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Culture, Reality

Signs of the Times

by Samora Chapman / 20.06.2012

Part II of our series Begging for Change

So I decided to go looking for a spokesperson; to try and get some insight into the sad and most degrading of occupations that is ‘begging for change’. I began by going in search of Durban’s most renowned beggars. The ‘praying mantis’ on Old Fort Road was nowhere to be found. I’d seen him running from cops recently and he was still awol from his usual street corner. I then headed to the two most famous sign-writers in D’urbs, who do battle at the Musgrave/Berea Road intersection. Mr Nothing is a smiley old man with a tangly white beard who’s renowned for his sign that reads: ‘BIG PROBLEM NO JOB NO MONEY NO HOUSE NO FOOD NO TRACY CHAPMAN NO JACK DANIELS PLEASE HELP MR NOTHING WITH SOMETHING.’ Mr Nothing’s real name is Moses. I picture him rolling down Musgrave Road in a convertible Benz with his arm slung around Tracy Chapman, sipping Jack straight out the bottle and listening to Pac’s ‘Do For Love’.

Moses has been rocking the same message since about ’99, as far as I can remember.
“Who’s Tracy Chapman?” I ask him feigning ignorance.
“She’s the singer, the New Yorker.” Moses works in town two days a week and in Pinetown three days a week.
“Why,” I ask. “Is business better in Pinetown?”
He says no, but doesn’t elaborate. Moses shies away from me and goes back to work… giving motorists a little dose of self-deprecating satire for breakfast.

Across the robot is his opposition sign-writer. A humble looking poor-white with missing teeth called Mark.
“Ya, I’m from Durban,” he tells me. “I stay in a shelter and I come here every day.”
Mark is known for his flamboyant glittery signs. He obviously makes enough cash for some dope stationary. Today he’s rocking an obese Garfield with glittery (optimistic) lettering ‘R10 for shelter please.’
“You’re quite the artist,” I tell him. “How often do you paint a new sign?”
“Ah, every now and then,” he answers quietly.
“And do you paint anything besides signs?”
“Ja,” he says toneless, “in my spare time.”
“And how much cash do you make if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I make enough to survive hey.” Mark is a man of few words… hence the sign-writing I guess.

Heading back cross-town I observe two white cats that look like they got lost on an acid trip and never came back. Bloodshot eyes and thousand yard stares. They’re always on the corner of Argyle and Umgeni. I’m used to seeing the younger guy hanging his head with a particularly miserable countenance. But today he’s sitting in the shade, sipping a coke and looking rather sparkly. He recognises me and says: “I just need one more rand… and then I can finish my time machine.”
“What you need a time machine for?” I asked.
“So I can bring back Elvis,” he says suppressing a huge grin. “Cos he’s the king man!” He breaks down in chuckles as I zoom off in pursuit of a more lucid mind.

And that mind was found belonging to a man named Silo. He hangs half way down Argyle on the on-ramp from the NMR. When you stop at his robot he uses simple logic to coax your sympathy. I remember him saying to me once: “Hey come on man, I know it’s month-end. You can spare something can’t you?” It was true, it was the 28th. I’d just gotten paid. What could I say?

I went looking for Silo because I know he loves to talk. And when he started talking he flowed like a flash flood. I propositioned him with lunch in exchange for an interview. He thought about it for a while like a man weighing up is future.

Read part 1 here.

Tune in tomorrow for part 3.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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