If the hippie generation were considered nearly extinct in the narrow coastal regions of the Western U.S., a derivative species prospers here in Cape Town. The rolling, white froth of waves which took form from swells hundreds of meters off shore tease from a late morning slumber those whose dreadlocks long for a salt shower.
The homeless population is omni-present too, sleeping in the doorways of restaurants and surf shops, and between stone walls whose cavities reduce the constant wind to a loud whisper.
I am unable to walk to the AIMS research centre without at least one, usually two people asking for food, money, or clothing. I give what I can, but in return I receive something too.
With the shake of a hand, the lowering of my glasses in order to make eye contact, and a polite application of sir or ma’am, I capture their stories.
Last night, a homeless man sat next to me on the long, blue wooden bench at the train station in Observatory. He talked to himself, as many people living on the street seem to (I am certain I would as well, over time), as we waited for the next, last train to return to Muizenberg. With the ticket office closed, there is no fee for the last run. A number of homeless men (and some women) find transport at this time.
He pulled from a large plastic bag four pairs of shoes: sneakers, white and black running shoes, and another pair I did not see clearly. He settled on the black shoes, placing the others back in the bag.
We sat there, without speaking or eye contact for at least ten minutes. It felt awkward to me so I broke the silence, “How was your day?”
He hesitated, still talking to himself, it seemed. He then looked up and offered a few words. His Afrikaans accent was thick and what’s more, he had a pen cap held between his lips on the right side of his mouth. I nodded, agreeing with whatever it was that he said. Then my ears and brain adjusted, as they do when I live abroad, and the rhythm of his words felt more familiar. I picked up the start of each phrase, then words, then meaning.
He removed the pen cap from his lips and we were communicating.
With my probing, his story unfolded. I nearly reached for my cell phone to record his words as the depth and meaning came clear to me. What he shared was important, for it told the story of so many people of this land.
He is working temp jobs, project to project, as a grounds keeper, painter, and carpenter in training. He has worked primarily for one man, in Cape Town, where he is given food, some clothing, and payment in Rand. He wants to open a bank account, to learn how to manage his budget, but has not yet had enough to make that happen.
I asked if he had a family. His eyes opened wider and he leaned a bit closer, while still at the opposite side of a long bench. I turned my shoulders and chest toward him, unfolded my arms to let him know I was fully listening.
“Yes. I have a son. He was born in 2006, so now he is … he is …
“Wonderful,” I responded.
The man smiled for the first time, continuing, “My son, what a beautiful boy. I love his so very much. He is just eight years old, but already so clever. He, he can take my cell phone and already figure it out. No one taught him this, he just, he just knows,” nodding.
“He sounds very smart indeed.” He paused for a bit, looking at his shoes then back to me, “We were to have another child, but … but he was still-born.”
“I am so sorry. I can’t imagine the pain of that for both of you.”
“Yes, yes it was very … difficult for us.”
There was a lull. He fidgeted with his shoulder bag and I with the buttons on my cargo pant pockets. Then he continued.
“His mother and I, we want to be married. I want to marry that woman for I love her very much. We lived together, but she made me to leave. I smoke cigarettes and drink beer and will not have me.”
I listened. He continued.
“I go to church. Every Sunday. I want to be a man of God. We are all people of God, you know, but I want to do his will, to do right for my son and his mother. Some day, I will come back to her ready for marriage. I promised her this … and I will. Some day … some day …” and he trailed off, talking to himself again as much as me.
He nearly had tears in his eyes, as did I. We pushed them back with a smile. He knew the challenges, he set his goals, and he is working to achieve them. But kicking alcohol and smoking are not simple processes, and no amount of attending church will cure him of these.
Again, I see patterns of basic human behaviour, which will never be correctly assessed nor managed. Addiction. Self-medication. Dealing with the pain and fear of life on the edge. How many times has he come to this realization but without guidance, without an example in his life, how can anyone know what to do next?
We boarded the train and sat across from each other.
He told me about the area where his son and his son’s mother live. A very bad part of the cape where the gangs have control. He told me that if he lived there, he would be forced to join a gang. He chose to live away from them, seeing them only on the weekends, in order to focus on earning money which he sends to them, when he can. He will see both on Saturday, for the first time in a few weeks.
He made a good choice. I was impressed, given his circumstances.
In asked, “You said you attend church often, correct?”
“Yes, yes. That I do. It is a good church. But I never tell the pastor my story. I don’t want for him to know. I only want to pray, to ask God for guidance.”
“I understand. That is very humble of you.”
“Thank you sir.”
“May I ask, however, if your church has programs to help people like you, who want to improve their life?” He did not understand my words for we had just pulled out of the station and the train was very noisy, my accent certainly foreign to him. I repeated.
“I really don’t know. I have not asked. What is this you say?”
“I don’t know about here, for I have just arrived, but some churches in the US have programs to help people like you, people without a home and a struggling family, to improve their position.”
“Oh? I did not know this.”
“I cannot promise, of course, but it might be worth asking.”
“Ok. Ok. I will ask my pastor. He does not know my story.”
I concluded, “You are a good storyteller and your story is worth telling. Tell him, as you humbly told me, ask for nothing, and simply see what he says.”
“I will do this my brother. I hope to see you next time I ride the train.” He rose from his seat, shoulder bag and plastic bag of shoes, and departed at that stop.
I forgot to ask his name.