Strangest of all he finds the way people smile at you on the street: this tight, quick, little smile that at once said hello and goodbye, as if friendliness were a thing to be given to strangers only in tiny doses. Smiles that seemed to say "I have never met you before and I do not know you but I am doing this because it is my duty to be friendly to strangers, but I beg you to do likewise and give me a tight little smile back and walk past - let us not turn this into a conversation". At first he gave back the wide smile of the village, the smile that preceded a lengthy greeting session, and made them quickly turn away as if scared of him. But he is learning. Yesterday on the street he gave the small, tight smile to a passing woman, overweight and sweating heavily as she walked past, and she gave it back. Then, gaining confidence, he gave it to a girl dressed in really short shorts, but she only swung her hair back and looked away, walking past him really fast.
Downstairs from where he lives there is a laundromat. Back in his home village washing day was a major weekly event: first his mother would gather all the clothes strewn at various locations around the house into a huge bundle, and put this in the middle of the compound with a bar of Sankung Sillah on them. Then she would chase down / wake up / hunt for all the women in the house: his five sisters, his cousin Amie, his young Aunty. Together they would take the clothes into the backyard. He did not know the exact process of what they did in there, but he knew it included a lot of feteh-ing sounds and soap suds, and when it was over his wet boxers would be dangling limply under the sun, on the clothes line tied between the mango trees. Here it took all of an hour, and was done with, and with so little effort he felt as if he had been tricked - perhaps his clothes only looked clean. But they smelt fine, when he smelt them.
The first time he was taken to the laundromat here by his friend he could not stop touching the machines. Oh he had known about clothes being washed in America by machines - because toubab were so technologically advanced and because, he suspected, toubab women were so lazy - but he had always thought of this in the abstract, if he had thought of it at all. He had, perhaps, categorized it in the area of magic, as we do with all technologies we do not yet understand, visualizing a bag full of dirty clothes the next moment bright and clean and shining, like in those TV ads for Omo. But now he could see the actual machines involved, and they were bigger and more powerful than any of the women he had known back home (except maybe Aji Yago, the nyaambeh-nyebeh seller). When he tentatively loaded his clothes into the open belly of the first one his friend pointed to and closed it, it gave a huge rumble which made him take a step back. No woman's voice had ever sounded like that! As he sat and waited for it to finish its task he thought how much time these would save back home (and for the first time he thought how much time the women spent on housework, on the washing of his clothes and the cooking of the food he ate, and accompanying this thought he felt a momentary and strange feeling he could not identify). But if machines did all the housework what would the women do? Walk their dogs, like they did here? Run down the street in too-short shorts, rudely swinging their hair at would-be-friendly smiles? The previous day a Nigerian woman he had spoken to had told him that the need for men had been replaced by the invention of artificial insemination. When she had explained what this was he had been lost for words, indignant at the very thought: everyone knew a man had many more uses than just that. Disciplining the children, bringing food to the house, keeping everyone safe and guarded from the dangers of the world. Now he had an answer ready for the next day: women, too, and the need for them could be replaced by these washing and cooking and cleaning machines. He smiled to himself as he thought these thoughts, even as the machine gave another rumble.
Then the machine started beeping, and his friend explained he had to put some more quarters into it. Everything cost money here, which shouldn't have been surprising, but was because in his dream of this place he had thought only of all the wonderful things he would do, the clothes he would wear, the foods he would eat, without ever thinking about cost. And in his talks about Babylon with the boys too - money would be made somehow, would come from somewhere - this was all that was said about that subject, and it was quickly dismissed as they started arguing again about which was better: a Maybach Benz, or a Yukon. Now he saw Yukons and Maybach Benzes all the time - they passed him whilst he sat in the 302 Bus, looking out of the windows, ignoring the old man with the tin can who was asking for money. He got up and put the last of his quarters into the machine, and it rumbled once, then started purring again happily. He sat down again. How had the other boys who had left worked it? They had been away only for so long before they started sending money back, and building a house, and sending their parents to Mecca. What secret did they possess that he did not?
In the mornings he was woken by the screaming of a child. Lying on the floor of the room he shared with his friend, he felt disoriented, looking at the ceiling and not recognizing in it the rain-patched brown ceiling he had lived under all his life. And who was that child? Then he remembered: he was in America, living in an apartment in Harlem, and the child screaming was from the family downstairs. She was eight years old and could walk and talk, but still went into wild uncontrollable tantrums that woke the whole apartment. He had seen her once being taken downstairs in one of those baby walker things by her mother, and had thought how old she was to have such bad behavior. She had started screaming at that point, as if she had read his thoughts, and, to his eternal surprise and mortification, her mother had begged her to stop, to please, please not scream, and in such a voice of pleading, as if asking her a favor! He had almost reached forward and slapped them both, shaking the mother and saying you are the parent here!, and had only stopped himself in time, remembering where he was and quickly rushing up the stairs and leaving them on the landing. He had heard about the indiscipline of toubab children, but seeing it now shocked him. What kid in Nyanija village would dare behave like this, in the presence of any adult? He felt self-righteous and proud: at least this was one thing his culture had gotten right, much more right than they had here. A child listened to its elders, or got punished, instantly and painfully.