City Diaries: Chasing Pavements

Staan op!” An authoritative voice bellowed through the darkness. Who was this invisible entity demanding that she stand up? I am standing, she said silently, trying to make out her legs in the limited light. Then she spotted the blue lights of a police van, and a loudspeaker peeking out from out of the passenger window: “Staan op anders sluit ek vir julle op.” Stand up otherwise I will lock you up.

She heard shuffling ahead of her and watched as the two homeless men that slept on this street packed up their makeshift mattresses. They scurried away, disappearing into the darkness from which they came. Soon after, the police van was also gone leaving red robot to make requests of oncoming drivers in their place.

The figures running away into the darkness were known to her. She walked in their street daily, careful to avoid stepping on cardboard mattresses and shrunken blankets. Most times they were asleep in the foetal position from which they sought some respite from the cold Cape Town winters. Other times, they were awake and shouted, “Salaam!” at her. They were pragmatic enough to greet her in Arabic.

There were homeless people all around the city. She, and others, referred to them as “bergies”. ‘Berg’ was Afrikaans for mountain. What that wonder had to do with them was anyone’s guess but the name stuck. The Bergies refused to be invisible. They assembled tents at the bus stop. They waited outside restaurants, hoping to score a takeaway or two. They donned a neon vest and became car guards, teaching parallel parking to executives in sedans. They lounged in the botanical gardens, laying on benches and on the lawn. They zigzagged through the traffic in pants with holes that had should’ve had a parental advisory.

The building that they slept in front of was an old one. It had been inaugurated by some or other colonial administrator and then a politician from the new democratic government. She clutched her student card and showed it to the security as she approached the boom gate. From now onwards, this stoic man would be the only one that greeted her at the entrance. It was getting a bit lighter now, light enough for her to see the yellow sign with black writing which read: TRESPASSERS MAY BE PROSECUTED.

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