The worst part about waking up alone and hungover in a Travel Lodge in Portsmouth, England was that I knew exactly what to do after checking out late of the hotel on a Monday morning in October. I called a cab, and asked for a ride to the railway station in Portsmouth’s City Center. Located on the Southern tip of England and home to a naval base but not much else, Portsmouth was not where I wanted to be. At the railway station, I booked a one-way ticket to London’s Waterloo Station and walked up the station stairs to the train platform.
Ten minutes later, a train approached, and I was leaving Portsmouth proper. Ten more minutes, and any houses or buildings in site were replaced with rolling green hills and the occasional cow or sheep. The train itself was nothing noteworthy; people got on, got off and left newspapers behind. I pushed my bag under my seat and stared out the window, awaiting the outskirts of London to appear. Barely two hours later, we rolled into Waterloo.
“Now what?” I thought, standing amid a sea of travelers in one of London’s densest train stations.
I ultimately decided that my best course of action was to get a cab, ask for a nearby, reasonably priced hotel and see what happened. And for once in my life, that decision didn’t backfire on me. I was in the cab maybe five minutes before I reached a reasonably priced, vacant hotel. Fifteen minutes later, I had a room for the night, and a pre-paid breakfast awaiting me come morning.
“Now what?” I thought once again.
My plane back to the US didn’t depart for almost a day, and all I really had was time to kill. So I grabbed a business card from the hotel to remember the address, and started walking, up Blackfriars Road, over the Thames and in the direction of Soho, knowing there would be places to eat that I would recognize from previous visits, if that’s what I felt like doing. And if not, well, I didn’t know.
As it happened, I didn’t eat and instead walked a long time, until at last I stumbled onto the middle of a walking tour, for none other than Jack The Ripper. I had walked all the way to Whitechapel, unbeknownst to even myself (probably the equivalent of walking from the World Trade Center in Manhattan to Greenpoint in Brooklyn.) Now this is noteworthy because one, I don’t often get to wander destination-less in strange cities, and two, because left to my own devices, with no place to be for almost a day, I wander into the middle of a walking tour for one of the world’s most notorious serial killers.
As it was dark, and people were encouraged to drink on the tour, I fell in behind the group and made myself as anonymous as one could get on a walking tour for a serial killer from the 19th century. The city of London had changed multiple times over since Jack The Ripper walked the streets, but certain elements remained; an archway and alleyway here, a once exact, now concreted over location there.
The guide, a famous “Ripperologist,” knew everything there was to know about the area, the crimes and how the environment of Whitechapel circa 1888 might have influenced the crimes, and vice versa. He never did name who the actual ripper was, nor did he seem concerned with solving the crimes. He merely guided, and speculated, and asked bigger questions, like “Why do people still care about Jack The Ripper?”
I had no answer, and it was getting late, so I tipped him generously at the end of the tour to make up for my freeloading, and started the long walk back to the hotel. Along the way, I wondered why people still cared about Jack The Ripper, and I figured it had something to do with a human need to explain the unexplained in any situation.
But I was in no position to judge. In an attempt to kill time for an arriving flight the next day, I had blindly walked the streets of London, arriving into a modern day discussion of ethics, crime and social commentary, when all I really wanted was a pint of beer and a vegetarian Chinese food buffet.