Mark Simpson gets mixed messages on the High Street
(Another ‘lost’ Attitude column – this one from 1999)
It was one of those indecently mild Winter days. The sort that makes everyone feel a little bit naughty. As if you’re bunking off school, or cheating on your partner.
Walking down the High Street enjoying the feeling of my sap beginning to rise prematurely—and probably pointlessly—I notice an eminently humpable fellow in his late twenties bouncing towards me on his box-fresh trainers, sports bag slung over his shoulder. Unusually for me, I didn’t spot his signature on my radar screen before he crested the horizon. He is almost right in front of me before I see him. And then he passes me.
So I do a 180 clock, a discreet beat after he passes, meaning to cop a sly butcher’s at his arse.
And I catch him doing the same thing.
Our eyes meet and lock. Fuck!
Now, I am, without a doubt, the world’s worst street-cruiser. Probably precisely because the street is exactly where I wish I could meet chaps. I’ve always found impossibly attractive those you bump into for a second in the social Brownian Motion that is city life before they disappear off to somewhere you fantasise is more interesting than where you are. Many’s the time I’ve lost my heart to someone on the Up escalator as I ride the one going Down. If it’s easy to love what you can’t have, it’s even easier to love something the longer you look at the further it recedes.
And it never gets any closer with me. Friends of mine seem to have no trouble though, and talk constantly of meeting people outside Boots, on trains and in supermarkets. Though, if it’s Tesco Metro I have to tell them that, like Old Compton Street, it doesn’t count.
Joe Orton was so successful at it, if his diaries are to be believed, that he didn’t actually need to do all that hanging around in toilets he was so famous for, the greedy, jammy bastard. Joe just had to take a bus or pop out to the corner shop to buy forty Woodbines and Bob was his Queer Uncle. No wonder poor stay-at-home Kenneth bashed Joe’s brains out after reading his diaries. I would have done exactly the same—after I’d made him tell me how he managed to pull all those punters on Her Majesty’s Highway.
I’ve tried to work out why I’m so crap at street cruising. Is it that I scowl too much? Perhaps, but a few years ago, behind the safety of a double-locked door, anaesthetised with half a bottle of whisky, I experimented with smiling in front of my bathroom mirror and rapidly concluded that if I ever did this in public I’d probably be sectioned.
And before the letters flood in pointing out that I’m too ugly, let me remind you that one of the first rules of street cruising is that no one is too ugly to score on the street—another reason why I wish I had the knack. Am I not shameless enough? Well, I try my best, but don’t always meet today’s exacting standards.
But how to be shameless but without being tasteless? I should probably model myself on Quentin Crisp, whose obviousness brought him open contempt, but more trade than he could handle. But then, I don’t think my pale skin tone would be best complimented by hennaed hair.
It’s quite possible that I do in fact get cruised, but I’m so wrapped up in my own desire that I would fail utterly to notice anyone else’s. I think though, that the real problem is that I want things to be cut and dried in a way that picking people up on the street by definition isn’t. As Joe says to a hesitating Kenneth in the film of Prick Up Your Ears, after a young man in the street glances at him very briefly, “What are you waiting for? A bloody telegram?“
Yes, I am. And a detailed CV as well, please.
So, imagine my shock when I get that written application, in my hand, on my own High Street. There I am, looking right into the eyes of a lad who has turned to look back at me just the way I turned back to look at him. Even I have to admit that, on balance, he probably is interested.
After a second that seems to last longer than my relationships, we look away. At the same instant. Recklessly, I stop and half turn around. He stops and half turns around. I loiter. He loiters.
What are you waiting for? A voice shouts inside my head. Perhaps the spirit of Joe, raised from his bludgeoned slumber by my slaggy ineptitude.
The lad pretends – not very seriously – to look in a shop window, all the while darting scorching looks at me. But I’m still dithering. I’m still looking for some other explanation for his behaviour than the obvious. That voice in my head again, angry now:
Do you want a bloody telegram?
Okay, okay. Look, tell you what, I’ll conduct one last test. I’ll cross the road and see if he follows. If he does, then I’ll speak to him.
I cross. He crosses. He then pretends to look in another shop window, all the time looking at me.
Get over there and say something you silly slapper before he has to go and draw his pension!
But I need to rehearse the line in my head first: “‘Scuse mate, do you know where the tube is?” No, that sounds too arch.
Maybe “‘Scuse mate. Do you know the way to the Underground?” But The more I think about my opening gambit the more obvious and obscene it sounds, however I phrase it.
Finally, somehow I find myself in front of him. “‘Scuse me mate,” I begin, but before I can even complete my redundant question he’s cricked his head away from me at an angle of no less than 100 degrees, the tendons on the side of his neck flaring like the gills of a landed trout.
“I’m not interested mate!’ he blurts out of the side of his mouth. ‘‘I’M NOT LOOKING AT YOU!”
His whole body is rigid and trembling with the effort of not looking at me. He’s terrified, poor lamb.
The street is beginning to spin around my head. I seem to have forgotten what you do after you breathe out. The spirit of Joe has deserted me in disgust. “Oh… right….,” I gasp. “My mistake.” I walk off quickly.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.
As I walk back up the street, feeling the Winter air again and zipping up my jacket, I curse myself for misreading the signals so badly and terrifying that poor lad. He must have actually been looking in those shop windows next to me, perhaps looking for a gift for his lovely young wife and their beautiful, but perhaps slightly disabled small child that he takes time off work and misses football practise to help care for.
He probably only looked at me because he was wondering why I was leering at him. God, I’m such a lecherous old perve!
Then I notice out of the corner of my eye that Mr Not Interested Mate has followed me 300 yards up the street, and is peering intently at me again whilst pretending to look in another shop window.
A funeral directors.