Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Little Tinker

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Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Love For Sale
Back when I was young and pretty, and, for a while, almost idiotically naïve, I lived in West Berlin. It’s the city where I did my real Growing-Up, and came to terms with my sexuality. Twenty-plus years on, I still return every year. Whatever I am today, it was that city which made me.

At the time I lived there, the place had a major heroin and child-prostitution problem. The movie Christiane F was based on a best-selling account of that scene. Rent-boys from twelve to twenty haunted the piss-stinking main station, on the look-out for punters, before scoring tiny wraps of smack in nearby Jebenstraße. In the lock-ups at the Wittenbergplatz public toilet, leather-clad punks and their teen tarts jacked up, while underage boys jacked off greasy old men for five deutschmarks in the pissoir next door.

Thank God, I never got into that scene. I was having better times innocently drinking in bars with names like the Blue Boy, or dancing at KC's to Boney M and Baccara. And just like any nineteen-year-old wanting to fit in, I made an effort to look the part: uniform of white tee, bracelet, and Brutus jeans. I used to stuff my hairbrush into the back-pocket of those jeans: that's what I'd seen all the really cool kids do, and I so wanted to be like them.

In these places I'd usually attract the attentions of older gentlemen. My German wasn't too hot then, so I never quite understood their surprise, and then annoyance, when I said, no, sorry, but I wasn't interested.

It was only when one of them started to get violent (appropriately enough, just by the main rent-boy drag outside Bahnhof Zoo train station), that I was rescued and taken quietly aside by a bunch of well-meaning but dodgy-looking teenagers. Each of them was dressed just like me. Each of them was carrying a steel-wire hairbrush in their back jeans pocket. That was where they carried their gear, they explained; it was also a signal they were up for business.

The bloody hairbrush suddenly explained a lot of things. Explained why, in my first three months as an out gay man – and an out gay man in Berlin of all places! -, no-one my own age had ever made a move on me. Why complete strangers would approach me in the street, rubbing together their thumb and forefinger in the universal sign for easy money. And why policemen would regard me suspiciously, and suggest I move on.

Berliners didn't think I was a cute and trendy young thing dressed in the height of street-wise fashion. No, for those first three months they all had me marked down as someone on the game. Talk about making an impression. Why didn't someone tell me? Could have made a fortune.

I'm back in the old place next month. But this time the hairbrush stays at home.