/ 13 April 2016

From candid to can-do? The joke’s on us

A strange encounter with a direction-seeking stranger on the Sea Point Promenade left columnist Rebecca Davis bewildered and bemused.
A strange encounter with a direction-seeking stranger on the Sea Point Promenade left columnist Rebecca Davis bewildered and bemused.

I was recently walking along the Sea Point promenade with my friend Darrel, minding my own business. Minding one’s own business is harder in Sea Point than in a lot of places, for two reasons. The first is the sheer number of colourful characters the suburb attracts: from the well-known Rod Stewart impersonator to the people who walk cats and rabbits on leashes along the prom. I can just about bring myself to understand walking a cat, but someone walking a rabbit is the kind of footage the Economic Freedom Fighters should seek out for propaganda videos.

The second reason is the number of people with visible mental health issues who seem to live in Sea Point. The other day I was lectured for five minutes by a man with a discomforting bead of moisture dripping off his nose about the dangers of cancer. Then again, when I was living in London, I was once wordlessly punched by a complete stranger while walking to the optometrist, so I can take a bit of unsolicited health advice.

It was a sunny morning and we were in high spirits. The prom was mostly empty, save for a few late-season tourists hopefully scanning the horizon for whales.

All of a sudden, a young black woman started heading for us with purpose from a short distance away. “Excuse me,” she said when our paths met. “I was hoping you might be able to give me some directions.”

We responded with alacrity, since there are few things as satisfying as giving people directions, even if you know that they are nodding and not listening. The minute anyone starts to give me directions every conscious thought flees my mind as my whole being tenses around pretending to pay attention.

She wanted directions to a very strange destination.

“Kloof Nek Road,” she said.

Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Cape Town would be taken aback by this, since Kloof Nek Road is a steep and hairy drag linking the mountain with the coast.

As we contemplated how best to direct her, she began scratching her back, under her clothes.

Sorry,” she said. “I’m very itchy.”

We politely ignored this.

“It’s not really a pedestrian road,” I began. “Where is your final destination?”

As I spoke, she continued to dig around beneath her outer garments.

“Er … Kloof Nek Road,” she responded. And, at the same time, she pulled out a bra from under her clothes. “Phew!” she said cheerfully. “Sorry, that was killing me.”

Up to this point, she had given no indication that something might be amiss with her in the mental department. And, indeed, even removing your bra in front of two strangers is not grounds for committal to a loony bin. In the feminist utopia I dream of, women will be able to whip their bras off wherever they so choose without people batting an eyelid. Women will be walking around topless all over the show and men will retain respectful eye contact at all times.

But, given our current patriarchal reality, there was no denying that this was slightly strange behaviour. Why couldn’t she wait 10 seconds, until we had completed our directions, and then liberate her baps?

I could sense something switch in Darrel. He began firing directions to her absurd destination in a workmanlike fashion.

“Right,” he said. “You’ll need to walk about 20 blocks in that direction, and then head up the mountain, and it’ll take you about, oh, an hour and a half. Best of luck.”

“Okay, thanks!” she responded. Then she turned to me: “Would you mind just holding this for a second, while I get something out of my bag?” she said, and thrust her bra into my hand.

I did not embrace the bra. I took it gingerly. I am far from averse to the notion of women pressing their undergarments upon me, but ideally not at midday on a seaside stroll. I did not allow a flicker of emotion to pass over my face, however, and Darrel maintained a similar robotic demeanour. I knew we were thinking the same thing: we will not be taken to be racist white South Africans automatically assuming that a black person is up to no good.

As she reached into her bag, I simply could not contemplate what her next move would be. Would she withdraw the rest of her underwear, and request that I wear it on my head? At what point would I draw the line?

Her hand emerged empty from her bag, however, and she suddenly pointed into the middle distance.

“Would you mind looking over there?” she chortled. “You’re on candid camera!”

Darrel and I stared at each other, bemused, as her cameramen headed for us whooping with hilarity and delight.

“But we didn’t react in any amusing way,” we tried to object, as they pushed release forms on us to sign.

It was then that I realised that one casualty of a nonracial South Africa would be the candid camera industry. If we’re all so polite to each other, where will the cheap laughs come from?