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A Fashionable District for the Aristocracy and The Gays

funky illustration welcome to carnaby street
artwork: Naomi Gennery

Shouts piss out from both sides of the street which at first doesn’t turn the heads of many, but I am engrossed enough to put my chai latte down and push my glasses further up my face. This is Soho. Silly Soho. A street not so far from the restaurant that I got my first job at as a waitress, where I made money but could only ever afford to buy socks somehow. A cluster of naked people in dicky bow ties hurtle around the corner. It wouldn't be Soho if even the most occupied didn’t look. It wouldn’t be normal if we didn't all look. I try to think of what the equivalent of Soho is in another country. I’ve already imagined that Brixton is like New York’s Brooklyn. It’s the alliteration but also it’s the erratic nature of it all. The silliness of it, the unpredictability of being there and something bizarre happens and everyone just says ‘Of course! It’s Brixton after all’ or ‘Of course, this is Brooklyn!’ Both places are loved with true acceptance. Soho must not be like anywhere else. I wouldn’t exactly class myself as well travelled but I seem to just know it. There are pubs next to bars next to pubs and you’d think the bars would render the pubs useless but the pubs are almost just as exciting and they get the job done. That’s what a lot of rainbow flags will do. Huge corporations say “it’s okay to be gay we will even write it on the windows !!!” And people loosen the grip on their pitchforks and everyone gets along.

I have now reached the portion of my chai latte that is powdery and coarse. In order to enjoy it, I think of it as ‘the dessert’. I look over at the long barista that made it for me and think about how capable his arms seem. He just couldn’t be bothered to stir. I watch his sculpted chest and tiny butt. This man wants to be a model. You can look at a retail worker and tell whether this is just their in-between job or whether this is just it. One more naked person in a bow tie darts around the corner. I make eye contact with a passerby and we exchange a nod that says “crazy fuckers, what are they like!” As if I haven't ever wanted to run around a street without my clothes on.

The model barista sways towards me to clear my empty cup. I say a boringly quiet thank you that I don’t mean and push the cup into his hands. When I left retail, I promised myself I would only ever be polite to retail workers. I would unite us, remember the struggle of being on the side of the counter that grants you no entitlement. But soon after getting a normal job, you dissociate from the customer service slog. I only really exist around the thin invisible line between my earphones. I look deep into the eyes of every retail worker I come across and I feel sorry for them, which is made okay by the fact that I too feel sorry for myself. I am also okay with them feeling sorry for me. A black white-collar professional that can’t even muster up a smile for her ex-comrades.

What’s fun though, is thinking about who’s fucking. Who’s fucking in Starbucks or Frankie and Bennies. Not who’s fucking in ZARA. I can already assume that the security guard in ZARA makes everyone feel uncomfortable and mysteriously finds himself floating by the work changing rooms. No one wants to see him fuck. He doesn’t even want to see himself fuck. In hospitality jobs, good team morale comes from the unspoken truth that everyone wants to shag. The managers, the chefs, the bar people. It’s there and it’s healthy and it wouldn't work without it. At the office, everyone is married. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn't mean that people aren't shagging, because they are.

I used to keep dibs with an ex co-worker of mine, Olu, on who was doing who. We did this for about a year until it got boring. Then Olu started having sex with our boss, which seemed to spice things up. I could tell that the kick she got out of it wasn’t just about having sex with someone she worked with. It was that he was our boss. Before they got together, Olu and I would laugh and sometimes gag about the spit that collected at the side of his mouth in team meetings. I wanted to remind her of this when she left the Christmas party early to romp about in his BMW but I couldn’t find it in me. I didn’t have the energy. One minute she hates the spit at the side of his mouth and the next minute she wants to lick it off. The first time they kissed she told me his lips were so thin that it was like frenching her little cousin. I couldn’t stop laughing. I was so happy. I thought to myself, well that’s it then. It was a blip. Olu made a mistake. That’s the first and final time they would ever kiss. We could just move on and never think about it ever again.

A year later, they were engaged. After the wedding, she invited me over to look at all the pictures the photographer had taken. Her face creased and gave way to a laugh that carried all throughout the room. She had to put her champagne glass down so she didn’t knock it over because she was laughing so much. I asked her what was so funny and she pointed to one of the photos, in the album, of me standing in the foreground, looking like someone had died. She thought it was so funny. I just watched her laugh.

Shanay Neusum-James

Find more about Shanay here

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