I had just put my book down for the night and shut off the light. With the drapes drawn and the lights out, the room sinks into a profound darkness. But it is alive with sound. Construction of the Central Market next door goes on, seemingly, through the night. I write “seemingly” because the ting-ting of hammers, the dull thud of pile-drivers and the rattle-and-hum of whatever is rattling and humming out there – a symphony of timpani – is still playing when I wake up.
The white noise rising up from Airport Road continues through the night, too: the traffic
of Abu Dhabi never ends. It is metro-tinitis. There’s nothing unusual in hearing the screech of tires as drivers brake suddenly to avoid passing through a red light. And the shriek of the cabbies’ horns mark the seconds’ passing.
The screech this night, however, was more urgent. It shouted at the top of its lungs: “Please, Lord, don’t let me hit this car.” But the Lord did not answer the prayer. And the crash that followed the screech spoke of two tonnes of accordion metal and victims.
Dan and I raced to the window. Ten stories below us were two cars, one facing the wrong way, having likely been forced around on impact. “C’mon. We’ve got to get down there,” Dan said. Dan’s young, thirty-six, who once was a reporter for Agence France-Presse in Cyprus, from which the wire service dispatched him to Gaza and Iraq.
“We’d be in the way,” I said. Already a crowd had started.
He reached for his cellphone. “We’ve got to call 9-1-1.”
“Someone already has.”
I could hear the whine of the police siren. The cruiser was coming down Airport Road. I went back to bed. Next morning, the street was clean.
Last Friday, I had come home late from the Katya internet café chatting with Denise on a video call. As I rounded the corner I saw a short, stubby-grey-haired man in a light blue shirt and blue pants locking up a door of the Iran Saderat Bank downstairs of our hotel apartment building. At five past midnight? I can’t figure out how everything stays open so late in this city.
I took the elevator up, talked with Dan for two minutes, went to the bathroom. I heard a loud buzzing. Through the bathroom door it sounded like a cellphone on steroided vibrator mode. Dan shouted: “Ray, c’mon. We gotta get downstairs. A car drove into the building.”
There was no stopping him this time. I looked out the window. The crowd was one of men, fifty of them at least and already. There in the corner of the bank was a yellow Matchbox with a black strip across its buckled hood. Next to it was a late model light-copper Toyota
that had probably been parked and in the way of the yellow car’s building-bound trajectory. The yellow Matchbox, I realized, when I made it downstairs, too, was a Lamborghini. The driver was no longer in the car.
I met Dan on the way down. In blue T-shirt and faded khaki desert shorts, he was racing back into the apartment building. “The cops tried to take my camera.”
The men milled about, manoeuvring for a better view, craning their necks, leaning one way then the next, standing on tip-toe. They were Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese, not a Gulf Arab among them. Those with cameras in their cellphones shot photographs. It reminded me of all the photos I’ve seen over the years from bombing scenes in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan – where do these people come from so fast? what is the interest?
The man I’d seen ten minutes before, closing up the bank, was trying to move the men away from the scene – as were the police, who now numbered about half a dozen.
Dan was back. He lifted his camera to his eye and shot again. A policeman grabbed his arm. Dan backed away. He spoke loudly and clearly: “Jeridat Etihad (Etihad newspaper – which is the name of our sister newspaper)” and showed the badge we use to get into and out of the Emirates Media building. The policeman wasn’t buying any of it. He took him to a fellow officer, who examined the badge. Dan took another shot. The officer handed back the badge and let Dan do his work.
Other officers began pushing back the men and two more drew out a roll of plastic tape marking the area as a police scene.
“Want to do some reporting?” Dan asked.
“Not particularly,” I said. I looked around. No one dead, no one hurt; an accident that was more spectacle than spectacular.
“You got a pen? I got to take some details,” Dan said.
I shook my head, went back upstairs.
Jim Sears was the bald, pear-shaped photographer with wire-rimmed glasses and a
ready laugh at the Transcript-Telegram in Holyoke, where I started. He looked like a cartoon character, a particular one named Ziggy. That’s what people called him – even though he’d been around a lot longer than the comic. He drove a dark shit-brown AMC Eagle.
One summer night in 1984 – I’d been on staff six months at that point, as the police reporter for Chicopee where I grew up – I had gone to sleep early. I woke to the sound of fire engines from the Aldenville station racing down Grattan Street. One was nothing. Two,
hmmmm. I got up. I must not have been asleep long. My mother was still watching television, my father asleep with his head in her lap.
I got dressed quickly and drove down the hill into Willimansett. I found a payphone, dropped in my dime, and called Ziggy. I must have woken him up, too. We were a PM paper, after all. We started work, some of us, before six a.m.
“How big is it?” he asked.
“It’s big.” I described what I saw.
“I’ll meet you there.”
The newspaper ran the photograph the next afternoon. Begrudgingly, and only because
someone had been charged with drinking and driving. Ziggy said not to call him at night anymore.
Back upstairs, Dan showed me the dozen or so shots he took. “I think I’ve got one publishable one here,” he said. I pointed out a second. He said he would take them to Etihad the next day, “as a goodwill gesture.”
I looked outside the window again. A tow truck was parked on the side of the road blocking one lane – there are no shoulders to speak of. I wondered how the driver would get the Lamborghini out. There were fewer onlookers now. Bored, fulfilled, satisfied, they had drifted away, scattering like glass shards.
One summer night (if my memory serves me well, this would be the summer of 1976 and I would have been thirteen), we heard the alarm go off in Station 13, not even a quarter mile down Grattan Street. We heard the fire engines race out. We waited. If it were a false alarm, we would hear the alarm stop and see the trucks come back in a relatively short time. The alarm continued. We heard the truck come up from Williamansett.
Someone called on the telephone. It was the Laundromat. We filed out of the house and scurried down the sidewalk. There we joined a growing crowd across the street from the
Laundromat, a ground-floor business fronting Grattan and sandwiched between Ray’s Supermarket and a barber shop. The Royal Tavern was on the corner. The crowd was gathered in the parking lot of Jane Alden, the convenience store where I used to buy music magazines to read lyrics to popular songs and where I bought my first cigarettes.
Several of my friends were in the Jane Alden’s parking lot as well. Glenn and Jimmy
lived down the street. Jeff wasn’t far away. I remember Mike, too. The Laundromat was on my walk to school. If Glenn had already left for school, I walked by it alone, my forest-green canvas book bag strung over my shoulder; I stopped in the Laundromat to meet briefly with some of the Protestant kids – who knows if they actually were, but they didn’t go to Ste. Jeanne d’Arc, so in my parents’ and my limited world view, that meant they were Protestant – with whom I’d become friendly through others, namely Mike. There, I would have a cigarette before school, or when I had quit smoking (does it count? to have smoked Newports irregularly for maybe nine months to say that I had “quit”?), just to hang out.
One morning, I had walked by, with a cigarette cupped in my hand and my hand inside the left hand pocket of my navy windbreaker. The kids – they were both boys and girls – teased me about not stopping, said something about my not smoking with them any longer, asked me what was in my pocket. I moved along. I passed Piotte’s pharmacy on the corner of McKinstry, where I used to – when I had been oh so much younger only two years before – play a guess-the-time game with the school crossing guard. I walked beyond Cumberland Farms, the other convenience store in town, toking on my cigarette as surreptitiously as I could, and past Spiro’s pizzeria. By the time I reached the boys’ school yard the cigarette was gone.
I found my gang of friends in a circle by the steps leading up to the door to the first floor where the younger kids were. We talked. Then Mike pointed to my windbreaker pocket. “You’re on fire!”
I looked down. There was smoke coming out of the pocket. I dropped my book bag and
started slapping at the jacket. I put the fire out. There was a black, scorched-edge hole the size of a US quarter in the pocket. I inverted the pocket. It looked like a bunny ear with a shotgun hole, all the way through. I opened the jacket to see if it had damaged my pants or belt, too. Lucky there. I took off my jacket and stuffed it in my book bag. No need in having the nuns question me.
In the Jane Alden parking lot, it was clear, it was not the Laundromat itself that was on fire but the apartments above it. We stayed to watch, though we were not really watching anymore. It was a chance for neighbours to get together and talk. For friends to slap each other on the back and for kids to horse around. Aldenville was a pretty small enclave of French-Canadians (except for those Protestants, of course), so I knew just about everybody there. There were some, however, that we didn’t.
My mother was talking with Dorothy, a neighbour from across Grattan Street. She and her husband used to come over for pizza late at night every once in a while. Pizza and drinks.
In the parking lot, she nudged my mother with her elbow. (Mental math here. If I was thirteen, my mother was thirty-three; Dororthy was a bit younger.) Dorothy nudged my mother and raised her chin a bit to indicate a skinny young woman unknown to them walking nearby. I remember a thin white sleeveless sweater. My mother looked. They giggled to each other.
“What? What?” I asked.
“Riens,” my mother said. Nothing.
“It’s not nothing.”
“She’s got no bra,” Dorothy said.
I turned, but the woman had walked by.