Saturday, 24 January 2009


Every now and then I consider myself a natural anthropologist. Everything around me suddenly seems exotic, human behaviour becomes so dramatically interesting, and I seem to be able to see more clearly than usual what is going on and why. I rarely set out to put on my anthrospectacles, I just find I start commentating on my surroundings with a David Attenborough voice in my head.

On Friday, I enjoyed twenty minutes of 'thick description' magic during my lunch break. I was marching towards the revolving door to leave my Department for the local sandwich shop when I overheard these three men, I guess in their early sixties, two American and one English (or should I say British?) chuffing about how the last time they had been together had been in a pub in London in 69 where they ended up having "a fierce discussion about Vietnam." The English grey was gleeful about the fact that he had been on team Anti-Vietnam, surely bolstered by Obama's inauguration and the general feel. The shorter American began to defend his (still misunderstood!) ManChild argument, while at the same time tried to not seem bothered ("I can laugh at myself now, surely?"). He laughed at Anglo's taunts but only for two seconds and then he would frown and say, "Well, my actual argument was...". He ended up taking third person aside to tell him what he meant. "I was actually refuting just a small aspect of...". I became intrigued.

Then one of the guys made it through the revolving doors. The next one stepped slightly awkwardly into his own section which was swinging around rather quickly. Then the last guy went to hop in with his old pal, and then at the last minute realised that he would probably have to get quite close to his back, probably with some sort of gyrating motion, and even help push the glass leave with him so he decided to abort his plan and he was momentarily crushed by the uncaring wall. He pulled himself out, gathered himself, looked around and was clearly relieved that his friends hadn't seen him. He had successfully avoided a front-to-back man hug with someone he hadn't seen in forty years.

* * *
A few minutes later, on the way to the sandwich shop past the building site, a tall, ludicriously perfect, Nordic student moved effortlessly toward frowny me. His tanned, symmetrical face was displayed to full effect by a ponce headband pulling back his thick, blond hair. His clothes were new and clean - a rare spot in a town of chavs and luvvies. His gait took up more room than mine, his chin was elevated, and he was breathing through his well-shaped nostrils. As we passed, he looked down at me with an expression that was only not one of aloofness because he did in fact care that people noticed him. But there was nothing warm, or obliging in his eyes. I noticed a hint of mild contempt for me - as if I were just another piece of space junk that had fallen into his tractor beam. These affluent, insanely pretty boys scare me. They will never meet you half-way, let alone laugh freely at your jokes. Never. Ever.

* * *

In the sandwich shop, I decided to become irritated. I started to focus on the clogged queue. Everyone who goes to this place knows that the line works in a wonky circle. It starts at the door, proceeds along the back of the shop, loops around to the front counter where you order then circuits towards money man and out the door (with sandwich) again. Well, these Frenchies with their pantalons, ripped jumpers and writing on their hands, decided to just start to consider that they were in a sandwich shop and that there was a whole range of sandwich options that had been on display since they entered once they were asked for their orders. Then this red-nosed (some skin irritation thing), white-haired, chunky, bejerseyed undergraduate in front of me continued to maintain two metres between him and the next person so that I couldn't move up. Apparently, he did not sense the difference between being in the back part of the loop to the front part. They're worlds apart as far as I am concerned. Not even a competition. And then there was this guy who was wearing all different shades of brown and couldn't look at the chatty servers in the eye who reached behind my back, pulled open the fridge door to get his Coke and knocked me in the back of the head. I said, "Hey, you know I would have moved had you asked" (I was ready to pounce) and he just opened the door even more against me, grabbed his fizzy fun with his white chubby fingers, and went back to wherever he came from (probably a delta, where he could be invisible).

It was finally my turn to be served and my usual bandana guy gave me that special eye and made all these completely unfunny jokes about how he was going to forget one of my ingredients, about how he couldn't decipher whether I said "toasted" or not ("Toasted please", "Oh you want it untoasted?", "No toasted", "I am jocking with you.") So I was feeling a bit special and flashed him some teeth, but then as I shuffled along to pay my money to the till man, I became aware for the first time that this guy says the same thing to everyone, boys included, and that everyone was becoming ridiculously tongue-tied and docile with him. "No, actually, I've changed my mind", one girl squeaked, "I don't really know what I want. What do you think I should have?" I wanted to bang my head on the counter.

* * *
Outside, bitten by the wind, I was no picture of elegance. I was half-committed to eating in public (as bad as someone deciding to eat out of a bowl on the roadside), which meant I was picking at my food with my fingerless gloves. I looked up and I saw something one rarely sees in Oxford - a rather large, round bottom. They exist (in fact, they're encouraged), but they're usually harnessed by jeans or covered by swathes of coats and jumpers. A lady in the late summer of her life was strutting in front of me in a short black leather jacket cut down the middle by a brush of peroxide hair, and a thin, tight blue skirt to the knee. She wore tired, grey stockings and black ankle boots and had a backpack over her shoulder. When we passed the building site, I watched the workers expectantly (no wiping the mind clean here, I had already judged them) and, the world was in order, they alerted each other by hitting each other on the chest with the back of the hand, grunted and laughed. Then a taxi drove towards us and I could see the driver's religious paraphernalia swinging and entwining above the dash. He stopped at the crossing and as we crossed, he watched her bottom like it was a couple of trays of iced, cream cakes. Then I thought, "OK, We're done." But no, the passenger of the next car that was slowly starting to move, a more senior woman wearing a yellow canvas dress, stared as happily as if she were watching her lawn bowl travel to closest to the jack. I wanted to stop everyone from watching her travelling glutes. But instead I was just quietly relieved when she continued forward and I headed back towards the fast revolving doors.

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