Street View: A life frozen in time

" … They were fleeing the countryside to moor their hopes in City's enigma." Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco.

I know a man who once lived on the streets of Johannesburg. He is a sharp dresser, so it must have been difficult for him to spend a cold night on some sordid, urine-stained staircase, or in the doorway of some derelict building and then try to look as if he had slept in a clean, queen-sized bed.

If anything gave away the knocks his body was receiving from the rough nights he spent suspended between the terrors of the night and the biting cold, it was his dry, skeletal cough.

On the first night I bumped into him, on Stiemens Street in Braamfontein, he would sputter into a hacking cough, every so often, that seemed to resound in my own chest.

He was a tough man, as I later discovered when I got to know him better. One of Harare's orphans, he is part of that tribe of millions of displaced people let loose on the world; and he is one of those men capable of the most onerous physical tasks.
He could, for instance, spend a whole day hard at some taxing work, like bricklaying. At sunset on the same day, he could drive off to Bloemfontein to fetch something and be back, at the break of dawn, in the morning (he has a licence and occasionally took driving jobs).  

But that winter tested him; it ravaged his tough, black body, contracting one sinew, straightening others. Yet, in spite of all this privation — in fact on that very night in which he didn't know in which forsaken doorway in this chaotic city he would lay his head down — he was on a proselytising mission. He spoke to me about that Nazarene, Jesus Christ, and his everlasting love for humankind.

It was May, or perhaps June — the season when the winter chill descends with the same haste as night falls — and he was looking for somewhere to lay his head for the night. When we first met, years ago, it was easy enough to find a derelict building in which he could shelter. These would be the same buildings that also house colonies of rats. The cleaner buildings are, of course, occupied and manned by menacing security guards who don't want any tramp trespassing on their watch; men who watch over real estate with a sense of ownership that seems more proprietary than the owners of the buildings.  

All that I know about living on the streets, I learnt from this man. He has, happily, left for warmer climes.  When I see people mistreated by the cold, individuals ravaged by time, lying on city walkways or in the green parks during the daytime, oblivious to the world, I nod knowingly. Nights are too cold to sleep and I appreciate why the sun, which most take for granted, becomes crucial to the lifecycle of the destitute.

During the night, as the cold enters your body, it assails every muscle and bone. When the chill enters your body, the Harare orphan told me, it makes your flesh a stranger. When you lie down on a cold pavement, you are close to the departed — yet are denied their state of oblivion. The earth keeps you wide awake, and you lie staring at the dancing stars until they take flight when the first rays of the sun make their appearance. You are of this time and yet, at the same time, you are not.

Perhaps this is why, last week, when light flurries of snow fell on Johannesburg, I saw no reason for excitement. I remembered my friend and what he told me.

It's quite probable that someone out there in the cold-hearted city froze to death ...

Percy Zvomuya is the Mail & Guardian's arts and features reporter, who loves walking the streets of Johannesburg. Follow his column Street View to meet the characters he encounters.

Percy Zvomuya

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