Books can entertain. Books can educate. Books ?can save. Philani Dladla peddled his wares on the corner of Empire and Yale roads. Dladla’s life with books — and beyond — is retold ?in The Pavement Bookworm (Jacana), from which ?the following edited extract is taken.
While living under the bridge, I had a friend called Sihle. He had left home in the Eastern Cape to go to the University of Johannesburg. His parents thought he was busy with his studies and were sending him money every month. He could’ve been a success story but he was smoking his future away and living under the bridge with us, unbeknown to his parents. He chose to be a sad story like the rest of us.
That’s how dangerous drugs are. Others were not just smoking but also injecting themselves with drugs. Sometimes six people shared one contaminated needle and syringe. No wonder some of my friends died of Aids-related diseases because one infected many. We knew it was only a matter of who would die first. We even made jokes about it and although we didn’t care about life most of us were afraid of dying.
I always thought I would be the first to die. The drugs were killing me inside and the results were visible on the outside. My clothes were dirty and I stank. I avoided mirrors because I didn’t want to see the damage drugs had done to me. I could go on for days without eating and my breath would stink like shit. But I couldn’t go a day without drugs.
I would walk up and down Empire Road, sometimes under the hot South African sun for hours, giving book reviews and selling books to Wits University students, staff and visitors to get money for drugs. I told them about the authors I had read, and how good or bad their writing was. I told them about new book releases if I read about these in a newspaper or a magazine.
I know it might sound funny, but yes, street kids have access to magazines and newspapers. People were paying for the information I shared. I was not making a fortune but they paid enough for me to get high and forget about my problems.
Despite my drug addiction I was getting paid for doing something I really enjoyed doing. And I learned a lot from doing that work. I got introduced to new authors and I learned more about books, like how many copies a book has to sell to be a best-seller. I learned about which publishers sold the most copies and whose books have been translated into the most languages.
But I was a drug slave, just another fool who worked for hours to make money so that I could blow it all in less than an hour.
Do not think for a second that I liked the life I was living. Drugs were abusing me. I was not blind and could see what was happening to me but there was nothing much I could do about it; I felt powerless. Trying to go a day without drugs was like a suicide attempt — it made me so sick that not even a doctor could do anything about it. Life without crack, rock, nyaope and heroin was hell.
One day I saw a young man about my age, nicely dressed in some designer clothes, walking with his girlfriend. I felt anger welling up inside me. He didn’t even have to say anything to me for me to not like him. I was jealous. My heart was filled with envy and unwarranted hatred as I looked at that young man in his nice fresh clothes. I looked at myself in my dirty stinking clothes and wished I was him; I wanted to hurt him, I felt like punishing him just to make him feel my pain.
“Look at that stupid cheese ?boy with his skinny girlfriend. Why don’t we go make them suffer?” I told my friend.
He said to me, “Brother, the doors at Sun City are always open, prison never gets full, it’s easy to get in there but it’s very hard to get out.”
I knew my life was the way it was because of the choices that I had made. The thing about choices is they have consequences. You are free to make a choice but after you have chosen, the choice controls you. This was the future I chose, to quote the title of Busani Ngcaweni’s book The Future We Chose.
Don’t make the same stupid mistakes I made. Most of the friends I lost to drugs were bright and talented but they died too young because of the choices they made. Looking back at those years now, I still don’t understand how I managed to survive.