Segun bit his lower lip and stroked his hair as he admired his free haircut in the mirror. He had it cut low, intentionally, to accentuate his waves and the sharp edges of the cut fit his rather square face perfectly. Friction toh bad. He turned sideways to admire a reflection of his heavily tattooed left arm, a bulky mass of amateur scribblings like “God be for me”. He sure looked good.
He couldn’t wait to show Mr. Uche. The duo worked together at a gas shop around the corner, filling up cylinders and delivering them to customers. He lived around the area too, and when their shop had first opened up months before, he’d walked over and offered to work with Mr. Uche. Seeing as he was a physically stronger person, and the perfect partner to help with moving the larger cylinders around, Mr. Uche had lobbied the owner of the shop, Madam Davina, to enlist Segun. That was three months ago.
Today was a busy day at the shop, as Madam Davina had asked them to deliver seven cylinders to the catholic church by 1pm. It was already noon, but Segun figured he could still make some time for a free haircut from the new barbing salon in the area. When he announced that he was going to find out if they were giving free haircuts, Mr. Uche had scoffed, and in his stutter contested any chance of a free haircut happening.
“It it it’s not possible. May maybe they they will charge you 200 naira in in instead of 300 naira, but they they ca cannot do it for free.”
Now that he had his haircut, he left the salon and hurried back to the shop to gloat and then to start the delivery. As he approached the entrance, he smiled in response to the grin on Mr. Uche’s face.
“Mr Ushe, I tell you now, e no collect money.”
January 11 would otherwise have been a normal day for John. It wasn’t peak period for the usual partying and clubbing, Lagos’ preferred coping mechanism. Hordes had just left the country after the Christmas holidays, overseas to where they had built new lives, far away from the disappointment of their home country. The clubs and lounges were noticeably emptier, and after John’s really long day at work, all he wanted was some shisha, subtle music and quality time with his fiancee.
Ore picked him up at work and they drove quietly to his favorite bar, Rollers. This time of the year was a blessing, the two or three week window of sanity in Lagos — on the roads, and in the bars. Rollers was barely ten minutes away from John’s office and the journey was over in no time.
As they approached the bar, a familiar looking tout in a reflective jacket moved out onto the road in front of her car. They’d expected this. He walked towards the driver side of the car and started to talk.
“Hayyss. How far? You wan park?”
Ore ignored him and continued her search for an ideal parking spot. He persisted and followed her as she parked behind a row of cars on the side of the road. He reached to open the door before she unlocked it. She turned at him and sneered. He let the door go, but as soon as he heard the click of the door unlocking, he grabbed the handle again, and then opened the door.
As she came down from the car, she took the door from him and noticed his tattoos. John had noticed too, and he started to move their personal effects into the boot of the car. When he was done, Ore locked the doors and they both walked towards to the bar entrance, still without saying a word to the man clamoring for their attention.
“Your car safe here sir, na we dey protect cars for here.”
Ore locked the car one more time, just to be sure, and then they walked in.
Madam Davina didn’t pay enough to cover the bills, so sometimes when it started to get dark, Segun would move to one of the clubs that had not been territorialized by other touts to start his side hustle. It made him almost as much money than his job at the gas shop, and all he had to do was hang around the bars and clubs and hustle the customers for parking fees.
Sometimes there was work to be done. He had to make sure there was parking space available near the club entrance for the expensive cars. These people hated to park too far away for fear of the safety of their precious vehicles. He also helped the many people who had trouble parallel parking with his chants of “Cut your hand”.
After every stressful night of optimizing parking spaces and jumping from the road to avoid drunken drivers heading back home, he had to remit some money to Sky, the local government recognized tout that controlled the area, and so the busier periods were better, because he and the others could set a fixed price for parking, and give trouble to whoever tried to contest it.
On quiet days like this one though, the price for parking would be decided by the magnanimity of the customers. Maybe he’d get lucky, and some drunken rich guy would throw out a couple thousand naira notes from the hatch of his Mercedes, but that was rarely the case.
Today’s playbook was simple — throw enough sycophancies at the customers and hope that they were impressed enough to pay in five hundred naira notes.
John was in a good mood by the time they left Rollers, Ore wasn’t. She’d just spent two hours sitting in a bar with way too loud music, watching John drink his stress away. There were definitely better ways to relax. By the time John finally agreed to leave, she was sour. So when the parking tout came by the car with his chants of “Oga sir”, “Fine madam”, “Na me park you”, she was having none of it.
John searched his pockets till he found a crumpled 100 naira note and handed it over to to the man. Segun held the bill loosely, and in a jovial tone tried to solicit for more.
“Oga you be big man now. See your fine madam. Add something for your boy.”
Ore wasn’t having any of that. She snatched the note from Segun’s hand, rolled up the windows, and started to leave. Segun managed to get his hand out of the door just before she hurt him. As she pulled the car back, she almost ran over his foot.
Segun was furious. He started to bang on the boot of the car, shouting expletives at the couple.
“You wan kill me? Ontop change? Me sef I go school now, abi no be condition make me just dey here?”
At this point, everyone was angry. John asked Ore to stop the car as he unbuckled his seatbelt, ready to raise hell. Outside the door, Segun was also huffing and puffing, prepared to follow this scuffle to the very end.
Down the road, a bus driver sped down oblivious of the drama happening up ahead. Ore was in the middle of the road when John stepped out of the vehicle to accost Segun. She looked into the mirror to see the bus speeding down the road, and screamed out John’s name as she reached out to grab him back into the car.
It was too late.
At first, it was harmless begging — security men, waitresses, government workers, university lecturers, airport staff, everyone. Over the years, the country had become a carcass of itself, robbed of all its gold by the very people that governed it, and so people just begged for money from anyone perceived to be better off.
Driven by lack, people had transcended shame. During the day, women, children and men — frequently missing one or more limbs — would congregate by the traffic lights. A red light was their signal to stick their faces into car windows, asking for money from strangers. It didn’t matter if you asked them to stop; the children would only push their faces in a little further, decorating cars in hand prints.
At night, about every other road in Lagos Island became real estate, business ground for the touts that charged for parking. Some of the nicer ones would promise protection for cars, as a way of signaling an exchange of value, but everyone saw it for what it was; extortion was the Nigerian ailment that now troubled the poor just as much as the wealthy, everyone drooled for money where they hadn’t worked.
The rest of us learned to cope. We gave handouts to the attendants at the airport. We were quick to tip the policemen to avoid harassment. When the beggars approached, we learned to look straight ahead and ignore them. We paid the street men for parking. It got more expensive to make these people go away, but we paid up anyway.
It was hard, but we figured we could make them invisible.