He said his name was Peter.  He briskly shook my hand, moving with the sure steps of an athlete.  His T-shirt revealed chiseled arms; his eyes, a mischievous twinkle.  His face burst into an easy smile around crooked teeth that closed in a crossbite.

Peter eased into the rear-facing seat in the back of his black cab with Nick, Sandy and me and launched into a brief history of Belfast and the Troubles.  He said his aim was to present an unbiased account of both sides.  He apologetically unfolded a well-worn map of Belfast, tracing a finger along the parallel Shankill and Falls Roads, where we would see opposing communities on both sides of Belfast’s longest peace wall, stretching 3 1/2 miles from city center to the surrounding hills.  His lilting Irish accent was elegant, contrasting with the half-decade of sectarian fighting he described, peppered with curse words.  Right from the beginning, the Troubles were conveyed with street cred, an account that couldn’t be read in a textbook or heard from a staid, uptight report from someone in a tie.   Peter eagerly jumped into the driver’s seat, chatting all the while as we hurried away from our hotel.

In minutes, we would turn off Shankill Road into a large estate, the ironic name for a public housing community.  Peter deftly stepped from the cab, holding the door as he encouraged us out into the unusual sun of the morning.  He quickly strode from the parking lot across a patch of grass, warning us away from canine-produced land mines, chatting merrily.  At a slight distance, I could see murals of gunmen in balaclava and I wondered if we should really be walking here.  I could imagine someone watching us unseen, through a scope.  It’ll be just a minute, I thought, surely we’ll be ok.  I watched Peter’s confident stride, settling myself in the knowledge that he looked like he could protect us in a street fight, as I glanced down uncomfortably at the wet grass now clinging to my purple ballet flats.

We walked around the estate, pausing at murals adorning the gable end of each building as he recounted each story depicted.   We gazed up at a memorial to a hero of the Troubles, who Peter described as a murderer, responsible for the deaths of more Catholics than any other.  A gruff-looking man walked toward us, trailing a young son and Peter greeted them briskly, his accent thickening so much i couldn’t understand their brief exchange. After the man had passed, Peter said he saw that man often on his tours, always trailed by a different one of his many children.  As we walked, Peter’s encyclopedic knowledge of history, current events and unique trivia became increasingly apparent, as was his gentle, laughing manner.  I littered any break in his monologue with questions.  Later, Nick and Sandy would tease me about interviewing Peter, making our tour a full hour longer than the 2 hours advertised.

I was especially wary of one mural, depicting a gunman with a gun pointed directly at me.  After Peter pointed out that the gun follows you wherever you go in the estate, I tiptoed around, peering over my shoulder, heart racing.  Catcalls rang out across the estate, startling me into walking closer to Peter.

Eventually, Peter’s own story came out:   he had grown up in Belfast’s Catholic community but had married a Protestant girl at the tender age of 14.  Her father was a member of a dangerous Protestant sectarian group, the Orangemen.  The impact of their forbidden marriage was profound:  Peter spent many years as a non-entity at family gatherings but over a lifetime of marriage, his relationship with his father-in-law had evolved to the point where Peter could even now gently “take the piss” out of the older man.   Peter talked of his girls, who now attend an integrated school and play the Irish sport of Gaelic football.  Just a few weeks ago, their grandfather desperately wanted to watch them play in a tournament but refused to go, due to the likely presence of many Catholics.

“Just wear a hat,” Peter had implored, “no one will ever know who you are.”

But the grandfather could not bring himself to attend.

Peter also told us about his own childhood in Belfast, during the height of the Troubles:  at 15 years old, he had seen a friend killed by a bullet while they played ball on their street.  The alley beside his house was the only place hidden from sight in his estate, making it the location where people would be beaten, knee-capped or 6-packed (shot in the elbows, knees and ankles).  I asked him if he was scared growing up.  He said no, that he knew where to go and how to keep his head down and just “get on with it.”  He told us about having his license ripped up one time by Protestant-friendly police who stopped him in his cab; about being hired to drive several large drunk men who were clearly up to no good.  I suspected the well of shocking and horrific stories ran very deep.  The only sign of this history was Peter’s grey hair and a depth to his blue eyes that hinted he had seen more than anyone in their 30s should ever have to see.  Other than that, Peter was jovial, friendly, talkative and so engaging… disarming with his openness.

We ended the tour at St. Peter’s Cathedral.  Peter sat in his black cab, an arm draped nonchalantly over the steering wheel.  As we talked on the street leading to the cathedral, in front of a row of neat orange-bricked rowhomes, the ominous boom-boom-boom of a sectarian parade echoed over the peace wall.  In spite of the bright sun, the quiet street, I felt an ominous fear.  I told Peter we had heard some discussion the day before during a visit to Stormont (the seat of Northern Ireland government) about taking the walls down in 10 years:  what did he think about that?

“That’s bollocks,” he said, “there’s no way that can happen.  Maybe 25 or 30 years, but not 10.  You tell those Deputy Ministers up there on the hill that 10 years is bollocks.”  When I asked, he said the way forward is to integrate the schools and wait for a generation or two to pass.  It was a consistent message we’d hear repeated by other cab drivers throughout our stay in Belfast.

When he drove us back to the Hilton, Peter opened the back door, thanking us for coming on his tour.  He shook Nick’s hand and gave both Sandy and me quick peck on the cheek, wrapping his strong arms around us in a warm hug.  He stepped catlike into his black cab and sped away, leaving me with a new sense of what being a survivor really might mean.  #smartercities Challenge

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