Posted November 17, 2008 in Dear Diary, New York, Tanzania

A five-foot-tall transvestite, dressed in drag, walks up to me at the Posta Mpya public transit hub late at night in Dar es Salaam, happily yammering words I cannot understand. I smile and shrug, and eventually he moves on to his next comic victim, never missing a beat in his monologue.

Ni mchizi yangu, a passer-by jokes with me: a Swahili pun, in this context straddling the line between, this is my buddy and, this is a crazy person. Out of the spotlight, I am free to look around: I notice that a crowd is laughing at my accoster.

This is yet another little moment from my life in Tanzania which recently rushed back to me when I least expected it. My reminiscing usually begins with smells, sights, or phrases; but this particular memory of Tanzania came from a crazy person in New York:

I was walking to the movies with a friend. We arrived at the pedestrian decision point between hurrying north to beat the light or waiting a second for the light to turn so we could head east. A man loomed towards us, eyes fixed on the sidewalk, and loudly asked: Y'avalight?

Sure, enunciated my friend, producing a lighter and igniting it near the accoster's mouth.

The man ripped the device away and flicked it viciously, focusing his entire existence on the transferral of fire to his cigarette. Once finished, he gave it back roughly, muttering, vowel-free, tks.

The traffic lights decided our next move: east. This man trudged in the same direction, at our exact pace: worried, we accelerated. As the man finally faded from our world, we detected that he had veered into the middle of the intersection. The last thing we heard him shout was, Apbtkd!

That was scary, we agreed, after gaining half a block of insulation.

There was something different about this man: something which set him apart. What was it?

This enthusiastic smoker was hardly the first person in New York to set off my ingrained normalcy radar. Walking home from work one day, I spotted a black cat perched on the head of a man who was strolling down the street. One week earlier, some coworkers and I ate lunch in downtown New York while a man outside the diner patiently teed six empty beer cans into a line on the street, pulled out a driver, lined himself up, and deliberately, one at a time, whacked each can into traffic.

I felt I gained some insight last weekend, as I discovered some people who seemed to blur a line between me and crazy: the coffee lady and the junkies.

The coffee lady came first. While trekking across a Brooklyn Bridge laden near collapse with tourists, I was perplexed by the common phenomenon of otherwise sensible people stepping in the extremely clearly delineated bicycle lane; even more comical were the reckless bikers who would yell, ring bells, shout warnings, and swerve, but who would adamantly refuse to decelerate to avoid their witless obstacles. As I approached the Brooklyn side of the bridge and the tourists (curiously averse to stepping past the centre of the bridge into a land unexplored by the gawking masses) receded, I spotted an approaching woman, eyes scanning the inches in front of her feet, mouth muttering incomprehensible phrases, with a coffee on her head. Two thoughts sprung to mind: first, that the wind was bound to blow this poor woman's coffee away; and second, that here at last I had found somebody who respected the bicycle lane.

The junkies appeared on my return to Manhattan, at the direct centre of the Manhattan Bridge footpath. Three of them were lolling over one another, backs against the side of the bridge, eyes dead. After months honing my ability to avoid subway screwballs and street psychos, I knew the footpath would bring me within a foot of these social deviants and I braced myself for the worst; but as I walked past them they gave me a completely normal New York greeting: eyes staring straight ahead, no words spoken, no sign of acknowledgement. And while they were doubtless well past the point of making a rational decision on the matter, I was nonetheless set aback by this one stab at normalcy.

I suppose the interesting feature common to the coffee lady and the junkies was their similarity to myself. Just like me, the coffee lady walked in the proper lane; just like me, the junkies observed social etiquette. Instead of being a different species, they became ordinary individuals with one bizarre twist: the coffee lady is normal except for the cup of coffee on her head (which, I assume, she replaces after every errant gust of wind); the junkies are normal except for the abnormal chemicals they recently absorbed.

Perhaps the smoker just needed a cigarette really badly, and perhaps we caught him at an unfortunate time as he tripped and thus stumbled into the middle of the intersection accidentally.

And come to think of it, why do I refrain from wearing a cat on my head, driving empty cans into traffic, and dressing in drag at a bus stop in Tanzania? These may not be normal activities, but when I give the matter a bit of thought, they sure seem like fun.

Part of me feels inclined to wait for the first snowfall, strip to my boxers, and run down Broadway shouting, I like pizza! at the top of my lungs. Call me crazy, but I somewhat doubt I would be the first to do it, and I suspect several so-called normal people would agree with me.