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Culture, Reality

False Bay Slow Ride

by Brandon Edmonds / 04.07.2011

I get so tired in winter. A bit of seasonal depression, a bit of 6 months into a year that hasn’t amounted to anything so far, a bit of everything. It means napping on the train, a good forty minutes from town to False Bay, my stop. False Bay. I know. I love the name. It reminds me all the reading, time and expense of varsity adds up to a feel for signs. Nothing more. But don’t knock it. A feel for signs is crucial in an era demanding visual literacy, the decoding of media texts and an appreciation of celebrity nip slips. (Why did you forsake us Michelle Obama? If Janet can shock a Superbowl, why not represent for the Motherland, girl? We held off Communism for you. The least you could do is wear a loose halter top).

Most passengers don’t sleep on South African trains. For obvious reasons. This place is dangerous. Trains are dangerous. Crime is immanent. But time in Asia convinces you sleeping on trains is a human right. It’s a quality of life thing. One of the lasting images of the contemporary East is the doddering “salaryman” sleepy-head, that dip and roll and hoist, a touching somnambulist snapshot of hard lives, surplus-extraction and rest. I close my eyes on trains and late afternoon sunlight scalds my eyelids; they light up red then dark between buildings. Light and shade are rhythmic, a kind of communication, thermal Morse code. Who knows what the message is? Khoisan whispers? The dead? The broken ecosystem itself. Voortrekker vibes, colonial crimes? The red of the eyelid sunshot burns red like blood. The message is in the biology, the alternating chromatics of the membrane, being acted on by the world. It’s life-affirming.

I’m awoken by vendors. Train-preneurs. Pushing Simba and Lunch Bars. They turn me into a career coach. Why not differentiate? You’re all selling the same thing. We’re a captive audience. Delight us. Do something different. There are gaps in the train-market to exploit. Try sandwiches, pies. A garden salad. Make it at home and bring it to us. Your mother’s recipes. A thermos of something warm. Soup. Coffee. Tea. Art. Sell art. Do a dance. Read from a book. That would be cool. Read autobiographies. I’d pay for that. Gimme the life of someone interesting as I clack on home. In Cuba, someone reads aloud while workers roll cigars.

Incidentally, that expanding of the bourgeois boundary of intellectual property, the copyrighted limit of an object, into some open shared form, multiply deployed, adaptively used in different receptive contexts, is central to 21st Century mix-it culture. But graffiti on trains suggests the need for an ethics of creative adaption. Most train-graffiti is ugly and self-referring, aggressively inserting itself into the public transport system as a kind of barren viral sign, a weed, a pollution. What a waste of a chance to communicate. Why not open up worlds to us? Get utopian. Show us paradise. Show us possibilities. New vistas. A life beyond the one herding us into cabooses. Take us beyond ourselves. Beyond the situation. We’re crying out for the mural wonders of a Diego Rivera. Tag trains Faith 47!

Red Dead Redemption

Then a coldness in the atmospherics, a clenching of the provisional community of the carriage, makes me open my eyes. It’s cops. A trio of them in blue. I’m struck by how one wears his gun. On the hip. His jersey pulled aside so its riding there, handle tilted for access, riding his hip like a gunslinger. I’m working my way through Red Dead Redemption on Xbox360 and the cop has the same dare-me swagger as that most excellent game’s lead, bounty hunter, John Marston. Let’s not go overboard, but the readiness, the aggressive asocial tilt, of the weapon tells us so much about the regression of the police under General Bheki Cele, a leading member of Zuma’s Zulu-speaking security cabal, and a sign of the nasty authoritarian streak we’re in. Based on a suspicion of civil freedoms and a policy of violence against dissent: Hangberg, Andries Tatane, countless police assaults that go undocumented. Military rankings are back in the police force. Goodbye to community policing where the cops are a constitutionally-bound service, back to policing as a force in a “war on crime”.

Nearing my stop, the train is emptier. The last of us. I hear a woman say, “I better not forget my meat under the chair. Last Christmas I did and someone got a nice present.” I open my eyes when she doesn’t get an answer. She’s talking to a blind woman. Both in their late fifties. The blind woman has a seeing-eye dog. A gentle labrador. You can tell she’s enduring the talk in how she strokes the dog. Together they make a kind of organic cyborg. The lack in one is met by the lack in the other. The dog supplements her sight and she supplements the animal with her humanity. And for the first time in a long time, I long to be married.

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