Last week I found myself in a basement in North London full of lots of plastered people in sombreros; it was a friend's 30th birthday party. On arrival I stepped off the street into a small room which had those plastic streamer curtains, a worn leatherette sofa and no people. It was like the sort of bar you might walk into, by mistake, in the Caribbean, where there would be one stoned guy behind the bar, and only one bottle of chilled Carib left. I pushed through the plastic streamers and descended a narrow staircase.
You know those places which are always full of hen and stag parties, which if you are a twosome you must avoid like the plague? Well, this was birthday-party-city. I looked in horror at the tables, packed with revellers in sombreros, who were all about 18. I was just beginning to wonder if I had taken a wrong turn when, through the whoops of teenage laughter, I heard someone call my name. There was one quiet table at the back, peopled with the over 30's (for the record, I am only just 29) This was my party. They were not wearing their sombreros.
I only knew the birthday girl. Introductions were made. They were all gay, and right-on. I was neither. My friend was opening her presents - her favourite was a book called something like "Queer Humour". Everyone knew the cartoons, of course, and could discuss them at length, because they were in the Pink Paper. Right, should I pretend that I have read the Pink Paper, or say "Do you mean the FT?" I said nothing, and hoped I would get the jokes.
My friend - great at talking and introductions, gave a quick profile of everyone at the table. The words "alternative", "workshop" and "community" were recurring. Then she came to me. Oh no, oh no. "What is it that you write about, again?" Everyone was silent and staring, waiting for my response. "Umm. Social issues." I said. Everyone nodded in approval.
This was a sangria and slammers sort of place, and entertainment of the night, apart from an 18-year-old birthday girl taking off her top and revealing her green bra, whilst still wearing her sombrero (to the delight of our table) was the waitress, a large Australian woman. To "What's happened to our Tequila?" she replied "Did you ask the bloke for it? Oh, don't ask him, I always come quicker". She obviously had not read the sexual orientation of our table, as she kept saying to the one male there "Oh you lucky man - surrounded by all these women".
The Ladies' was worth checking out, apparently, so before leaving subterranea, I had a look, and sure enough it was pretty wild - a sort of jungle-john. Whilst there, ever curious, I took a peek at the gents. Boring as hell - white walls, chrome loo and that was it. I reported back to the girls. Final acceptance - I must be OK - I'd gone into the gents. They hadn't dared.