Saturday, June 2, 2012

Back Of The Bus

Roach Coach, 42nd Street

We call them 'Roach Coaches',

the small independently operated buses that run between Jersey and Midtown Manhattan. They're not properly insured, they don't pay their tolls and the Department of Transport regularly shuts them down. But they're frequent and they're cheap and we could do with a few of their kind in Dublin.

The young black guy sitting behind me is talking loudly into his phone and using the word 'Niggah' with an unbelievable extravagance:

"You are my go-to Niggah, you hear me Niggah. My Niggah with a capital Nig. You are the main Niggah. The Niggah of Ceremonies..."

And so on. Meanwhile, a few seats in front of me, an older black man is clenching his fists and staring fixedly at the back of the driver's neck. Nobody likes being trapped in an enclosed space with his stereotype.

Thirty years ago I was upstairs on a London bus when it was boarded by a flush faced Irishman in a jumper that looked like it had been chewed by a farm animal. He carried a lump hammer spattered with dried mortar and though the morning was cold, he was heated from within by twenty years of serious drinking. He threw himself down in a seat and looked around at everyone. Everyone looked away.
"Ha-haaaaaah!" He roared "Did yiz all have your Weetabix?"
Nobody answered. 
"Frank O'Connor!" He said with a bow. "F-O-C! FOC-Me!! Ha-haaaaaaah!"

Passengers shifted nervously. The bell went 'ding-ding', and a few got off. We rolled down the Seven Sisters Road. "They were trees, did yiz know that? The Seven Sisters were trees. Trees!" He bellowed.

We stopped at an early morning building site, hidden behind a hoarding, but all its inner workings visible from the top of the bus: Yellow machinery and churned-up mud and the remains of a red brick terrace, smashed by a swinging ball.

"Desthruction boys, desthruction!" He roared as he stood up. "Frank O'Connor has come to town. You'll put them up and I'll pull them down. Ha-haaaaah!" He waved his hammer like a vexed Thor, and then turned his eyes to slits. "Yiz are all cunts," he shouted, "cunts!" And then his eyes settled on mine. 

We looked nothing like each other. I was neat and tidy and office bound; he was raggedy and patched and worn to the bone, but we were somehow connected by an invisible wire, two distinct strands in the double helix of Irishness. "But not you, boy. Not you."

Heads turned. The man in the torn jumper bounded down the stairs and left me the centre of attention. On the pavement, he waved the lump hammer and mouthed words upwards: "Not you, boy. Not you."

The roach coach pulls up beside the Port Authority. The voice behind me says, "I want to do some outdoor stuff, know what I'm saying, Niggah? Outdoor stuff, like maybe play dominos on the sidewalk with the other Niggahs. I'm an outdoor kinda Niggah, you hear me Niggah?"

The older black man continues to clench and unclench his fists. When the bus door swings open, he is the first one off.

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