It’s 5 AM in Babylon. As I look out my window on that cold February morning, the fog is piling up greyish layers on 32nd Street, weaving grey plumes and dotted lines from the sidewalks to the lamp-posts and back, covering up the garbage piles and the snowed-in cars. As much as I’ve lived in this city for years, the weather still gets to me sometimes, especially at five in the morning.
My name is Peter Stephens. I’m a meteorologist. Well, I guess I really should say I’m a journalist: I’m the weather man. Not like the ones you see on TV, dressed with a mauve polka-dot raincoat and a pink waterproof hat, struggling to deliver a professional report while looking utterly ridiculous in their daily two minute moment of glory, when the only thing we Journalists really, really, want, is to become the anchorman, sorry: the anchorperson. No. In a more prosaic fashion, I write the weather bulletin at The Paper. Sometimes referred to as the Babylon Times. Do they hand out Pulitzers to the weather man?
I was born in South Africa, thirty-something years ago, which means I don’t quite know how to answer the second (or third) obligatory question Babylonians always ask: “And where are you from?” Sometimes, while I ponder my answers, I remember overhearing a casual discussion between a white gentleman and a black gentleman in Heathrow, in one of those buses that drag you from one terminal to another. The black gentleman asked that strategic question: “And where are you from?” The white gentleman was fiftyish, wore grey flannel trousers, impeccably creased, a dark blue jacket, white shirt, club tie… He answered: “I’m an African. I was born in Zimbabwe.” Mind you he was tactful enough not to say: Rhodesia. The black gentleman was only slightly taken aback, but he understood the answer.
So I lived in Africa until I was fourteen. First in South Africa, then in Kenya. We sort of moved counter-current of the white migrations of those days: cousins of mine were born in Nairobi, went down South as my uncle was “Africanized”, first to Rhodesia, Zimbabwe I mean, then to South Africa. My cousin John’s still there, in Cape Town. My father’s Irish, not American Irish, black Irish. Funny thing about language: black Irish are those Celts (white) with heavy black hair and blue or green eyes. Mine are blue. A recent line extension I believe. Six thousand years or so. All blue eyes, according to the Danes come from the same ancestor somewhere in Tchetchenia or Caucasus mountains. Black Irish has nothing to do with tone of skin! Now, being “Irish”, sort of, I can sing The twenty seven shades of green while holding my beer steady, but that’s about it. Although to hold your beer is useful in Babylon. Locals call it by another name. Ed McBain, may he rest in peace, called it The City. I just call it: Babylon.
When I was fourteen and two weeks, back in Kenya, my father came home, had a long chat with me mum, and then gathered all us children in the dining room and announced our immediate departure to England. The mother land! Bye bye heat, bye bye sun. Bye bye Beauty… Saying our farewells to Africa was not easy. For what it’s worth I still speak a tiny bit of Xhosa and fluent Swahili. Don’t get to use much of any here, though, except with the odd cab driver, but it’s nice to carry around, somewhere between your heart and your head.
The fog outside my window is now quite wild, there are hidden gushes of wind, drawing grey lines across the pavement. Not unlike my first winter at the boarding school. The Brit kids there weren’t bad. I was just a “Sudafrican”, a Boer for some of the culturally enlightened. I tried a couple of times to explain the different tribes of my homeland, including the Afrikaner, the English, the Zulus, and gave up. So, being… different, or the new kid at school, I got bullied a little, and gave back my share of bleeding noses. Then in the next six months I grew quite a bit of inches and pounds (I’m now six four, and a few tight stones. I try to run in the Park two three times a week) and I was fast on the Rugby field! Very. So, with my help, our school could give a gentlemanly beating to the blokes on the other teams. That gained me consideration from my school- and team-mates. And then I was Okay, except for the weather.
But here I am, rambling. Pushing away the moment to face the bloody cold. Thinking of warmer venues. My dad says there is a branch of the family in Australia. Bet the lucky buggers don’t have fog. Or snow!
I speak half a dozen languages: English proper, ‘Murikun and one of its related dialects, Babylonian. French too (Mom’s French) and Swahili. I get around in Spanish and Aye-talian. Here in Babylon… I generally qualify myself as British, it’s easier. I can insert words such as “Bloke” or “bloody something” at appropriate places in the conversation to demonstrate. It’s more politically correct and less hassle to say you’re a “Brit” than a white South African. One avoids long explanations about Mandela and apartheid. For some minorities I’m a Honkey or an Anglo, or whatever, I don’t really care! I try to remember that the little plastic square one uses to make corrections on pencil writing is called an eraser and not a rubber, especially if you are talking to a female Babylonian colleague. The local dialect has its peculiarities… I blend, or try to, and I love Babylon.
I get myself in gear, trying not to think of the fog outside. Have a cuppa, I drink tea, not coffee my dear, brush my teeth, put on layer after layer of heavy warm clothes, gloves, scarf, bolt the door, walk down the three flights of stairs down to the street. And there I am, looking at what’s left of the street underneath the fog.
An eerie sensation. A blend of twenty-seven shades of grey, not quite as nice as the twenty-seven shades of green of a distant Erin, yellows from the lampposts, whites from the snow that fell heavily the night before. The colours (I insist on saying “colours”, not colors, my dear) made me think of Lovecraft. Something like an impossible tone of grey. There is not a sound to be heard at this ungodly hour. And something strikes me as odd: even with my superficial training in meteorology, fog and snow don’t quite combine. Fog and snow? Temperatures don’t fit. An impossible fog? Or an impossible snow? Unless it’s snowed before the fog? Then what are those heavy white flakes falling, if not… snow? Somehow the idea bothers me. Snow and fog? Doesn’t feel right.
The snowed-in cars make a line of big long white shapes alongside the curb. At least the bloody cold has kept crows away. I’m not big on crows. Nothing to do with Edgar Allan. Just a personal thing: I don’t like crows. Maybe I’ll tell you why. Some other time. I start walking towards the Underground entrance, watching my step, bsquinting against the cold. I think about the bums, the homeless, the poor guys who may have had to spend the night outside. There usually are a couple of them sleeping on top of the Subway exhaust grids, looking for the heat. Hopefully they will’ve found a better place to stay…
I look around as I come to the station, just in case. From where I stand, across the last street before the station I can see a nondescript bundle on top of the Underground grid… Can’t be! Yet as I approach, there isn’t any doubt left: I can make out a human shape, covered with snow, but strangely enough spared by the fog. Motionless. Sleeping… or… worse? A cop is misdirecting traffic a few yards away, people are already coming in and out of the station. All passing by the bundle without a glance. I waddle on the street towards the cop and tell him:
“Do you know there’s probably a man freezing to death over there?”
“I don’t know Sir. I have to concentrate on the traffic.”
(Three cars every five minutes?) “Would you care to come with me and see if we can be of any assistance?” I say.
“Sorry Sir. Can’t leave my station…”
Muttering under my breath, “station, my… foot”, I cross the street to where the possible corpse lies. I crouch near the bundle. I start brushing the snow away, he or she is huddled underneath a piece of cardboard, wrapped in rags, a Salvation Army issue overcoat… With great caution (you never know how crazy or junky bums can be), I peer into the bum’s face. The guy is black. Dark black. A wide face, very, very wide nose, big white teeth showing under slightly parted lips. He has unusual hair, although it might be a wig showing underneath a brown tattered cap: long, dark blonde, wavy hair. A bum in drag?
The man’s breath plumes into the cold air. Thank God! He’s alive. But barely, I guess. It takes me the better part of the next five minutes to shake him back into some sort of consciousness until he sits up, asking:
“Hey Mate! What’s going on?”
I help him get up. Despite the cold, his smell (here they say odour, right?) is strong. He has an accent I can’t quite trace. So much for being a so-called language-accent specialist! West Indies? Might be. Jamaican or something. Though his blonde locks don’t exactly look Rastafarian. I tell him to get out of the bloody cold, get a cup of coffee. Give him twenty bucks, my colleagues at The Paper will tell me I’m crazy, five would have been enough, but I figure he’ll probably go straight to the nearest liquour store and a twenty should buy enough “petrol” to keep him warm for a couple of days.
“Get something to eat, man,” I tell him to ease my conscience, “Stay inside the subway station, get out of the cold. Stay out of the fog.”
“Sure, Mate, sure… Thanks, Mate. Now you too stay out of the fog.”, he says as he stumbles away into the mist, singing some weird song with a ring of desert heat.
To be continued…
(Next on Foglines: Bwana boy and Mary-Sue…)
Text © BMO and Equinoxio
Cover illustration © Gini