The barbeque sauce. It was the barbeque sauce that pissed me off, ultimately.
The man was short, square faced and had on those thick-lensed spectacles that make your eyes look unnaturally large. He swayed gently as he stood, one hand on an incipient paunch, the other grasping an enormous hot dog that had strings of onions dangling from one end. His magnified eyes flicked from side to side as he checked out the variety of naked bodies walking past him, and he took slow, messy bites as he did so. I had been standing next to him, observing him for a while in the way that you observe random people in large crowds, when he caught sight of me and grinned.

Sidling up to me, he said, “Hey,” and grabbed my arse, kneading it in his chubby palm. Unsure of the etiquette to be observed at a BDSM fair, I said, “Hi. I believe that’s my butt you’re massaging.” “I know,” he said, squeezing harder, “you have a great ass.” He seemed harmless enough, and I didn’t really care about what he was doing — until I remembered the sloppy hot dog. I wrenched away and looked over my shoulder at the seat of my chinos — sure enough, there was a hand-sized stain of brown sauce all over it. I fixed the guy with a withering glare and walked off towards the spanking enclosure. Whatever you do, you do NOT fuck with a man’s clothes.

P9300737

I suppose that I had been asking for it, in a way. I had showed up at San Francisco’s Folsom Street fair, the world’s foremost BDSM festival, dressed in a white shirt, blue chinos, a sports jacket and two-tone brogues; if I had been like almost everyone else there and arrived largely nude, I’d have merely needed a bunch of tissues, rather than the services of a dry cleaner. In any case, it looked like I had gotten away relatively lightly. In the spanking area, a 20-something woman in a corset, her panties around her ankles, was handcuffed to a pole and was having her bottom enthusiastically walloped with a paddle by an avuncular gent dressed only in a leather g-string; next to her, another lady was receiving the same treatment, from a guy equipped with a whip. None of this was in the least bit aggressive, either — both women were clearly enjoying themselves, judging from their ecstatic faces, and the men were being quite gentle, strange as that might sound.

The Folsom Street fair, or ‘Folsom’, is held in San Francisco every September. Within the relatively liberal bubble that is California, San Francisco exists as a hyper-liberal bubble; I can’t think of too many other cities in the world where an entire city block would be allowed to be closed off for two days for an intensely hedonistic party, with copious public nudity being the least remarkable of its ingredients. The fair is largely a gay event, with the majority of participants being men, but virtually the entire city shows up to visit, regardless of sexual orientation, and the atmosphere seems completely safe; it’s not unusual to see families with kids walking around. Go to, say, an NH7 Weekender event and you’ll find stalls selling food, drink, souvenirs and so forth; it’s the same at Folsom, only the ‘so forth’ includes stalls where you can, among other things, dress up in a gimp suit and be locked in a cage, and the souvenir stands sell transsexual sex dolls. It’s all so far out there that it’s completely… normal.

P9300687

I walked up to a muscular man — stark naked except for his shoes — who was chained to a fence, his arms and legs splayed out. He had some kind of constriction device on his dick. It didn’t look comfortable. “I don’t mean to be rude, but why are you chained to this fence, with what looks like a vice around your scrotum?” I asked. “I enjoy being helpless — it keeps me grounded and reminds me that I’m never fully in control. And pain is pleasurable. Feel free to squeeze my cock,” he said. I took a rain check on that, but several other people passing by didn’t, men and women alike. “How long are you going to stay chained up?” I enquired. “Until my partner comes back and unlocks me — it’s up to him.”

As an outsider looking in, the one thing that repeatedly struck me about Folsom was the almost unbelievable level of tolerance on display, on everyone’s part, coupled with a refreshing lack of judgment. Want to prance around naked with your partner, boogieing to the classic disco music blaring out of loudspeakers? “Why the hell not? In fact, I might just join you.” Feel like being whipped and dominated in public, or tied up and locked in a cage? “Hey, whatever floats your boat, as long as you’re not hurting anyone.” Coming from India, where anyone attempting a Folsom would almost certainly end up in jail or worse, it was really heartening to see that in some parts of the world, however microscopic, free expression wasn’t considered a threat to the very foundations of humanity.

P9300665

Wandering through the crowd, I felt increasingly self-conscious in my hopelessly out-of-place clothes. Everywhere I looked, all I could see was lots of bare skin, swathes of leather and plenty of metal, but I was thankful for the fact that nobody made me feel like some kind of weirdo. “First time at Folsom?” a chirpy young woman running a sex-toy stall asked. “That obvious, huh?” I replied. She laughed. “We don’t see too many pairs of brogues here, that’s for sure — nice kicks, by the way.” I smiled and tried to think of something droll to say, but I found myself distracted by the fact that she was bare-chested and was insouciantly tweaking her nipples, which had frankly terrifying piercings in them.

“Do things ever get out of hand here?” I managed to ask. “Not really — I mean, you get some assholes every year, but otherwise it’s a very safe and respectful environment.It’s much safer than real life, if you know what I mean. And you see new stuff every year — look over there.” I turned to where she was pointing. A naked man (but of course) in a top hat was sharing a laugh with someone with a live python around his shoulders. “Not too much of that where I come from,” I had to concede, getting my droll moment in. “Anytime you want a cock-ring or a butt plug, you know where to come to,” she said, winking at me. “I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. As I turned to leave, she said, “Dude, I know I’m hot, but I’ve never made a guy shit his pants before.” “Yes, yes, good one. That’s barbeque sauce. Don’t ask.” She laughed.