South Central Belfast

Rare birds have flown thousands of miles to land on the Lower Ormeau Road. It is a glorious summer Saturday and I am going across town to visit a friend who lives on the Antrim Road. They are standing outside the taxi depot: two black guys wearing basketball kit, bright primary-coloured vests and shorts. They are very tall, muscular, young; their eyes are shielded behind designer shades. As I go past them into the depot to order my taxi, I strain to eavesdrop on their conversation. I don’t get much of it, but enough to tell me that they are Americans: their cursing is familiar from the TV.

In the gloomy interior there is laminated wood cladding on the walls, and benches along three sides of the room. There are no windows, and the sunlight from outside forms a bright trapezoid on the dirty green linoleum floor. The only other light is provided by a naked low-wattage bulb hanging from its cable up on the cracked ceiling. There is a door facing the entrance, and in the corner, high up, is an obtuse-angled acrylic two-way mirror with holes drilled into the bottom of it. The silvering is peeling off in places, and it reflects blurry, fragmented, fairground images back to me. I have no doubt that the window is thick and bullet-proof; taxi depots are an easy target. At least the dispatcher will be safe. From behind the screen, his disembodied voice calls to me with surprising clarity: Where you going mate?  I tell him my destination, and he replies: he’ll be outside in 2 minutes. I go back into the sunshine, relieved to be out of the place; it always makes me nervous.

I listen in to the conversation again. The language, posture – everything in fact, is straight out of Boyz n the Hood, and I suspect that they’re hamming it up a bit for my benefit. After a few seconds Terry, the driver, emerges from the dark. He is a chirpy man, always good for a bit of banter. He smiles broadly at me, What about ye? Antrim Road, hey? You’re sharing with these ‘uns; that alright? He looks at the basketballers: Where you boys going? They look offended, and the one in the yellow vest replies fiercely, Ain’t nobody’s boy, cabbie. Terry is a little taken aback. Here, sorry mate, we call everyone boy round here, he gestures towards me with his thumb, even his missus! No offence. I interject: I’ll tell her you said that. Everyone relaxes. The other guy says, we’re going Downtown; he emphasises the last word. You’ll be breaking Irish girls’ hearts tonight then, says Terry. They grin at each other, and do a high-five routine, snapping their fingers at the end. We climb into the taxi, me in the front. The one in the yellow says slowly and contemplatively: Yeah. Downtown Belfast. He seems to relish the idea of it. There is a police checkpoint on the Ormeau Road by the UTV studio, where grey armoured Landrovers filter the traffic going into town. They check Terry’s licence and have a juke inside the cab; the delay is about ten minutes. We drop the lads in Bedford Street, close to City Hall. Here, they’re the real McCoy, wha? says Terry, laughing, as they lope towards the traffic lights. They stand out by a mile in the jostling lunchtime crowds. I can’t imagine what they are expecting from Belfast’s modest city centre, with its security gates, queues, searches, barbed wire, and army patrols. They are like brightly-coloured parakeets from the rainforest that have come to roost on a graveyard Yew; exotic. They will have fun tonight.

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25 Responses to South Central Belfast

  1. Beachbums1 says:

    Great blog ~ love the details of your story and your attitude. Glad I stumbled onto your blog through Freshly Pressed. We’ll be visiting Belfast in a couple weeks. Yes, another yank but I’m not big, black or exotic so I’ll be staying out of the rougher ‘hoods.

  2. anitadesignstudio says:

    Freshly Pressed??!! Go you!! There’s nothing better than helping to put Belfast on the map! 😉

  3. What a great post – I enjoyed reading it 🙂

  4. jibarican says:

    I often wonder they haste in Americans to become offended… it’s at times odd to see the walking politically correct. Any who, every since I was a kid, for some unknown reason to me, I wanted to visit Belfast. Being from the Caribbean, I often wonder how in the world I came about the idea of going there. Thank You for the post.

  5. nedkelly944 says:

    I’m sitting in the sun in the cockpit of my yacht in Turkey but I have been wafted back to a wee boy playing cricket in the middle of Hatfield street. Belfast my place of birth has always been a magical place and the craic incredible. Thanks for that well written memory jogger!

    • jasonoruairc says:

      Merhaba! I’m so pleased the story brought back happy memories. I’m playing a few tunes in the Hatfield Bar tonight.

      • nedkelly944 says:

        Wish I was there! My uncle could be though he’s 85, lives in Hatfield Street still . Been there for all but two or three years of his life. George Moody. He’ll not know Ned as Victor is my family name. Here’s somthing I can recommend. My cousin Denise Beddows writing as DJ Kelly, fictionalised the life of our shared Great Grandfather who worked as a caulker on the Titanic available on Kindle and on paper. He was tried and jailed for killing his wife with scant evidence. The book is excellent and gives a real flavour of Belfast 100 years ago. More details on my blog and a link to DJ Kelly. I presume ‘I’ll tell my ma’ will be amongst the tunes or is that not the music you are into?

        • jasonoruairc says:

          Well, here, get the hydrofoils out and sail up the Lagan! The session’s not till 10 (we do traditional music rather than songs, but you never know what a night may bring…). I’ll look out for your cousin’s book, it sounds really interesting.

  6. SStitches says:

    Maybe it’s the place names, maybe it’s the perpetual scent of damp, but this feels like Belfast. I’m sitting in the States now, thinking about how much I miss it. Aye, home, I’ll be back soon.

  7. Marcela Cava Balsa says:

    Nice work!

  8. Jonny Eberle says:

    This is a really great slice-of-life piece. The details are so crisp and clear, I can see the peeling mirror and feel the tension between the Americans and the cabbie. As an American who’s passed through Belfast, I know the opposite side of that conversation: to be the outsider. Fascinating to see the other side.

  9. Well-told and what a cool picture with rainbow in the background!

  10. Mike says:

    Another eagle-eyed snapshot of a time. The inhabitants of this story differ from the norm but in an ordinary way because in Ireland the sight of a tourist is commonplace (and an economic necessity). We have a love/hate relationship with the Yank in particular and I fear for your flamboyantly targeted fellow passengers among the late night cohort in the city – any city.

    Your prose reads fluidly, even when it stops to notice a detail obscure to us mere mortals.

    • jasonoruairc says:

      Thanks for your complimentary feedback, Mike. I appreciate it. In early 1990s Belfast the sight of two black guys like these would have been pretty unusual; Belfast didn’t get so many tourists. A few years later, peace brought a wave of immigration and tourists, so the city is more diverse now, much like anywhere else. You don’t need to fear for these two though: they are street-wise and exotic; and big. Fun will be had!

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