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Culture, Reality

On Trains

by Rupert Sully / 13.08.2013

I have recently arrived in Cape Town. I say ‘arrived in’ rather than ‘moved to’ because the latter suggests some sort of omniscient foresight, as if I will grow old and grey here; and well, I can’t justify such a word yet. I needed a way to get around. I don’t have a car. Driving is a phobia of mine. My hands get so sweaty I have to rub them aggressively on my knees again and again in a way that makes me look like a dubious sort of character.

I started commuting on the train from my cozy little nest in the southern suburbs, to work in Woodstock. What I did not know was the first time I caught the train it was in the Twilight Hour. You would be forgiven for thinking the Twilight Hour was – well – at twilight or, thinking more loosely, a weird time that conjures up images of eerie lunar greys and blankets of darkness. But I tell you the Twilight Hour of the Cape Town metro rail is 12 o’clock, midday.

At noon, every once in a while, a train rolls through almost completely empty. It is only when you step onto one of these that you know you are in the Twilight Hour.

Why? Well, at your busy hours: you have your commuters, your workhorses, the molecules breathed in and out by the city to keep it alive. A human plethora of capitalism’s needs: book boys, school kids, number crunchers with bad teeth, business jackets, straight jackets, blue ties, red ties, dirty overalls, fat women who must take up two cubicles at work, cocktail waitresses. The canned collection of human spirit yawning away the morning or shrugging off the day. You have families moving both ways, heaving like an ocean, sucked through straws in a big tangle of city.

But at the noon hour, everyone is at work. This is the hour of the cripples, the bums, the unemployed, wanderers and ambulant plastic bags. The carriages are pretty empty and they rattle. When you get in, there are only one or two strange characters rocking along with the train and you wonder: Why are they here? Which leads you to the unpleasant question: Why are you here? So you stop thinking because thinking only leads to problems.

Instead you look at the graffiti and stickers. The outer sides of the trains are often covered in graffiti. The spray paint is in more ready supply than the cleaning and, with some trains, the diligent employees of the railway have given up. The yellow grey tubes are adorned with so many other colours that they look like big dusty metal caterpillars rolling through the place.

Inside there are scribbled names and penises drawn so fast and repetitively that they start looking like Spades and Arrows. Most interesting are the stickers offering abortions, penis enlarging cream, love potions, things that will make court cases go well and bring back loved ones. All these gurus only seem to operate via cellphone. Then there is the wall of all knowledge near Salt River that announces? ‘Salt River Market’. (It also has a clownlike character blurting “HONEY I BLEW UP…” and so many other layers of things that I’m sure – if you read it all and squint at it just right – would answer any question in the universe. It has been worked over and worked over and worked over. And eventually it’s going to create something that doesn’t belong to any one vandal, artist or advertiser.

So that was my train baptism. You clunk to each of the stops. First Rosebank. Then Mowbray, Observatory. Salt River. Woodstock. Rose-bank-mow-bray-obs-salt-river-wood-stock. Like a pattern. A combination of sounds that does something. Being able to know the stops off by heart is like realizing for the first time your lips are whispering the words of a song. My relationship with the city is growing. Eventually, you slip into the order of the names; how they fit together. You can be rocked into work in the morning and open you eyes only on the sixth pause, which is yours.

The outer city is a space between the high water mark of the suburbs and the low tide of the city. A place of change and new rhythm. I’m not involved; I just watch. I see people drying fish outside and kids running around holding sticks bigger than them, with big rusty nails poking out at good eye gouging angles.

You see where people have been sleeping. Up against walls. Moulded against old train lines. Just using what is there to sew up shelter from the elements. These cocoons of rubbish and plastic shake when the train passes, amongst old date palm trees exploding like dusty fireworks over rusty fences and shacks. Cocoons to slide into, to germinate, to use as shelter. To be born again to play their parts: beg, steal, be outcast, trodden upon.

Come on, call me a clean white boy. Come on. Slap me in the face. But that’s what I’m thinking when I ride along.

Every morning and evening, I jolt along on the coloured caterpillar though the wasteland. I think the craziness comes in through the windows. That’s why anyone who uses the train long enough gets a bit soft around the edges. All this craziness crammed into the train flies into Woodstock, with children hanging out of doors and windows. Woodstock’s crumbling old houses are painted brightly, which I’ve heard from space resembles a garish piece of pop art with rusty edges. And in all this rust, chaotic paint and dirt – islands of hipsterdom are mushrooming. Bicycles, skinny jeans, tea cozies for hats, big glasses, funny hair and scruffy beards. And a lot of white kids sipping on tea like morphine drips. The crazy concoctions leaking like battery acid and honey.

I took to sitting on the platforms listening to conversations. Then I started recording them, on my dictaphone. But eventually, I felt engrained enough to become part of the craziness and timidly started joining conversations. Rubbing a little madness into my eyes, I’ve even been that person who turns and starts talking to you in that loud conversational voice as if you were traveling together or resuming a long running discussion.

It’s a roulette what conversation you lock into; what hole the balls of your soul falls into. These giant arches of train lines spinning in from all directions spit out people, sucking in new ones. You never know what the person next to you has done, where they have been and what they are thinking at that moment in time and space.

Then the other morning, my roulette game was destroyed. The other morning, a man was found dead on the tracks. His jeans were twisted up around his legs.

Everyone was talking about it for ages. It took over every conversation like a ball spinning in a wheel of identical numbers. No one seemed to know anything about him. I never even heard what killed him. He was just lying there. It shocked everyone. There was a thread going through us and into everyone else. A big bloody spider web of recognition and empathy. For a moment we were all caught up in the same sticky web, across different platforms and places. We all rode the train like this man. Maybe once we had sat next to him; touched him without knowing.

* Illustration © Rupert Sully.

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