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City Blights

It is strange that I remember his eyes although he was naked, stroking his penis with one hand while the other was holding a towel beneath it. I had entered the men’s room with a female friend. The bouncer had said it was safer here if we did not want to be approached by gay women. As we flung open the door, he was standing there, a bit stooped, the face expressionless. His hands kept moving mechanically even as he stared blankly. That is why I remember his eyes, sad eyes that slanted like an incomplete comma.

I did not know this was a fetish club in San Francisco. After dinner, we had walked around a bit, the weekend crowds boisterous, and spirit breaths forming misty clouds over the winter nip. The night had promise and as shoes hit the tarmac our feet took us to a place with blazing lights that looked like any blazingly-lit place. I was clearly over-dressed in a leather jacket. The music inside was not loud enough. There were sharp blue lights in the reception area like extra-terrestrial laser beams. I was the only single person among couples in our group and the only tourist. However, none of us had been here before. We were given wristbands and a robotic cheery voice said, “En-joy!” but not before making us read the rules.

I wanted to use the facilities. The man we saw there was still at it as we were leaving. When I recall what was on offer, it becomes difficult to understand why someone would pay to stand in the corridor of a washroom to jerk off.

Had he tired of the commodities, the much-touted ‘play’? Was this just an assertion of membership? Did he merely revel in other people’s lives in strategic ‘dungeons’ and remain safe, relieving his loneliness with rhythmic strokes? Wasn’t he trapped in the confines of the fake urban where even the wet and wild made ‘cleaning up’ seem like anarchy in an oxygen bubble?

* * *

In what might appear to you as an anachronistic analogy, I am writing this today after reading about the proposed law in San Francisco that says you cannot buy or sell pets. The Humane Pet Acquisition Proposal has made this suggestion because people put profit before welfare of animals. “They also argue that turning animals into commodities has parallels with the slave trade,” says a report.

How can the animal trade be on par with the slave trade? Bad ventilation, commercial breeding and poor quality of food can be rectified by specific conditions. It can be reasonably assumed that fish in a bowl while giving a sense of peace to those who own tiny glass aquariums are themselves trapped within the confines of a small space and dogs tagged with pedigree await homes where their ancestry is more important than their tail-wagging loyalty. One can see the anger that makes a cat scratch furiously and a pooch yelp.

But, there is no ban on eating meat or leather products. What about animal fairs? I saw a cow on Tenderloin Street once and thought that it was there to remind me of home, of cattle in the middle of Mumbai traffic, some sitting and chewing cud, staring blankly with sad eyes.

Articles mention how given the new legislation, this northern California city could well be called “the Animals’ Republic” since it is already spoken of as the “People’s Republic of San Francisco”. The city has already banned plastic bags, McDonald’s Happy Meals because it came with plastic toys and plastic bottles.

What is it about cities that churn and recycle their own offal and relive every death to reaffirm the spirit of survival? Why is this instinctual nemesis seen as an ethical issue?

Andy Warhol, speaking of another city said, “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”

* * *

The woman’s love handles were jiggling as she held on to a pole, circling one leg round it and bending to reveal cleavage. Her partner watched and egged her on. She was wearing a tube top and slacks. They were in one of the chambers of the club. Anyone could watch. “En-joy!” What a palpable word ? a command, an open-ended invitation, a left to your own devices option. Branded happiness.

People walked around looking for the best play areas. Some had gathered around a circular bed. Some of us sat on a sofa. The couple were making out on a red velvet spread. He was whacking her; she moaned and then screamed out her orgasm, her vocal chords looking for applause in the moistness of voyeur underpants. Yes, I looked but only at the red and the heads of those standing around. This was not a strip club; here they had rules. Between the lines and between the thighs were unstated lies and loopholes.

The immigrant lady trying out a pole dance for her man and this couple who might have met in the street and decided to electrify their lives for the moment and take a bow because they had performed a stunted stunt were also caught in the Valhalla of options. I was uncomfortable, fully clothed and felt like a voyeur who had stopped seeing the difference between the toys and the people.

Toys were a big part, big plastic instruments that whirred and were pushed into crannies to elicit pleasure before the battery died out.

No plastic in San Francisco? Inky imprints on raw meat with memories of blood still on it, cloth bags that stick to fresh vegetables, lint caught in lettuce. This is possible. This might help.

Beyond the environment, the big issues, are the small ones of how urban living cannot always be superimposed with rural ideals and most certainly not a rural idyll. Rousseau described cities as “the abyss of the human species”.

Cities evolve and take a life of their own. In the mid 19th century only 20 per cent Americans lived in cities. The Industrial Revolution initially needed people but also devalued them. They became the assembly-line products they were manufacturing. Each city had its niche. The cars, the machines, the chemicals, the fabrics. None had people as their market. Yet it was people who were slaves ? as work force, as buyers and even as sellers who had to create a demand.

The factory fumes were pushed outside in as much as it was possible in almost every part of the world. Headquarters had their conference rooms and stratified corporatisation. Soon, ties were loosened. Friday casual dressing was introduced along with the outsourcing of ‘dirty work’. Along with techno parks came water parks and nurseries. Lush homes housed easy-to-maintain plants. Cities, they said, had got soul.

Ethics became the new market. Reaching out, connecting, bringing people together, and making the world small enough to put in your pocket smartphone.

There is plastic here. There is plastic when a 21-year-old hacker is seen as an asset and gets a plum job at Facebook. This is the new ethics.

Cities are not to blame. I love them even as the black smoke hits the eyes, because in a little village children are used to make firecrackers and suffer from serious ailments and human waste is in the seas. It is also awfully expensive to buy natural products. They cost a lot more than synthetic stuff because they are now the rich person’s moral trip.

There are many people even in San Francisco who have to scrounge in garbage bins. They have to share the windfall of leftovers with strays.

* * *

Dogs howled in the staccato music sounds. I felt those breasts. In the psychedelic lights, they shone like golden bowls. Through the warp and weft of the smoothness that covered them, I knew there was a story. It was the coarse laughter as I looked up at the face that told it all, a laughter that emanated from blood red lips, and a moustache over it.

He was a cross dresser. I was at a bar in the famed Castro District of San Francisco on my first trip in 2000. I swiveled on the stool, my eyes trying to take in the figures. I saw him in a mini-skirt, stocking legs crossed, as he whispered in his partner’s ear. We smiled, strangers in the dim light, and he walked over and thrust his breasts in my face.

“They are so uncomfortable,” he whined. What is it? “Bird seed!” May I feel them? I asked. Sure. That was when I moved my fingers and felt a part of a man trying to be a woman. His friend looked on indulgently. I asked him, “Why don’t you shave off your moustache?” He said he liked it, the uncertainty.

Outside, the wind lashed against my face. A couple was ‘connecting’ a few feet away: an old man stooped with age and poverty sitting on a ledge, and a young boy holding him tight. I had never seen such a picture of loneliness before, or of unspoken love.

I took a swig of water from my bottle. It was plastic.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at


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