There are times in your life you reach a crossroads. You’re forced to stop, consider which way you’re going to go, and it’s one or the other. And the consequences will be, well, even if just for that particular path you’re on, significant.
Or so the grand narratives of lives go. In the everyday, prosaic world of Cape Town city living, where public transport is the choice of only those with no alternative, I find myself at crossroads pretty much several times a day. The one at the corner of Rosmead and Kenilworth. The one at the corner of Doncaster and Racecourse. Liesbeeck and Durban. The succession of intersections as you navigate the traffic out of town.
That moment, stopping at the intersection, slowing down as the traffic turns to a trickle, or stopping to wait for the trickle to start up again, always reminds me of William Kentridge’s scary morphing symbolism in his animations. Was it History of the Main Complaint? – the man in the car, the rain pelting down the windscreen wipers going, going going. The hand at the window, the open palm, the rolling-down of the window, the coin in the hand, the rolling-up of the window. The hand at the window, the gun at the window, the hand at the window, the gun at the window. The suppliant offer, the threatening offer, the charitable offer, the forced hand.
The intersections feel to me like a marketplace, where punters are competing with their unique accoutrements of need, to trigger me into believing I can help. I am Woman In Car, potential source of revenue. Man with Blind Friend, slow and halting; Man With Sign (number of dependants, job loss summary, brief blessings); Woman with Stylish Facepaint, selling Big Issue; Man with Bucket and Squeegee; Man with Photocopies (Funny Stuff); Woman With Baby; Man with Inflated Angry Birds and Pigs (this week); Woman with Plastic Bags on Feet. I cast list them, as I watch them cast list me among the other drivers: Woman Putting on Lipstick in 4×4; Bakkie Driver smoking with Appy; Luxury Sedan guy changing the station; Cellphone Rummager (so many of those); Tightlipped Horizon-Gazer; Car Window Roller-Downer Who will Chat But Not Give; Car Window Roller-Downer who will Give But Not Chat. Who will I be today?
I’m always struck by how inconsistent my feelings are towards the cast of the ongoing street spectacle at the intersections. Some days I feel they are there urging me to Change My Life and become the man in India who stopped acquiring and consuming, and gave over his time to washing the feet of the untouchables. Some days I’m morose with resentment over Nkandla and the Guptas and taxes and corruption. Some days I can smile at the figures at the window. Most days I can ignore the urge to calculate how much following distance I need to leave before the next car, just in case there’s an intersection hijacking at my window.
I no longer pass out cash like I used to, or food like I used to. I no longer believe anything I can offer can help in any significant way. I no longer believe that donations aren’t weighted with disproportionate measures on both sides. This cannot assuage your hunger any more than it can assuage my guilt. Me and you – the face behind the window and the face outside the window; the hand on the wheel and the hand outside the door – we are both entirely, systematically lost.
Some days my thoughts are elsewhere, and I cannot engage – in either thought or even eye contact – with the drama of Need and Lack that swirls around the car like weather, so real, so near, so outside the window. On some terrible days I haven’t noticed the outside presence until someone raps on the window, and the unexpected noise and proximity of a looming gesticulating face has startled me into a shriek. The sound of which has alarmed me as much as the vision of it has alarmed the gesticulator at the window. That’s worst, when the children are in the car. Oh, how we don’t want our children to know that really the world outside your window can be startling scary when you least expect it.
Mostly though, they cast of the intersections are unsurprising, unscary. Some of them are there daily and you get to know their faces. There was the white (weirdly for the 90s) guy in Mowbray, who used to sell mangy-looking crunchie biscuits (dude, did anyone buy those? to actually eat? who baked those for you?) and later mangy-looking jewelry, and sometimes he stared vacant-eyed with nothing to sell and a sign about his wife and children and no job. He was there for 10, 20 years or more, just getting a little more wizened with each year. Someone made a documentary about him, after he died, and I was (why?) surprised by how very different his voice and story were to what I’d ever imagined from those little details. Soon after that I noticed that Woman With Baby (Rosmead/Doncaster/Kenilworth intersection) had turned into Woman with Toddler, and she’s sometimes takes a break from the paper cup and just plays with her child, because let’s face it, there will be more cars the next time the lights change, and everyone needs a break from work sometimes.
The crossroads are not the occasionally reached point, the intersection between opposing directions. They are there every day, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. And you, like the rest of the cast, will sleep again tonight and wake again tomorrow and return there.