Thursday, 19 March 2009

People-Watching

I am sitting here with my computer at a table in the basement of Costa Coffee, in Old Compton Street, sipping a cappuccino with chocolate on top and waving clumsily at a persistent fruit fly, that hovers lazy and insolently but is impossible to catch and kill.  There are three sweet-looking Oriental girls knitting on the sofa next to me.  On one of the other sofas is a guy in his mid-late thirties who looks like "Where's Wally?" with an open book on his lap, perhaps an art book.  However, he is more interested in the general movements of the room, which is ostensibly a cruising ground, and seems to be giggling to himself about something every other minute, somewhat disconcertingly.

A boy has sat down so that his profile faces me.  He is sipping a latte from a glass and reading the London Lite while listening to his purple iPod Nano, blocking the world out.  He has sat at the table underneath the stairs where he can comfortably hide, and where there is no danger of anyone coming to talk to him, which would quite terrify him, unless it were an unthreatening female, or the most gorgeous man in the world.

He is wearing a black flat-cap and t-shirt with an orange and yellow graphic.  I am kept guessing as to what sort of life he might lead, and imagine it to be that of a student, with an older boyfriend, such that he doesn't have to work.  He is a sort of mousy dark blond and has a little paunch.  He could be English, or Slovakian.  Almost in slow-motion, through fear of dislodging his ear phones or spilling his latte as he raises the full glass to his lips, he looks up, and towards me, finally sensing my long-held attention, but I look away and pretend to be in mid-flow on my computer before our eyes can meet, and the iPod Nano slips off his jean thigh and down to the floor.

Ten minutes later, while I am watching someone else, he puts on his grey pea coat and leaves, a little remaining froth from his latte sliding down the inside of its glass, the London Lite left folded on the table.

The boy who had sat down at the table in front of him, having apparently moved from somewhere less comfortable, appears to be French, and of Moroccan or Algerian descent.  We made eye contact twice, as he came out of the toilet and walked past my table, and as he moved seats.  He has on a wedding ring, but looks very young to be married, unless to a male partner.  He is wearing a black skinny-suit with white shirt and black skinny tie, with pointy black shoes which, as he sits down and his trouser legs ride up, are revealed to be ankle boots, with an ugly grey embroidery of a dragon on the ankle.

Over the suit, which fits him nicely, for he is a skinny boy, he puts on a beige trench coat cropped sexily to just below his arse, in the manner of a short skirt, even though he has barely started his coffee, and even on the wintriest days the basement is snug.  Out of his magnolia-coloured, faux-leather holdall, which looks like a handbag from one of those cheap-shops on Oxford Street, he takes out a smart-looking file containing an assortment of papers.  On closer inspection, the papers are headed "Wagamama", so either he is a junior manager there, or applying for a job.  His appearance certainly won't let him down.

In profile, he is very handsome, with a fine Greek nose and slim but shapely lips.  His black hair is closely cropped and there is a typically North African shadow of beard growth.  His hands are delicate and slim.  He finishes his latte, and with his trench coat on, I expect him to get up and go, but he seems to be hanging around a little longer than necessary, as one does in places such as this, just in case someone of interest walks in.  He takes out a pen from the inside pocket of his suit jacket, one of those fancy-looking but cheap pens that break or run out after three days, probably acquired second-handedly from a hotel.  It appears he is filling out an application form.  What a time to come over to London from France, or even Algeria, when there are at least five candidates for every vacancy, even in the minimum-wage sector!

"Oriental" is an unfortunate umbrella term used to save me from speculating as to whether the three girls knitting on the sofa are Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Singaporean, very un-PC, but in ignorance of my ignorance, they chat and giggle sweetly, stitching without paying undue attention to their work.  They don't quite look fashionable enough for the Royal College or St. Martin's (so probably aren't Japanese).  Casey Spooner, in one of the sleeve images of Fischerspooner's debut album (in my opinion the most influential of this decade), wears a black t-shirt on which is printed the statement: "ARTISTS HAVE MORE FUN".  Perhaps I should have gone to art school.  I spent the early part of this afternoon at the National Gallery, where I specifically went to see Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin and Christ with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, before spending silly money at the on-site cafĂ©.  Whilst there I decided to sketch the white milk jug on my table, noting light and shade, and discovering, when I really looked, that not much of it was actually white at all.  Maybe if I had gone to art school I would now be snuggled under the wing of a Charles Saatchi or a Jay Jopling, selling my works "democratically" at auction for millions of pounds, like Damien Hirst.

It is a lamentable aspect of human nature to be judgmental, and we love people-watching, so as to pin our own insecurities onto the actions, even the subtlest movements, of others, for instance all these boys and men, alone, pretending they're cool and don't want anyone to talk to them because they're just here for a quiet coffee, and the fact that I am one of them.  Perhaps in a less stiff culture, someone would initiate a sort of impromptu, rotating speed-dating game, digging our faces out from our mobiles, papers, books and laptops, for a bit of light fun, maybe more.  We are all secretly hoping to meet the man of our dreams, that is why we are here, in Old Compton Street, rather than some other coffee house round the corner.  "Where's Wally?" who is even wearing a red-and-white striped jumper and black-rimmed glasses, has got up, put on his coat and bag, and is leaving.  He is much taller than he appeared when slumped sloppily in the soft sofa, and is in fact, suddenly sexy - a missed opportunity then, as he'd been glancing shyly at me now and then, averting his gaze the moment I looked up.  His place is immediately taken by some other guy who, on sight of the three Oriental girls knitting, screws up his face in horror, the sort of face a right-wing white might have pulled from behind their net curtains in 1950s Notting Hill, on first sight of the new West Indian family moving in next door.

The Algerian boy puts his file away and quickly departs.  Perhaps he and "Where's Wally?" liked the look of one another, and have secretly agreed to meet in the toilets of Compton's.

1 comment:

  1. "We are all secretly hoping to meet the man of our dreams, that is why we are here, in Old Compton Street, rather than some other coffee house round the corner."

    I continued to go and sit in that Costa for several years after I had settled down with my current partner; impulsively and irrationaly, like a habit that was emptied of any concrete purpose whatsoever, I would sit either upstairs looking out at the street or on the sofa downstairs. For hours, at least twice a week, I would force myself into a tense and tantalising double-bind in which I would not let myself look directly at any of the men and boys who came and went around me, would keep my eyes fixed on the pages of my book, feigning indifference when I was entirely filled with the task of imagining their full features, reconstructing their faces and glances, their possible lingering gazes that I would imagine were being directed at me, but which were almost certainly just the tilting of their head towards a newspaper on an adjacent table, an action which through the blur in of the corner of my eye was dangerous, aimed at me, and exciting. But I would never look, and anyway, if I did they would usualy be nothing like what the flash at the edge of the page of my book had alluringly suggested. I havent been back in a couple of years, but your "notes" really dropped me back into that very odd, very London (its a chain, so banal, but so local) cafe.
    One thing... Id realy like to follow your blog, but there doesnt seem to be an option on the top-right to follow...

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