Sunday, July 15, 2012

Alfred the Obscure: Walking towards Jericho

The morning light came through the curtains and as if my whole body had been waiting for such a moment, light!, light!, I was immediately awake. Next to me, her lovely face turned deeply into her pillow, La Professoressa slept on, still exhausted from her teaching week.
I had determined that every day I would discover something new about this Oxford place and so I flattened out our street map and looked for my morning's destination and there it was, not far from our home on Rewley Road or so I thought. Nestled into one of the park's behind Ruskin College, there was a strange looking symbol on the map. Looking closer I saw it was a menorah and sure enough the little letters spelled out, "Oxford Synagogue," far from the maddening crowds and even farther from Magdalen College which occupied the green space at the other end of the map.
I picked my route, first my usual path, going through the gate entrance to the canal path, nodding to the duck community that like to squeeze through the bent railing and dry their feet on the usually quiet Old Fisherman's Road, up to Hythe Bridge Street and then the new territory, turning left down Worcester Street which eventually changed its name to Walton. In short, I was walking towards Jericho, the communities of North Oxford where spires were mostly absent. One of the last signs of historical opulence I was to see was the palatial home of The Oxford Press, a huge old stone structure with pillars and grand gates and miles of green beyond it seemed. I nodded in respect and continued down the much more common feeling Walton street, lined with once worker's homes, fronted by small gardens, past small shops. I asked two passerbys and one postal worker where the Synagogue was, but no one seemed to have heard of it, not even the proprietor of the Oxford Ceramic Gallery--sorry, I can't help you on that one. I started to look for those helpful corner lamppost signs that are all over Oxford, pointing you in the direction of the nearest place of interest--the Covered Market, the Carfax Tower, the Tourist Information Center. Nope, but I did find several signs pointing out the direction of St Barnabas Church, cemetery and creche. I walked and walked, past the Jude the Obscure pub, and on until I realized how late it had grown and I needed to, in the well worn language of all travelers, retrace my steps. I never found the synagogue floating somewhere in its well hidden pocket of green.
I was walking slowly along back up Walton Street, my cane tapping its helpful rhythm, my third leg for good now, when I came upon a man, not young and not too old, sitting on stone ledge outside a small news shop. I first noticed his dog, tied to a railing, a black and white mix, patient and respectful but the rain had been falling on all for some time now and he looked a little forlorn, as did the man who sat with his cap just slightly held out. I stopped, took out a pound and dropped into his hat. "Thank you, miss, for me and my dog," he said; I continued walking but I had not taken three steps when I heard a very chirping as- if- the- sun- was- shining voice say behind me, "we caught you red-handed this time, Alfred, " and I turned to see two young police people, fit and dry in their street gear, with its yellow neon stripes making their power oh so visible, standing in front of Alfred. 
"Let's see what you've got there," the woman officer said, her blond hair drawn tightly back in a neat bun under her jaunty white cap, and she took Alfred's ragged looking excuse for a hat and emptied his gathered coins into her hand, I could hear their sparse jingle from where I stood. She laughed and said, "Just enough to buy my lunch," and jangled the coins into her pocket. It is her laugh that haunts me still. I had turned away for what seemed like a second to see if I was the only one who had witnessed this moment and in the time it took for me to turn back to Alfred, the police people had walked by me and Alfred and his dog were gone. Like all the Alfred's of the world, he had the knack of disappearing when given a moment of reprieve from official power. Somehow he had managed to untie his dog and slip away before I had fully taken in all that had happened.
The thin older man holding out his cap, his black and white sheep dog, like the kind in Babe tied to the fence, the gray day, the mist of rain falling on us all, my fateful dropping of a coin in the man’s cap, his thank you and then in the instant I have turned my back to keep walking back to La Professoressa, the cheerful piping woman’s voice say, we caught you red handed this time Alfred—I turn to see two police people, young, one a dark haired man and the woman, blond, and well built both in their neon striped uniforms, well protected from the weather, she continues, taking the cap out of Alfred’s hand—lets see how much you got in there—oh good—just enough for my lunch and she laughs, pocketing the few coins I heard clink into her hand—they glance at me standing silent witness and walk past me, I turn to say something to the man, but like the Alfreds of the world he has disappeared in the seconds it took for me to move my gaze from the the jaunty police folk back to the quiet beggar, he was  gone. I continued walking home wanting to catch up with the law enforcers, but they out walked me and turned a corner. All my way home I thought—it was her taunting, all their taunting, it was the clean up the streets before the Olympics routine, it was Donald Trump shouting about his moneyed right to block regular people’s homes with sand dunes and cypress trees on his newly build golf course for millionaires, the bully clown of capitalism, crowing over the world, I can do what I want, I own the land, it is good to buy land! hailing his creed of heartless greed over the Scottish hills. I went out to find the Synagogue, to walk a new street, to make another part of the map come alive with its human ways but I found something so old, so sad, so enraging; Jude, this town and so many others like it, are still beyond your reach, the taunts of power over those they judge less then fully human bounce off the spires of so- called ancient wisdom and pour scorn on a poor man's head. The map will not show me this, only my eyes witnessing the longing and the abuse will truly people the new geographies I walk in. I write to pull you into the streets with me.
Later in the day, a most wonderful reunion with Colin, Jude, Luke and George, our once a year if we are lucky love affair continuing, their love for each other, their embracing of us and us of them pouring warmth into the cold gray day.


  1. Hi Joan, I'm loving your Oxford posts because I used to visit there as a child, and now my son and his family live in Wheatley. But I'm distressed by this Alfred story. And I searched for the synagogue online and found this map: If you click on the red dot at the bottom where Nelson and Richmond Roads meet, you'll see a pic of the synagogue. And next time in Oxford, I'm going to seek it out myself!!! Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Wellywood. I did find the synagogue.And thank you for seeing Alfred as I did.