Stone birds perch atop the Two Eagles House in South London. They have long curved necks like vultures, but presumably they are eagles. From way down at street level, it is hard to tell. And in any case, there are four of them.
Twenty-three years ago I lived and worked here, pulling blue-collar pints for room and board while working at another pub over in Piccadilly to earn travel money for a trip across the Continent. Not long after I left, the Two Eagles closed down and the building was sold for flats. I knew this, but I wanted to visit anyway. So last week I took the Bakerloo Line to its dungeon terminus at Elephant and Castle, and walked back toward my old home on 27 Austral Street.
Just one block shy, I worried that perhaps I was lost. That I might have misremembered the way to 27 Austral Street. So I stopped into a corner store to ask the clerk if he knew where the old Two Eagles was. He was a young immigrant and had never even heard of a place called the Two Eagles. I continued to the end of the block and came upon the familiar building rising up in the late Sunday darkness. Complete with “Two Eagles House” in large lettering. The clerk will never know what he missed.
I stood outside the old building for a while, trying to photograph it in the dark. Trying not to attract undue attention from the neighbors. There was a light was on in my old bedroom on the top floor, but the building was mostly vacant, with flats still for available. Hanging in a window next door, a bright poster celebrated Eid, the end of Ramadan. Not likely pub patrons, I thought.
One block onward I came to an open pub, but they didn’t have traditional English ales and the few people inside were far too young to remember the Two Eagles. So I moved on to the Three Stags, where the bartender allowed me one post-closing-bell pint of ale. It was a chance to sit and meditate about the Two Eagles and its long-gone patrons and my lost youth. Crap like that.
It occurred to me that this bartender with his two-foot dreadlocks was about the same age I had been when as a young college student, I worked in the same neighborhood, pulling pints of bitter so that I could see Europe. Maybe he was doing the that too. Nostalgia. “I used to work in pub just around the corner there,” I offered. “The Two Eagles.” He stopped cleaning long enough to answer: “The two what?”
So the bartender at the Three Stags and the young people in the pub nearby and the clerk at the store a block from Austral Street and the neighbor celebrating Eid not ten steps from where a pubic house operated between 1809 and the early 1990s, they do not remember the Two Eagles.
But I do. And this is a little of what they missed:
The Proprietor, who confused me when offering me a job by calling himself Joanne. I later realized that he and his wife were Joe and Ann. He believed that it was bad luck for two people to be on the same flight of stairs at the same time, which in a four-story building will cause an occasional traffic jam.
The Proprietress, Ann, who lovingly created the sturdiest of English meals as my board for nearly four months without once changing the oil in the deep fryer. Her son suffered from cystic fibrosis. Her daughter taught me to watch a regular patron whose abdominal hernia grew visibly throughout each night of drinking.
Barry, the master cellarman, who told me matter-of-factly that dogs don’t trust black people: “It’s like they know something.” His assistant, who was my age, believed that the BBC was trying to cover up the truth about spontaneous combustion. Some people just erupt in flames.
The Friend of Ned, whose name I cannot remember, but who I do remember was especially cheap. He could not stand to see any of his money invested in a proper head of Guinness—that would be less alcohol in the glass. So for every pint poured for him, he would stare distrustfully and coach, “Just like that, lad. A little more. Just like that, right up to the top.” Until every hint of froth had spilled over the edge and he had a perfectly flat top for a perfectly flat Guinness.
Eddie, who Joe banned from the pub during my first week of work because he was an alcoholic. For three weeks after that, Eddie’s friends boycotted the Two Eagles until the proprietor relented. The Two Eagles needed business as much as Eddie needed his health. So Eddie and his friends returned, and all was well again. Eddie made me a cassette tape of his favorite American jazz so that I would better appreciate my own culture.
Jimmy, who in his 80s was completely tone deaf. But he had once been a marvelous singer. Eddie and his friends waited until Jimmy had downed enough sherry to lose his better judgment, and then they would demand that he sing. Then Jimmy would stand up and howl, looking up toward the ceiling with eyes half closed, glass of sherry still in hand. During each performance, his so-called friends would laugh and slap their knees because the singing was so awful. But for those few minutes every night, the voice in Jimmy’s head was as beautiful as the music in his heart. And if he knew that that his neighbors were laughing at him, he never let on.