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Back in the late nineties, when the Spice Girls were still pretending to sing and Tony Blair was riding the tabloids on a still buoyant economy, I arrived in London with my (then) best friend. We drove from the roman countryside on a 'Thelma & Louise' kind of car, its exhaust held together with wire, escaping the stillness and boredom of our villages for the jolt and chaos of the metropolis.I still remember my mum's tears that early morning, november 28, as I hugged her goodbye and jumped into the car. She never got to see my tears. But I cried. I cried for a good couple of hours until my friend Sacha had to say "Ok, enough bullshit now... It's time for breakfast", and pulled up at the Autogrill service station.
Cappuccino, croissant and cigarette.
I was already feeling so far from home.
I arrived in London two days later, and, after shedding tears and leaving my old identity behind with the rest of my old life, I was ready and felt tinglings of excitement at the thought of starting afresh in a brand new city.
I was 22.
As my english was not as accomplished and polished as it is now (it is...right?), the first job I landed was at a crappy Mac Donald's, as responsible for the 'Filet o' Fish' section in the kitchen.
I still think that a place like that, it's most definitely where they send bad souls to atone for their sins.
A miasmic atmosphere ridden with eternally frying oil, vinegar exhalations and the worst collection of body-odour imaginable.
It was like the UN of sinners, a Babel of underpaid workers where the levels of knowledge of the english language, literacy and manners were well below standards.
I saw managers blowing their noses in the kitchen sink, I saw employees pick up a chicken patty from the floor and slam it back inside the sandwich for a 'demanding' client (...maybe he just wanted a 'no mayo' sandwich...), I saw timid looking girls hastily stuffing their backpacks with bread and bags of frozen chicken nuggets on their way home.
I need to mention that, being paid £3.60 an hour, this was most definitely closer to slavery than a proper employment.
I knew I was in for a bumpy ride the morning I traded my perfectly stone-washed jeans for a pair of drip-dry polyester trousers and a polo-shirt that felt like sandpaper.
The Mac Donald's uniform: wear it to the point it stands by itself, then chuck it in the washing machine at 150.000ºC and pull it out ready to be worn again. To me, a fashion student that just got his degree in haute couture tailoring, it was simply profane.
The equivalent of a muslim being forced to wear a Lady Gaga's dress made out of pork chops. But I had to start somewhere, and that was my start.
Obviously, being a gay guy refusing to get back in the closet and working with so many muslims, had its complications.
Not that I was flamboyant or things like that, but I simply refused to lie about who I was and would talk openly about myself to my fellow slaves, whenever they enquired.
Soon, names like "AC/DC", "Batty Boy", or "Philadelphia" kept coming up whenever I was around. Whispered in the staff cantine, from behind magazines or coffee cups. I wasn't deaf, but I wasn't bothered either as I wasn't really sure what they meant, in my ignorance of the english language.
It was my first experience of sharing a space with people from so many different cultures. I can say that, by far, the spanish were the friendliest and less put out by my sexuality; the greek were very curious, the nigerian were feeling very sorry for me being gay ( "I will pray for you" was what one of my colleagues said once...), and the muslims were relentless in their childish humour about kissing men and "..entering through the backdoor...", as they nicely put it.
What c**ts though uh?
The final straw came when two of the floor managers came over to me in the back-room, holding each other's hand, to ask me "Which one of us do you fancy?", giggling like two retards.
I must underline the fact that, apart from being constantly stinking of onions and B.O., these two were quite unfortunate in the looks department. One, skinny as a broom, hair that looked like it was combed using mayonnaise; the other, fat and pert as a self important turkey on Thanks Giving and a face so covered in pimples and spots that could have been Braille.
I couldn't believe it, but I had to give them a lashing:
"I wouldn't piss on either of you smelly bastards if you were o fire...... Now, thank Allah that I am a gentleman, otherwise you'll be out of a job and your poor wives would be selling vegetables on the road to pay for your cheap aftershave.....".
Obviously this escalated into a formal complaint. Incredibly enough, it was THEM that complained about ME! They referred the whole incident to the store manager, he was persian, sufficiently educated and hated nuisances. After hearing my version of the story, he ended up apologising to me on their behalf.
"They're idiots, ignore them..." he just said, but I knew better.
I had enough. So, one fine day I entered the Gap store opposite and asked for a job. I did explain that I was being bullied by my bosses and that I was desperate to get out.
It turns out that Gap was fully staffed, but Dylan, one of the managers, and himself a homosexual, was so taken back by my situation that he offered me a full time job anyway. To this day I am very grateful for the break he gave me 13 years ago.
I simply stopped showing up for work at MacDonald's, treating my contract as the joke that it was.I met my old store manager only once in the street, by chance, few weeks later. He pretended not to see me and walked off.
I think he knew that by me leaving, he was avoiding worse complications. Like having to face the fact that his managers were complete homophobic twats.
He accepted it when he shouldn't have.
I left it all behind.
I was finally in the gay land of fashion retail and things could only get better.