ISAAC JOHN STREET is an alchemist of verbs. While a long, lazy stroll on Bank Anthony Way, a modest suburb barely two minutes away and overlooking Isaac John, would be seen as a great trek (a bad word for someone walking long distances without a transport fare in Lagos), on Isaac John Street, a formerly colonial and residential street but now fully commercialized, it becomes a leisurely walk or exercise to burn calories. A walk on Isaac John is appreciated any time of the day, but more lovely when done just on the cusp of darkness where desire sometimes meets satisfaction.
A STREET IS A MEMORY. I take this walk once a year without a destination. The map lodged in my head; my legs a compass of their own. Asphalt to asphalt, I walk, bearing a heartbreak or a disappointment that won’t go away. The clatter of traffic and the wind left behind when a car zooms into a distance form a lyric in my head. Street of memories and secrets. The bad streetlights know the secrets I won’t tell on pages; the expensive restaurants I never entered know about my therapy sessions. This was the same street that hid my boyhood shame under the night sky when I saved transport fare from my mom by walking the distance to get groceries for late dinners.
EACH TIME I walk into Isaac John Street, I’m reminded of how impossible it is to describe it fully from the comfort of my bed. Like a lover, you only know the street when you are in it. There’s always something extra that’s not there the last time. A new mall. A new restaurant. A new club. An old house gone. Decades after the colonial lords left Nigeria, the street is still discovering itself, still experimenting with its looks to determine what works best.
THERE IS ALWAYS ABSENCE. A street is not only about the things found on it. It’s also about the things that are no longer there. Time sometimes makes a fool of us all, erasing the things that make us; it takes away friends, places and memories. You begin to speak of a place that once existed with such clarity and vividness only to discover that no one remembers what you remember. Makes you understand how madness works: a man with deep conviction and lucidity about his past, motioning, explaining something that was once real and touchable to him, but that people now think is only confined to his sick imagination. People always start a discussion about a street from its beginning, but my walk around Isaac John Street commences from its end. I came into it through the Lagos Country Club on Joel Ogunnaike Street. So I notice immediately that the woman who used to fry akara on Saturday morning on the tail end of the street has been evicted and the man who used to fix bicycles beside her, and often chatted about wanting to pass down his skills to his son as his father did, is no more. The trader and artisan used to serve as bearings to strangers seeking directions on the street. “Drive into Isaac John, you will see a man repairing bicycles, move forward a bit, you will see Sweet Sensations.” This was before Google maps and smartphones.
A FRAGILE PRESENCE. A street tells us how we will be replaced. When we no longer live on it, something takes our place. The darkness on some parts of Isaac John Street, the bad streetlights that won’t get fixed, cover the marks of those who once lived here. The asphalt erases your footprints. The wind manufactured by fast moving cars wipes the dust from your feet. There are no sands of time. The street forgets. People remember. I remember Chimezie, my classmate who lived on this street several years ago. The place where his house once stood is now the spot of a fast food restaurant known as Sweet Sensations. I remember we played football together in school, because playing football was all we needed as kids to be friends. But Chimezie did more; he brought to class sometimes an edible nut with a fibrous covering which we all called “fruit” and until this day I do not know the appropriate name for it. If you wanted “fruit” (tropical almond) you had to be on the good books of Chimezie while it’s still in season. We took for granted that Chimezie lived on Isaac John Street and accepted his claim that his father owned the big house even though he never dropped Chimezie off in a car but hand delivered him to us every morning in school like groceries. His father looked old, ragged and sometimes in a costume, and after seeing him so much in them it started to look like my school uniform. And Chimezie never introduced us to him or not when I was around. I never heard from him after they left Isaac John Street and this fast food restaurant is a reminder of him. As I walk past the fast food now, I wonder if his father wasn’t a trained security officer with the benefit of hindsight, and that the building couldn’t have been theirs. It is over seventeen years now, but I wondered if Chimezie left Isaac John with gladness, or if leaving in a hurry was a sign of mortification. Our presence on this street is shifting and temporary, and that, perhaps, is the final argument for our very existence in this world.
NIGHTLIFE IN ISAAC JOHN used to be quiet and lonely. This was the original plan. A girl could walk alone in the past without fear of predators. Isaac John is part of the Government Reserved Area, a city unto itself where the rich and powerful on the Lagos mainland come to live. Before the new monies in Nigeria started living at the Government Reserved Area (GRA), it used to be a refuge for expatriates, both colonial officers and merchants from Britain doing the work of God Save the Queen. The commercialization of Isaac John Street brought about Metro-Park, a nightclub that fascinated me in my boyhood. I used to imagine what went on under the blue and red lights that covered the men and women who trooped into it as if in need of salvation. Passing it now, it is a surprise how a place could lose its magic and mystery with time and regular use. Reminds me of our bodies.
IN HENRY VI, Dick advised that all lawyers be killed. If you were driving through Isaac John Street on a Friday night, or Saturday evening, you would totally disagree with the Bard of Avon’s character. All event center owners without parking space on this street should be hanged. This is the genesis of the traffic jam on Isaac John Street. It’s Wednesday night, there is no traffic.
WALK FASTER. I stand by the traffic lights that separate the first half of Isaac John Street from the second. In fact, I’m entirely no longer on Isaac John Street as the ground I am standing on is officially Sobo Arobiodun Street if streets possessed the international privileges of nations and borders. Sobo Arobiodun Street is residential, innocent but teeming with desires and willingness. There’s a darkness to the street that’s lifted like a curtain each time a car passes by. During the day, there’s a woman who manages a small roadside business selling roast corn and ube. She’s always there, under the sun and in the rain and has become an extension of Sobo Arobiodun Street. She’s not on Google Maps. There’s more to a place than landmarks.
I WALK ACROSS this boundary to the other side of Isaac John Street. There’s Cubana, a club, in front of me. Cars are parked too close to the road in the same way I sit when there is not much legroom for me on a bus and I have to colonize the aisle. The club is palatial in a way that suspends its charm. The club is newly built and replaces the stately, quiet building that used to be there. The previous building was small with a large garden, too small for the space in a way that seemed self-reprimanding, self-critical and self-conscious of its privileges and opulence. The club is everything Isaac John Street shouldn’t be: its design is magnificent in an unruly way, the architecture demands attention the same way some cheap paintings hang noisily on the wall. I do not imagine who or what is behind the gates of the club. I instead think of what used to stand adjacent to it. A series of telephone booths before the arrival of cellular phones to Nigeria. The booths are no longer there, children of my generation can scarcely remember a time when people had to line up to make a call in telephone booths the way one stands to withdraw cash from an ATM gallery. It faded in the early 2000s, and I probably should be unable to recall it too but for the fact that a lady used to bring me to the booths as her protection whenever she wanted to talk to her boyfriend in Germany. I was eight and served nuisance value against the many men who catcalled, if they were cowardly, and stopped her, if they had some substance. She’s beautiful, with an unusual light skin, almost to a point of paleness. People called her oyinbo, a term of reverence for a white man or woman. Some women called her mammy water, a term for a water mermaid, reminding her that her beauty was extraterrestrial and she’s not human. These names were their coy way of telling her that those whose beauty came from a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble in the presence of other women’s husbands. Don’t steal our men. In a city where people are either black or fair complexioned, her shimmering paleness was impossible to hide on Isaac John Street. During these international calls, she had to be at the booth hours before the call to secure a line. The situation was distressing to the point where a government minister in charge of communication was asked what the way forward should be. He laughed and told Nigerians that the telephone was not for the poor. Because the rich had phones installed in their homes.
FOR ONE GLORIOUS, transforming moment, Isaac John Street repossesses its routine elegance, its blank purity. I am at Adam and Eve, a store that has been on this street for as long as I can remember. The whole GRA borrows something from Isaac John Street to fill their houses with. This is what the Adam and Eve store is for. It’s like a place you go to buy expensive plates and furniture to stock up your empty apartment. Not a place to be if you dislike posturing, pretentiousness and humbug. I look at the transparent store and the light that pours out from it also gives away the image of the people shopping. I am one that is fascinated by what people tend to hide and not the idealized version of themselves. The intimacy that comes from watching strangers who don’t care about you. It’s almost like war photography, isn’t it? The refrigeration of humanity at ground zero: a point where neither privacy nor dignity matters to the victims. They just want to survive.
ADAM AND EVE is open. A man and a woman take a tour of the household items on sale. I watch. The woman walks in front while the man accompanies her. It looks as if they had postponed this couple shopping for their new house for several weeks and the man is always claiming to be busy. He looks at the items she points to buy and nods. I doubt if he truly sees them. Smiling at the shop girls, they both seem to be performing the role of the perfect couple and at once disclaiming any deformities in their union in public and assuring each other that things are fine. They both need this marital exercise of faith, yet it seems only one person is glad to be there. She needs his love yet she is pissed at the perfunctory performance of it. The lady points to something else, lifts another thing and the shop girls hover around her field of vision, carefully taking out whatever the married lady’s eyes and mouth fall on. At length, they pay and walk to their car, with heavy utensils and breakable things like their relationship. The man’s interest has faded, his old self has returned as well as the old peevishness between them, and he now fiddles his phone for the LiveScore to the English premier league or whatever numbers on the Nigerian stock exchange. And by the time they drive away, the lady is already planning another trip to Adam and Eve store. Or the Ruff ‘n’ Tumble store with their kids. By the time they drive away, I have completed my empty wandering on this street and I think of when next I could return for my therapy.
THE NIGHT is old. I do not take the road by which I came. As I grow older, my life seems as unrecognizable sometimes as this street.
Isaac John Street is a decoy, a street I have adopted to supplant the one I truly belong to. There’s another street. I don’t mean for this to sound weird. Like a man confessing to his wife: “there’s another woman.” Before I knew the marks on Isaac John Street, I knew Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way. I was born there. But it is a street that doesn’t speak to me anymore.
It was on Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way that I first met Pip, the character from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. We became fast friends. I read the book in a rush the first two days, then slowed the third because I was afraid of the loneliness that would envelop me as soon as I let go of this character. There was something in the book that pointed to Mobolaji Bank Anthony, something only Dickens could write. It was that description of the marsh country, the poor, and that juxtaposition of abundance that was within reach of Pip but the sadness that came with this journey to being a gentleman.
Chinekotam Yagazie is in his final semester of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Miami University. He tweets @coolharris5