The Prodigal Son Returns

Hello, Durban. It’s good to be back.

No, I haven’t been in prison. I was living in Cape Town for a while. This is my hometown. I’m from the wrong side of the Umgeni. It’s where I grew up, lost my virginity and was arrested for the very first time. Good memories.

Life and death conspired to deposit me in Westbrook, a settlement tucked away in the bush between Ballito and Umdloti. I beg your pardon. eMdloti. Does it really matter if it’s an upper case U or a lower case e? A small m or a big M? If so, then I insist we call our city d’Urban.

It was, after all, named after Sir Benjamin d’Urban, an excellent soldier and a vile human being. When the darkies refused to be ground into submission, he called them “treacherous and irreclaimable savages” and had them killed in large numbers. As far as I know, Umdloti never harmed anyone.

Westbrook, I have to say, is a bit isolated for me. For a start, it doesn’t have a bottle store. Then again, I was previously living in Fish Hoek, a town not exactly known for its plethora of bottles stores.

The only shop within 10kms is a café called Seagull’s Roost. I am on far better terms with the monkeys than I am with my neighbours. And on Saturday nights the only entertainment is provided by Tongaat’s finest spoilt brats, spinning the wheels of their triple overhead cam-shafted daddy-bought cars in the parking lot there by the beach.

Speaking of the beach, Beach Bums is only a few hundred metres away from me, but I need a machete to get to the bar on weekends. I also have to shout to be heard above the rave music and I must take care not to jostle any of the heavily tattooed steroid junkies who lurch about in their baggies and tight, white wife-beaters clutching jam jars full of liquor.

One of the reasons I prefer d’Urban to Cape Town is that the ocean doesn’t actively try to kill you. I have surfed in icy seas infested with kelp and great white sharks and let me tell you, the Indian Ocean is better.

When the surf gets big, my home breaks are deadly. You ain’t in Muizenberg any more, I tell myself as I once again fail to get to my feet quickly enough to avoid being slammed into the Westbrook sandbank. The waves in town are more forgiving. Which is more than I can say for the local crew. I have surfed at New Pier and had children shouting at me for getting in their way.

What I hadn’t done was gone into the city, proper. It had been a while. I was a reporter on the Daily News when it still had offices in Field Street. That was before Field Street became Qonda ngqo khona-manjalo jikela ngakwesobunxele Street.

When I told my family I was going into town to have a look around, you’d think I had said I was off to Mexico to bag cocaine for the Tijuana cartel. My sister wept and clung to me. My father begged me not to go. My mother turned in her grave.

“At least wear a bullet-proof vest,” implored my father. My sister pressed a Swiss army knife into my hand. I put it in my pocket. On a mission this dangerous, I might well need to open some kind of medication to steady my nerves.

I parked outside Zack’s on North Beach. The building is so run-down it should be called Cracks. Joe Cool’s is not much better. The only two places offering sustenance and libations to weary beach-goers look as if they were designed by the North Koreans. If you were a tourist who happened to be looking for a research facility that conducts experiments on animals, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon it. Their kitchen staff probably experiment on animals all the time. Why do you think your beef bourguignon tastes like shikken? Don’t complain. Hybrids are good for you.

Heading south, a sign put up by the Parks, Leisure and Cemeteries Department – they fit together so well – informed me that I couldn’t fish on the North Beach pier. You can’t do anything on the pier at the moment because they are preparing to stuff it with giant bags of sand. Good luck with that, comrades.

I parked outside the Beach Hotel, had a quick beer at Harpoon Harry’s, then hailed a rickshaw. I asked him to take me down West Street.                                                                                                                “Pixley kaSeme,” he said.                                                                                                                           I put my hand out. “Ben Trovato. Pleased to meet you.”                                                                              Oh. I see. It’s now Pixley kaSeme Street. Presumably because West was a bit of a bastard.

I sensed things had changed when I saw a surgery sharing a wall with Mzamo’s Fast Food. Handy if the burger lodges in your throat. Or if you wake up hungry with a pig’s heart in your chest.

I thought I’d have a beer at El Castilian for old time’s sake. I was the drummer for a band called the Slaves of Janet and we played there one night but the crowd turned on us and we had to run for our lives.

El Castilian is now either the Miss Des Miss Hair & Beauty Salon or Zulu Palace, which probably doesn’t form part of King Goodwill Zwelithini’s burgeoning empire.

I took a left down Point Road. It’s not called that any more, of course. Point was even more of a bastard than West. Now it’s known as Mahatma Gandhi Road. What a brilliant idea. Let’s take the filthiest, most degenerate, street in the country – one that is infested with whores and junkies – and name it after one of the most enlightened leaders the world has ever seen.

I turned back after being offered heroin, coke, ecstasy, weed, crack, acid and ketamine in one city block. Where did they think I was going to put it all? I told the dealers I’d be back with a bakkie and ambled on down Smith Street. Sorry. Anton Lembede Street. However, a sticker over the name said it was Sutcliffe Avenue. The work of a right-wing nut? I don’t think so. It’s an honour to have a street named after you. So who benefits by sticking Sutcliffe Avenue over all the street names? I’m just saying. It wouldn’t hurt for the cops to have a word with the former city manager. I bet you’d find a ladder in his garage.

I walked past the Downtown Holiday Lodge – offering upmarket luxury accommodation plus free adult movies – and rated my chances of survival if I nipped in for a beer at their pub. They weren’t good.

I passed a man selling feather dusters and catapults and a tsotsi carrying a pair of handcuffs. You want my wallet? Fine. Cuff me and take it. Better than being stabbed. Later, after the mugging, the police drive past and shoot you in the head because you look like an escaped prisoner.

Then I got lost and couldn’t tell my Florence Nzamas from my Monty Naickers. “Don’t get your Naickers in a knot,” I said aloud, laughing at my own pathetic joke.

I could get away with this kind of behaviour because the only other white people on the streets were vagrants and vagabonds who looked as if they had drifted down from the hinterland on a river of mayhem and misery. I saw one wearing Crocs and socks and wanted to give him money. That’s not true. I wanted to give him a smack.

Realising that the people all around me already thought I was just another mad, homeless mlungu, I began shouting at the taxis. “Stop fucking hooting!” It was pointless. Do the drivers think everyone on the street is mentally impaired and that only by repeatedly hooting will they make people realise they need a taxi?

I found a market selling good quality pirated goods and, even better, a quarter chicken and chips for R20. I bought a quarter mutton bunny instead and ate it on a bench in Farewell Square, right there in the unsmiling face of the City Hall.

I got a few strange looks, sure, but only because I wasn’t eating like a white man. I was up to my elbows in curry juice. Half my face was stained orange. What the hell. If the Royal Hotel could let itself go, then so could I.

Anyway. My family’s worst fears never came close to being realised. Nobody was doing their laundry in the Medwood Gardens fountain. No one was slaughtering a goat at the foot of the Cenotaph. There was no stick fighting on the steps of the Post Office. No boys having their foreskins chopped off. No girls having their virginity tested.

I have been relentlessly hassled and hustled in Maputo, Lusaka, Harare, Accra, Gaborone, Maseru, Mombasa, Nairobi, Dakar and Banjul. But not in Durban. Not once.

If anything, it felt as if I was being allowed back in. As if I were some kind of alpha male monkey who had been expelled from the troop for bad behavior and was now being given a second chance.

On my way out, I wanted to stop at the Butterworth Hotel for a beer. For old time’s sake. Back then, it was the only hotel within walking distance of the Daily News that allowed black people to drink in the bar. I looked for parking but there was none. Probably for the best. Time hasn’t been kind to the old rebel.

* This column first appeared in the Sunday Tribune on July 8th, 2013.

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9 thoughts on “The Prodigal Son Returns

  1. You’ll see the slaughtering of the rams soon, for Ramadaan. Last year this time, I saw a bloodied sheep head on the pavement, newly slaughtered and platzed! I’m nerdy that way. Glad you got a job in Durbs. Those people understand talent!

  2. I’ve been gone nearly 20 years now. I still consider Durban as “Home”, until I see the street names on my increasingly rare visits, then I don’t consider it as anything any more…..

  3. Hey Ben baby, brilliant article as always. So happy you are working again! Wish you were back in the Cape though, but the weather here sucks. Used to also hang out at the Beach Hotel and Mom always said the Immoral (sorry, Balmoral Hotel) made the best coffee. When I was nursing at Addington we still had to sign a contract forbidding us to hang out in Point Road, Smugglers Inn or the Docks! Had the honour of nursing the first two sex change patients in the country. Both ladies had rich sugar daddies, and we had to sign all sorts of confidentiality documents forbidding us to speak to the Press. I treasure all your books, especially the autographed ones for Mom and me. We send hugs and kisses to you from us and the menagerie of cats, birds and lone Squirrel. xoxoxo

  4. Welcome back Ben!!! So you are employed again (any devious means employed this time?) It is thrilling to once again be led astray and corrupted by the best. I have missed you. I had moved accommodation and found one of your books which I started to read all over again and I laughed till I choked (again). I gave it to a friend of mine to read … which reminds me he has not given it back (yet). I will take one of your Survival tips to salavage that bit of treasure. Will contact you when I get back :). Sharon.

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