"You know what that means, don't you?" he said with a gap-toothed smile. I looked up. Yesterday was the first time in nearly seven years he'd said more that two words to me and I was taken by surprise. And with these words the aging and surprisingly plump homeless guy that stands outside our office everyday selling The Big Issue was pointing down at my chain. The big, chunky steel chain that hangs from my trousers wherever I go - clipping just above the right-hand front pocket and leading round to a bunch of keys attached to the other end sitting in my right-hand back pocket. I was a little wary so I didn't reply immediately to his question. I wasn't sure as to why he was engaging me in conversation at all after all this time.
Normally our roles are fairly well defined. I buy a Big Issue once a week from him to ease my guilt and hopefully help him buy something to eat and in return he doesn't mutter "Spare any change" as I approach or "Have a nice day" in a sarcastic tone when I walk past and pretend to ignore him. So why was trying to engage me in conversation now? Why wasn't he just letting me walk on? It wasn't Big Issue day. And I was running a bit late for work anyway. But he had caught me. I had made the mistake of stopping and now he was staring at me and grinning and asking this rather ambiguous question. So I looked him in the eye and decided to feign ignorance. Sure people say 'chain on the right means you're passive', 'chain on the left means you're active' - but, hey, I'm right-handed so I like to have my keys that side too. Besides, it never hurts to give out a few mixed messages I always think. Anyway, I certainly wasn't going to get into all this with a greying and slightly whiffy street person who I barely knew and right in front of my office too - so I just replied, "No." I perhaps looked a little flushed though and he was clearly enjoying my embarrassment.
He thought for a moment and then looked a bit perplexed at my answer. This was not quite the answer he had expected. I think it thought I might just say yes and look sheepish - thereby confessing a knowledge of gay sexual codes and possibly outing myself at the same time. But I wasn't going to be caught out by this (possible gay) street seller who thought he could either tease me or 'out' me. Not only was he perplexed but he was caught on the back foot too. He now had to explain what he meant by his question. And he struggled. "It means something to people that... it means you... you know... that you're... that you...". "Take in up the ARSE?" I interjected. He almost sprang back away from me. I had called his bluff. I'd taken control of where this conversation was going and at the same time stopped it dead. Again he was lost for words. I could see him struggling for something to say behind that frown that had appeared across his well wrinkled forehead. "Er, yeah", he finally spluttered in agreement. I decided to press my advantage home. "Don't worry", I said, "I don't!" and walked off.
This morning as I passed him he just nodded warily and smiled.