What follows is the final episode of Shep in Nigeria. Just as we’ve all heard him retell his fictional stories from time to time, here is an example where he tells somewhat the same travel narrative based on encountering an American in a Nigerian post office, but he remembers it a bit differently. He expresses how, whether one is a Caucasian traveler such as himself, or an African-American he meets in Africa, we Americans recognize ourselves as truly being American.
“No Matter What I Do, I Am an American”
Well, fellow Americans, it’s the Fourth of July. Good evening fellow Americans. I think that since it’s the Fourth of July tonight, we might as well admit we’re all Americans.
We may be bugged—but we’re Americans. We may be demonstrating, we may be getting ready to blow up the courthouse, we may be ready to burn down city hall, but we are all Americans. You really can’t escape that, no matter how many years a guy lives in Paris, he is still an American. You really cannot escape it.
Well, one day I was in Ibadan, Nigeria, and this is a great kind of a day to tell this story. Ibadan is extremely hot, steamy hot, even your skin is hot. You want to take your skin off like you take your BVDs off, and your socks off—you want to strip your skin off. Somehow your feel your bones will get cool.
I’m in the outskirts, and there are millions of people, it’s teaming, oh steaming, it’s just like a gigantic cake of yeast. Life is everywhere. Life is crawling, it’s flying, it’s humming, it’s buzzing, it’s coming out of the ground. You breathe it in, it rains on you. Life is just everywhere. Just all kinds of life. Bugs, insects, fungus, bacilli, the river, the crocodiles, people, everything—oh, the whole business. It’s really alive. You just don’t know how it is in Africa—no wonder people believe that life all sprang from Africa. It just had to come from there because—is it ever going on there!
I’m standing in line in a post office to buy some stamps and I’m surrounded by thousands of Nigerians, all waiting to send stuff and get things stamped. I’ve found, in most post offices, no matter where you go, you stand, you just stand. You wait. I’m waiting and waiting and waiting, and boy, they never heard of air conditioning in an Ibadan post office. It is hot.
I finally get up to the window. Up to this point nobody has said a word to me. Of course English is the language there in Nigeria. They all speak English, with varying kinds of accent depending on where you go. Some of them speak it with an Ibu accent, some with an Oxfordian accent—oh, some of the most fantastic English accents you have ever heard. “What kind of stamp you want, sir?”
I say, “I’ll have five airmail stamps.”
“Five airmail stamps, thank you, sir, thank you, sir, five airmail stamps. That will be seven shillings, sir.”
And I give the money and I turn around to go. (It’s very exciting to be in a place where there’s a lot of life. Absolutely, life everywhere. You cannot help but be excited.) So I turn around and start to go, when suddenly, a guy in the line reaches out and touches my arm. A great big black guy, about six-foot-six. He’s wearing a white shirt, and he’s got a pair of these beautiful shorts that everybody wears over there, black shoes, and high white socks, all of which is a kind of dress uniform for hot weather. He touches me and he says, “You’re an American, aren’t you?”
Immediately he could hear the American accent—he is an American!
I say, “Yeah.”
He says, “Man, you got any time? Wait. I want to buy some stamps. Just wait for a second.” He goes up to the counter and buys some stamps and he turns around and he says, “Man, you’re an American!”
I say, “Yeah.”
He says, “Ya got a car? I got a car. Can I take you anyplace?”
I told him where I was going. Oh boy, we get out in front of the place and the sun—booooom! The sun hits down on us as we get out on the concrete steps of this little post office and little winding road and shops going up one way and the other way, and all kinds of people are swirling. Pigs are running around oiwowoiiiii and the sewers are running over our feet, but it’s a wildly exciting place! You have an idea that would be terrible, but it isn’t, it’s very exciting when you’re there, and it has no parallel to what it would be like if the same things were going on here. It’s very different, very exciting.
The street is teaming—bicycles, Volkswagons, guys on pogo sticks, guys carrying other guys in sedan chairs, oh, you can’t imagine! A sea of humanity flowing and people yelling and hollering, big yellow robes and purple robes and blue robes and sun helmets.
One of the great sights that I’ve seen is a guy riding a bicycle and he has some kind of almost translucent, light blue silk robe. It is the color of very light, sun-shinning blue sky. Their colors are all like that. Some day American people are going to discover Nigerian colors. Incredible. This light blue robe with a light blue skullcap. On top of the skullcap is a gigantic wooden bowl, and in this enormous wooden bowl there must be forty-five yelling, hollering pigs. Little pigs all tied up with their feet. And they’re looking out of the bowl and wiggling! Eeeee! Eeeee! Eeeee! This guy is riding down the street on a bicycle that has wheels that are four times the size of any bicycle wheels I ever saw—going like the wind, and his robe is flowing out back of him like an enormous flag whooooooh! He’s going along and his feet are going back and forth and he’s got this bowl on top of his head and the pigs are yelling and he’s just going along as calm—the wind is blowing shooooooh! He goes down the street. Boy! Now there’s skill. Guts!
So we’re out on this street and this guy turns to me and says, “Let me tell you, man, I can’t tell ya how great it is to hear an American.”
And I say, Man, what are you doing in this area? Wow!”
We don’t know quite what to say. I am so glad to talk to somebody who—for a strange reason you get very hungry for American things when you are a million miles away. No matter how hip you are, you just do. You get hungry for them.
We get into his car, which is a Nash. Every car of any consequence at all in this place, the sun has practically beaten the paint right off. Just pealed it right off. They’re a peculiar slate color.
We set off and he says, “Man, you got any time?”
I say, “Yeah, I’m not going anyplace.”
He says, “Let me tell you how great it is to talk to an American.” He says, “I’ve been inland, I’ve been here for seven months. I just can’t tell you how great it is.”
Of course, I am delighted. A big, handsome guy, about twenty-five or so, and I believe he went to Brooklyn College, and he’s working for an American film company as some kind of an export expert.
So we go over to a place and we’re having a drink and it turns out that he is, of all things—a “listener” from Brooklyn! In the course of the conversation, this is what he said—I’ll try to reproduce it almost verbatim.
I tell him my name.
He says, “Oh boy, man, you’re putting me on!”
I say, “No, I’m Jean Shepherd.”
He says, “The ‘night people,’ man! Oh no! Listen—oh no, it’s impossible!”
We’re hollering and yelling and drinking gin and tonics. In the course of the conversation he says to me, “You know, I had to come all the way over here to realize that I am first and foremost, no matter what I do, I am an American.”
It was a very strange thing to hear in Ibadan. Not strange at all though, if you understand really, what you are. If you really understand what you are. You often don’t really know.