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Tuesday, 29 October 2013 10:27

Cruising

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He grew up in a farming family "less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town, but a million miles from here. What was traditional with Afrikaner farms in those days was that you always had a coloured boy assigned to you when you left home. My brother and sister were much older and they were at boarding school so I grew up like an only child. So you had a playmate who was usually four, five years older than you, and you got involved in that, and you literally set up a kind of parallel universe to the one you know. A new one is created between the two of you. And that’s the way you get to know the workers as well.

"Most of the time growing up in the platteland your playmate would introduce you to sex, because parents never spoke of it. The word sex was never mentioned in our house, ever. We were extremely sexually active from a very early age, and I discovered the word gay around 1966. There was a huge party in Johannesburg, apparently, and they were raided by the police and a lot of people were arrested. It turned out to be doctors and lawyers and dominees, parliamentarians, rugby players, and it caused an enormous scandal, and the government at the time was quite panic-stricken about it." This was the notorious party in January 1966 in Forest Town, a quiet leafy suburb of northern Johannesburg; '350 in mass sex orgy!' the headline in the Rand Daily Mail proclaimed.   

"And then I realised I was different from the other boys I was having sex with. One day I realised they’re all having relationships with girls as well. So I read about this and I realised that is the word I’ve been looking for. And then when I went to high school I knew I was gay so I told people that and of course that changes the whole dynamic of how they relate to you."

But it was in the army, doing compulsory military service in Pretoria, when Marthinus bumped up against cruising for the first time, quite innocently. "We had a pass. I was with a friend from Bloemfontein and we went skating, and we were going to stay over at the house of a friend of his. And when we arrived there the one boy said, 'I’m terribly sorry there’s no space for you here, you must go.'

"So now it’s like one o’clock in the morning, I have no fucking clue where I am in Pretoria. I could sort of see the centre, I could figure that out, so I started walking. I knocked on two doors and said, 'Please, I’m lost, can you just tell me where the station is?' – because the buses for Valhalla, the army base, left from the station. So I finally end up at Church Square, and I need to pee, I’m about to die. And there are no toilets. And I’m too decent – can you believe it, the middle of the fucking night … So now I have to go to the station, so I walk up to the station and the toilet is closed, so I walk all the way back and I decide, now I’ve got to pee, so there were these little alcoves and staircases going down, so I just peed. And the next moment a voice said to me: 'What are you doing?' And I yanked out my pass and said, 'I’m on pass, I’m on pass!' and saluted.

"And that became my first pick-up, and my first experience of having sex with a grown-up. Because then he said, 'Don’t you want coffee?' And the hand on the knee, and you don’t know how to deal with this. It was actually … I found it terribly traumatic. It was extremely unpleasant. But the funny thing is then you suddenly became aware that there are places where there are connection spots.

"So you started looking. And then the city … I was so terribly naïve. You didn’t know, you knew nothing. You didn’t know that there were other people like that. You didn’t know where to find them. So then you start becoming extremely primal. Once you became aware that this was a possibility, you started looking. And suddenly you could read in people’s eyes. It was very subtle, but if a look lingered too long … And then you had to go through a huge amount of checks and balances, because you never knew where this would lead. You would see if somebody follows. And then it would become a kind of a stalking game. You stop. They stop. Do they stop long enough? Do you still like them? When they come too close, do you sense that there might be something unsettling?

"And you knew then when to escape as well, because very often you could just sense, no no no, something’s not right. Or there was just something in the person that unsettles you, and you left the option to flee. And then you get that secondary panic where you just want to get away, so that you end up … Instead of a dance, it becomes a dodge, and you try and lose people as well. Once you understood that, the whole of the city became a playground.

"And then obviously that leads you into … the best place to pick up somebody is in a public toilet, because at least an erection is some manifestation, or validation, that this is a possibility. Yes, the person is interested, and it’s not a policeman. I had someone arrested right next to me, where police just walked in, in rush hour, the toilet was full, and just because of the way that he was looking around, the police obviously saw that, and they literally grabbed him from right next to me and dragged him outside. I mean then you go into a kind of stupor, and you just backpedal and you move your way away from that again.

"It very often took hours, and it meant you had to change your schedule. You have to be somewhere, but then this is more interesting. So a lot of issues get flicked up in that."
 
Then he moved to Cape Town, "and I earned next to nothing, there was certainly no security, so buying a car was never an option. And of course you just walked wherever you needed to go. But ag, you didn’t mind, it kept you fit and you didn’t even think about it.

"I never did the promenade stuff," he says, "which was the great cruising spot. The seafront was really the walking, picking up, showing off, promenading thing. There is a long history there that seemed to stretch all the way from Sea Point round to Camps Bay. That stretch was, I think, for people who were confident in their sexuality and confident with how they looked, so preening became part of that walk.

"Unlike the promenade, with the train line thing, where you combine your cruising with moving around on the train, you could drop off. The biggest thing was that it gave you time to figure out what your options were, whether you could trust the person, is it police? One night I was staying with a friend in Rondebosch and I had to cross the station to get to the house, and a bakkie drove up, a tiny Mazda bakkie with four big men squashed together in the front, and they drove straight at me and they stopped with the bumper against my knees. I tend to get very calm in those situations. I go into a kind of neutral stupor. Obviously they thought I wasn’t giving them any reason, I wasn’t running away, so there was no point in arresting me. But they started arresting left and right around me.

"The violence … They dragged someone I had an affair with out of one of the doorways and they battered him as well. So there was that sense of danger …

"And it was also exciting, because it’s hunting, and stalking, and displaying. That whole wonderful sense of, how big is the distance? And it opens up a whole lot of options."

American author Edmund White reckons that "to be gay and cruise is perhaps an extension of the flâneur’s very essence, or at least its most successful application. With one crucial difference: the flâneur’s promenades are meant to be useless, deprived of any goal beyond the pleasure of merely circulating." Looking back, White reflects on the time that he lived in Paris: "most people, straight and gay, think that cruising is pathetic or sordid – but for me, at least, some of my happiest moments have been spent making love to a stranger beside dark, swiftly moving water below a glowing city."

"Buildings became a part of it as well," Marthinus recalls, "because in the Parkade they had that old movie house, the biocafé," where you could eat and smoke and watch B-grade double features, "and that was a huge pick-up joint. And then sometimes you don’t want to be there, so the building itself becomes a sort of walkway, up and down the stairs and lifts and things. So it becomes a vertical chase, as well."

In a humorous retrospective on ‘cottaging’ ("to use or frequent public toilets for homosexual sex") in sixties and seventies Cape Town, Michiel Heyns recalls Stuttafords, the genteel department store, where ladies lunched in between shopping. The public conveniences "were located on the same floor as the books department, indeed adjacent to it, which provided a respectable and educational excuse for loitering … The first of the inner chambers contained the pissers, the centrepiece of any true cottage. These, though, after the magnificence of the handbasins, were a letdown … The rows were back to back, running counter to the very essence of cottaging, indeed of all cruising, which is eye contact; here the over-the-shoulder exchange of glances was likely to lead to nothing more exciting than a crick in the neck."

He bumps into an old friend, years later, who informs him: "The big trick was picking up someone on the escalator … You remember, going down you had a view of the people going up and vice versa. Well, the idea was to catch someone’s eye going in the opposite direction; the excitement was to see which one would change direction. But it made more sense for the one going up to turn round and follow the other one down and out."

"Now you tell me," says Heyns. It’s all irrelevant at this point because "there can be few activities on earth, other than breakdancing, less congenial to the over-forty than cottaging."

"I went into a long relationship in the late seventies," Marthinus says, "and then that whole cruising thing fell away to a large extent. Our relationship ended at exactly the time that Aids became an issue, and then it just seized up, went into the fridge.

"I think the need for it to be under cover has gone, and I think that has changed the dynamic totally. The fact that liberation has happened and that people have rights now, has to a great extent taken away the need for it."
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