This morning, just like every other day this week, I could not look him in the eye. It wasn’t as though he had done anything to me personally or had caused me even the slightest bit of harm. No, it was just the burden of expectation that hung thick in the air between us, leaving me heavy with guilt. The guilt of privilege? The guilt of good fortune? Whatever it was, I resented the feeling. I resented the fact that he, just by being there, was chipping away at my peace of mind.
The light changed to green just before he drew parallel to me, and I expelled the breathe of air I hadn’t even realised I had been holding. I was relieved to be able to move on, towards my freedom and away from the stifling and unwanted emotions I was feeling whilst seated in the comfort and warmth of my car.
He had appeared about a week ago and had, on a daily basis, been assuming the same place at the traffic lights on my route to work. I’m not sure why his presence seemed to unsettle me so much, I have seen and passed more beggars and vagrants on our streets than I care to recall. He certainly looked the part – unkempt, probably unruly, and while I’m heaping stereotypes and generalisation on the pile, I was sure that he was a drunkard too. I found myself trying to imagine his story, the circumstances that had led to this person being just another South African statistic, standing by the side of the road. To my shame I did not conjure up a good backdrop for his journey, yet something didn’t quite fit… Shaking my head to get rid of these thoughts, I focused on the traffic, and the day ahead.
I saw her drive past, just like she had every day this week since I had arrived here. She did not make eye contact, but her distaste for this beggar on the side of the road was as palpable as if she had shouted the words out loud.
Last night I had been late getting home – it had been a long journey, made even more difficult by the fact that once again I was nearly empty handed. I’d woken up at three this morning, cold and unable to sleep as the burden of failure hung thick in the air of the make-shift shack I was sharing with others I’d met on the street. I felt heavy with guilt, not really understanding why, but the emotion weighed like a boot on my chest almost suffocating me. How long would this feeling last?
Resentment had tasted like bile in my mouth, but once again, I had swallowed my pride and set out, hoping that the day might bring the slightest of reprieves. A smile? An act of kindness? Something, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant that would free me, even for a brief moment, from the indignity that was steadily chipping away at my humanity. Like every day for the past week I hoped that today would be different. I briefly wondered if it would get any easier, or if my emotions would eventually become so dulled that I no longer cared?
That evening after work, a few of us got together for drinks and to unwind. I casually mentioned that there were way too many impoverished people standing on the sides of our roads, and questioned whether it wasn’t time our government started caring for these individuals, and cleaning up our streets? The heated discussion that followed was bursting with many diverse viewpoints, preconceptions, blame-passing, stories of begging cartels, human rights abuses, dramatics, play acting and public nuisances that I started to feel a little dizzy… or perhaps it was that second glass of the Burgundy I was nursing? In the haze it did however dawn on me that while we were all pointing fingers at someone else, no one seemed to be able to pinpoint whose responsibility it was to do something about what we all did agree on was a sad state of affairs. I abandoned that train of thought at the restaurant, and sped home to my warm, comfortable bed to grab as many hours of quality rest as I could squeeze in.
I have had worse days than today, but at least tonight I would go ‘home’ with something to show for the 16 hours I have been away. I’d been struggling with dizziness all day – probably because I hadn’t eaten much and the water I’d just finished was only the second drink I’d had in as many days. Standing in the unforgiving midday winter sun, hands extended in the hope of being the recipient of a charitable gesture, can be exhausting at the best of times.
On the street, I am an outsider briefly looking in on the life of others as they pass me by. People in a rush, people on the phone, people who look straight through you, people who shame you for being the loser that you so evidently must be. People who judge you for wearing the same clothes day in, day out. People who think you must be a retard, or at the very least a drunk. People who think you have no feelings. People who do not see the man you are… or were. People not willing to make eye contact with poverty.
I remembered a recent trip to New York where I had first come across the Red Cross slogan “the greatest tragedy is indifference”. Right now, as a victim of the enemy of indifference I was able to attest to this. My train of thought was interrupted as I noticed a scuffle across the intersection where the young man who performs the same little repetitive ritual as if on a loop, was having a scuffle with the ‘crazy’ lady who was moving in on his patch. I went across to see if I could diffuse the situation.
I’d woken up feeling rested and well. It looked like a cold start to the day, so I dressed warmly and made a second cup of coffee to drink on my way. I turned up the volume and the heat, and as I neared the traffic light I spotted him again. He was wearing the same shirt as yesterday, and I could just make out part of the wording on his shirt – …tragedy is in… – as the rest was covered by his grubby jumper. I wondered how he had landed up here. Panic set in when I suddenly realised that the traffic light had just turned orange, leaving me exposed and stationary right next to HIM. I turned to look at the man who was now standing next to my window, conscious of how incredibly awkward I felt.
Despite feeling like a hare in the lights I remembered my upbringing and smiled vaguely, hopefully not too encouragingly, and looked up. As we made eye contact I was struck by how unusual and kind his eyes were, and how incredibly weary they looked. Without thinking I wound down the window, smiled a little more encouragingly and handed him my three-quarter-full coffee mug saying “I’ll get the cup back from you tomorrow, same place, same time?” He nodded, seemingly at a loss for words, and off I went, a little breathless and taken aback at what had just transpired.
Now that was a surprise! I gratefully sipped the warm liquid and for a brief time was transported back to a time, not very long ago when I had coffee on demand, a fridge full of food, a house, a car, a warm bed… I had not realised how many times I would want to walk away, from this experiment but we had agreed that for one month only, I would taste life on the streets, immerse myself and cut all ties to my former life.
I started looking forward to seeing him in the mornings, and we got into a habit of exchanging a few pleasantries as I passed a coffee, a banana or a sandwich out of the window. I now knew that he had a family he loved and was very proud of. As I got to know him a little bit better, my desire to flee from any encounter with him had disappeared and I was almost disappointed if I didn’t have the opportunity to engage with him a little. And every day as I drove off, one of us would utter “See you tomorrow – same place, same time”.
As she drove off, I thought of my family and how, when we had started looking for ways to make a real difference I had volunteered a month of my life, saying that come hell or high water, I would live on the street and not throw in the towel prematurely. I’m not sure my family believed that I had what it takes, as I had not really demonstrated commitment to many things in the past. After New York we had discussed that we needed to understand this side of South Africa in order to be able to address the challenges and have a chance of making a sustainable difference. For me, this had meant walking away from a life of luxury, warm drinks and a full belly. A life of being served, sleeping in a soft bed, a cupboard full of clothes to choose from… Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how difficult it would be to stay, when I knew what creature comforts were waiting me back home.
As the month had gone by every day had grown more difficult but I had remained inspired and motivated by the real people of the streets, no matter how demeaned and desperate we found ourselves. Every day I felt an inner shift in my priorities as I became more and more desperate for the plight of my fellow countrymen standing on street corners across South Africa.
Today was to be my last day in this guise and when she uttered “Tomorrow? Same place, same time?” I knew that, though I would probably never see her again, the compassion she and a handful of others had extended me, had kept me going. I smiled back at her, knowing that there was great untapped potential in South Africa – the potential to overcome indifference, one of our country’s greatest enemies. A seed that had been sown in New York, was starting to blossom. I knew what I had to do.
It was strange how, over the past month, he had become such a large part of my morning, and how I now looked forward to seeing him every day. I hadn’t seen him for a few days and that morning in particular, I must admit that I was disappointed to miss him. His presence had motivated me to do what I was about to do, and today was a big day for me! I had a job interview to go to and my head was filled with thoughts on how I would do, as I really wanted this job. Was I qualified enough? Probably not. Did I have the relevant experience? Unlikely, but the job advertisement had indicated that they would consider candidates without experience too.
I reported to reception and rode up the elevator to the fifth floor offices. As I was sitting on the plush sofa waiting my turn, I sipped a coffee and found myself humming the upbeat elevator tune whilst looking at the framed photographs on the walls. They depicted a series of beautifully taken yet sad and moving street scenes showing the poorer side of city life. One in particular stood out – it was an advertisement for the American Red Cross, with what must have been their slogan, “Our greatest enemy is indifference”, in big bold letters under the image.
I was still quite amazed but unbelievably proud that I had stuck it through. The last month had changed me, and I was relieved to be moving on to the next step of my plan. My family had kept their side of the bargain – they were helping me to establish a foundation and I was excited at the infinite possibilities! I thought briefly of the young lady I had encountered daily and how to a large extent her kindness, once the ice had been broken, had been such a massive encouragement to me. I could see the impact that both she, and I, and so many others like her, could have using our capacity to reach out in kindness and compassion to the people on the ground, the forgotten citizens of a nation desperate for healing.
As I went out to collect the next interviewee I stopped, and leaned back against the door frame waiting for her to look up. Our eyes met, as they had for the first time three short weeks ago. Our faces broke into broad smiles of recognition, and I simply said “I’ll see you tomorrow – same place, same time?”
“Same place, same time” was written for the Woman & Home short story writing competition (with the theme of “The Spirit of Revival”).