Frank Zappa Didn’t Like to Bathe

And what else I learned in London

Thanksgiving, I flew to London for five days to see my older son, Sam, 22, studying there this fall. I found his tube stop—Farringdon—easily enough, but from there, the walking directions to his flat that he’d emailed were sketchy. I had to find Sir John’s—that was his key landmark. A bar.

As I gazed about, a fleshy bald guy a little older than me looked up and said, “Lost?” Well, I wasn’t, yet. But no Sir John’s. So I stopped two guys walking past, one wearing a suit, the other a street vendor. The guy in the suit immediately whipped out an iPhone, dialed in Sam’s street on a map, then peeled off from his friend to walk me a few blocks in the right direction. He and the street vendor are from Algiers, he told me. He’s a security guard, came to London for a better life, got married—no kids yet, but he’s hopeful—meets up with his buddy occasionally just to speak a little Berber. Pointing the last few blocks I had to go, he left me with “All the best to you.”

Wow. In America? That sort of help with a minor life story?

I’m not much of a traveler. I tell myself that I don’t have the time. Really, though, the idea of being in the vast unknown of another place—any other place—makes me anxious. Not because I’ll get lost (a given). But I’ve got this idea that if I go somewhere, I’ve got to return with the ability to draw you a detailed map of the entire place. I’ve got the quaint notion that I’m supposed to take in everything.

With that mindset, it’s a good idea to avoid museums, though Sam and I decided to take in the National Gallery.

Walking to Trafalgar Square, we headed straight into the sun late the next afternoon, the sharp fall light angling between the old-new mix of tight buildings, the streets teeming, the energy unbelievable. Amazing how fast Brits move. And how many of the men are bald, and have sharp noses. And how many of the ones who aren’t bald have long hair, as if they’re making a statement to the bald ones. And how young they are, men and women alike.

Everyone smokes.

We found Lord Nelson surveying his city, there at Trafalgar. Then, 17th-century Italians’ take on the glory and doom of Christendom and the impressionists’ smudgy view of their own gardens. We got back out on the pavement not a moment too soon, moving again with the sharp-nosed baldies.

At night, Sam and I lay on couches in his living room, arranged end to end at 90 degrees, and listened to The Dead, Pink Floyd. He was reading a biography—or bee-ography, as he has always pronounced it—of Frank Zappa. Sam would poke up to share rich details. For example, Zappa didn’t like to bathe. When he met his first wife, he hadn’t lathered up with soap for two months or so. His mustache smelled like peanut butter.

The next morning: While Sam slept, I found a tiny cafe, owned and run by a mid-50s guy with a flushed face and wispy hair, who waddled about with a big bay window of a gut. “Having a bit of a youthful time, are you?” he teased.

On Sunday, Sam had to study. I walked in a long diagonal across the city to St. James Park, where I stumbled upon Buckingham Palace, which I swore I’d avoid. Then, coming back at dusk up Oxford, I was on a long, long, long high-end shopping street, with gigantic lighted stars (and an umbrella) strung across overhead. Thousands of folks were out in the early dark, carrying their bags of goodies. Incredible energy of another sort. As I charged around the crowds, up the gutter of Oxford in a near speed walk, I thought of my father, who said, during an economic downturn 30 years ago, “There’s still plenty of money around.”

That night, as Sam dug deeper into Frank Zappa’s strangeness, I remembered something else, something a writing teacher told me 35 years ago: No matter how much you know, it doesn’t put a dent in what you don’t know. Or the same point, made in a different way: A really good book is so honest to the writer’s take on the world, it opens up our own, and that’s all we can ask for.

Wonderful place, London.