Story behind a sign of the times
What leads a father of twins to swallow his pride and spend his days at the traffic lights in Cresta?
“I did – but at the end of the day a restaurant manager doesn’t have a life.”
Then he smiles ruefully. “I’m not exactly having much of a life right now, but it was just the hours. I was only 23, I just wanted to be young.”
Later he joined RTT, a courier company. “I progressed in the business and at 25 I was the youngest branch manager in the group. Then I got an offer from Fast Freight Couriers, but they were liquidated and I ended up at Zilmet in Kyalami. I was their head technician and built their booster systems.”
I’m struggling slightly with the number of job changes, although he says he left them all amicably and he doesn’t drink and has never had a problem with substance abuse.
“Getting back to now; how did you feel when you first stood at the lights with your sign?”
“Embarrassed,” he says emphatically. “Without exception, every time I stand at the robot I am embarrassed to the core.
“But I have to survive, I have to sustain myself. I don’t want people to sustain me – it leaves a dent in my pride.” “How do people respond to you?” “I don’t bother people. They have a choice.
“They can read my sign or they can ignore it, but some people still make sly comments. The other day a guy said in Afrikaans, ‘ Nou ‘n ding soos jy maak nog sulke goed’ (‘a thing like you makes more of these things’), referring to my kids. That breaks a person down. But if someone gives me money, I tell them if they hear of any work they know where to find me.” I ask what his typical day is. “I usually get up at 5am. A bit later I check the robots. I stand here or the corner by Cresta.”
“How do you choose one?” I ask, thinking I might be entering the secret lore of the streets as to what makes a good set of lights to stand at. But it is not to be. “Oh, just gut feel,” he says, smiling. “Do you eat breakfast?” “No,” he shakes his head, “that is a luxury. Then I stand for three to four hours. I only buy one meal a day with money that people give me, the rest I send to the kids.” I ask what he normally buys. “A R10 quarter.” “What is that?” “It is bread with chips and a piece of polony and sausage. It’s quite nice, actually. Otherwise, if someone gives me food I eat that, because otherwise it would be a waste of the money. I would rather keep the money for the kids.
“The other day a guy bought me a small pizza, which was nice. Or they give me sandwiches. In the evening, if I don’t eat at the lights I go and buy something small – not much. Just as long as I keep nourished.” I ask him what he does in the evening. “I read the Bible or I sketch.” “Does that comfort you?” I ask. “Lots. It gives me strength every day. I know God is not going to leave me. I don’t blame Him for putting me where I am. The bad in the world that brings suffering and pain is not God.” “So who do you blame for where you are now?” “Me. That was my wrong decision. It was my bad – I have to rectify it. Nobody else can.” Contact David Gemmell Cell: 082 804 2943 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @davewordguru Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/david. gemmell.7
Johan Blom with his sign.
Asking for help at the lights while cringing inside with embarrassment.