Baltimore: nice without being spectacular, interesting without being flashy. A nice harbour, some cool bars and restaurants, a huge could-spend-all-day-there Barnes and Noble, and with some notable Civil War history. It’s the setting, of course, of ‘Hairspray’, for which reason I spend most of my time there with ‘Good morning Baaaaltimoooore’ floating around my head (literally the only lyric I know from the entire production, which gets tedious just about as quickly as you imagine it would). And generally nice people too, as Americans seem to be in my experience – in particular, this one I met on an otherwise ordinary, balmy, sleepy afternoon…
Minding my own business as I crossed the street sometime around 3:30pm, I noticed an African-American man on the other side, looking in my direction, holding what I assumed were flyers that I assumed he was handing out. Instinctively I moved to the left to avoid interaction – I have little need for flyers in my general life, much less when travelling. There are, of course, exceptions: once, in the main tourist area of Ho Chi Minh City, a highly excitable man charged at me from the other side of the road handing out what turned out to be a flyer for a dentist; days before, in Cambodia, the second-from-back tooth on the bottom left had disintegrated, leaving sharp, cheek-cutting edges against which chewing gum had increasingly limited effect. 7 years later, the $100 crown the dentist affixed has proved one of the best investments I ever made. Although, then, I don’t diss flyer-hander-outers out of hand, I tend not to pay them all that much attention.
This one was undeterred. ‘How you doing, sir?’ he asked, having moved slightly towards my direction. Always ‘sir’ in America – they’re nothing if not polite folk. I made a positive reply and asked the same of him, as you do.
He continued: ‘You have nice feet.’ My back was already half-turned by this point as I instinctively moved away from what I had still imagined was flyer distribution. That comment caught my attention, unexpected and intriguing. A friend had asked me once whether I’m interested in feet, and I admit that I am – when passing guys are wearing thongs or sandals, I do tend to check their feet out – hairy feet and toes have always done something for me. And perhaps I flatter myself, but I think I do, in fact, have quite nice feet (based on my own criteria) – they are hairy, proportionately so; the toes descend nicely in a line, the size of each one commensurate with its position on the foot; and I really dig with the tan lines – pale under-the-thong-strap areas framed by hirsute, sun-kissed brown. If I do say so, it’s not quite the first time I have been told I have nice feet (the first time quite so brazenly, perhaps) – and I take it as a compliment. He had raised not only my interest, but a trickle of excitement.
‘Well thanks’, I responded. I think I may actually have asked him to repeat himself first – it’s not the sort of thing you hear everyday, and I wanted to be sure I had it right. ‘What do you like about them?’
‘Hmmm… I like the hair on ‘em….’ HELLO! Ding ding ding! He had my full attention.
He may have said other things he liked… by this time I was finding him mesmerising. He was dressed casually but nicely in jeans and a t-shirt, the latter appetisingly complementing his handsomely buff frame. He had the deep mellifluous voice that I (for some reason) expect of black men, he had very cute dimples on either side, and his skin was enchantingly dark. His head was shaved, and he was very satisfactorily proportioned, muscular, thick neck, big shoulders. I had never been up close and personal with a black man before (save one brief back room encounter in a Chicago bar a couple of years ago), and I liked where this was going. Well into my travels by this point, it was a while since I had participated in quality adult behaviour. There weren`t quite butterflies, but I admit to the odd tingle as my heart rate quickened ever so…
Snapping back to it, we went through the standard small talk: Where was I from? What was I doing in Baltimore? It all felt like filler – I`m not sure he was even listening to my answers – and he soon got to the point: ‘I finish work in about half an hour,’ (as it turns out, he operated a hot dog stand on that very corner; whether or not he was indeed handing out flyers related to said stand was never actually established) – ‘how about I come over and I can worship your feet?’
He was ticking all the boxes and saying all the right things. I really liked how forward he was. Easier said than done no doubt, but I’d personally like if more men (gay men at least) could be that way. He certainly wasn’t the type who couldn`t even look you in the eye, as seems to happen a lot. The apps have a lot to answer for; this man was a breath of fresh air.
I told him where I was staying, and suggested that perhaps we go to his place rather than to mine, as there were signs at reception indicating that bringing guests to your room was not really the done thing. ‘Oh yeah, I know that place,’ he responded; ‘they say that, but really, it`s okay.’ Clearly, then, I was looking at someone who had done this kind of thing before, with people staying at that very hotel. Indeed, I asked him at some point whether this – complimenting random men on the state of their feet – is something he does often. He told me that he does occasionally, and that most of the time he gets answers along the lines of ‘thanks’, or, as often as not, ‘that`s a strange thing for one man to say to another’, which is hard to argue with. It reminded me a little of the Kevin ‘Bloody’ Wilson song, ‘Do You F*** On First Dates?’ The hilarious, if politically highly incorrect, theme goes that he`s tired of spending money and time on someone, ‘only to find that what on my mind isn’t on hers and she’s sorry’, so he’s taken to just being very upfront and asking for what he wants straight off. He acknowledges that it`s not a perfect method – what is? – and that he’s occasionally been ‘spat at and slapped, and kneed in the knackers’… but now and then, it’s worked out just fine. It’s a spirited way to be, and I could see that my new friend would probably cut an intimidating figure if he needed to – should he get close to any trouble he’d be able to hold his own. So why not?
I admit to some initial skepticism – it was exciting, no question, but some part of me had wondered if perhaps it was a little too good to be true, one of those things that just doesn’t really happen. But arrive he did, at just the appointed place and time. Side by side in the front seat of his pick up truck – pun more or less intended – I began to stroke his arm; he didn’t push me away, but he did tell me to ‘be careful’ as he was ‘popular’ and he wasn’t ‘out’. I think perhaps by ‘popular’ he meant ‘well-known’, and the impression was that, in his circles, being openly gay was not the done thing. It all seemed a little at odds with the man who was so forward with me on the street… but he did have really really really good arms, so if I had to wait, so be it.
Hilariously, once back at his place and on his way to the shower, he handed me a new pair of thongs – still in the original plastic, and remarkably, my size (give or take a centimetre or two). The thongs I had (the ones in which my feet were so noticeably spectacular) had travelled the world with me and, whilst having done sterling service, were comfortably the worse for wear by this time – thinning out under the balls of the feet, and with sufficient stench so as to indicate that their time was just about up. Coincidariously (to combine ‘coincidentally’ and ‘hilariously’, as you do), the very next afternoon, the left of this old faithful pair was destroyed when caught under the door of the bathroom in the bar: voilà! – new pair at the ready. I had considered getting rid of the old pair in Athens, prior to heading to the US, and it’s fortunate that I didn’t, as without I (or, at least, my feet) may never have been noticed in the first place. Serendipity was working overtime for me in Baltimore.
A nice afternoon turned into a very nice one when, post afternoon delight, he drove me back into the city via a café, where he treated me to a coffee / soft drink / hors d’oeuvre of some sort (I really can’t remember which; possibly a combination of the three). We had a nice talk in the car on the way back, easy, friendly conversation, and we agreed to stay in touch. Any place, anywhere, can ebb and flow according to the people you meet, and this guy will always have a gold star for making me feel good that day. Be it Vietnamese dental services or American hot dog stand operators, sometimes it’s worth paying attention to that guy who may or may not be handing out flyers.