I learned to drive in a field when I was five, from the same grandfather who taught me how to ride a horse and chew tobacco. At age ten, I took my other grandfather’s El Camino out on Highway 1, the longest road in Louisiana, from church camp all the way to vacation bible school. That spiritual summer, compelled by the power of Christ, I think was the first and last time I truly felt the thrill of being behind the wheel. Once legally licensed, I found myself in a few fender benders, reluctantly dealing with mechanical malfunctions often due to my feminine indifference in the face of minute maintenance. I recall nonchalantly applying mascara in my rear view mirror, moving at about 80 miles an hour, when someone shouted from the next lane, Hey Miss, your car’s on fire! And indeed it was.
Walking to work one morning, right off Rue Royal in New Orleans’ Vieux Carré, I ran into the Chicken Man, a local voodoo practitioner of some repute. Ebony face smiling out from under his ivory cowboy hat, he stopped to ask me how I was doing, and I answered, I could be better. He offered to help, if somebody put a gris-gris on me. I just shook my head, I don’t know Chicken Man, I’m just sick and tired of my grandma’s old Pontiac breakin’ down on me. You got a mojo for that?
He brightened, Pretty Lady, I got a mojo for everything. Come by tomorrow and I’ll have it fixed up. So I did. At the back of his shop, the cool cat sat, in a candle-lit cloud of incense, amongst a hocus-pocus host of saints and skulls. His pink leather palm presented what looked like any other mojo, a little silk sachet, a kind of bouquet garni, containing some pungent mumbo jumbo botanicals tied up with a cord into a necklace. I wrinkled my nose, before I caught myself and inquired, with all due respect, Do I have to wear it around my neck all the time or put it under my pillow every night?
He shook his head, amusement playing at the corners of his mouth, before suggesting, It‘d be more powerful dangling on that dashboard of yours.
What do I owe you, Chicken Man?
Averting his eyes, he answered, What you think its worth. Suddenly sheepish, I gave him the paltry five bucks I had, saying I’d be back with more once the mojo started working, and a week later, I was.
How’s that old black magic treating you, Gallery Girl? He knew I sold sub-Saharan sculptures down on the corner and Royal Academy equestrian oil paintings further up the street on Saturdays.
Well Chicken Man, it’s like this. Wednesday, I was driving up St. Charles on my way to meet a couple of acquaintances, for gin and tonics at Fat Harry’s. And right when I ran that yellow light at Napoleon Avenue, somebody else hit me, seeing red. We spun around, and took out a fire hydrant with us, exploded up like we struck oil, or something. The car is totalled. I just got an insurance check in the mail for thousands of dollars. So I don’t know, you tell me? He slapped the counter, disgorging a baritone chuckle and said, not without some pride, Yeah, that voodoo is a funny thing, ain’t it? Now that car of yours ain’t gonna break down on you no more.
Soon I met a Saudi prince who was training in Texas as a NASA astronaut. Before going up in the space shuttle, he spent a weekend in the Big Easy and at a party, took a shine to me. He flew me to Houston and I headed straight for the hotel spa. Four hairy Germans I’d seen on MTV, joined me in the jacuzzi, who turned out to be a band called The Scorpions. They were playing that night. After a massage I met the boys from Deep Purple, by the pool. They invited me on a tour of Southfork Ranch, with the promise of a jigger with JR Ewing on the set of the TV show, Dallas. Alas, I declined, more inclined to stay with my sovereign space cadet, and with no prior training I crash landed the shuttle simulator at Johnson Space Center during something they referred to as, The Hawaiian Scenario.
Back home, I began to receive boxes by UPS, laden with hand-beaded veils, silk caftans and silver coffee sets, directly from the Arabian Peninsula. The most intriguing object arrived in a velvet presentation case bigger than a shoe box. Nestled within was an extravagant necklace rendered in 24 karat gold, depicting the space shuttle flying over the royal palace at Riyadh, flanked by palm trees and crossed swords, crest of the House of Saud. The Canadian jeweller I worked for weighed the necklace, matching earrings, ring and armful of bracelets, made his calculations, and counted the cash into my hot little hand. He snickered, imitating my Saudi suitor, Desert Flower, sell my love gift to buy a Toyota.
True, the the transaction afforded a sporty new Japanese import which I drove cross-country to my new home in Haight-Ashbury. There’s an old song about leaving your heart in San Francisco, well that’s where I left my last car. After you go over the Golden Gate Bridge a few times the parking tickets start to slow you down. It was the wild west, and I went to work at Wells Fargo Bank. The South was my stage and the powers-that-be ponied up for a Mustang convertible from which I coached my mostly male confederates to deposit fat checks.
I left California’s colourful Victorian hilltop houses for Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak, where an outdoor escalator, snaking 800 meters through equatorial territory, exported 80,000 expats in our power suits from well feathered nests, down to towers full of tycoons in the harbour. One day during a typhoon, gliding in gleaming Gucci shoes, I slip on the slippery slope. I flip and finally flop face down. The Prada purse spills open my personal life. My new Nokia cracks and the briefcase breaches the confidentiality agreement upon which my financial future relies. Across the ground I crawl on Armani clad knees to gather a promising career’s required gear. Nearby, Cantonese neighbours watch the other gweilo, (ghost people, foreign devils) march over me with ruthless efficiency, toward their next promotion. When I shuffle in to my office like a wet cat, the Managing Director bellows, Pack your bags, Moneypenny, you’ve been reassigned to Mumbai!
My boss at the Bombay Stock Exchange called me the « Secret Weapon », once I commissioned thirty custom-made subcontinental saris. On a tour of the Taj Mahal in an Indian congressman’s propaganda plastered car, we were mobbed by a crowd mistaking me for Sonya Ghandi. She was 20 years my senior and from Lusiana, Italy not Louisiana, USA but how to say that in Hindi? Traffic outside the Taj Hotel was terrifying, with women wretched from profound poverty pressing naked brown babies against tinted windows hoping for a hand out. I went for my wallet, and perhaps to protect me, the chauffeur, from Chennai, activated the child safety lock. If he hit a local, company protocol dictated we speed to Sahar airport to take the first flight exiting Indian airspace. When I did that, the plane set down in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Taxi drivers in Tokyo wore pristine white gloves. So did subway staff who pushed people, politely sealing them like sardines inside trains, avoiding delay. They bowed deeply during departure, except in the event of a suicide. Seppuku on the tracks is second only to finishing yourself off in Mount Fuji’s forest. On 9/11, I watched a Japanese TV presenter fly two paper planes between his thumb and index fingers in to a tiny origami model of the Twin Towers. Turning off the television, I crumpled my job contract for a fledgling hedge fund. The entire hiring team in New York had died.
I ride the Red Line from Tallaght to town and something about the announcement Next Stop- Hospital makes me uneasy. It was Monday morning, when I was last on the LUAS, Gaelic for Speed. A gargantuan guy fell asleep, his head heavy on my shoulder, tinny tunes belching from his ear-buds. A teen turned abruptly, his backpack exfoliating my face. I felt faint and rose rapidly toward the doors. Scurrying ahead was a small Muslim in a tightly tied violet headscarf, set on getting out, when without warning, she collapsed into my arms. The scrum scattered, leaving us like lepers in a circle of stares. Uncaring, the train resumed its route to Smithfield, while the corolla of fair freckled souls muttered advice at me. When the doors slid open, I locked her armpits in the crook of my arguably larger limbs, and dragged her to the wet sidewalk. Asking her name, I examined her pupils for dilation. Finding a phone in her plethora of packages I wondered if ABDUL was her husband. Sweating, tears tumbled down her dampening cheeks. Pedestrians paused to diagnose diabetes or epilepsy, and someone called an ambulance as she stammered, I’m pregnant. Her fine boned brown fingers fluttered in mine until the Fire Brigade arrived.
Before anyone asked, I blurted out, This is Annie, she’s 24, 14 weeks pregnant and she hasn’t eaten today. She’s a social worker for people with disabilities. The medics nodded, like bored horses, installing her inside the ambulance. The doors thumped shut and it sped away, along with that part of me that wanted to take care of her and her baby for the rest of their lives. I could have been a grandmother by now, but I forgot to have kids. Standing there in the wind, I worried about her, and then about me, before closing my coat. Lighting a cigarette, I quickly cut across the square.
I’m a little uneasy, loitering at bus stops. Secretly, I become that seven-year-old that was nearly snatched by a creep who coaxed me into his Cadillac while waiting for the school bus. With local law enforcement’s « Stranger Danger » lecture fresh in my head, I fled just like Officer Friendly said. I fled as far as I could go on little legs made of marshmallow. Now I’m not bolder but older and yawning under a Dublin donut shop’s awning advertising, Aungier Danger. In relentless rain I rearrange my mane, bonding with a distinguished blonde delighted I’m from across the pond. The boisterous bus whisks us to Wicklow. It’s full of familiar faces further back, but we flock together up front.
As the miles go by, my mobile Mona Lisa smiles, slipping off shoes, distracted, detaching clip-on earrings, the way women do on long bus rides. We fuss about budgets, discuss what’s distressing, and she’s …undressing. She fidgets a bit with her scarf, her wig, all her self-possessed feminine grace going whirligig, in to a big bag between her feet, like a grinning sheela-na-gig. Her prominent profile petrifies when she presses the pink plastic button to signal her stop, uttering huskily over the clitter clatter in the dusky half light, This is me, and bolts off the bus. Clearly, a chrysalis doesn’t need a Chrysler, because as if by sorcery, only a lone man can be seen in the tail lights, marching on the motorway. I watch through the window, as he grows smaller in the gathering gloom, then look back at the button, but I don’t dare press it. Lunging in the lurching double-decker, I hang on tight to tell the driver in a hoarse whisper, This isn’t me. Briefly he beams, then turns to stare straight ahead, his two shafts of light searching the night. His foot finds the metal gas pedal and we careen down the dark tarmac to a faster moving future.