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Man On The Corner [part I]

by Karl Kemp / Images by Samora Chapman / 18.03.2014

He stood so still, I thought him first to be a statue, newly installed on the corner of Kloof and Camp street – a tribute to a lost dignitary of the struggle, perhaps a recently deceased terrorist freedom fighter. Pigeon fodder. Townsfolk were rushing past him, desperate to escape the torrent that had been unleashed on the Cape, jackets pulled over and sprinting, or umbrellas up and calmly enduring. Either way, they walked straight past the figure and carried on up towards the mountain-side, eyes sharp and focused straight ahead. The man’s chin was jutted, back straight, on the precipice of the sidewalk.

This I saw from my window.

I noticed the colours in his features; the splintered grey of his hair, the patches of brown on his suit, the red flash of a sack draped across his right shoulder. The black pigment of his skin reflected in the gleam of the sports cars’ high beams. The light was fading and the droplets made for a hazy exterior, but there he was, illuminated by every passing headlamp – an old black man waiting next to the road in the pouring rain, wearing only a suit and a sack.

Well, I thought, this is Africa, after all. It’s only a black man standing out amongst the opulence. At least no one was going to ask him to show his pass. Passers-by simply ignored. No more, and no less, a “gentleman’s bergie”, the kind that hail from the Platteland and stand curiously cut, respectable figures on a street filled with cosmopolitan urbanites. The weather was torrid and the man stood curiously still. A bitterly awkward yet familiar feeling starting scratching at the back of my mind. I had known this kind of gentleman, from spending holidays on a farm as a kid, and you can meet similar men standing at almost any set of robots anywhere in town.

I dashed my cigarette against the ashtray’s rim, set a jacket to work on my back and trudged out into the chill and soak. To do what, I was not exactly sure, but it seemed better than a laugh-track set to clockwork smokes and a buzzing, flickering light bulb.

The wind swept rain across the street and hit me like a wet blanket. Tugging up the collar of my jacket, I approached the man apprehensively, still quite unsure as to why exactly I’d come outside to meet him. He didn’t move until I was right beside him, and then shifted his eyes to gaze straight at me.

This is when I noticed he was blind.

His eyes had no irises, the dark orbs smothered by a pool of viscous white. There was nothing of the iris left, and it was the remainder that peered out from within. His face was sharp, thin, not malnourished, but hardened. The rain ran in rivulets in weather-worn lines on his face, down paths that had been worn through by time and the elements. Wiry, his square shoulders were wider than his frame had ever intended them to become, marked by a constructed strength. I studied him from a few meters distance. He had yet to move a muscle. I noticed that there was no bus stop behind his back, no outstretched thumb, no pacing or mad chattering or wandering. Just a wet man in a suit on the corner of Kloof and Camp, staring blankly ahead into a storm he could only feel in the soak of his frayed jacket. And now that blank stare had been turned on me.

I said to him, finally, “Meneer, are you lost?”

And he replied, in a cracked voice racked by age, “Nee, my kind. Kry jy nie koud van so lank hier buite staannie?”

I allowed a silence to stretch between us, wondering how he knew my age, wondering if he knew my race as well, and then replied with a sullen “Nee, oom.”

Leaving me with no answer besides the pitter-patter of insistent rain, his head turned back to the frontline.

“Waarom wag oom hier? Kry jy nie koud nie? Oom sal mos vrek hier buite!”

He was silent a few seconds more and then without shifting his view, returned with “Ek wag vir die baas jong.”

“Die wie?”
“Die baas.”
“Hoe lank wag oom nou al hier?”
“Van drie-uur. Die baas, hy se hy kry my hier vier uur.”

Baas, capital B. It was 21:22. This man had been waiting for five hours and I hadn’t seen him move since I got back from class. I proffered a cigarette by voicing the word and he accepted. He refused my lighter and produced a pack of matches, cupping the whole setup in his hand with an ease that suggested he hadn’t been born blind. His hands were massive, like a bunch of bananas eclipsing a twig, and the flame glowed briefly in the gap before his lungs inhaled deeply. He smiled stoically in my direction, white pools unyielding, and returned to his previous position. I was at a loss then for what to do. I couldn’t leave him here. But did he even want me here? His body language was totally ambivalent.

A metallic snap rang out some meters up the street and the oily stream of water snaking past the walkway suddenly reared up and engulfed it, swelling up and over the side, making me jump aside to save my ratty Converse. A drain grate gave way and the diverted stream was now threatening to become a river.

Fat droplets kept bombarding the pavement. Menacing rivulets were racing along the sides of the road now, swirling in front of Rafikis bar and gurgling around drains choked up with garbage. Taxis kept racing by, drifting through the puddles and sending up showers of spray. Through it all, the man kept his face forward, lifting up the cigarette every now and then to take a drag. I watched him for a while longer and we stood together in silence. The sounds of the city were swallowed by the rain growing faster and louder and heavier.

“Nou, wie is die baas?” I almost shouted at him. My voice was smothered by the drips and the sounds of traffic.

“Hy’s die Baas. Hy ry van die Paarl af. Hy kry my hier vier uur, se hy.”
“Het oom ‘n selfoon?”
He said nothing.
“’n Blackberry of ‘n ding? Van daai cheapies? Niks?”

I scanned over the neatly sewn patches on his suit, the starch white handkerchief lying soaked in his chest-pocket, the water sliding off his polished and scuffed shoes. The unseeing eyes. He did not own a cellphone, no, he didn’t have to say that, and I should not have asked.

“Weet oom hoe werk ‘n payphone?” I tried.

“My kind, ek weet darem hoe werk ‘n phone. Ek het nie ‘n selfoon nie,” he said in the patient tones of someone explaining something very simple to a child hard of hearing, “want ek kannie sien op die skerm nie.”

“Maar die Baas, hy se ek hou die geld wat ek maak vandag vir hom. Dit is syne, hy het gese ‘hou alles Hendrik, doen die werk dan bring jy vir my die geld,’ sien jy? Hy se, die vriend van hom, hy hou van betroubare boys, hy hou nie van verniet hotnots nie, en hy weet ek is sy beste boy, hy weet Hendrik steel mos glad nie.”

“Oom, ‘n payphone kos net paar rand.”

The blind man shoved his hand deep into a jacket pocket and came up with a palm full of bronze and silver. His eyes shone through the murk, and a proud grin tugged his lips upwards. He was still looking through me, over me, past me. Somehow his voice carried over the liquid bombs leveling the tarmac.

“Die is die Baas se geld. Nie myne nie. Die Baas, hy kry my hier vieruur dan gee ek vir hom die dag se pay, dan gee hy dalk vir my iets.”

*Tune in soon for Part II

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