when I was a still a student, I was crossing a large intersection in a
scummy area of London-Elephant & Castle. As a student in a city you
get the view, not of cathedrals, but of gutters-where
morning-after-the-drunken-night puke sticks to your shoes, and people spit
and the stench of urine in the underground is so powerful you learn to
hold your breath.
never think of clean areas because that's where a year of tuition fees can
be blown in one shop. Also in the tiny Greek diner, or the greasy café
you hear interesting conversations. Voices are never discreet so you hear
the expletives and the bitching about men and the rage over women and the
complaints about the NHS and shouting in strange languages and smells of
stuff you know you should not ingest, but it gives you a thrill to be
wintry day was like any other. Swishing cars with unforgiving and unseeing
drivers sending black soot, cold wind, grit, to stragglers crossing the
road. It happened so quickly I wondered if I imagined it.
the traffic light flashed "walk" pedestrians on either side
began crisscrossing, faces dodging one another as they did this the most
natural and unconscious of acts in any city. A man in front of me, one I
wouldn't have looked at twice-dressed ordinarily in a faded navy
windbreaker and jeans, came face to face with an adolescent boy. I
remember the boy clearly because he had ruddy cheeks. But more because of
his air of vulnerability.
swagger that hides all kinds of teenaged insecurities. Who sees all that
in a passer-by? So I don't doubt my memory could be playing games with me
given what happened next. The man in front of me randomly went up to this
young boy and slapped him. Hard. Twice. Till his cheeks turned red.
Perhaps he wasn't ruddy, just red from being slapped. Perhaps he was
confident but as I remember him he was vulnerable because a stranger
slapped him out of the blue. Broke every rule of anonymity and assaulted
him for no reason and walked on as if nothing had happened. The lights
were flashing, changing.
boy stood there in the middle of the road, stunned, one hand frozen on his
face. I saw this and carried on walking, carried along in the crush of the
crowd. That's life in a city when you look at it from the bottom, more
often than not, in a scummy area without the protection of being behind a
wheel, or in a guarded edifice.
scene in Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver:- a young man in a gloomy
room (a space so poignantly utilitarian it suggests its scrappily lived
state-stale, sour smells of alcohol, sweat, oily takeaways, soiled sheets)
is slowly rocking his chair, pointing his gun at the actors in a soap
opera on the television on which he has a foot. The tension of the
deliberate rocking, the backward and forward drip, drip, drip of his
emptiness, clawing onto the fake conversation between the actors on a
grainy TV, is so unbearable that you almost want him to shoot at it, at
them, to end it so you can breathe again.
hold your breath while your heart thuds uncomfortably for the minute that
seems to last forever. Relief comes as he kicks the television which
crashes with an explosion. It's the ultimate portrait of an isolated,
empty restlessness, of a dull loneliness that is so terrifying that most
of us fill up our days trying to avoid it. Give us anything - an
explosion, a slap would be better. Did I say a slap?
there is the backdrop of course, skilfully created, of New York from the
bottom up. Not the flashy New York of Sex in the City, of designer labels,
sushi salad cocktail bars, of opera and penthouses on the right side of
the river, of canters around Central Park, but the underground city that
is reality to hundreds of thousands of the people who drowned before they
made it to the American dream. A New York of pimps, prostitutes, pushers,
hustlers, guns, badly ventilated buildings, swirling with smoke, a New
York of illegal immigrants, runaways, stowaways, drop-outs. A New York of
greasy spoons, of the smell of oil, eggs, fries, bacon. Of dripping car
exhausts. Of taxi drivers.
was surreal, watching this Academy Award-winning film in the heart of
Laventille, in the enterprisingly created CCA7, the art centre in the
Fernandes Industrial Centre, where classics like this one are shown free
every Thursday night. The dozen or so of us watching this film were
sitting in a concrete space, watching a film, watching a man watch a
television where actors are acting. So many barriers between us and
reality. Yet art transcends that. And makes us remember the reality we
live in but block out.
de Niro and Jodie Foster chillingly recreate all cities. Robert de Niro is
Everyman who becomes drained of hope and then drifts along in a world
where fantasy and reality blur, where people shoot because they can, where
absolutely contradictory pulls of unbelievable generosity and compassion
merge with the unforgiving moment when a man is dead because someone near
him has a gun and is angry enough at the world to pull a trigger.
brings us back with a jolt, as if to say, look what you're missing, you
idiots. There's lessons in the anger. There's emptiness behind an
anonymous slap. And depth behind the taxi driver who empties his life
savings so a child prostitute could escape her pimp. So much lost
humanity. It's right here. Right here. Just reach.