OF STRANGERS IN STRANGE PLACES

The first person I spoke to in the United States was the dour, glass-eyed official who stamped my passport. The second was a man called Prophet. He and his wife sat beside me on the second part of my train journey from JFK Airport to Chinatown. I had been in the air seventeen hours, with a five-hour layover, so I was feeling heavy with sleep as the train whisked through the underbelly of the city. To stay awake I stared out the window, I eavesdropped on the couple’s conversation. The man had a loud, friendly voice, an explosive laugh. I heard the woman’s words only when her husband—leaning forward, his voice gruff with impatience—urged her to speak louder.

We disembarked at the same station. Dank, underground, faded graffiti on the walls and pillars, the floor puddled with urine. Despite the stories I had heard, I knew it was unlikely I would be robbed on my first day in New York, but if that were to happen, this was the place. I glanced around, saw the man and his wife—two heads I recognised in a crowd of strangers—heading up the stairs, towards daylight. I was to catch a train in that station. I grabbed my bags and ran up the stairs.

After introductions and welcomes and weather chitchat, I asked Prophet for advice on how and where to buy a cell phone. He was friendly, as I knew he would be. He and his wife walked me to the store, chatting all the way. They intermediated between me and the storekeeper, who had trouble with my Nigerian accent. When I expressed reservations about the cost of the phone plan, Prophet, in a move that surprised his wife as much as it did me, stuck his hand in his pocket, pulled out a phone and pushed it at me. It was only his second phone; I could use it for the four weeks I was around; he would accept my word that I would return it before I departed the country.

That was how I got a phone. For free, on trust, from a stranger. In the Big Bad Apple, world-famous for its hard-boiled, inhospitable residents.

A. Igoni Barrett of Nigeria is a winner of the 2005 BBC World Service short story competition, the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, an Ebedi Residency, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency. Listen online to his short story “My Smelling Mouth Problem,” published in The Drum. His first book, the story collection From Caves of Rotten Teeth, was published in 2005 in Nigeria. A new collection is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2013.

Igoni is also an International Mailer Fiction Fellow. He is using his month of residency to work on a novel.

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