The Street SweeperElliot Perlman
Also by Elliot Perlman
The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming
Seven Types of Ambiguity
Copyright © 2012 Elliot Perlman
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher—or in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency—is an infringement of the copyright law.
The Bond Street Colophon is a registered trademark of Random House of Canada Limited
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The Street Sweeper is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover Design by Helen Yentus
Cover Images from Marc Yankus
Published in Canada by Bond Street Books, a division of Random House of Canada Limited
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In memory of
Rosa Robota, Estusia Wajcblum, Ala Gertner, Regina Safirztain
Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, who all died from different manifestations of the same disease
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
Mountains bow down to this grief …
But hope keeps singing from afar.
the first frozen apple juice,
enriched with vitamin C.
Rich, delicious Seneca …
Memory is a wilful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. It can capture you, corner you or liberate you. It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.
Rich, delicious Seneca,
‘The trick is not to hate yourself.’ That’s what he’d been told inside. ‘If you can manage not to hate yourself, then it won’t hurt to remember almost anything: your childhood, your parents, what you’ve done or what’s been done to you,’ he was told. But even at the time, it struck Lamont that a lot of the people who had been locked up with him did not ‘hate themselves’ quite enough. He remembers a lot of the people being fairly forgiving towards themselves. Some, positively brimming with forgiveness for themselves, could not understand it when others were not so forgiving of them. This dissociation from who you were, where you were, could even be funny.
One night alone at lockdown, he found himself smiling about it, and implicit in the smile was a sense of being different from all the other men in all the other cells. It was not simply innocence Lamont felt that night but something additional that made him feel as though he was only visiting his present circumstances, as though he was only a guest there. He thought of himself then as being like a man who had mistakenly got on the wrong train or the wrong bus and for the moment was unable to get off. He had to live with it for a while, a temporary inconvenience. It could have happened to anybody. He went to sleep with this feeling, comforted by it. But in the morning the smile had gone and so had the sense of being different from all the other men. By the time he too was shuffling in a long hot line of incarcerated men waiting for breakfast, the grievances of the other men didn’t seem funny at all and it was impossible for him to understand how they ever had been. He remembers wanting that feeling back. He still wants it back, even now. Sometimes the memory of the feeling is almost enough. It’s funny what you remember. There’s no controlling it.
There was one prisoner in there – they called him Numbers – a little guy. He would make you smile. Numbers would say anything that occurred to him, anything that found its way into his head, and try to sell it as though it were a fact, a fact that God himself had just sweetly whispered in his ear. Numbers once told Lamont that seventy-two months was the national average of time served for robbery. Numbers was sure of it. Even as Lamont heard it, he knew Numbers was making it up. Even if he was right, Numbers was making it up. What did it mean? Did this cover all states? What about federal cases? Did it include armed robbery? What about cases with more than one charge, where only one of the charges was robbery? What if you had no prior convictions? Lamont had had no prior convictions. He had been charged a couple of times, but just as a juvenile and nothing had stuck. One hot night a friend of his had asked him if he would drive the friend and some other much younger man from the neighbourhood to the liquor store on their way to get some pizza before a night of videos and television. Lamont stayed double-parked in the van, listening to the radio while the other two went into the liquor store. The first time Lamont knew what they had really had in mind was when they ran out of the store screaming for him to drive away as fast as he could. The much younger man, still a teenager really, the one Lamont barely knew, had had a gun. Lamont Williams had not met this man more than three times in his life. The other, the older one, had been Lamont’s friend since they were in grade school.
Seventy-two months was the national average for armed robbery, Numbers had said. First it had been the average for robbery, then it was the average for armed robbery. He was making it up as he went along, just as he always did. But what if you hadn’t known anything about it beforehand? What if some kid had taken you for a ride and let you do the driving? Well, these were all factors, Numbers agreed. What if you never wanted any trouble? What if you lived alone with your grandmother? What if the prettiest girl in the neighbourhood was your cousin, your best friend and your confidante? What if she was smart and said she saw something in you? What if she had trusted you not to get into trouble any more? Michelle was never in any trouble. She was going places. She said Lamont could come with her. What is the average number of years you would serve if you were someone like that? What if the other two testified on oath that you hadn’t known anything about it? ‘That could be a factor,’ Numbers conceded. Numbers was an idiot. He hadn’t always been an idiot, but by the time Lamont met him, the combined effects of drugs and the beatings he had received in prison had left him overly fond of statistics. But when asked what the chances were that the defence of a black man from the Bronx would be believed, when the two co-accused black men were pleading guilty to armed robbery, Numbers’ eyes seemed suddenly to brim with sentience. They welled up with a momentary understanding. ‘You in trouble, Lamont.’
Now out of prison, Lamont was in his thirties and back living with his grandmother again in Co-op City, the Bronx. Standing in the elevator going down, he smiled to himself. ‘The trick is not to hate yourself,’ they had told him in one of the counselling sessions. No it wasn’t. He had never hated himself and that was not the trick. The trick wa
s to stay calm, and to avoid or outlast the problem. That was how he had survived prison. It was how he had finally found a job and how he would keep that job. It was how he would save for an apartment of his own and it was how he would become some kind of father for his daughter again. ‘Good morning, Mrs Martinez.’ She’d been a neighbour for as long as he could remember.
The express bus to Manhattan was scheduled to come twice an hour, once on the half-hour and then again on the hour. Lamont was there at twenty past, and so was ten minutes early. He stood near Dreiser Loop opposite the shopping centre in Section 1. It was the first stop for people going to Manhattan and the last stop for those coming home. An empty bus with only the driver in it was already on the street a hundred yards behind the bus stop. Its doors were closed while it waited to leave on time. A few women – most, but not all of them, older than Lamont – waited there too. One Hispanic man in a suit paced up and down as he waited. He seemed to be about Lamont’s age. Lamont wondered if he knew him, but was careful not to stare. The man had his back towards Lamont and, anyway, wasn’t keeping still long enough for Lamont to see properly. Lamont looked around the street. On the other side, a group of teenagers were making a noise. There was a paint store there and a ninety-nine cent store where there used to be an Amalgamated Bank. Lamont’s grandmother said that it had moved to Section 4, but she couldn’t remember exactly when. There was no particular reason she should remember that but then, Lamont wondered, what does reason have to do with memory?
the first frozen apple juice …
Eight minutes before the half-hour the bus driver inched the bus the hundred yards to the bus stop and turned off the engine. The Hispanic man in the suit was the first to get on. It looked as though the bus driver was prepared to leave a little early. Lamont was pleased. He had been ready early and now he might even get to work early. He let the women get on before boarding himself. He passed the Hispanic man who, although first on, remained standing at the front of the bus, as though poised to engage the driver. Lamont sat about halfway down on the driver’s side with the women scattered around him. ‘You’re sitting back there for over twenty minutes!’ Lamont heard the Hispanic man in the suit say to the bus driver. ‘Why have you been sitting here for over twenty minutes? Some of us have a job, you know! Some of us have to get to work on time!’
The waiting bus was a replacement for one scheduled to depart on the half-hour that had broken down. The bus driver, an old black man in a blue MTA uniform, sat motionless and silent, looking out the window in front of him. The door was still open. The Hispanic man pointed to the machine that read the magnetic strip on the Metrocards and continued, ‘Now I gotta have one of those fucking cards for this on top of everything else.’
The bus driver continued to stare straight ahead and out the window but it seemed only to anger the man in the suit even more. ‘You gonna answer me? Twenty minutes! You sit back there with the door shut; don’t let no one on for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes! Twenty fucking minutes! You gonna say something? I gotta right to know. What’s your ID number?’ The bus driver, still looking straight ahead and saying nothing, closed the door and started the engine. If he thought that this was going to placate the man in the suit he was wrong. The man appeared to have no intention of sitting down. He continued standing menacingly close to the driver and shouting at him. ‘Why would you just fucking sit there for twenty fucking minutes doing nothing?’ The passengers froze in their seats. A few of the women eventually looked at each other furtively. Nobody wanted any trouble. Nobody needed another anecdote. Nobody wanted to be late. The engine was running, but the bus wasn’t moving and their day had just been hijacked.
‘You think we have to put up with this? This is bullshit. You’re bullshit! Do you think we’re stupid? What were you doing – sleeping? Can the MTA do anything right? You don’t have anything to say, do you, motherfucker? That’s right, just shut up. Don’t say anything. I’m gonna report you, you know that? Then see if you have something to say. You people … Then you expect us to support your union when you don’t show us no respect?’
The driver could feel the man’s breath on his skin. Lamont imagined how that must have felt. He knew exactly how it felt. He too had been in positions in which the heated breeze from another man’s mouth had fanned his own sense of powerlessness. It was bad enough just to be in this position but so much worse when other people saw it. You lived it in three ways when other people saw it: once through your skin, a second time through the eyes of the witnesses and thirdly, at a slight remove, when you remembered it in a cold sweat in bed at night or at any other time you found yourself suddenly again prey to an almost unconscious and visceral terror. Sometimes the sweat came first to tell you what you were about to remember.
There was only one remedy for this. The man who felt the breath on him had to strike back, no matter how futile the effort, no matter how much of a beating he was going to take when his resistance had been overcome. It was a chance to save your dignity even if at a violent price. Perhaps, after it was all over, you would still consider it had been worth it. But how can you know in advance? Wherever you end up afterwards, there will always be a face in the mirror. Would it be the face of the man who fought back or the face of the man who felt the stinking hot breath of another man and took it, swallowed it? So you sit there with the exhalation of another man gusting on to you. You’re sizing up the options, trying to decide. No doubt you’re discounting the pain you’ll feel and its duration. So just when you need all your resources, a second front opens – your body against your mind. You can’t save them both. You’ll need all your anger, clarity of purpose and perfect resolve to get up and do something quickly, but there’s always a part of you begging to be heard, telling you it’s not worth it. Lamont sat half the bus away from the bus driver and the man in the suit, but he too could feel the man’s breath on his skin.
‘You gonna give me your number?’ the Hispanic man shouted. Lamont was the only other man on the bus. Could he take this angry man in a suit? He wondered whether he was capable of overpowering him. There’d be no surprising him. Lamont winced at even the thought of trying. The old driver might not even be capable of assisting in his own rescue. Why did the man in the suit have to choose this time to snap? Why couldn’t there be any other male passengers on the bus?
‘I want his number,’ the suited man continued, now addressing the frightened passengers. ‘You gonna give me your number, motherfucker? … I’m talking to you! Maricón. I want your number and I want to know why the fuck … why the fuck you were just sitting there for twenty fucking minutes. I have a job. I gotta go to work. Some people work, you know.’ He continued, turning intermittently to address the other passengers, ‘I gotta go to work’; he offered it in his own defence.
‘We all gotta go to work,’ an older black woman suddenly spoke up. Lamont slumped down in his chair. No good could come of this.
‘That’s what I’m saying,’ the Hispanic man in the suit continued, as though the older woman had merely bolstered his argument. ‘We people, some people have real jobs, but … you know it’s been this way ever since the MTA took over. Since they took over this route –’
‘Let him drive,’ the older black woman called out bravely. The bus had still not begun to move. The bus driver continued to stare straight ahead. ‘Now you’re making us late,’ a younger black woman added. Lamont was feeling the pressure of being the only other male passenger on the bus. Did they know he was the only other male passenger? Of course they knew. If he’d registered the shape of the young woman’s earrings, the scent of her perfume, if he knew what colour bra this young woman was wearing, then she knew and all the other women knew he was the only other man on the bus. But still he hoped he wasn’t going to be called upon to do something. What kind of man sits there and lets this happen? A man on parole. But what kind of man lets innocent women sit in fear on a public bus without doing a thing? ‘The trick is not to hate yours
elf,’ they’d told him in prison. No, the trick was to be born the person that gets to tell you this. Lamont had a daughter. How would he teach his daughter to regard a man who would sit on this bus and do nothing? The trick was to stay calm and to avoid or outlast the problem, to survive long enough to have the luxury of hating yourself.
‘He can drive,’ the Hispanic man called out from the front of the bus. ‘I just want him … I’m just asking him to give me … I gotta right to have his fucking number. Your number, pendejo!’ There was no sound between his various shouted demands other than the hum of the engine as though promising progress. Lamont felt tiny beads of moisture forming on his forehead.
‘Sit down!’ another woman called all of a sudden.
‘You know it’s been this way ever since the MTA took over. You gotta fucking cushy union job and you don’t give a shit about people who really gotta work. They don’t gotta work. They strike. Anything they like.’ The Hispanic man was alternating between addressing the bus driver and the passengers. ‘Do we have to take this outside? You have to give me your number. I have witnesses. You have to give me your number or are we going to have to take it outside?’ The bus driver, still silent, checked the rear-view mirror and the side mirror and began to pull out, but this didn’t placate the Hispanic man. ‘You chicken or deaf? … Not man enough to take it outside. Pendejo!’ he screamed at the bus driver.
The bus began to move. Lamont sneaked a look at the back of the bus driver’s head. Any normal person would respond to this man’s abuse sooner or later. He thought he could see the bus driver shaking slightly. If he had to shake, he ought to try to disguise it by doing it in time with the bus. Lamont thought the bus driver was finished if he let the man in the suit see any hint of a tremor. He had to concentrate on not looking afraid. He had to focus. He also had to drive the bus. It didn’t have to end badly. Lamont closed his eyes, just for a moment. The younger black woman whispered loudly to him, ‘You gonna do something?’ It was loud enough for the others to hear. Lamont didn’t answer. The Hispanic man in the suit wasn’t sitting down.