Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Alternative boy

There was a thin, pale boy in the shop today wearing a white t-shirt with a print of bloodied lungs on it. He and two friends of his were looking for an Anne Rice book, and found one they wanted and left. This is not unusual in itself except for the fact that they were in the shop buying a book when South Africa (our country that wouldn't have qualified had it not been fortheir hosting the world cup) was beating France (the country rankd seventh in the world) in the world cup.

I had - just half an hour previously - run across to the other side of the corridor (past Clicks, around the esculators) to move the palm in the shiny silver pot that was blocking our view of the television in the hairdressers. It was large and heavy and made a painful, squealing sound when I dragged it across the floor. We still had to sit flat on the floor in the doorway of the shop to see the soccer on the television opposite, but the screen was unobstructed at least. Perhaps the security guards would have stopped me ordinarily, but they were off watching the soccer themselves.

When we scored the goals, a man in his pale-blue clicks shirt careened around the esculators with his arms outsretched and the people gathered in the hairdressers jumped up and down and a little boy skipped past like he had spring-bok hind legs. We hugged and high-fived and laughed uncontrollably with happiness. I had tears in my eyes as the exhilaration seemed to explode up from my toes like a firework shooting upwards out of me. Everyone was sparking, feeling the rush and it was really as if we were all united in absolute and pure joy. All white-english-alienation I often feel was erased in an instant and all that was left was a throbbing heart of pride.

I felt like this about my country when I was a child and I thought about Nelson Madela and my school - Port Shepstone High - where people formed teams and dreamed of making a better South Africa. I have not felt like this for years as the depression at the widespread corruption and the continuing hatred and prejudice that is only passed on from one generation to another is not lessened with time and better education.

And then this boy came in with his alternative t-shirt and said how he was sick of the soccer, how he hoped we lost so that everything would return to normal. He wasn't interested in watching. My lips pulled backwards over my teeth in a not-smile, and I felt intensely angry with him and sorry for him at the same time. I was angry because he wanted to crush the raw energy of such patriotism that I thought no one would ever feel again after Mbeki, Zuma, Jub-Jub, Malema, Eugene Terreblanche and Steve Hofmeyer. And I fet sorry for him because he doesn't realise how rare this unification is. If powerful South Africans continue to suppress people and abuse their power, this may be the one of the last surges of bright, unsullied patriotic fervour for years to come. He doesn't even realise he is sleeping through the appearence of one of the rarest shooting stars: our country all cheering for and with each other.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

what happened at the traffic department

Hearing "Cooler as Ekke" on my way to my learners license made me realise I would pass it. It was a sign from Jack Parrow himself.

Nevertheless I have pit of fear in my belly and read and re-read my learners book. Someone is playing "Waka-Waka" on their phone and I feel a little surge of patriotism and another good feeling about the test. The waiting room for the learners license test overlooks the Randburg taxi rank ("E-News Welcomes You to Randburg Taxi Rank" in Sesotho and Zulu and the occasional joyful Vuvuzela hoot) and is packed full of people of all ages and colours and sizes all looking distinctly nervous except for a white teenager wearing shorts and white lace-up shoes. Her mother says she will wait for her in the car and the girl sits on the corner of a row of seats and doesn't speak to anyone but looks like she is assured this one.

She is. She is the first one to leave the testing room after her paper has been marked correct (or correctly enough to have passed). The testing room is babysat by a large, bosomy woman with glossy hair extensions and dark lipstick who kicks out two applicants during the session (one for cheating, the other for not having her ID). I can't help thinking that her bulky curves are like armour against all the angry, over-grown children who are forced to come back and write tests like they are back at school.

She sits with her back to us marking the papers and calls the failures to the desk from over her shoulder. They leave only just holding themselves together. As she marks the other papers, she calls over her shoulder for each of the rest of us to go to the waiting room. The result is confusing. Half of the people in the waiting room don't realise that they are the ones who have passed. There is a giggly, red-cheeked white woman wearing lace-up ugg boots and sharing all the details of how she crashed her ex-husband's car into her wall (she's been driving for the past ten years without her license) and how she is going to move in with her "boyfriend" (I struggle to reconcile that word with the roguish, tall, white-haired man sitting next to her with his hand on her knee).

I am sitting next to a South African German in his forties. He has a lisp and tells me he does marketing for anti-aging products and then that he is taking his learners for a motorcycle license. I want to ask him if he is having a midlife crisis, but I don't.

We wait in the waiting room for half an hour after the test is finished talking and feeling relieved. The young man I was sitting next to before I went in smiles at me: he was shaking before he went in. He sits in the corner talking what I think is Sotho with five other men, and I end up talking to the German man, the giggly woman and a coloured woman with an infectious laugh and a sunshine personality. We see the armoured lady walking toward the office and all start to feel excited about the fact we think we will soon be leaving. We wait another forty-five minutes, making chit-chat about traffic departments and driving and the soccer.

The lace-up girl's mother arrives and she gets up and stands outside with her mother, waiting. Someone comes with our papers and calls out our names in order and tells us to line up with R45 our ID photo and our ID. The laceup girl's mother and her daughter are finished with the process and gone before the rest of us have lined up. I wish we all had mothers like hers and that she had helped all of us get out there early.

We wait another forty-five minutes in the queue and try to guess what is taking so long (do we have to lick the shoes of the people signing our papers and thank them for taking almost three hours to issue us with papers? Do they re-mark the test in front of you before they give you the paper?) I ask the German man why he is moving back to Germany and he tells me it is because his children are at the right age: he has ten-year old twin boys. And his wife was shot and killed in a hijacking two years ago. I feel my heart shrink in my chest. He smiles and says maybe they will move back one day.

I reach the front of the queue and am issued with my learners license and a single square of single ply toilet paper to wipe the fingerprint ink off my thumb. We all find it funny that it is this small square of paper that is the traffic department's final gift to us.

I blow a kiss to everyone as I say goodbye and wish we had speant the time waiting for the license more productively. I am thinking a group-choreographed dance piece to "Waka Waka" that we could have recorded and sent to FIFA as encouragement and as part of general world cup excitement.

I get my learners signed by a woman who is arguing with a queue of angry people waiting for eye tests on my way out. I leave through the now-deserted ground floor which bars anyone else from coming in even though it is only 3.45. The security guards seem surprised that I say goodbye as I walk out into the afternoon sunshine.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The People You'll Meet

Oh the places you'll go and the people you'll meet! is a line from a Dr. Seuss book. This is a particularly apt way to start this blog as the children's section is my favourite place in the whole bookshop where I work and Dr. Seuss is one of my favourite sub-sections. For me, working in abookshop is alittle like taking care of an orphange: the books are children in my care and I have to make sure they all find homes with worthy people who will love them and appreciate them for who they are. I would never try to convince an avid Wilbur Smith fan to take home Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil". The fan would deride the book, perhaps fling aside something he could not understand and make it into an outcast from all love and understanding. I would feel much more comfortable sending him home with a shiny Clive Cussler or a Vampire Diaries book for his daughter.

I always feel most happy when my own personal favourites are chosen from the store and taken home. With books I suppose I don't even have to feel guilty: favouring one book over another is hardly the same as favouring an orphaned child.

And what a strange lot of adoptive parents turn up at our doors. There is a the large (larg as in there are many of them, they are not over-weight. They probably live on all-organic, home-made produce), red-headed, home-schooled family who wear home-spun clothes and laugh a lot. Peter Jackson could have made them hobbits because I could swear I can see large, earthy feet under their long skirts, cargo pants or leather jackets.

Then there is the dear old lady who comes in once a week to complain to Telkom about her telephone not working (she has a daughter overseas that she needs to speak to!) and to buy a book from us and complain to us about her telephone not working. She always sounds dreadfully sorrowful.

Another older woman comes in and tells us in confdential tones that she treats herself to books and then hides them away so that she has a secret stash for when she is alone. She buys books instead of food sometimes. They aren't naughty books, just regular novels and biographies. I think she enjoys thinking of herself as engaging in illicit activities as much as she enjoys reading the books.

There is a skinny Chinese boy in his twenties who captures you in conversation about the conspiracy theories he and his lecturer have discussed.
1.) Mandela is actually an evil, corrupt man and there is a media scam that makes out he is great.
2.) Immigrants will bring the economies of the world to an end.
3.) Obama is terrified of the Russians who still control the USA (secretly).
4.) Beware the yellow peril! (This from a Chinese man).

You can start by arguing but eventually you just starch a smile and stare. He is unstoppable, and more than slightly nauseating.

There is also an unwashed martial arts enthusiast who you can smell from across the cash desk. His teeth have blackened ends. Every piece of paper he hands across looks soiled and his hair is lank and dirty blonde. Yet he is one of the friendliest people simply bursting for their goodwill to spread to everyone they talk to. Bless him.

And then there was the guy who tried to Derryn-Brown me into giving him my phone number. Needless to say it didn't work.

But not all of them are bad or quite as characaturable as I have made them out to be. Some people almost shriek with joy when they see the book they have been waiting for and others grip theirs firmly and lovingly. Some people speak to you like you are their guardians through the maze of over-stocked bookshops and like they trust you with their books (which are like their new-found children).

And that is when I know I've done my job.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

first kiss

This first blog will probably be a little like a first kiss: exciting, uncomfortable, embarrassing in retrospect but something that will only improve with practise.

I took the leap (or leaned in unexpectedly - to make this an extended metaphor) because my writing is something I wish to take both more and less seriously fom now on. I need to take it more seriously and become disciplined about practising. I need to take it less seriously and play more. I must stop feeling like writing is a gargantuan task reserved only for geniuses who are way crazier and therefore more brilliant than me. I too have stories that need to be told and consumed or savoured or tossed aside. In any case, they need to come into being and become handled and touched and felt. Stories that are half-formed in my own brain will be lost and my own contribution to people's knowledge of the human condition will go to waste.

Dante created a special place in hell for those who let life pass them by. It was a dreadful, empty wasteland of nothingness and in-between. I don't translate myself and my keyboard into an image of a knight with a sword on a quest (Monty Python already ripped that image to shreds and it's too phallic for me anyway) but I do imagine myself walking through a landscape and leaving marks of passage behind. Some people will see them, others won't, and eventually it will be erased by other markings or it will simply be overgrown. At least I walked through the landscape, I didn't remain in the house waiting for my place in the wasteland one day.

Ah, so many mixed metaphors. But i think I'm going to enjoy this blog thing.