Thursday, 11 August 2011

Berwick Street Memories

Dirty Hippy
 When I was 16 I was a little hippy. On the left is a picture of me at my hippiest. As you can see I'm laughing hysterically in a supermarket while wearing an ambulance-mans hi viz jacket (as was the fashion for little hippies at the time.) Also I'm very stoned.

I was a happy little hippy and I lived with a lot of hippy friends in caravans and boats, derelict warehouses, abandoned buildings, all sorts of funny places.

We knew a lot of tricks for survival and it didn't matter that we never had any money because there was always some new scam to get by and besides we had each other which was great because we were all a lot of fun to be around.

So one day, someone had told me that you could pick up a lot of fruit and veg off the floor at Berwick Street market at the end of the day. Berwick Street would definitely be the best place to go, because a lot trendy rich people like to hang out in Soho and that means that they sell a lot of exotic fruit and veg that you don't get anywhere else. This seemed like a great idea, so off I set, on my own, into London's infamous red light district after dark.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this.

I'd only been in Berwick street a couple of minutes, when i was predictably approached by a creepy man and when I say creepy, I mean really creepy.
I will point out here that I totally understand that sexual predators come in all shapes and sizes and that most appear completely normal at first. This being so overwhelmingly the case, it almost seems irresponsible to point out that this particular guy was not just creepy by obviously, stereotypically so.

He had greasy hair, greasy skin and fishy eyes, I even think he had a grubby rain mac on. Although, come to think of it I had a grubby rain mac on. It was the same one you can see in the picture.  

He fixed me in his primordial gaze and he starts up:

"Hey, are you hungry? I can give you some food? have you got a boyfriend, you need a boyfriend, I can look after you"

I didn't like this at all. But, even though I was a dirty hippy, I was also a nice girl and so I decided to try to be nice.  It is, of course, a well known feature of nice girls that they will continue their niceness regardless of personal danger to themselves. So I looked up from my place on the pavement where I had been busily stuffing guava's into my rucksack and i said:

"No thank you I'm fine"

"You can't survive out here on your own, come with me, I'll look after you"

"No thank you" standing up now and trying to avoid eye contact while shuffling away.  

"Don't be silly, come with me"

 This was too much for me and something in me switched. I spun around, looked him square in the face and spat the words out at him:  

"Look, Just because I'm picking up food from the street, doesn't mean I have to sleep with you. It doesn't work like that!" 

And the words hung in the air between us, crackling with teenaged snap and sarcasm.  Fisheye responded with one long appraising look up and down. Then:

"Your a clever girl. You'll be alright"

As if I'd passed some kind of test.
And then he walked away.

I stood for a moment, digesting what had happened and feeling the adrenalin drain quietly out of my veins. Then, test passed with flying colours, i picked up my rucksack, swung it over my shoulder and got out of there as fast as I could.

Berwick Street Market, Soho

Its been a long time since then and I still go down to Berwick Street occasionally. I browse the sex toys with my husband or visit the silk shops with my Mum and if i want a guava, I'll just buy one from that stall over there, thank you very much.
Nothing like the fish eye man ever happens  to me now. I'm not a homeless teenager anymore and I walk the streets with an air of entitlement I didn't have before. 

The atmosphere of danger and exploitation is still there though, readily misinterpreted by monied interlopers as seedy adventure and adult fun. I experience it that way myself because, much as i know I shouldn't, I do forget.

I forget, like many of us do, that the world only feels so safe and accommodating and easy because I have money now. And that every danger I once faced is waiting still for someone else.

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