The people I pass are the extras in my story; I am an extra in theirs. We are standing in each other's solipsism.
A woman next to me on the train took out boxes and boxes from her small bag and in these tiny boxes were coloured powders which she swiped on her face. I was dusted by the traces. I sat there thinking about sexism. That morning, Jamie had relayed to me a report he'd heard about all these sexist things that happen in workplaces. Women being expected to make the tea and other awful things. He said to me, and the worst is, men actually say good girl. I say that!, I cringed. To friends who have done well, I cried out in a kind of rapidfire confessional, I say good girl, is that bad. REALLY?, Jamie balked. Well, I suppose it's okay to say to a friend, he muttered, unconvinced.
Another woman on the train was telling her companion, you know, the way I look at it, she's like potatoes. I don't dislike them. But I don't particularly like them. And if they're not good for me, why should I… The woman and her colleague both wore access passes around their necks. I imagined they were film industry, maybe BBC. When the train stopped, they scurried off importantly.
At the Yvonne Rainer exhibition at Raven Row, the dancers performed in a basement space with its rear access door kept open, so that the room opened onto the street. This helped make a marvel, because passersby didn't just pass but wondered and dawdled and then sat and watched. As the front facing audience, we were watching "formally," I mean we had arrived to take a seat and so on. But I observed that the people who stopped and sat and watched from outside also stayed for the whole performance. I saw that they were smiling. I suppose we were smiling too, but we couldn't see each other. Their presence made the performance more peopled, and added both a sense of freedom and a slight tension. They made the possibilities of live performance more possible.
We watched the incredible documentary Chronique d'une ete, and the next week we watched it again. Everyone is the star. Or is everyone an extra. We watched Dazed and Confused, and it wasn't as good as I'd remembered. Still, its structure continued my thinking. Everyone, in a way, is an extra in this narrative. When the film attempts to bring a protagonist to the fore, it suffers. It's better as a sea of extras.
At the bottom of the escalator at a tube station, I can't remember which, I think Euston, a blind busker stood whistling. I think it was it The Way You Look Tonight. I liked the feel of his performance. In corridors, I like classical, melancholic buskers, accordions and violins, the ones who colour in the interstitial space rather than interrupt your experience. They are background artists. They know this has a value.
At Oxford Street, I noted the elegant pose of the Awake! pamphlet ladies, handing out their Christian leaflets with open palms suggesting vulnerability or crucifixion. I got turned around at the Oxford Circus x-crossing, the first intersection of its kind in England. In the summertime, all us locals have a litany of complaints about the tourists. But even Londoners aren't especially good at crowd navigation, what Jane Jacobs called 'the ballet of a good city sidewalk'.
On one of our evening walks home, Jamie and I descended the stairwell to the basement gay bar in Bloomsbury. We'd passed it previously on our meandering routes. (If walking through a city is a ballet, we dance a duet, always costumed in navy and black, he with black on top of navy, and me in reverse, navy then black.) It was decided that we would finally go in. We sat together, wallflowered as usual, surveying the scene, or what there was of one anyway, considering the literary bent: cocktails called the Virginia and so on.
Afterwards, we travelled around the corner to spot the exterior location of the sitcom Black Books. There we saw the sign for the restaurant Chilli Cool, which has come so highly recommended (with caveats attached: if you dare) and we only saw fit to brave it. We gobbled an addictive dinner in that skylit room, and sat basking in the dirty afterglow of red spices and MSG. And that is when I became an extra in another table's conversation. And not the good kind, like the Hot Guy or whatever. I played the Bald Man. Or so I think. I'm sure that's what happened. It was like Seinfeld. From what I gleaned: Oh be CAREFUL, a woman said to her friend, hushing him and gesturing towards me. I never would have registered what he'd just said but this pricked my ears up, and so I rewound my subconscious memory — do you know how I mean — where I found the echo of this man telling a story that ended with the punchline I'm not bald, I'm not bald. And I'm not exactly bald, not yet, but I'm getting there, and as I was waiting for the bill, I sat rubbing my head, which makes me look, I imagine, even more bald, an eager Buddha. The woman who had drawn my attention to whatever it was she was trying to conceal, was now rubbing her head in emulation of me. Nobody else at the table looked at me, and they seemed to swiftly move the topic along after she'd managed to dig herself a little deeper gesturally.
Ok, I'l have to take that, I thought. I'll have to be the Bald Man in the story that has made their own spicy dining experience even more elated and adrenaline-rushed and funny.
We walked home on streets and closes and mews and through churchyards and playgrounds and past sculptures and signs. It's what we do best, isn't it, walk unknown streets guided by a loose sense of direction and curiosity. We passed a ground floor room and peeked in and saw a man surrounded by books and books and books. And he was watching something on an iPad and his room was lit warmly and his room seemed alive. And the building it belonged to seemed alive, too. It was as if it was built for children, made for the dusk. Amiable sounds emanated from rooms warmly lit. It was one of these old Edwardian mansion blocks you get behind King's Cross. Or where were we. Jamie would correct me and say we were someplace else. His mind is a map. This building has so much life, he exclaimed. The calls of children spilled across a courtyard, which we passed into in order to view this estate from the inside out. The courtyard felt truly central to its design, its heart even, and Jamie said, it feels like somewhere else, maybe Amsterdam. It always feels like somewhere else when people are playing. I love you London but you work so hard. When people are playing it feels like somewhere else.
We walked past a girl with an afro. We walked past a mad old couple with a mad old dog. When we got home we weren't other people's extras anymore. In our own small flat, in a far less lively red brick block, we are the main characters. We look through windows and wash dishes in the sink.
Some days later, emerging from the tube station at Old Street, I walked past a man spitting out his cigarette, apparently disgusted with the rain. He maybe didn't realise he stood beneath a rainbow.
The rainbow over Old Street is magnificent and repeats itself. Rainbows are such a good symbol for gays. They're just undeniable.
I walked past a chap I know and we said hurried hellos under nylon hoods. Rain.
A friend from work told me that the other day she cowered from the thunder and lightning and the people walking behind her laughed. She was the extra in their anecdote. Like the Bald Man, she was Girl Afraid of Lightning.
We're all extras, and what's more, we'd like to think we've been poorly cast.
You know when people say it's strange to see you out of context. Doesn't that feel patronising. It does, I'll tell you, if you work in a shop, like I do. It feels like you are being told, I never considered you sometimes didn't work, that you exist outside of shops. Like my mom, who used to teach, and made children who loved her at school shirk with fright when they saw her at the supermarket.
When you work in a shop, you never feel completely free of the feeling that you are servile and on display. I walk into other shops and am asked for help, where is this or that. I don't work here, I reply. But my manner still conveys shop assistant, and so I have have to repeat this information, this statement of identity, as kindly as possible, to the bewildered inquisitor, who thinks I am a worker being especially rude.
Recently, outside a pub after a long day, a beggar to whom I was unresponsive called me batty boy. Oh really, I groaned. Still with that? I wanted to shout to the assembled crowd, don't give him your money, he's a homophobe. But privately I felt vaguely complimented that I could still be considered a boy. At the bar at the same pub a couple weeks later, a large red man accused me of taking video on my phone. Why would I want to film a bunch of old guys ordering beer. If not a pervert, did he think I was a corporate spy? An actual spy? Obviously paranoid and probably drunk, he then proceeded to take a photo of me, with flash. I tried to hide my face behind my glass — but, as I was sampling an ale, it was a tiny glass. I thought, the next morning he is going to wake up and think why have I got a photograph of this man on my phone?
Batty boy, bald man, batman. Why can't I just be banal. I can't help that my resting face looks stressed. That's just the way it holds together. We are held to task for our resting faces. Female friends of mine are constantly told to cheer up, to smile, by men on the street. This is annoying, aggressive and sexist. These friends of mine are happy enough. They are thoughtful, balanced people. And that's just what the instruction to cheer up denies. They are being told it is their role to be less than thoughtful, to be blithe, and they are not performing their role correctly.
On an uncertain Sunday, we walked around Hampstead after the rain. I wondered has Hampstead ever been depicted in a noir. That night, sleepless, buzzing from the days' second coffee and third beer, I thought about London noir. I vaguely remembered Night and the City. I considered how cities are depicted besides noirishly. Romantically, I suppose, in Woody Allen films. But how is London portrayed? It often isn't there at all. It eludes description, or rather its description is ignored. It evades presence as character. New York City, Venice, San Francisco, they are always characters. Generally, London is a backdrop at most. I know there are many exceptions: I'm now thinking about the original Oliver Twist, of Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, of Mike Leigh, of Mary Poppins. But I was somnambulant and lay there thinking how is a city depicted outside of noir. Hampstead, in the silvery aftermath of hard rain, felt maybe not so mysterious as revealing. It felt clearheaded up there above the smog. It felt conducive to clear thinking.
There is just a nip of autumn in the air — the breeze is cooler, and the leaves fallen from the storms resemble autumn in the way that children mimic teenagers. I was sitting on the tube and a feeling of anxiety took over me. It raced through my bloodstream, hot and dirty like cheap coffee. And just then the train came to a standstill. An announcement was made that due to an engineering situation we'd be held for a moment. The man next to me let out a deep sigh, and then another. On the tube a sigh is contagious like a cough. The man on the other side of me shifted. Later, I texted Jamie about this experience. He was sweetly concerned about my anxiousness: I hope you're ok, he wrote. I replied that I reckon it's normal to feel anxious at the changing of the weather. It's like Mary Poppins, the way a wind comes in, I wrote. You ARE like Mary Poppins, he replied. Just don't blow away.
Another day, another route home. We walked underneath garrets and chimney pots and the wary clouds of a confused sky. It didn't quite rain, it spit a little, and yet there it was: that brilliant, clear rainbow over Old Street. Coming up on City Road, the last remaining rays of sun illuminated building tops and monuments and steeples, rendering them golden. Buildings are malleable because of light. It really was breathtaking — drugs could not have exaggerated reality better than the weather had. It was like arriving in some kind of mecca or oz. And in this bronzed light, a young man untied the lock on his bicycle carefully. He had brilliant copper hair. I was tempted to tell him: your hair colour is great. And after we passed him, Jamie said, I think I knew that guy. We did extras work together. Jamie was a bit faraway, trying to place what film or commercial they had both worked on. I admitted, I almost told him he has great hair. Oh, you should have, said Jamie, he's gay, you would have liked him. I just didn't know whether to say hi, he said. We had made friends at the time, he explained. But that was a long time ago. When we were once extras together.