Play It Again… Max

There is one regular barfly at Boltz Club who stands out precisely because of his determination to keep to himself.

This reserved customer is exceptionally slender (more barstick-insect than barfly), with an impressively angular afro. He always sits on his own at the bar, focused on his phone and resolutely refusing to engage with anyone. He gives off clear vibes that he is content and does not want anyone approaching him. It is not until he has consumed enough Dutch courage that he will rise from his stool and head into the dark room in pursuit of company… on his own terms.

I had always thought that he was kind of cute, like Michael Jackson before it all went wrong, but he steadfastly ignored any of my attempts at eye contact.

I have only once seen him in the real world, outside the dim confines of Boltz. I was shopping in Birmingham city centre and spotted him in the middle of New Street, confidently singing his heart out. He was busking with a guitar and sound system. No Michael Jackson numbers though.

I stood and watched, until my partner lost interest and tried to move on.

“Hang on a minute,” I said. “I want to listen to him play it again. I’ve near heard this guy speak, let alone sing.”

Next time I saw him back at the bar, I took a moment to tell him what good a singer I thought he was. He seemed uncomfortable that someone had invaded his space, but still graciously thanked me and I left him smiling in proud silence.

Several weeks later our paths crossed again in the more shadowy corners of Boltz, but this time he unexpectedly gave me ‘that’ look and we bolted into an empty cubical.

Afterwards, as we tucked ourselves away, he told me his name and said, “Next time I see you in here, remind me that you are a good fuck and we should do it again.” He intended on staying in Boltz until closing time and knew that by morning he would have no recollection of the night before.

So, the next time I saw him, I dutifully strolled up and said, “Hello Max.”

As predicted, he did not remember our previous encounter and was startled that I knew his name, although not as surprised as I was. I am usually terrible with names and only recalled his, because it was the same as my dog.

“I have a message for you,” I continued. “I’ve been told to tell you I am a good fuck.”

Max nearly spat out his drink and stared at me in bug-eyed surprise, “Who told you to tell me that?!!”

“Well…,” I paused, teasing out the suspense and feeling like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, “you did. You also told me to tell you that we should do it again and I believe that you should always follow your own advice.”

Several months later, I saw Max again and brought up the subject of our second meeting. Max just looked at me blankly. He had absolutely no memory of this encounter either! He must live his whole life like a goldfish, coasting around the bars of Birmingham with no lasting memory of anything that occurs. He can keep doing the same things, with the same people, over and over again and each time is like the first time. The perpetual virgin.

Mind you, I am just as bad if I watch TV after too many beers. My partner tells me that I can re-watch the very same episode and make identical noises, laughs, gasps and comments, at all the same places I did the first time, as though I have never seen the programme before. Double the enjoyment, worth buying the boxset.

I now make a point of always greeting Max with a friendly hello and gentle hand on his shoulder. I am honoured by the fact that I am one of the few people that he tolerates interrupting his contented solitude. I am treating it as personal challenge to get Max to one day engage in a full conversation with me. I feel like a gardener who is patiently taming a skittish squirrel, wary of not overwhelming him and causing him to bolt.

I should be simply contented that this introvert even remembers me. Come to think of it, maybe he doesn’t?

Last Orders At The Bar, Please

A love Letter to Better Days

I was out on the Birmingham gay scene the evening that the UK was told to close and we were all sent to our rooms.

It had been obvious that a nationwide lockdown was on its way. Some businesses were already closing their doors, parents were selecting to remove their children from school, universities had moved lectures online and bars and restaurants were seeing a marked drop in customers. The writing was on the wall. We were just awaiting the official announcement.

The word was that the UK would be allowed one more weekend of real life before it all closed down, so I called in at Missing Bar for a final post work Friday night drink, but suddenly the goal posts changed. Boris announced that he was calling time that Friday night instead, so I unexpectedly found myself out on the tiles to see the doors close, the shutters come down and the lights go out on Hurst Street.

I visited several favourite haunts over the course of the evening and each had a decent ‘midweek’ sized crowd of customers, all determined to have one last night out and give the scene the send-off it deserved. There were the usual laughs and letchery, but also tears and moments of sombre silence, when an entire bar of people would retreat into their own thoughts and stare, with haunted looks, into their drinks, contemplating the unpredictable days to come. A vibrant venue would suddenly and spontaneously take on a funereal air. We were attending a scene-wide wake, unsure when or even if these places would open again.

My evening ended with a lock-in at Boltz. I cast an affectionate glance around at the dozen or so loyal regulars that had been invited to stay on beyond closing… and what a brilliantly eclectic group we were.

In his favourite corner, sat on one of Boltz’s unfeasibly heavy bar stools, was… well, I’ll call him ‘Average Joe’, a down to earth, blue collar, right-wing, Farage loving, Brexiter, with a screeching laugh that blasts into every corner and crevice of the venue. His unpalatable political opinions are based on tabloid headlines and half read internet propaganda… and are at odds with the reality of this affable barfly who cheerfully welcomes all into his social circle, no matter their creed or colour.

I remember telling ‘Average Joe’ to his face, “You would be very easy to dislike… if you weren’t such a pleasant fella,” which prompted him to explode into a prolonged burst of that toxic laugh.

This fair weather fascist once proudly told his fellow drinkers that someone had left a review on the Boltz website, complaining how an otherwise enjoyable evening had been ruined by the constant and all-pervading noise of the ‘laughing hyena’ at the corner of the bar.

Joe’s drinking buddy, who has the distinction of being the only person I have ever met that can make a Dudley lilt sound sexy, commented, “Weeeeell, they ‘ad a point.”

“Naaaaaah!” Joe replied. “I think ‘e was drinkin’ a Coke,” then shrieked at his own daft joke (a joke that will only make sense to someone familiar with the Black Country accent).

On a padded bench, to one side of the porn room entrance, sat ‘Simple Simon’, someone it is impossible to avoid on the scene… no matter how hard you may try.

Simon clearly has mental health issues, which can be irritating and endearing in equal measures, depending on where his mood, mind, meds or line of colourful shots takes him, but he is harmless, well-meaning and unfailingly friendly, greeting acquaintances and strangers alike, by swooping into a flamboyant bow and declaring, “Your Majesty!”

He goes through periods of donning a shocking fright wig and regaling anyone that he can corner with rapid fire nonsense about his impending appearance on stage as Tina Turner, “I… I … I am performing soon. I’m going to be Tina. Tina Turner! You get me? I’m singing! I’m singing all her songs. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m singing soon… on a stage. You get me? You… you… you get me? This is my wig. You Like it? Shall I keep it? Shall I keep it?! I’ve got the costume. Tina Turner. I’m going to be great. You get me?”

He has been going on about his impending performance for as long as I can remember, but like Christmas in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, it never seems to materialise. I’m not sure it has happened, was every going to happen or is only happening in his wig covered head.

Simon is a lithe, feline like, black man who looks a lot younger than his 50+ years, something of which he is understandably proud. For a long time, he enjoyed playing a game where he would demand that people guess his true age. He would repeatedly force me to play, until I got wise to his actual aged and would systematically raise my ‘guess’ by a year every time he asked. He stopped asking by the time I was suggesting that he was in his early 70s.

Thank Heavens he finally got over that phase he went through of impersonating a Velociraptor and screaming the theme tune to Jurassic Park into people’s faces! That’s was a trying period and got him suspended from at least one venue on the scene.

And then… there was Richie (This is the most feeble pseudonym I have used so far, well except for ‘Simon’, because… well, his name actually is Simon), perched on the arm of one of those MASSIVE barstools, content amongst friends.

Richie was, by his own admission, a teenage tearaway who turned his life around when he moved to Birmingham in his twenties. This ‘not so rough’ diamond quickly established himself as a cherished figure on the scene. A guy that can be succinctly described as ‘handsome, humble and hung’ (now there is a tagline for his Grindr profile), who has a constantly evolving style that can swing from ‘Groomed Boyband’ to ‘Homeless Chic’ in a matter of days… or sometime hours, depending on how many pints he’s had.

I really got the measure of this man not long after he started working at Unit 2, the gay sauna on Lower Essex Street. I had hurt my back at work and was forced to take some time off, but after a week of convalescing, I foolhardily decided to visit the sauna, half convincing myself that the steam would help. I figured I’d be back on my back in no time. Hey, you can’t keep a good man down.

All went well, until I tried to get dressed in the empty locker room. T-shirt and trousers didn’t pose much of a problem but getting my socks and shoes on proved a lot trickier, requiring all sorts of contortions and resulting in comedy yelps and spasms.

As I was struggling to bend down low enough to tie my laces, Richie came in to collect the used towels.

“Could you help me?” I asked.

“Sure matey,” he responded without hesitation.

As soon as I explained my predicament, Richie dropped to his knees and began to sort out my shoes. It was at this moment that another customer entered the locker room. Bewildered by the unexpected sight that greeted him, the guy froze in the doorway. He clearly thought he was intruding on some deeply intimate moment and began to slowly retreat.

“You can come in,” I reassured the awkward looking guy, then glanced down at Richie crouching at my feet and explained, “It’s OK. He’s my gimp!” Although, it would have been truer to say that he was my shining knight.

Back on that last night before lockdown, it was time to leave the lock-in.

I collected my coat from behind the bar and headed to the door, pausing at the threshold for one last look around. I didn’t know when or if any of us would be returning and wanted to take in each and every person in that dimly lit ex-industrial unit and remember them at that moment.

I was proud that I stayed to say goodbye and thank you to people and places that have meant so much to me over the decades. It was important, sombre, heart-warming, emotional… and sobering, so let’s hope we can get drunk together again soon.

We fiddled as Rome burned… and believe me there was plenty of fiddling going on! We fiddled like it was like the end of the world.

Something Sweet for Easter

Easter Sunday last year, my partner and I popped into our local supermarket to pick up a few things for dinner (Remember those days when you could just casually ‘pop’ into a store without having to stand in a line that resembles the queue for Disneyworld’s Thunder Mountain and when you didn’t perform the panicky ‘dance of avoidance’ if you and another shopper made the mistake of simultaneously reaching for the same item. A world where complete strangers didn’t openly discuss how many sheets of toilet paper they use while stood two meters apart at the checkout. Oh, happy days!).

I immediately headed to the shelves of discounted Easter eggs.

“You don’t need any more chocolate,” my partner chastised my, like a disapproving parent. “Haven’t you got enough eggs at home?”

“OK. I suppose you are right,” I sulked and slowly moved away, casting forlorn glances back at the tempting confectionery.

We meandered up and down the aisles, picked up what we needed, then headed to the checkout.

My favourite member of staff, Curtis, was on duty, so I insisted that we join his line. He had lovely eyelashes and a bright smile, so it was always a pleasure to check out this checkout guy.

Curtis and I had bonded several months earlier during an incident where a coarse mouthy mother had been letting her unruly children run amok in a supermarket trolly.

When approached by security and asked to control her children, as they were in danger of falling out and injuring themselves, she snapped, “That’s ‘ow kids learn, aye it (That’s ‘Isn’t it’ for non-Brummies)?!!”

Curtis looked at me and remarked, “Well, I suppose she does have point.”

I haughtily replied, “There is a difference between climbing a tree and being shoved in an Aldi trolly by a chav!”

Curtis clamped his jaw shut to supress a snigger and mumbled, “As a store employee, I couldn’t possibly comment.”

From that exchange onward, he was always up for friendly banter and a bit of a bitch.

Back in that Easter Sunday checkout queue, I made a spur of the moment decision to dash across to the nearby shelves and grab one of those discounted eggs after all.

My partner rolled his eyes when I returned, “You just couldn’t resist the temptation could you?”

Curtis came to my defence, “You can never have too many Easter eggs.”

“Well, it’s not actually for me,” I explained.

“Then whoever it is for is very lucky,” Curtis commented, as he scanned the egg and placed it in the bagging area.

“I’m glad you think so,” I said as I gave him a coy smile and handed it back to him. “Happy Easter.”

From that day on Curtis would always wave at me to join his line (like I needed any encouragement) and greet me with an even brighter smile. It turned out to be the best £1.49 I ever spent.

Recently, I realised that I hadn’t seen Curtis for a while and asked another member of staff what had happened to him.

“He got a promotion and left,” she told me.

“Oh no!” I wailed. “Who am I going to flirt with now?” Realising my tactlessness, I put a hand on her shoulder and apologised, “No offence.”

I always knew he was destined for more than an Aldi checkout job, but the weekly shop will never be the same again. X

Urinal Encounters: Quite the Predicament

When I started this series of four themed blogs, I opened with the line: ‘I’ve had some odd encounters at urinals over the years. No, not like that!’ Well… this was very much ‘like that’.

We all know that nightclub toilets aren’t always used for the purpose they are provided. It doesn’t matter whether the club is gay or straight there will be people taking advantage of the facilities for a quick sexual encounter. After a few drinks, inhibitions and decorum become things of the past.

In some gay venues the bar staff and security are fully aware what is going on in the cubicles and turn a blind eye. In fact, on several occasions I’ve found myself in a cubical with a member of staff.

There are of course club staff that show restraint, such as the barman at The Core, who did a double take when he saw me tucking myself away as I emerged from the curtained off darkroom and exclaimed, in a rich African accent, “If I was not on the job… I would be soooo ‘on the job’!”

I was recently on a night out, when the guy stood next to me at the urinals made it quite apparent that he was up for fun. He didn’t have to say anything… it was out there and obvious.

I nodded my head towards an empty cubical and raised a suggestive eyebrow.

“I am shy,” the guy muttered.

I glanced back down at his crotch and, seeing what was on offer, said, “Not that shy, clearly.”

He considered for a moment then nodded his consent and we both walked into the waiting cubicle and locked the door behind us. It wasn’t exactly 5-star, but it was larger than most toilet cubicles and adequately suited our needs.

Afterwards, we adjusted our clothes and prepared to step back out into the club.

The guy motioned for me to remain quiet and listened at the thin door to determine if it was safe to slip out.

He looked concerned and whispered, “There is someone out there.”

“Don’t worry,” I whispered back. “I’ll stand behind the door when you open it, then you can leave and I’ll slip out once the coast is clear.”

He nodded and we executed our simple plan.

The door opened inwards and was on the side of the cubical, rather than facing the toilet, so it was easy to flatten myself against the wall and remain concealed behind it.

Unfortunately, as my brief acquaintance made his escape, another guy immediately walked into the cubical to take his place! This new fella closed the door and bolted it without turning around or giving my feeble hiding place a glance. He didn’t notice that I was there and started to relieve himself in the toilet bowl. This stranger was completely oblivious to the fact that I was stood, flattened against the wall, merely feet behind him in what should have been his private space.

Well, this is a bit awkward, I thought. I’ve got to reveal my presence, but without scaring this poor man to death.

In the least threatening tone I could muster, I gently said, “Don’t be afraid, but I’m stood behind you.”

He reacted with amazing composure. I get startled if someone so much as speaks to me unexpectedly while focused on something as mundane as doing the washing-up, let alone being surprised by someone when I think I am alone in a confined space. If I had been in his position, I would have simultaneously shat myself while having that pee… and sprayed the walls, floor and ceiling.

I’ll be staying out of toilet cubicles for a good while and trying to avoid any further sitcom situations.

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em meets Queer As Folk.

Urinal Encounters: Taking the Piss

I barrelled into a pub toilet and stepped into the only available space at the long communal urinal.

A friend’s boyfriend was stood on my immediate right, so I greeted him with a friendly, “Hello… No peeking!”

He is Chinese and, although his English is good, it isn’t perfect, so I’m not sure if he realised that I was joking and responded with a shocked, “I not going to peek!”

I glanced to my left and noticed that the lad stood there was cute, so leaned over and cheekily whispered, “You can peek if you want.”

The lad let out an exasperated, but good-humoured sigh, “Now I’m not going to be able to go!” We men are delicate bunch and can be put off our stride so easily.

“Come on,” I teased. “You can do it.”

“Nothing’s going to happen with you stood there.”

“There’s a queue forming.”

“Now I’m under pressure.”

“Let’s see who manages to go first,” I suggested.

He rolled his eyes, “Great, now it’s a competition!” I started to pee and my amber stream rattled noisily off the metal trough. “A competition that I’ve just lost,” he added.

He still hadn’t managed to go even as I finished and left.

A short while later, I spotted the lad emerge from the Gent’s toilet and we gave each other mischievous grins. I weaved my way across the busy pub to introduce myself properly, shook the lad’s (hopefully washed) hand and told him my name.

He responded, “I suck.”

Slightly taken aback by his unexpected candour, I countered, “Well, that’s good to know, but more information than I was expecting.”

He looked puzzled and replied, “It’s only my name.”

“Your name is ‘I Suck’?!!!”

I could tell from his accent that he was Welsh, but this was one regional name that I was not familiar with.

“NOOOOO!!!” He cried, indignantly, “Not ‘I Suck’! My name is Issac.”

That made far more sense, but I must confess to feeling a tad disappointed.

I got to steal a kiss on the cheek though.

Urinal Encounters: Pretty in Pink

I’ve had some odd encounters at urinals over the years. No, not like that! Well… Yes, like that, but not on this occasion.

I was stood at a pub urinal, getting on with the job in hand, so to speak, when an olive-skinned guy with a heavy dark beard came and stood next to me.

Even in gay venues the etiquette is that men don’t tend to engage in conversation while stood next to each other having a pee. It’s the same rule of awkward silence that applies to lifts, bus stops and the waiting room of an STD clinic. They are not the places for chitchat.

I quickly became aware that the bearded guy kept casting, not so subtle, glances in my direction. This certainly isn’t an uncommon occurrence in the lavatories of a gay bar, in fact it’s pretty much standard practice. The unwritten rule book of gay toilet etiquette seems to have deemed that talk is forbidden, but peeking, flirtation and downright lechery are perfectly acceptable or even to be encouraged.

Unexpectedly, my urinal companion dared to disregard convention and said, in a strong Middle Eastern accent, “I like your colour.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your colour, I like.”

I thanked him, assuming he was referring to my hair, as I am ginger with flecks of grey. More ‘Salt and Paprika’ than ‘Salt and Pepper.’

“Yes,” he continued. “Very pink!”

“Pink?!”

He now had my full attention.

“Your face is very pink. I like very much.”

Being fair haired and light skinned, I do develop a flush in my cheeks after a few beers. It was undoubtedly one the least common compliments I have received, but it was so sincerely meant that I was happy to take it.

They say that opposites attract, so it makes sense that someone with his swarthy looks would be intrigued by my pink blush.

A Sicilian friend once told me about spending a summer holiday on the nude beaches of Italy, surrounded by his naked countrymen.

“It sounds like heaven,” I sighed.

“No, it was boring,” he replied. “They all looked like me!”

To each their own. For me it would be a beach full of exotic looking men, for him it was like looking into an infinity mirror.