There ain’t no awkward conversation like South African awkward conversation!
By Alex Meyers
[For most of 2007, Alex Meyers worked as a volunteer for an AIDS education charity in South Africa, transplanting himself from his native Toronto. This story was written during that stay and has only now been released to the public. Enjoy! -Ed.]
It was like an afternoon out of “Suburban Motel”. [We at MONDO encourage references to obscure pieces of Canadiana. -Ed again.] I wish someone had been there to verify my story because by tomorrow I might not believe it happened at all.
So I’m sitting on a wall in Libode Town when I am approached by a weary-looking white man. This is quite unusual; I am not aware of any other white people living in the area.
“You a backpacker?” he plunges in without a greeting.
“No, I work in the rural Mphangana location.”
“You are the first white person I’ve seen around here in five months.”
“Do you live in Libode, sir?”
“I’m not ’sir’. That’s an English title. I am a baron. Baron von Braun. You can call me Andre.”
“Pleased to meet you, Bar- Andre.” We shake hands. His face is lined with age and his sandy thinning hair is buzz-cut short. I guess him to be in his late fifties. He wears a faded blue polo shirt tucked into his jeans. He carries a nylon gym bag.
“It has been five months since I’ve seen a white face in Libode,” he tells me again. “What do you do around here?”
“Oh, work with the young people and in the school talking about HIV and other sexual diseases.”
“Uh-huh. Do you want to come to my place? I have some beer. I just live above the bar.”
A strange man is offering me beer if I go to his house. I shrug my shoulders. “Yeah, sure. Lead the way.”
He leads me through the front doors of the little Grosvenor Hotel, the only hotel in town. For Libode, it is actually a pretty nice place. I have been in here before. The washrooms have cold and hot running water. Apparently they rent out rooms on a more permanent basis. As we walk up the stairs, Andre tells me that he knows every shabeen (shabeen – a 24-hour bar; misery lives here) and cab driver in town. I act impressed. At the end of the hallway we stop outside room number nine.
The only pieces of furniture in the small hotel room are a double bed and a pair of low bedside tables. The room is neat. A TV sits in a metal frame bolted to the wall. A box from Pie City sits on the TV. Below the TV are stacked a VCR, DVD player, and an ancient-looking microwave. In one corner of the room a fishing rod leans against the wall, and a neat stack of Penthouse magazines sit on the floor. A toaster occupies space on one bedside table. Through a door I see the washroom. The room is on the second floor, with a small balcony overlooking the bustling main road below.
“This is my permanent residence,” Andre tells me with a proud gesture around the room. “I got everything I need right here. I got my own TV. I can heat up my pies in the microwave. Take a seat,” he says waving to the neatly made bed. He rustles in the gym bag and produces two 750mL bottles of Carling Black Label.
“Are you South African, Andre?” I ask as he hands me a beer.
“No, I’m Irish, but I was born here and have spent the last twenty years here. I carry an Irish passport.”
“And what do you do here in Libode?”
“I’m an electrical engineer.” Andre goes to the closet and comes back with what seem to be electric trade magazines. “I’ve been searching on the internet for nine months and I’ve finally found it.”
He starts handing me internet print-outs of some sort of technical diagram. The words ‘John Thomas Henry – AMPLIFIER’ appear at the top of the page. This must be the ‘it’ that my host has been searching for. Andre is spouting technical jargon that means nothing to me. He becomes disgruntled; apparently my face does not express a suitable amount of admiration.
“You’ve never heard of the John Thomas Henry amplifier?”
“Uh, no, sorry. Should I have?”
“The man is a genius. He revolutionized electrical engineering.”
When I ask what type of work he is doing currently, he says with disgust that he is preparing for Nelson Mandela’s inevitable funeral at Qumu, Mandela’s childhood home.
“This grotesque operation involves hundreds of workers, thousands of lights and miles of fiber optic and electrical cables. When he eventually dies it will be the biggest, most elaborate televised funeral in history. It will be bigger than Churchill, bigger than Kennedy, bigger than Princess Diana.”
“All these preparations for a man who isn’t even dead yet.”
“Yes, exactly! If you were him how would you feel watching all these people digging your fucking grave?”
“It is rather morbid. But I guess they couldn’t just start setting things up after he dies. Not with the size of event he will receive.”
“What if his family just wants a small family service in his local church?”
“I guess it’s too late for that.”
Andre then starts complaining about the ineptitude of the black men who work for him at the funeral site.
“They wasted an entire afternoon delivering a tea kettle to Libode. They could have taken it on the way home. FUCK. Helen Keller could follow directions better!” he declares. “You know who Helen Keller is, don’t you?”
“Deaf, blind and mute, right?”
“Very good. But listen, I’m not racist.”
I have to stop myself from adding, “Yes, only when I’m drunk,” on his behalf.
“I’ve spent twenty years in this country and I’m the only person who doesn’t feel hatred. You and I know that when we walk down the street all these black people think…” he gestures out the balcony, “What do they think?”
“Um…That we have money?”
“They all think we’re rich. They beg ‘One rand, sir,’ or ‘Just two rand sir,’ or ‘Please, sir, a cigarette’…”
“I just ignore them.”
“…I tell them to fuck off. You wanna learn about the white man’s side of apartheid?” This is clearly a rhetorical question. I get the feeling that I am going to learn whether I want to or not.
“I want to show you a video.”
Andre opens a door in the bedside table and gets out a stack of VHS tapes. I wonder if he is going to show me some underground, pro-apartheid propaganda film. He turns the TV on. Coincidentally, the first image we see is Nelson Mandela. SABC is broadcasting events marking the 1000 day countdown to the start of the 2010 Soccer World Cup which will be hosted by South Africa.
The first tape he puts in looks like a South African soap opera. He tries other tapes, but none of them have the video he is looking for.
“Fuck. I must have recorded over them.” He gives up, sits down on the bed, and takes a swig of beer.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Canada.”
“Canada, eh? What part?”
“I’m from Toronto.”
“Hmm…Do you think I’ve ever been to Canada?”
“Umm… I really could not…”
“Lemme tell ya something…” (I am starting to get the feeling that Andre is starved for company and I can see why.) “…The love of my life, the girl I loved more than anyone else in the world, she moved to Vancouver.” Silence. I wonder if that’s the end of the story.
“So did you go after her?” I ask. My question awakens him from his reverie.
“What? Oh no, she met some new guy and had kids,” he says with surprising dispassion. “How old are you, Alex?”
“I’m twenty-one years old.”
“How old do you think I am?”
“Well, if I had to guess I’d say…”
“Lemme help you out. If you take your age and multiply by three I’m almost there. I’m sixty-three.” Andre takes this as the perfect opportunity to start telling me about his life while he paces the small room. He tells me about growing up in Liverpool, England, and pulls out a scrapbook to show me pictures of his childhood. He says that his aunt was friends with Paul McCartney’s mother and Paul gave Andre tickets to one of The Beatles’ very early shows, before they got big. Andre begins to quiz me on Beatles trivia.
“What was Ringo Starr’s name at birth? …Richard Strakey. Which Beatles have been knighted? …McCartney and George Harrison. What was the band’s original name…?”
When Andre finds my knowledge to be sorely lacking he gives me a lecture on Beatles history: “Did you know Ringo was selected as the drummer because he was the only one with a car?”
From Beatles trivia he goes on to tell me about his time as a roadie for Robert Plant, his trip to Woodstock, and his life as an aging hippy backpacker.
Watching him pace the room ranting on this and that, I have to suppress a smile because my new acquaintance reminds me of a high school substitute teacher who was only ever known as “The Drunken Irishman.”
I’m on my second beer and Andre is telling me about his time as a medic with the South African Defense Forces fighting the Cubans in Angola in the 1970s. Figure that one out:
-an IRISH citizen serving in the…
-SOUTH AFRICAN army in…
-ANGOLA, a former colony of…
-PORTUGAL, where they are fighting…
The Cold War was a messed up time. Andre even tells me that the Cubans were sponsored by Norway and Sweden, but I’ve never heard this angle, and I’m skeptical, although you never know who was sponsoring who in those days. Stranger things have happened. “Kid, have you ever heard of the Saturn-5 rocket?”
“No, I can’t say I ever have.”
“You ignorant fuck!” he screams. “The Saturn-5 rocket was the first spacecraft to – observe the dark side of the moon.”
“Like the Pink Floyd album?”
“Yes, exactly. See the Moon doesn’t rotate on its own axis like the Earth does. That’s why we only ever see the side facing us with the Sea of Tranquility.”
“That’s pretty cool. I never realized that before.”
He grunts. “So you’re Canadian, huh? I’ve got a movie you might like to watch. It’s really funny.”
Andre goes back to the bedside cabinet and, after rooting past some porn tapes, grabs another VHS. For half a second I thought it might be Canadian Bacon, though I’m not sure why. But no, I’m not that lucky. Instead it is Dudley Do-right, but it’s not even the original cartoon, but the Brendan Fraser remake. Dudley Do-Right seems like a strange pick for a sixty-three year old bachelor with a very limited movie collection.
Oddly enough I am just buzzed enough to laugh at the Canadian clichés. Alfred Molina (“Dr. Octopus”) makes a pretty good Snidely Whiplash. Once in a while, Andre casts me a glance to see if I am enjoying the movie as much as he clearly is, so I force an appreciative smile. I am pretty sure this would be a terrible movie if I were sober. (Who is this marketed to? Aging boomers who harbour fond memories of the original cartoon? Their dull-eyed, pudgy progeny who can’t get enough of watching Dudley fall out of his chair over and over again? Cynical, drunken, college students?)
I am sick of this, and I want to leave. Fortunately Andre relieves me of the need to excuse myself.
“I got a girl coming over at four, so you have to clear out soon.” I assume he means one of the local oysters. “There is one last thing I wanna show you.”
He leads me back out of the room and down the hall and unlocks a storage room. The shelves are cluttered with bits and pieces of broken electronic junk. Andre gigs out a box full of vinyl records. I start flipping through them and see records by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin I, The Eagles, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden.
“Impressive collection. Do you think I could listen to them some time?”
“No.” Okay then, that’s my cue to leave.
I grab my backpack and head back out into the bright sunlight of the real world. If this really was “Suburban Motel,” at least one of us would have been crying or bleeding by the end of the afternoon.