How humbling to see street life from the other side of the windscreen
IT’S just past 6am on a Monday. It’s dark. I’m wearing a poncho. I feel like a God-botherer from some cult about to make a nuisance of myself just as the back-to-school rush starts for the third term.
I’m standing on Jan Smuts Avenue in Joburg and I’m trying to sell newspapers. I’ve been in newspapers for a little more than 25 years, but I’ve never physically sold one. I’ve delivered them, I’ve been sh*t on by shopkeepers when the paper was late. I haven’t sold Rag mags or rattled a tin for a hospice either so this is a first in more ways than one.
I’m trying to sell special editions of HopeTalk for R10; it’s part-Mandela Day, partCEO SleepOut and all very different.
For a start you have to learn how the traffic lights work. Time has a different perspective when you’re wanting a captive market, as opposed to being a motorist wanting to hit the green and keep moving.
I’ve chosen a bad spot that’s just got worse with the arrival of a troop of superamped, super-young, super-hot SleepOut volunteers, almost dancing down the street. I can’t compete with their smiles and certainly not with the unnatural, almost gleeful, enthusiasm. Besides, I haven’t sold a single copy.
Instead, I slink off down a street that looks like it will bottleneck nicely when the traffic backs up. It does.
I walk down the lane of cars, instinctively looking for eye contact. Some smile back at me, wave or show me open palms. Others lock doors as I approach or try manually to retune automatic radios. The smokers are a great target. I know, I used to be one. Their windows are open, just like mine was when I got held up in my car in downtown Joburg once.
I smile, I wish them a good morning. Very few actively ignore me. No one tells me to sod off, for which I am eternally grateful at this time of the morning, because neither of us want to go there, trust me.
Some even chat to me; 10 people buy a copy.
I know who these drivers are. One way or the other. The generous, the kind, the introverts, the obnoxious bullies. All of them. They’re all me.
I’m learning a different perspective this morning. Sacred cows are being slaughtered, new ones are being cast in stone: taxi drivers aren’t all bad, though some will drive straight at you – swerving at the last moment – just to see you jump. I’m learning all over again that drivers of certain makes of cars are psychotic narcissists; if their cars weren’t so expensive they’d drive over me.
I’m learning that pricey cars don’t make people generous any more than the sticker on a windscreen guaranteeing access to the parking field at a child’s school does. Instead, an open heart and a wallet to match come from the least likely quarters, often from those who seem least able to afford the R10.
At the same time, I’m remembering the absolute horror of cold canvassing, the old days of raffle tickets coming home in the kids’ satchels for cruddy bottles of wine or mythical food hampers that would have embarrassed Solomon’s table.
The thought comes back into my mind unbidden whether I shouldn’t, like then, just dip into my wallet and find the R100 to chuck into the kitty and dump the papers in my kangaroo pouch in the bin in the nearby alleyway.
But for some reason I persevere. I sell my allotment bar one and it’s all over.
I’m colder, wiser and humbler. I’ve learnt it takes a lot of courage to stand and beg. You’ve got to put your pride in your back pocket, you’ve got to smile when you want to cry, and you’ve got to hope like hell that some impatient cretin in his warm car doesn’t take you out driving on the wrong side of the road to try to make the green arrow – for no other reason than he can.
All of a sudden I’m glad I’m standing like a deflating Zeppelin in a billowing white poncho. I’d rather look ridiculous than be road kill.
But I’ve also learnt there are a helluva lot of really great people out there, quick to smile, even quicker to care. You don’t know them until you do. Like the beggars and the panhandlers clogging the intersections on the roadside, there’s no one size fits all.
And that made this the best Mandela Day yet for me. Thank you.
In September, Springbok legend Lawrence Sephaka assisted The Star’s vendors selling newspapers. On Mandela Day, The Star’s editor, Kevin Ritchie, found it was not as easy as it looked.