The street librarian’s shared loneliness
JASPHAT, who is not a young man, stretches the trash bag over his trolley as if it were a BMW being covered by tarpaulin.
He has to do it slowly, sweet-tempered as a Sandhurst chauffeur, or the plastic might tear and open his treasures up to the elements.
It’s a gruelling 20-minute push to the top of Stewart Drive from Bez Valley into Yeoville, and he prefers to do it on his own, storms or sunshine. The past fortnight, with its near-tireless downpour, has been a sturdy test of the mettle of the Zimbabwean bookseller, or street librarian as he prefers to be called.
Even as he draws the corners of the bag meticulously across the trolley and brings the sides down like floaty blinds, fat raindrops are bouncing off his hands and arms. The fleshy spray springs off the hood of his old rainjacket like water on oil.
Pushing his library to the crest is a precarious but mighty act which might mean the difference between going home to his children and wife in the small Zimbabwean town of Plumtree at Christmas, or staying in his Bellevue backyard room where the showers against the metal door sound like a brass band drunkenly clashing out a finale in the early hours.
He reads all the time, to himself. His books are his family in Joburg. He pretends his room is a wider imaginative space, wide enough for the characters in the pages to distract him from his loneliness. But it’s not.
The weight of the books swerves the trolley on an uncomfortable track up the curvy hillside, and the muscles in his arms and legs pull tight as ropes. He says his body is used to the strain.
He walked distances to school, 40 years ago. Then he walked to work, 20 years ago.
More peaceful than the rattling old bus, he confides – and less emotion like that you’d have to bear from the other passengers. So it’s only practice, he says, wiping the water off his forehead.
Jasphat risks his life in this weather. There’s no knowing what’s going to come around the bends of Stewart Drive, or at what speed, so he tries to skim the lefthand verge.
Stewart Drive was once a cult spot for fashion shoots, for girls with winding legs wearing high-waisted Eighties lingerie and sharp-tipped court shoes. They draped fake fur coats around their angles, and mounted cigarettes between their purple lips. The avant-garde boutiques of Rockey Street used those pictures as advertising. Now, they seem quite spooky.
But the rocky walls of the hillside road which Jasphat has come to know are now crumbling in places and the forest on either side has expanded into a wild emerald growth with no understanding of what happens inside it.
The bookseller says he likes its sounds when the traffic has subsided into the early evening or before morning rush hour. It sings in there, he explains.
It’s moving with birds and insects. It’s life. Of course, there are Jasphat’s practicalities. When your shop is a pavement, and your fittings a rickety wooden table and a blanket laid out on the concrete, the rain can destroy your business.
People don’t want to pause, make a choice and then take out their R10 for the street librarian.
So Jasphat’s had a rough two weeks, bending his back over his trolley as if it were a ploughshare pulling through the fields for very little reward. But then he raises a corner of the plastic covering to show his neat piles of stories, and his sadness lifts for a moment.
He pulls out his favourite, the one he’d be most reluctant to sell. It’s British biographer Martin Gitlin’s story of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Jasphat says he particularly likes the portrait on the cover: the rising star, fronting, in a relative state of happiness.
He doesn’t really know why, but says he shares her loneliness. In the rain, especially, they’re kindred spirits.