CAIRO — He's fast, pushing crooked wheels and a stack of newspapers through the bright Cairo night. They all know him and wave. Here comes Mahmoud Mohamed, ink-stained and dusty, sandals scuffing.
Every evening, a few minutes past 10, when the bundles thunk, thunk near the old tram tracks, he sorts and loads and steers his cart down the boulevard, moving through traffic like a fish sliding past river stones. He starts his route amid clatter and bustle, but when he's done, he strolls home in the slumbering predawn of a city that in that moment as brief as a prayer can hear itself breathe.
Before the Internet, Mohamed knew about the news of the world -- wars, intrigue, the broken loves of movie stars -- ahead of just about anyone. It was a privilege, but such things don't last and what was once special turns into something else. His customers, though, still love the warm feel of paper in their hands, how it crinkles and can be rolled to swat flies or bat away crazy opinions of cranky old men in cafes.
But truth be told, pleasant as he is, Mohamed delivers doom.
"People are depressed," he says. "They don't want to read the news because it makes them more depressed. Political. Financial. The news never seems to get better. The baker and the tea shop guy don't want me to come by anymore. They said they're tired of reading about things that never change."
He looks down the street. The man who delivers the bundles from a taxi is late. The wind picks up and it's getting chilly and Mohamed's customers -- 60 steady, the rest promises and hopes for a sale -- will be getting antsy. The taxi man, weighted down as if he's got a pyramid on the roof, finally arrives and Mohamed loads his cart and heads out over vast territory, slipping into a barbershop, handing off a paper to a pharmacist, dodging ladies on a stoop and hustling toward a grocer dusting off fruit.
Papers flutter. Walking alleys, scattering cats, hawking in restaurants, Mohamed jingles with change, a wad of folding money in his shirt pocket. The Nasr City neighborhood was mostly dirt and sand 20 years ago, when he began selling newspapers. He was 15. Now it's all grown, a gray bloom of crowded apartment buildings, neon, restaurants, phone shops, mechanics and Chinese immigrants. Cairo is like that, one minute a desert, the next a crooked skyline.
Mohamed helped build it. His father, a laborer from the southern town of Minya, would bring him to Cairo on construction trips. Mohamed eventually settled here and took a job in a company that manufactured vibrating mattresses. He rolls his eyes at that one. The pay was low and when he quit, he and his brother staked out a median strip across from a white mosque and began a business selling papers to passing cars, using rocks to keep them from blowing away.
"Back in the 1980s, this whole area was dark and the first light you saw was about 150 meters that way. No traffic. No chaos. I'd sit here with 20 papers and maybe sell 10 all night long," he says. "The neighborhood wasn't booming. Today, I sell 120 to 150 papers on weekdays. When I started, there were only five newspapers in Cairo. There are now 24, most of them opposition and independent."
Cairo has stories, tons and tons of stories, quiet and loud. They play out in papers that sell for about 17 cents a copy: Who will succeed President Hosni Mubarak? Can't say. Why does rice cost so much? Who knows? Can a politically connected businessman get away with murder? Quite possibly.
Some never make headlines. They unfold behind closed doors of struggling lives, like years ago when Mohamed's first wife died in a gas explosion, or just five months ago when his son, Abdulrahman, 10, was hit by a car and killed while riding his bike. Mohamed's customers called the boy "Chief," and now that he's gone, no more a voice at his father's elbow, laughing and hustling newspapers, trying to be a man in the night, it seems Mohamed is missing a shadow. His other young son sometimes helps, but a man tends to look for what's not there.
"My boy was well known around here," he says, dipping his head, waiting for that thought to be over. "I don't live in a good neighborhood. It's OK, but not good. It's all I can afford. I wanted my sons to work with me to keep them away from bad influences after dark. I thought if they were with me, they'd meet intellectuals and smart people and turn out strong."
Mohamed earns on average the equivalent of $7 a night. Pant cuffs rolled up, untucked blue shirt hiding a slight bulge at the waist, he's here one second, gone the next, steering his cart, jumping it over curbs, chewing sunflower seeds, shells blowing from his lips like dull sparks. He says he can't sit still, blames it on the old job of making vibrating mattresses when he had to stand for hours in one place. His knees hurt. He needs to roam, a breeze through his beard, whispering something to the kiosk guy and tossing a newspaper on a backgammon board near a man who pretends he sees spies.