Tales from the road

On the importance of LED flashlights, rap magazines and pied crows. Plus, pedaling into a "Seinfeld" moment

Published June 11, 2010 12:01PM (EDT)

Whenever we land here, the same group of guys rushes to meet us. They are refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone. They spend their days loitering around the airport, looking for handouts and whatnot. When the airline crews come through, headed for their buses, they swarm over.

One of them is a kid about 21 or 22, tall and lanky with a wispy beard. He's always wearing the same dirty jeans and a baseball cap, and he always singles me out for some reason.

One day he had a special request. "The next time you come," he said to me, "can you bring me an LED flashlight? I really would like an LED flashlight."

"OK," I told him, not sure what to make of this strange request. "Next time, yes."

I didn't really mean it, though. I was tired and hot and it was the easiest thing to do. And while I knew that I would be back in a couple of weeks, I figured by then he'd forget about it.

In fact I was the one who wound up forgetting. Sure enough, two weeks later I'm back again, and there he is, waiting. He walks straight up to me. "LED flashlight? Remember? You told me you'd bring me an LED flashlight." He's smiling, but it's a nervous smile. He suspects I haven't got it, and he's right.

"Oh, shoot, man. I'm really sorry."

"It's OK, it's OK." He looks sad now, if not quite surprised. "Will you bring it next time?"

"Sure," I say. I'm off the hook for now. "I'll bring it next time."

"I really would like an LED flashlight."

"I know."

"And some rap magazines."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Fast-forward a couple of months. It's a Thursday afternoon and I'm riding my mountain bike down to Tags hardware in Porter Square to purchase an LED flashlight.

They keep them next to the checkout counters. At first I'm tempted by the house brand, Ace, but they look cheap and flimsy. I need a heavy-duty LED flashlight able to meet third-world specs. I splurge instead, $14.99, for a really nice one, with a Velcro holster and everything, batteries included.

I make my purchase, unlock my bike, and pedal across the parking lot toward Elm Street.

As I bend around the corner of Shaw's supermarket, I ride up onto the sidewalk to avoid the traffic. Whoooops, bad idea, because there's another cyclist coming the other way, and I can't see him. He's barely moving, about to lock up at the bike rack on the corner when I come whipping toward him.

Though, really, it's not that close. My brakes squeal, but it's obvious we won't collide. When I come to a stop, we're abeam each other, about 3 feet apart. No harm done. "Hey, shoot, I'm sorry," I say to him.

What happens next I don't understand:

"Nice!" he says. The guy is around 50, I'd guess. My height, bigger at the waist, with glasses. He looks like any normal, middle-aged person you'd see in Porter Square. Professional, but sort of crunchy around the edges. He's wearing a helmet and reflective vest. "Didn't you open your eyes when you got out of bed this morning?"

The way he says this -- there's something in his tone that leads me to think he's making light of the whole thing. So I joke back to him. "Damn sidewalk riders!" I say.

"F--- YOU!" he screams at me. Just like that. Then he pedals away.

"What?" I pedal after him. "Hey, man, wait a minute, hang on. It was an accident. I said I was sorry."

He stops, steps from his bike, and walks toward me. He's red-faced and fuming. "F--- YOU, asshole!" he yells. "Can't you ride a f----- bike? What are you f----- stupid, riding on the sidewalk?" His helmet has gone crooked and salvos of spittle are shooting from his mouth. He looks fiendishly, electrically angry.

"Dude," I say. "Chill out. I was coming around the corner and I didn't see you ..."

"Yeah? F--- you, you son of a bitch. I ought to knock you in the f---- face, riding on the sidewalk. Stupid f---- idiot."

"Man, relax ..."

"F--- you, relax. How about I knock your teeth in, huh? How about I call the cops and have you cited for riding on the sidewalk. Goddamn f------ asshole."

Part of me is waiting for the guy to break into a smile and admit that he's putting me on. I'm trying and failing to make sense of such threatening language coming from a guy who looks so positively docile -- over an incident of such minor consequence.

"I said I was sorry, man. You're being a little hostile over a simple mistake ..."

"Motherf-----. Why don't you step over here and I'll show you hostile. Get off your bike and let's settle it."

I have an orange basket mounted to the back of my bike. He points at it. "Nice basket. How about I stick your f------ head in it, MORON!"

After several more exchanges like this, I turn and ride away. I am beginning to fear that he is going to assault me.

I hardly know what to think. When somebody makes a small and simple mistake, then apologizes for it, you accept the apology and make peace, am I right? Why would you fly off the handle?

But now comes the kicker:

Witnessing this entire exchange are two teenage girls, Shaw's employees out taking a break on one of the benches. They saw and heard the whole thing.

As I'm riding past them, I look over and raise my eyebrows. "Man." I say, half to them and half to myself, shaking my head. What I fully expect is for the girls to smile, nod or otherwise make some sympathetic gesture.

Instead, the girl on the left, the taller of the two, still wearing her blue Shaw's smock, raises her hand and gives me the finger.

I am not making this up.

I felt like George Costanza in a "Seinfeld" episode. I had gone to buy an LED flashlight for a derelict kid who lives in a tin shack, and now I'm getting the finger from a 16-year-old girl and some guy wants to stick my head in a basket.

The world just isn't fair.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Forty-eight hours later, there he is, with his baseball cap and grease-stained jeans, ambling toward me. "My friend, my friend," he says.

I wave. "It was an LED flashlight you wanted, right?"

"Yes, if you can bring me one." He doesn't realize that I have it.

And you should see his face when I pull it from my bag, still in its blister-pack.

"Here, I brought one for you. Is it all right? Is this the kind you want?"

He is beaming. "Yes, yes," he says, fondling it. "God bless you!" He takes my hand and shakes it. "God bless you!"

"No trouble. You're welcome."

Then he asks if maybe next time I can bring him "a satellite radio, with headphones."

I'll see what I can do, I tell him. No promises.

"And some rap magazines."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A few hours later I am sitting on the hotel patio with Ni, Priscilla and Abraham. They are part of what I refer to as the Swimming Pool Mafia -- my term of endearment for the group of locals who hang around the lobby and pool looking to make a few dollars. They call themselves "artists" but they're really just hustlers, selling third-rate trinkets and gaudy paintings that airline crews and tourists overpay grotesquely for.

Ni is my favorite of the three. He has a missing tooth and a head too big for his body. He probably makes $25 a week hawking curios, but he's wearing a pair of hundred-dollar sunglasses. I know they cost a hundred dollars because they used to be mine. They were a hand-me-down gift from my father. I wore them for a while but never really liked them. One day I gave them to Ni, and he treasures them like gold. He is also wearing a red and white soccer shirt that I bought a few years ago in Istanbul.

Priscilla is telling a story. She says that her father was killed by evil spirits. One of his neighbors put a hex on him over some land dispute they were having, and then he died. Priscilla talks on her cellphone a lot, and spends the rest of her days watching Nigerian soap operas. When she's hungry she says, "I want to take some small rice."

Abraham is the most gregarious of the three. Poor Abraham's legs were long ago mauled by polio, but his arms are thicker than the gear struts of a 757. He asks me about coming to America, where he wants to play on a wheelchair basketball team.

Up in one of the poolside palm trees, a crow begins to yell. Its abrasive calls are echoed back by an unseen mate somewhere nearby.

I excuse myself and walk over to lobby. I take out my laptop and send an e-mail to some friends at home. The e-mail contains the following passage:

"I worry sometimes about the birds. The airport here is plagued by huge pied crows, buzzards and vultures. They hang around the ends of the runway, thuggish and menacing, languorously moving aside whenever a plane goes by, like recalcitrant teenagers asked to move from a street corner. Getting one of these monsters in an engine at 160 knots on takeoff is something I'd rather not deal with. Get one in both engines ..."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Later in the afternoon I was sitting in my room, up on the sixth floor, reading the newspaper. It was very quiet, when all of a sudden I heard a loud scratching sound at the window.

When I looked, there at the glass, 5 feet away, was a pied crow. Corvus albus. It was perched there, staring in at me.

The crow began to caw -- screaming in that way that only crows scream. Crows are loud enough when you hear them from a distance. From 5 feet it's something else entirely.

And the bird was facing toward me, not away from me, looking directly into the room, contorting its head and shoulder against the glass in order to do so, its talons somehow gripping the tiny, 2-inch sill that is barely big enough for a mouse, let alone this big scary bird.

Finally after 10 or 15 seconds it lifted its ashy wings and was gone.

The next morning we flew home. And while I am not a superstitious person, I would be lying if I told you that, as the thrust levers were pushed forward and the engines began to roar, I wasn't a little more attentive than normal, scanning the far end of the runway for the slightest movement.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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