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.