, who was from the north, a Scot, an outsider. Hot dogs in London were a foreign idea, but it seemed to catch on like every other American phenomenon. London was a metropolis with people from every race sounding their thick British accents. It didn’t really matter who you were or what you were, only where you happened to become that person. Still, people could tell if you were from somewhere else, and Martin stuck out like a wounded hitch-hiker’s thumb. He had a quiet bond with Joe the Outsider and, on most occasions, received his hotdogs for free. Then he would usually lie under a tree in the park and watch tourists get charged two pounds by security for using the lawn chairs. The grass was free. Martin felt as though mindless sheep surrounded him. He had it all figured out.
A year before he had bought a cheap ticket to London and decided to depend on the day to see him through. Martin cherished every consequence. He held on to every face that examined him with curiosity or disgust. He always kept a plain expression. He had no reason to indulge anyone with emotion. In fact, he barely spoke. Except to people like Joe.
When he opened his eyes again, a different army of shoes were marching past. The tunnel was never quiet, and he had long been used to the intrusion of echoing sounds and rustling pavement. It was a small sacrifice. He wriggled out of his bed and began to pack up. He would return later that night. Martin had become a familiar sight, and some of the locals knew this tunnel was his home. So did some of the other shoestring backpackers. Martin marched alongside the army and out of the tunnel. The sun was out, and again, he squinted. He ran a hand over his stubbled head and rubbed his eyes. He turned left.
The sun was already seated royally in the sky as Martin strolled down the wide, crowded sidewalk. He could see the faint shape of an umbrella a few blocks away, and as he came closer, he recognized Joe. Martin’s stomach began to growl again.
“Get your hotdogs here! Hello, sir, what a gorgeous day. Would you like a hotdog? Get your hotdogs here! Good day, love! Can I get you a hotdog? Would you like the works?” Joe called to the passing public all day long. He set up his stand on the same corner every day, and everyone who frequented that spot knew him. Some just by his ruddy, round face, and others knew him well enough to have a word or two. Martin felt he could relate to Joe, because it seemed they were both stuck in London making a living on the sidewalks, and most of the people bustling by chose to ignore them.
“Hey, Joe.” Martin showed a couple of teeth and then retracted his smile. Even though he liked Joe, he was still careful not to let anyone get too close. “Catering to the North American public, eh? It’s amazing you are able to sell hotdogs here. I guess if you had your way, you’d be selling cans of haggis.”
“Marty, my boy!” Joe’s face opened wide with good-natured eyes. “How was your night? Those bloody bed bugs didn’t bite ya, aye, lad?” he boomed in his rich, Scottish accent, completely disregarding Martin’s offhand remarks.
“Nah, Joe. No rats, neither. Just the bloody tourists waking me up in the morning.” Martin grimaced.
“Bloody tourists?” Joe raised his eyebrows so high they looked comical. “You better button your tongue, Marty. If there were no tourists, there’d be no hotdogs! Besides, what the devil do you think you are … a member of the general voting public? You’re the worst kind of tourist, Marty. You don’t pay taxes and you don’t leave!” Joe chuckled and flung a hotdog with ketchup and mustard into Martin’s waiting hand.
“See ya tomorrow, Joe,” said Martin without looking at his friend, and he began to walk away.
“See ya, Marty,” Joe said quietly and to himself, because Martin was already out of earshot. And they both knew they meant it. Tomorrow. Chances were they would find themselves in the same skin and doing the same thing. The two of them were like hamsters trapped in transparent, plastic balls looking out at the world, unable to break free of their bubbles and constantly bumping into walls.