I forgot: you need coins or a pre-paid Metrocard for the New York buses, and one morning several weeks ago, as I stood at the eastbound stop on the corner of Broadway and 125th Street, I realised I had neither. Only notes. Two other men were waiting for the M60, the cross-town bus — the one I was to take to the Harlem railway station — and there was no time to go in search of change. Through the broad arch of the iron bridge over 125th Street, which supports an elevated section of the Broadway subway line, I saw a bus coming from the Hudson, and I turned to the more together-looking of the two men and asked him if he had change for a couple of dollar bills.
‘Yes, I believe so,’ he said, putting a hand into one of the pockets of an unzipped brown suede jacket. He was a dapper man, I recognised as I watched him extract some coins from his jacket pocket. He wore a brown beret, tanned, well-polished shoes that matched dark green trousers, and a black shirt. Here was a man who looked as if he was beginning the day.
‘Yeah, you need change for the buses,’ said the other, rougher, unshaven man. He seemed hungover, though more likely was homeward-bound after a late-night shift. ‘That’s Giuliani,’ he said, implying that paying for a bus ride with coins — along with new policing policies and much else — was another of those not universally liked schemes of the former mayor of New York. Mind you, if this is what he meant, he was unfair: paying for a bus ride with coins has been around for ever.
‘Here is two dollars,’ said the smart man, as he counted the quarters, dimes and nickels in the palm of his left hand. ‘Two dollars exactly. No change.’ He chuckled, as if this last phrase were a joke, and though I didn’t see the humour I nevertheless smiled and exchanged my notes for his coins. The bus arrived, its brakes hissing before the doors opened. The man in the beret motioned that I should board ahead of him, gesturing with one of his arms. The blue seats inside were mostly empty — a few people with bags on their knees — and I took one to the left. The man in the beret sat immediately behind.
‘Where you going?’ he asked.
I replied that I was going to the Bronx, to the New York Botanical Gardens.
‘Don’t know about that,’ he said. ‘How d’you get there?’
‘The Metro-North train, from the Harlem station on 125th. Where are you going?’
‘Verizon. I’m changing my carrier,’ he said — Verizon is one of the large telecommunications companies in the United States. ‘AT&T’s too expensive, and I talk to my cousins in Myrtle Beach, and AT&T, they’re cheaters, and I like to talk to my family.’
‘You’re from South Carolina?’
‘Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that’s where I’m from. That’s where I want to be, but I’m here. Dog eats dog in this town,’ he said, looking out of the window, his eyes directing mine to the street outside through a scum-stained window. Stores on 125th were opening up, a few shoppers and amblers were on sidewalks.
‘When I was young,’ the man continued, ‘I went fishing with my father and grandfather, not the ocean, the rivers, the big rivers.’
‘What did you fish for?’ I asked. I’d recently read Alan Davidson’s North Atlantic Seafood, one of the finest food books, and had compiled a list from its pages of the 128 edible fish in the Atlantic.
‘So many fishes,’ he replied, his voice now wistful. ‘But sturgeon, that’s the fish we’d try to catch, sometimes we did.’ Before I could say what I had read about sturgeon in Davidson’s book — that it was named Albany Beef on the north-east coast in the 19th century, that it’s native to the tidal reaches of large rivers (such as the Tagus in Portugal or the Hudson in the United States), that Davidson recommends cooking this fish in veal broth — another man, sitting right behind the man in the beret, who had boarded the bus at Adam Clayton Powell Junior Boulevard, burst into the conversation.
‘Sturgeon,’ he said. ‘Sturgeon, that’s a big fish. Huge fish in the Mississippi River. A big fish. We’d eat them all the time.’ His memory of the sturgeon he had known in the Mississippi was just the beginning: once started nothing could stop this man and it became immediately apparent that the scope of what he had to say wasn’t limited to the fish in a river but embraced the entire meaning of Life, the logic of Creation. The fish in the Mississippi, he said, were like the other fish in all the rivers and oceans, and all fish come from Iraq — Iraq? I said to myself — just as gold comes from Iraq, from Babylon, where all Europeans come from, too. All Europeans, all Euros, they come from Asia, and all Asians, they come from Africa. ‘So you see,’ now emphasising his words with his right hand, ‘the sturgeon and the Europeans, they come from Africa, and the gold comes from Africa, too. It was taken to Babylon, taken from the Promised Land, which is the land of God.’
The bus driver announced the approaching next stop. ‘Malcolm X.’ The man in the beret rose from his seat. ‘This is where I go. But I don’t believe in God.’
‘I’m a Methodist minister,’ said the other man. ‘I believe in God.’ In the brief pause that followed, it was hard to know whether an argument would ensue or whether there would be an icy silence.
‘I apologise to you,’ said the man in the beret. ‘I didn’t know; I respect your opinion, but I don’t believe in God.’
‘No, I’m sorry,’ said the man who thought everything came from Africa via Iraq. ‘That’s not a problem. We have different views, that is all,’ and then he presented his hand. The other presented his, and they shook and apologised to each other again. They were smiling now: differing opinions wouldn’t stand in the way of accord, though their respect for each other now threatened to prevent the first man from leaving the bus before the doors closed.
With the bus moving eastward again, with the man in the beret now walking towards the Verizon office and a new calling-plan so that he could speak to his cousin in Myrtle Beach more cheaply, the Methodist minister fell silent — briefly. I told him what I knew about Albany Beef and the sturgeon. ‘You don’t want to eat that,’ he replied. ‘They’re bad. The water’s bad.’ And then he was back to Iraq and Babylon, and Utopia. He left at the next stop, at the junction of Fifth Avenue and 125th. The seats on the bus were now all taken; several passengers were standing. Absorbed by the disquisition on the sturgeon’s origins, I hadn’t noticed the bearded man in a heavy overcoat wearing Lennon spectacles sitting next to me.
‘I don’t believe in that shit,’ he said, once the second man was out of earshot. ‘I believe in evolution. I’m a Baptist. You know all apes menstruate...all female apes menstruate, like all humans. And you know that the fins on the sides of whales, they’re like hands, and if you look closely you see the fingers. Like human hands.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, not meaning yes, not knowing exactly what it was I wanted to say in reply to his observations on apes and whales. Soon it was my turn to exit the M60.
In the afternoon, after visiting the library at the New York Botanical Gardens, I retraced my morning bus journey on foot. The sidewalks were no w packed. Schoolkids were promenading on their way home. Some street vendors sold incense, others pirated movies and music or imitations of clothes and bags you see in advertisements in the glossy magazines. On one or two Harlem corners, booksellers traded in the Word of the Lord.