James Oladipo Buremoh spends six months of the year tending to the needs of his subjects from a palace run by half a dozen servants in Idera, a Nigerian kingdom he rules about 200 miles north of Lagos. The rest of the time he drives a Gray Line double-decker bus in New York.
I did not want to be king. Are you kidding me? As king, you are, in the eyes of the community, second to God. You are the father to all the people. And people in my community do not even have outhouses. They go into the bush.
I was born in 1957, the last of nine children. Our parents favored me as the baby. Some of my brothers didn’t like me very much. So I came to the United States, in 1977, and attended college in Georgia. I worked at night putting barbecue grills together on an assembly line. After school, I moved to Houston, where I got a job with Shell Oil. I spent a lot of time in the gym. I was like 272, all muscle. One day, I went to see a wrestling match, and Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd picked me out of the crowd and said, “You ever think of wrestling? You can make $120 a match.” So I became a pro wrestler: Ladi the African Tiger. Until me, the only “African” was Kamala the Ugandan Giant, and he was from Mississippi. I was on the circuit with Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Andre the Giant. I was known for the flying head-butt.
One day, I was driving and—boom!—a deer hit my car. My chest crashed into the steering wheel. That night, I was wrestling Doctor Death. My rib punctured my lung. I went unconscious, and they brought me back to life. That was when I decided, Hey, wait a minute here, it’s time to go back home.
Idera means “a place of comfort.” It is situated in a valley between three mountain ranges. You plant yam. You plant guinea corn. It was founded by my grandfather, a blacksmith. He made statues to the gods, and when the missionaries came, he became an Evangelist. When he passed, my father took over. A conspiracy ensued. Some people wanted to go back to idol-worshipping and appointed my mother’s younger brother to the throne.
Back in Idera, I promoted wrestling. I was “the Hulk Hogan of Nigeria.” But then one day my father called for me. He told me the meaning of my name: a sacred message of royalty. He said I would be the next king. I was like, Whoa! I have six brothers! They would kill me! That’s one of the reasons I came to New York. To escape. I saw a Gray Line bus and went into the office. I showed them my résumé, and they said, “Great, orientation’s tomorrow.” I make $16 an hour now as a driver. I’ve worked with over 200 tour guides. You get to learn a lot, like the way New York was when the British came and took over and then the Dutch came back and you had the Battle of Brooklyn Heights. It’s a really great story. The most difficult part is the stupid taxicabs. We call them “yellow rats.” In fact, I had surgery on my shoulder recently because one cut me off. I’m on disability right now.
When my father passed, in 1999, I didn’t attend the funeral. I didn’t want to take any chances. But in 2003, I went back to Idera for the final rites for my parents, and before I arrived, my mother’s younger brother [the then king] had passed. The community was tired of idol-worshipping, and the Oracle—not a person, more like a god with a small g—had supposedly told them to return the reins of power to me specifically. I reluctantly agreed.
I cannot describe the feeling. When I arrive at the airport, I am dressed in royal regalia. I cannot drive. I cannot do anything. It’s like taboo. It doesn’t matter how old they are, they bow to you. Upon my appointment, the head of the women in Idera knelt before me and begged for water. I sank a well, and the governor ordered a borehole. We still need a lot more. The dispensary, there are no drugs in it. The hospital is one hour away. That’s my mission: to help my people.
When I come here, I’m Ladi the Bus Driver. Every minute I am not working, I am wasting. I live off my tips. I stay at my cousin’s in Bed-Stuy. I spend $10 a day on food. I eat lots of cereal in the morning and then in the afternoon I get a salad. Maybe some Chinese food. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.
As told to Geoffrey Gray