Let me tell you the story about a girl of ambition I once knew. She was stubborn and young. Positive, she saw what could become even with an empty glass. She conquered her ego. Something most anyone consistently battles with. And she did it with a backhanded flair that was fluidly mechanic, skilfully crafted.
Back when I worked in Upper Hill, I lived in a neighbourhood which was too far off from the bus stop. One of those suburbs which worked only if you could drive yourself (or be driven) out. The road which ran right outside my hood’s gate – the one which could start you on the trek to the bus stop – was under construction. The Northern Bypass. I think.
On one of my first days of jobo, I made the brazen decision to walk myself to the stop. Me and my skirt and my heels and my fresh face. My pride hang on my right shoulder. Next to my laptop bag, one of those square ones which would bounce against my hips as I walked. My handbag and naivety hang on my left.
I walked that road. And I walked. And walked some more. It must have been noon by the time I crawled into the office. I met guys of HR on their way out to lunch. Shower fresh. I looked like a travelling salesman – dusty, spent and glowing with sweat.
I checked in to the 8th floor. I dropped my bags at my desk then walked head-down to the washroom. Once in the cubicle with the window, I put the lid over the toilet bowl, placed a disposable toilet seat cover on the floor and stepped out of my heels onto the paper. Then one by one – very calmly, very deliberately, very thoughtfully – I took off every piece of clothing I had on me and folded each in a neat little square I placed on the toilet bowl. I took off my silver and placed them on top of the pile. My watch was the last to come off. I felt liberated, somewhat psychopathic.
Then I stood by the window. I spread my arms out wide as if I was about to bungee jump. Or commit suicide, who knows? (Imagine what the headlines would read the next day: Young corporate plunges to her death. Imagine the pains of explaining why my stuff was folded neatly in the washroom.) There were some chaps on a construction site right across the window who I believe caught a sight. Hehhe.
Beneath me, the cold of the concrete floor pulsed through my feet. And as it whispered through the window, the wind cooled the canvas of my skin with every brush stroke. It felt so good. I shut my eyes and silenced the world. Then I made a vow: Never again – ever, ever – will I walk to the bus stop to take the connection to work. Never again.
All I needed was to ride out with someone to anywhere I could take the bus. I cover that and I’m sorted.
The following morning, I started collecting dossier about my neighbours in a little notebook. The Hand Manual and Rule Book. Thinking about it now that was creepy behaviour. I was a spy. And I relished it.
I had my Layer One rides – the early birds and regulars: Mama Kiptoo from next door leaves every morning at 0645hours sharp. Not a minute more, not a minute less. She drives off when the car is still wet. Her houzie hoses it down it every morning from 0600hours. Mama Kiptoo likes cars with big bodies. Not Mercedes-big but Voxy-big. Works in Insurance. She doesn’t exchange a single word with her passengers.
(Sidebar: One would ordinarily find this odd. I loved it. And I loved her for it. Thing is, I detest small talk. Small talk exhausts me. And I also detest conversation in the early morning.)
Mama Kiptoo mirrors my preferences because we sit in silence until my drops off. Neither of us finds it uncomfortable. Or rude. We thrive in that silence.
Mr Wafula from round the bend leaves at 0720hours sharp. A hulk of a man. A civil engineer who retired from public practice too early. When his kids were in the middle of high school.
(Sidebar: Rumour has it they had a few rough years of tightened purse strings before he set things in order. Even the Toyo we ride in was almost auctioned to settle debts. The truth of those rumours defeats me, though.)
Mr Wafula now works with some bourgeois consultancy in the nearby shopping centre. He drops his kids off at the same roundabout every morning. They’re all in private Uni.
Conversation with Mr Wafula and his kids is slightly beefier than with Mama Kiptoo. We listen to Radio Waumini. He grunts as he drives.
Baba Chelang’at from down the road leaves between 0730hours and 0745hours. He looks like Isaac Ruto. Hell, he speaks like Isaac Ruto. He drives a vintage Peugeot 504, one which every Kale in the neighbourhood drove at one point. My Ol’Man included. His is in brown. His wife dressed up the seats in some supermarket-suede covers. So it’s all warm and cushy in there.
(Sidebar: The seats were high though. So high the top of everyone’s head touched the car’s ceiling. Someone from the outside would think we were all too large for it.)
Baba Chela’s a crazy driver. And he likes conversation. Kwanza in Kale. My sentences in response are weak. Laugh off his need to converse.
Mama Staicee at the far end of esto also drives one of these Peugeots. Hers is in baby blue. She leaves between 0750hours and 0815hours. Give or take. She has commas for eyes. She is pleasant. She speaks in a small soft voice and fills the gaps of our silence with the phrase ‘Mmh’. She has to drop her two daughters to school first before heading to work.
(Sidebar: One Friday morning I rode along with them to school, where the other students were gathering for parade. I even took the courtesy of getting out of the car to hand them their school bags then watch them walk away.)
Note to self, drop off where you need to.
Then there were the sporadic rides. My Layer Two options. They left between 0820hours and 0920hours:
Baba Richie up the road. An NGO honcho. His drop off is too far off for my convenience. He asks that I call him by his first name, Stephen. (Awkward.)
Amerie. A lawyer politician turned lawyer who plays Hope FM and several of those Christian CDs you find in Tune Inn. Chirpy bird. She doesn’t just speak. She argues with me. (It felt like I’d sat through an exam by the time I dropped off.) Mental exhaustion understates our rides.
Baba Mark from the house in the corner. He had a Mercedes. Drops me right outside my office building. Laid back chap. He wears suits only in black. Works with some oil company.
Mrs Olang from the third gate on the first right is a matron at the maternity wing of Kenyatta. (I’d sometimes go in and wait for her in her living room. Her suggestion, not mine.) She has an oily curly kit. Hehhe. And loves rainy days.
At 0750hours on some mornings, there was a rickety bus from the slums which detoured outside our gate. It was stuffed and stinky, goodness. Do you know how service-industry people operate with the maxim that the ‘Customer is always right’? For these guys, it was ‘The bus is never full’.
On most mornings I only had enough room to get in and squeeze myself into a little corner to give the conductor space to shut the door. Then I’d stand on the lowest step. If I turned my head even slightly, I come face to face with the crotch/bottom of the guy standing at the top of the steps. The trick was to face the door and not move at all. Or breathe.
Other times they’d pick up more people along the way and stuff them in until I was suspended between a mass of human bodies. My feet weren’t touching the ground.
The mood in there was sombre – this wasn’t a bus where passengers listened to their iPods or Tweeted from their Samsungs. Passengers were either staring out the window or into their palms. Timid like illegal immigrants. You held your bus fare in your hand and pressed your luggage to your breasts, zippers in sight.
I had one rule and one rule only. It applied to when I was beyond my neighbours’ hours. The rule was that as soon as I walked the stretch to the main gate of the hood and pulled the little pedestrian gate on the right open, there was no turning back. You walk through that gate and you find whatever you will find on the other side.
Reaching the gate – then pulling it open – was an extremely bad situation. It was the point of desperate resorts. So I’d start to pray as soon as I walked out the gate of my house.
“Dear God, please send me someone. I am running late. And I really need your help. Amen.”
Simple prayer. Clean. Earnest. Some mornings, I hadn’t even gotten mid-way through it when someone would drive past. Other days I’d walk out of my gate to find ‘em reversing out of their garage.
On the worst days, I’d just keep walking. That pedestrian gate getting closer with each heavy step. And it was here the prayer progressed to something crazy. Remember that scene from the movie For Coloured Girls where the daughter of Whoopi Goldberg’s character has just returned home from having an abortion, then Whoopi tells her she has to get on her knees and pray for forgiveness? Whoopi approaches her. Whoopi draws the sign of the cross with ashes on her forehead as she screams at her, “I don’t hear you praying, Child. I don’t hear you praying. Hear yourself, Child.”
That was the sort of screaming conversation I had with myself on those mornings. It was as if I was speaking to someone I had fallen out of favour with. Here’s how it went:
“Dear God, please send me someone. I am running late. And I really need your help. Amen.”
“God, are you there?”
“C’,mon. I know you hear me. I know you copy this. C’mon.”
“Say something? Anything? Sigh.”
“Wink. Wave. Send me a smiley. Just let me know you’re there.”
“God? Gawwd? Gawwwddddd??”
“Oh c’mon. Cut me some slack over here.”
“OK. Look, I am sorry for those nasty things I said last week. That guy whose head I said was shaped like a thumb. Or that rude cashier at the Kenchic who I thought had a mouth that looked like a fish’s. I’m sorry I said that. I had no ill intentions when I said it. I was out of line. I’m sorry. Let’s be friends again.”
“I love you.”
“OK. All that emotion was uncalled for. I’m sorry I yelled and I’m sorry I used our love as an excuse to reel you out. Ignore.”
After a long pause, “Otherwise, you’re good?”
I was outside the pedestrian gate at this point. And I waved down anyone – and I mean anyone – who was driving past: there was that meat truck making a delivery to Buffet Park. There was the gynaecologist who had cartons of hospital equipment in his back seat. There was the youngie who said he worked for K24 as a Video Editor. There was the dentist smoker. Another was Juliani’s manager.
Calling my cab guy was far too easy a way out. It was a warning of giving up. Of losing. Besides, I needed him to get back home in the evening.
What I liked most about that period of my life is that I got over myself. All those personal traits which make you look outward to others and imagine what they think of you? Please. As if their opinions will get you to work? Grow up already.
My pride, aloofness? Independence? My ego? I shed all those things off for the few minutes I played the unwanted passenger. Then I put them right back on the moment I got off – when I straightened my skirt and pulled at my cuffs from under my jacket sleeves, when I cupped my breasts and puffed them back up with a little wiggle, it all came right back on.
Every Christmas, I bought six packs of Simon Elvin cards. I would write a personalized message in each card and deliver to my neighbour’s house. None of them sent one in return, but it didn’t matter.
None of them asked after me when they didn’t see me for two or three days. Very few of them actually knew what I did for a living, I am not even sure they knew my name. Again, it didn’t matter. One lady neighbour wouldn’t stop when I waved her down. Again, no matter.
The only thing that mattered was my goal.
I was selfish, intrusive and oblivious to their personal space. My neighbours probably wanted to use the morning drive to bond with the kids. Wives and girlfriends wanted to clear things out with their mano, end the silent treatment maybe. Cats wanted to practice for their office presentations. Listen to their audio books. Pray even. But they couldn’t because there was this chick in their back seat who squeezed her luggage to herself.
I played the game every single work-morning for over two years. And I won most times than I didn’t. I believe there is no need playing a game if you aren’t winning. You either win or you don’t play at all.
One Tuesday morning – four months before I started my third year of the game – I walked out of my gate to feel my spirit deflate. I instinctively knew what happened: I was now fed up. I was fed up of playing the game. I was fed up of my Hand Manual and Rule Book. I was fed up with the weight of my luggage. I was fed up with the efficient system I had created to get myself to work.
I was fed up. And there was no going back on that.
In that instant, Baba Mark (Benz Man in the black suit) pulled over.
I stopped playing the game four months later. In August. But there wasn’t anybody new working the streets. No lone figure in the hood walking towards the gate or waiting for someone to wave down. I didn’t hand my tools down to anyone. The game ended with me. I was the game. I was that young girl of ambition.
Yet. I had been playing alone all along.
There’s no real reason why I told you that story. It always seemed like a good story to tell.
Nonetheless, it’s still January. I am allowed to make a toast to the New Year, aren’t I?
So here’s to 2015: The year we flatten our breasts, wave people down and forget our egos to get to where we want to go. The year we play to win.