back to the Black Table

I met a guy in a bar the other night. He was sitting on the stool next to me, drinking what I was: a Pabst Blue Ribbon. We talked about inconsequential things for a while, but mostly kept our eyes fastened on the television above us, where a Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens game was playing out. I couldn't care less about hockey.

The game ended and we sat talking some more, haltingly, in the way of hesitant strangers. We talked about rock music criticism, the state of the foreign media, the way the neighborhood was changing. He mentioned that he lived near a particular restaurant, one that had been getting some favorable press and a happening clientele of late.

And then came the moment. I saw my opportunity.

"There are some beautiful women in that place," I said.

That did it. His demeanor changed completely. A set of interior wires slackened and he shifted on his barstool toward me.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Every time I go in there, it's just a banquet for the eyes. Babe City."

The conversation proceeded on to other topics -- noticeably looser, more relaxed and more open that it had been. We could really talk now, even exchange emails at the end of the conversation. Because now it was clear neither of us wanted to sleep with the other.

This is the dismal magic of the Straight Sign. It's a way of saying, "Dude, I'm not gay. I'm not putting the moves on you." This is the card that inevitably must be thrown on the table to indemnify all future conversation against perceptions of sexual interest. Most urban straight men thrust up against one another are unable to proceed very far without it: this mutual absolution, this flipping out of a badge, this secret handshake.

The Straight Sign is flashed in a variety of ways, but they almost always involve the sudden invocation of women. Cocktail servers and bartenders are a common prop. I've heard "Damn, she's hot" more than once -- even in reference to a not-so-hottie -- just so the Straight Sign can be dispensed with quickly and the subject not belabored. Mild expressions of lascivious interest in fellow bar patrons or party-attendees also come in handy.

Sometimes the Straight Sign is pounded into conversations like a nail. I once got to talking with a friendly guy from Ecuador in a bar on Upper Broadway several years ago. He spoke no English and I was trying to use my inept Spanish. I can't remember the context now, but the conversation moved in a direction where I used the phrase los hombres in el barrio -- "the men in the neighborhood" -- and I saw him blanch. He smiled nervously. No, me gusta mujeres, he said firmly. "I like women." The conversation ended shortly thereafter.

The other typical deployment of the Straight Sign is an obtuse reference to a girlfriend or wife who is not present. It doesn't matter if it flows within the context of the conversation. The key is to get it out there, non-sequitors be damned. Where are you from? "My wife and I are both from the Midwest." I just came back from a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. "My girlfriend and I should try that." Want another round? "I got wasted last night with the woman I'm seeing, but what the hell."

This secondary iteration of the Straight Sign is, of course, merely a homophobic cousin of the old Boyfriend Reference that women so often awkwardly salt into their polite conversation. Any of your female friends will tell you this (usually) works like Deet on unwanted men who buzz up and begin to sing their love song. In this way, we men gain a tiny appreciation of what it feels like to be a woman, having to swat off undesirable suitors.

This brings us to the really curious thing about the Straight Sign. It is more readily thrown at a guy who gives every appearance of actually being straight.

When we wind up in conversation with a man who is doubtlessly gay; who is making a calculated risk by trying to flirt with us; whose eyes are gently alight with the unmistakable mist of furtiveness and desire that we probably emit when we try to chat up attractive women; when there is not a shred of ambiguity in the air as to the orientation of the guy you're talking to; then the Straight Sign can be postponed for a decent interval. Why ruin a good conversation? Why act like some paranoid bumpkin who can't deal with gay people? We Blue State urban males are more enlightened than that, more accepting, aren't we? We're hip. We have plenty of gay friends.

But here's the thing we really don't like to talk about. Deep within the reptilian cortex of even the most Eberhard-Faber straight man on the planet -- who among us does not get a small ego-boost from being the quarry? Somebody found us attractive. It might be somebody who hasn't a chance in hell of getting into our pants, but we're a little flattered by the attention. This is the other way the Straight Sign brings us a little closer to women. They know this strange cocktail better than we do: sexual disinterest shaken with a splash of demure appreciation.

Let me be clear: I don't particularly like the Straight Sign. It is awkward, homophobic, somewhat disrespectful and ultimately needless. It drives gay and straight men apart. And it sets up a false prerequisite for friendship. We really shouldn't care about the other person's preference, or be so oddly anxious to broadcast our own.

Sometimes the other guy recognizes the Straight Sign for the canard that it is and gets privately insulted. What, do you think I'm gay or something? We may even be thinking too much of ourselves; that a self-respecting gay man would even want to try and get a slob like us in the sack. But as a social convention among newly-introduced straight men, it does not seem to be withering away anytime soon. I have witnessed it countless times, and expect to see it countless more. Think of it like a stupid fraternity handshake that just won't die.

Which is a useful metaphor in more ways than one. The Western custom of shaking hands is descendant from a military protocol of medieval days. When two knights unsure of the other's provenance would meet on the road, they would grasp each other's forearms to make sure that the other was not concealing a dagger. This is how the knights would conclude the other fellow was safe for a casual conversation. Sounds reassuringly familiar.


Tom Zoellner is a writer living in New York City. He wants you to know that he thinks the woman over there is a hottie.