A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the Third World
Maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, sound
Of cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings in orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’
Every morning, Martin Judith wakes up in his dingy room in a wretched ethnic ghetto on the planet O, which is the center of all power in the galaxy, opens his narrow window and crawls out onto the wide window sill that he thinks of ironically as a balcony, and sits and drinks coffee as Chanel Number Five rains down on him in a fine mist.
It’s not real coffee, of course. It’s called flej-ja-tini in the patois of the Hydrocarbon Ghetto, and downtown they call it muh. Not coffee from a coffee bean, the arabica cappucinoa or whatever the fuck the Latin name is. But it’s dark and it’s hot and it has precisely the same effect on Martin’s nervous system as a venti-triple-bypass of Americano from the Starbucks on Market Street does, so he thinks of it as coffee.
Nor is it Chanel Number Five that coats Martin in a molecule-thin layer of sweet-smelling moisture every morning. It’s just more weirdness, some quirk of planetary macroweather. High in the stratosphere of O are clouds made of some ratio of water and alcohol, and when the sun hits them every morning, the water evaporates and the alcohol comes falling down and gets impregnated somehow with an organic compound in the lower clouds that smells exactly like attar of roses. It falls and falls, and it lands on Martin, and then it evaporates itself, the way aerosolized alcohol tends to do, and it leaves him smelling like Marilyn Monroe. And also his wife Suzanne, who has been dead for four years now, which is not the reason that Martin will admit to himself he does this little ritual every morning.
He pretends to himself that he’s letting the alcohol soak into his not-coffee, and also that bathing in naturally-occurring perfume mist is free, whereas an apartment with an actual shower costs money. More than he makes in his pathetic job.
Martin Judith sips his flej-ja-tini and tries not to consciously think of his wife, while simultaneous trying to subconsciously comforthimself with the olfactory memory of her and the bottle of Chanel Number Five he bought her on the occasion of their first anniversary, and when the rain stops and the coffee runs dry he heads back inside to get dressed and start his day.
* * *
Jehsayteh the food vendor is already set up with a line of customers when Martin comes bounding out of his apartment building. He gets in the queue right before an irritable looking Mang, who looks him up and down and flicks its headwings at him contemptuously.
“Fuck off, Tinkerbell,” Martin says. Despite spending eight of the last ten years living in the city of San Francisco, on the planet Earth, he still has a bit of the accent of Northern England, where he was born and raised. Despite this, when he gives the Mang the finger, it’s only the one American finger, not the British V. “First come, first serve.”
The Mang just buzzes at him. But what’s it going to do? It may be eight feet tall, but it’s built like a praying mantis and probably weighs all of about a hundred pounds, even with its armored and oversized cranium and the iridescent wings that dangle from it. Besides, it’s not looking for a street fight. Nobody looks for a street fight in the Ghettos. Street fights mean cops, and cops mean Show me your ID token, you immigrant scumbag, and anyway three Mangs got deported last week for some kind of credit scam.
“Deportation” means the same thing out here in the Universe that it does on Earth: the cops take you to the border and throw you over it. But O is an ecumenopolis, a city-state that covers the entire surface of its planet, and in this case, the border is legally defined as the edge of the atmosphere. So the Mang scammers got taken up to low orbit and kicked out of a fucking airlock. Martin doesn’t spare them much pity; he’s always been fairly confident that he’s not racist, but he can’t help thinking the Mang are just kind of a creepy species, and their music irritates the piss out of him, and besides, they’re a hive mind or something, so they barely even register three dogsbodies doing the Vacuum Mambo.
He reaches the front of the line and Jehsayteh grunts a greeting at him. Jehsayteh is an amphibian from some backwater, and he’s kind of like a walrus and kind of like a frog, with those weird rectangular-pupiled eyes. He sits in a gigantic plastic bucket filled with swampy water behind his food cart.
Martin holds up three fingers. “I want to have…[er, shit, uh]…three of meat sphere…to please?” he says in his halting Standard, with a bit of English thrown in. Jehsayteh bounces up and down in his water, which Martin has come to understand is his way of laughing. But he’s already ladling three large meatballs and a bunch of sauce into a paper bowl, which he slides across to Martin.
“You’re getting better,” he says in Standard, slowly and over-enunciating, but his tone is friendly.
Martin nods. “I…trying? Trying, yes,” he says. He waves his cred at the cart, which beeps.
“Keep it up,” Jehsayteh says, and waves the next customer forward.
Martin takes his meatballs down the hill from his street to the waterfront, where the bus comes. He sits on a low wall overlooking the harbor and eats, tipping his head back and knocking the meatballs into his mouth like the jelly balls at the bottom of a glass of bubble tea.
He’s been here for six months now, he’s pretty sure, and he’s finally starting to get Standard. As languages go, he’s pretty sure it’s not complicated; after all, it has to get spoken by what seems like an infinite variety of species with a definitely infinite variety of ways of communicating. It’s probably no harder in actuality to learn than the German he picked up when he was backpacking in Bavaria back in the early 90s. The difference was that in Bavaria he could stop at any tourist shop and pick up an English/German phrasebook. There are no English/Standard phrasebooks.
As far as Martin knows, he’s one of two people within a few hundred light years of here who speaks English, or even knows that English or England or Earth exists, and the other one is an alcoholic counterfeiter who can’t be bothered to make himself useful, or to pay for his own drinks for that matter.
So he’s stuck trying to figure out the language by inference and guesswork and pointing at things until some kind soul feels sorry for him and says what it’s called. He feels like even more of a fucking idiot than he did in Bavaria back in the day, trying to suavely pick up sexy German girls with his halfwit’s tourist German.
It’s ironic: in San Francisco, he’d gotten used to Americans acting as if his every Anglophonic syllable was somehow saturated with sophistication and grace — this despite the fact that his family were working class thugs whose taste for a good union picket line riot was only surpassed by their predilection for finding City fans in back alleys and using their faces to clean the gravel out of the soles of their Doc Martens. But as far as the Yanks are concerned, he might as well be Martin fucking Windsor, Lord Scunsthorpe-Upon-Scunthorpeshire. It took him a long way in California; got him a proper degree in art history and a nice little gallery in SoMA with a respectable Silicon Valley clientele and a loft in North Beach whose square footage could actually be expressed in four figures.
And none of that matters now. On O — or in O, whatever the right preposition for a planet-city is — here, he’s a nearly-mute idiot. He doesn’t speak enough Standard to get a job working in an art gallery, much less running one. Even if he could find a female of a species he was both a) attracted to and b) biologically compatible with, he can’t ask her out without sounding like he’s gotten a recent worrying blow to the head.
In fact, in his current situation, Martin is about as marginalized as is possible. Even shady weirdos like the Mang have families and cultural cliques and obscure religious celebrations and music. (Terrible, terrible music.) Whenever any ethnic group finds itself the minority in a hostile place, it immediately bands together and insulates and self-protects and starts pumping out really good food.
Not Martin. He’s an ethnic minority of one. There isn’t anybody else here that he can sit with in a bar and reminisce about the glories of The Sopranos, no cousins he can invite over for a proper British curry or even a Mission District barbacoa burrito, no friends with whom he can serenade the glory of good old planet Earth with a good old fashioned drunken rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin'”.
He is alone, and nearly mute, and extremely aware of his status as an illegal and undocumented — if unwilling — immigrant.
And so he makes his living doing the one job that any illiterate, incompetent, drug-addicted maniac in the universe can always do, for just enough money to not end up in a cardboard box or giving handjobs to obese reptilian religious fanatics in back alleyways. Not that he’s done that, or considered doing it for more than five minutes at a time.
Martin finishes his meatballs and sauce and reminds himself again to ask Jehsayteh what the fuck his new favorite dish is actually made of, and then decides again that he probably doesn’t want to know. He takes a long look out at the harbor, where the shipping lanes to the other continent-districts of O lie adjacent to the massive spaceports and their loading docks. One of those big Partari freighters is coming down, parting the Chanel clouds like a fist through a curtain of gauze, its engine wake sending giant rippling waves across the ocean that crash into the breakwaters with sprays of ocean foam as big as houses that startle the bright red idiot gargoyles that sun themselves on the rocks and send them crying indignantly into the morning air.
Martin does not know that he’s smiling, but he thinks to himself: fuck, it could be worse. How in hell could you live without seeing that, even just once?
And then he’s gone into the commuter crowd that flows into the city subways like a river into an underground cavern, gravity driving it ever onward and down into the dark.