A reluctant visitor to Lagos gets an education in the ways of the street, by Uche Umezurike
His shiny suitcase glinting in the tangerine twilight catches my eye.
Standing on the roadside, he tries to flag down an oncoming Danfo bus. The driver fails to see him, maybe ignores him. This man tucks his suitcase under his armpit. As if sensing an enemy, he throws his eyes around himself. Then back to the expressway.
He seems like a banker. White long sleeves, an expensive tie. Trousers pinstriped. The suitcase is gilt-edged.
Soon, he pulls out a Sony Ericsson camera cell phone.
Lanky creeps up on him, as he tries to make a call, snarling in his face. People just walk along, mindful of their business.
I can't hear what Lanky is telling him, but I know this man is just another victim, helpless, under the dying sun. I can identify his state of mind this instant, make out the usual sign: nervousness messing up his composure, while I'm sitting on the bonnet of a squashed-up junk, the remains of an accidented car, next to one of the massive pillars supporting the pedestrian bridge.
I'm smoking B&H. I sit up immediately, watching them. I puff hard on the cigarette, remove it from my mouth, then crush it out on the dented side of the bonnet.
Yes, another strayed lamb, wandering close to the underbridge.
The man's face turns to a squirmy sponge, as Lanky curls his fists as if to jab him.
That's when I, too, spring out of my lair.
Lanky is threatening him: You're a complete gentleman. And I don't want to ugly your face. And so give the f------ phone to me!
Though fear gleams off his eyes, the man doesn't comply. Maybe, because Lanky doesn't strike him as menacing, with his scabby dog's looks. Small head, lean neck, and pint-sized. Still, his hoarse voice should send chilly shivers down the spine of any peaceable person.
With a hiss Lanky forces the phone out of his hand, almost poking a finger into the man's left eye. As he turns to leave, he slams into me. The impact inches him backwards a little, making him wheel on his heels. My hand speedily reaches for his shoulder, gripping it tight. He swivels his head up, trying to free himself.
But my grip is vice-like.
Biggy, you want to spoil my business? he asks.
This is my area, I assert.
But... er... the man ignores the flyover.
Not everybody likes to camel up the stairs of the bridge.
You're taking advantage, Biggy, he protests.
Are you preaching, Lanky? I shoot out my trunk-like chest.
He gives the man a razor-sharp stare.
I release my grip, then thrust out my hand. Lanky hesitates, then forcibly shoves the sleek phone into my palm, just to annoy me.
I bark: Extorting is not allowed in my area. Now, scram!
Lanky walks away, grumbling for the entire world to hear.
I near the man. His features now look like crinkled paper. He fleetingly glances at Lanky, then faces me.
Next time, use the bridge, I say, offering the phone back to him.
Thanks, he breathes, plunging the phone into his hip pocket.
You hear me loud and clear? I ask.
Yes... he answers.
Man, you damn lucky. Other touts will deny you the pleasantness of Lanky, and slash your wrist, I say grimly, watching his reaction.
When he replies, his words sound like a cracked CD playing, That is why – I cannot live – in Lagos, even if – I am paid – the salary of – a Senator.
I fully realize he's a JJC, Johnny Just Come, a newcomer to Lagos. Or one of those people who dread Lagos, because they're told all kinds of bloody tales.
I stare at his suitcase, wondering what it contains. Documents, clothing, or cash.
Night unfurls its black wings around us noiselessly. Though, there are commuters here and there, lingering, drifting, hurrying. Like bullets, cars speed by, breaking the distant gloom with their headlights at full blast.
Where you heading? I ask him.
You've been there before?
Once, he says, I went with a friend in his car.
It is easy to spot the archway, or gate, leading to the Estate, if one alights at 7UP bus stop. This man stopped at Junction, which, however, is a stone's throw: though, he doesn't know. Still, he ought to take an Okada, rather than wait for a bus.
Here, buses ply only the expressway, not along street routes.
I place my hand on his shoulder, feel him shudder a little.
It is then I catch a glimpse of the bulgy wallet sticking its head out of his back pocket, like a newborn puppy.
I glance at the tall Zenith Bank building, some yards away from Tetrazzini, behind it, is the road, which branches off into another. Cyclists normally pass through that road to the Estate.
I look at his suitcase again.
Where in Ajao, I ask.
Kayode Akala Street, he sounds wary, as if suddenly suspicious of me.
I drop my hand from his shoulder.
I'll escort you. Then you board an Okada, a motorcycle, from there. Okay?
He broods for a while, then nods his head.
I motion him to walk along. A couple of people walk past. I recognize a few Area Boys, prowling about, seeking unsuspecting victims. Yet, they appear as normal bystanders.
The smell of garlic stings the cool air. A group of Hausa men are seated on a mat, sipping tea. Their traditional music wafts from a tiny radio.
I really don't like Lagos, he says, sourly, like a child.
People misunderstand Lagos. It's the sweetest home in the world, I enthuse, trying to reassure him.
Area Boys, robbers, kidnappers, ritual murderers... he mentions.
Every big city has its own people who form the good, the bad, and the ugly. You even see them in America. London. Spain. South Africa, I explain.
There appears a curious gaze on his face.
You are not one of them. His lips twitch.
As in what?
I hesitate. I'm... different, I reply.
Anyway, he says, shrugging, I do not like Lagos.
We climb a small concrete barrier over to the other side of the road, where pedestrians often squeeze through before crossing the expressway. I tell him to watch the road because Lagos drivers are hit-and-run beasts. Drive more crazily than the old devil himself.
A motorcyclist flies past, screaming his glee.
I look to the left, right, then at him.
Ready? I ask, keeping a sneaky watch on his wallet.
Yes, his voice pulses as if I am forcing him to jump off a roof.
Just skillfully, I slide my forefinger and thumb halfway into his back pocket and slip the wallet out, with the precise, swift stroke of a swordsman. Folding my five fingers over it, I stuff it deep into my own pocket.
Let's run fast, I shout.
We both race across the expressway.
Thank you again. His chest is heaving hard.
I can feel the gust coming out of his nostrils.
It's my pleasure. My grin flickers as I point towards the arched gate of the Estate.
He glances up, briefly, relief oozing out of his face, like sweat.
Hope you still have your phone, I ask, regretting at once my utterance.
His face darkens as he feels for the phone, momentarily touching his back pocket.
I almost thought it had fallen out... he sighs, waving the phone at me.
Lanky would have made at least ten thousand naira from selling it in the black market, I think.
Here's where the journey ends, I mouth.
The man puts the phone back.
You are really nice, he remarks. You have proved that there are still humans in Lagos.
He doesn't seem edgy any longer. His teeth look just like icing sugar, with his grateful smile.
I want to smile back, but I remain unaffected. You can trek it. It's a three-minute trek.
He extends a hand to me, and I shake it, feeling his palm so soft like a baby's. Eager to leave his presence, with his wallet resting in my pocket, I start walking away.
I grind my teeth, slowly face him. His hand frisks his pockets again.
A Danfo has just appeared, emptying some passengers.
I consider edging around it, making a dash across the expressway.
But a mad driver might toss me into the air.
Let me give you my business card. If anything ever brings you to the East, Owerri – he suddenly pauses. His face becomes a comic mask of shock and disbelief. My wallet – Christ!
The bus starts to roar away. I leap in, squeezing myself into the back.
Through the rear window, I control myself from laughing, as he tries to fathom my whereabouts.