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A Nomad's Life (6)

by Nomad Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 04:51:15 AM EST

The Car
The car-shop was tucked away behind a bigger building, one easily would've missed it in a hurry. I counted only ten cars on display, loitering in rows of 5 behind the white gate of iron bars. For most of this September afternoon I'd walked up and down Main Road, yet here, in this tiny shop, I had seen the one car with the best potential - and so I had come back, hoping my luck would be a bit better. Popping in and out of the numerous second-hand car shops that line the street for several kilometres, I'd been waved out of glass reception halls by blond,  cigarette smoking women after exposing my upper financial limit, I'd met the typical male sharks, too often greasy, overweight Afrikaners with tattoos spiralling around their arms, who run their sweaty, run-down shops with a certain disregard for customers. I'd walked out one shop in the company of an Iranian who had just tested the engine of a white BMW, in the presence of his entire family, wife, son, daughters. Out of hearing distance of the shop's owner, he professed to me that it had been pure junk on display. "I am a mechanic; I know how a healthy engine should sound like." Having two left hands, I wished I had a friend like that for my mission today.

Nomad in Jozi - a must-read - afew

No one visibly present inside the shop. The sparsely furnished office behind the two rows of cars is also empty. I call around and in a door opening leading to a dimly lit garage at the back, a man in blue coverall appears. "Hello boss." His name is James, and originally he's from Malawi. But of course his name isn't really James; it is his "easy name" for (white) people who struggle with authentic African names. Moments like these want to make me bash my head against the wall. Yes, I admit: I too struggle with some names; it often takes me many times to get even the pronunciation close, and sometimes I never get it right, particularly when there are clicks involved. (A friend of Tom's, Nqaba (a Xhosa name), still laughs at my attempts.) However, I make people struggle just as hard with my uncommon name; I refuse to introduce myself as "Ben" when I'm not.

I query about my prey: a fiery red 1995 Toyota Conquest, priced for 29.000 Rand (written on the windshield) - 4000 Rand above my preferred limit, but this day has convinced me that I'll either have to bleed, buy a wreck or keep using taxis indefinitely. How can I get in contact with the owner? "James" takes me to the office, where he calls his boss and hands me the heavy horn. A precise voice with an Indian lilt to his English, I imagine a man with round glasses. I should have known; the only poster on the wall advertises a mosque, the only picture is a framed photograph of a traditionally dressed Muslim with beard and a stern posture. I arrange a test drive for Monday and reduce the price with 2.000 Rand with a remarkable ease; perhaps I should've pushed my luck further. It strikes me as very odd, though, that the owner of the shop is not actually inside the shop. Still, I walk back contently, buy a Snickers at the petrol station where the power has gone off and enjoy the gentle spring sun. Johannesburg gets prettier with a late afternoon sun, it dissolves the dustiness of the place.

On Monday morning, the deception of spring has faded, and it is harshly cold as another cold front sweeps across the highveld. On my 45 minutes brisk walk to Main Road, I pass the main road in Westdene, where young men loiter around the bigger crossings, waiting for work, hoping that today will be lucky. "Boss! Boss! Do you have cigarette?" I've got that question so often, I've been tempted to just buy a box of cigarettes so I can parcel them out - but I never could get myself pick up the box. It is too conflicting with my hatred towards stimulating smoking.

I needn't to have hurried: when I arrive, the white gate is locked, the shop still abandoned, my future car winking at me behind bars. I glance at my cell phone: it's five past nine. African time. James/Mesu arrives in company with the shop's young cleaner (whose name I never learn) ten minutes later. However, 30 minutes later the owner of the shop still hasn't arrived and I'm getting fed up. It's time for my test-drive. Mesu brings a charger, readies the Toyota. (All cars here have their batteries drained, to prevent theft.) Mesu joins me, and after driving up to Roodepoort and back, I'm pretty much convinced this is my car, even though it only has four gears. But now I need get through the formalities, and hence I need the owner. Mesu calls.

I sit outside in the sunlight, watching how the cars of the shop get washed one by one by the young kid, watching how rivulets of water stagger their way over the pavement. I buy a banana in the gritty local supermarket run by two obese Indian men, and observe the activities at the garage next door, which exhibits the loose, careless Jozi style. I could dedicate half a page to the passer-bys: the African women with plastic shopping bags, the pair of stringy, Coloured men in their faded jeans, the clusters of white boys - one of them has the Playboy bunny logo shaved into his hair, something I think is quintessential nineties. Main Road, Sophiatown, forms a colourful display of the lower class of Johannesburg.

I make Mesu phone the owner again at quarter past eleven; he reports back that the owner is definitely on his way and should be here with 30 minutes. The only reason why I'm not walking out is because I want the car, but I'm getting rather aggravated. Quarter to twelve. Noon. Ten past, and I've had it. On the moment I call Mesu again out of the garage to let him make a final phone call, a luxurious BMW parks in front of the shop, and out step two men. Mr. Jiz does wear round glasses, is of a slender build, and at least he dresses punctually. Accompanying him is Zed, his youngest son, whose built and dress is the exact opposite of his father: unshaved, a barrel's chest and belly, draped in sloppy shirt and baggy pants. I do feel a certain charm for the bookish Mr. Jiz now I see him, particularly when compared to the greasiness of the previous car-sellers I've met, still, I'm ticked off and mistrustful after waiting so long. (What further appals me is how Mr. Jiz and his sons treat Mesu like a lower caste, the way they boss him around. This country is sometimes wrong in too many ways.)

In the office, Mr. Jiz apologizes profusely for his delays which I quickly wave away. Business ensues - but halfway, he suddenly looks up at me across his glasses and then confesses at point-blank range: "The truth is, sir, I haven't slept for the past two days." It so happens that the highest spiritual leader from India (or Pakistan?) is on a grand visit in South Africa, to extend his blessings for Ramadan to the Muslim communities. And Mr. Jiz, a devout Muslim, has the honour to host him - but this comes with the catch of taxiing him around and accompanying him at every visit, which can last easily until 4-5 o'clock in the morning. Which is exactly what has been happening for the past week. The leader, whose name I've forgotten, is supposed to leave tonight from OR Tambo airport. The picture on the wall in the office is his father.

Every shrewd man with an eye for business would probably have been able to exploit the fatigue of Mr. Jiz - but of course I can't; I find his story an astounding piece of humanity. Besides, I'm the one who's new to this game, and Mr. Jiz introduces me courteously through the hoops of administration that are necessary to get the car registered on my name. I groan inwardly, as I already see my expenses quickly spiral up and mentally I prepare for another round of South Africa's relish for endless registration.

Before I take the car, I insist to get installed a gear-lock, security alarm and immobiliser - the anti-theft props people in Johannesburg get lived by and, what's more, without them I couldn't even get my car insured. For that to happen, Mr. Jiz drives me, in the Toyota, to the garage (of a friend of course) to get the instalments done. Again, we talk about Ramadan and the spiritual leader. Mr. Jiz: "If I had to choose between losing a customer or not being able to practice the duties of my faith, I regret to say, but I would rather lose the customer."

We pass through the colourful areas of Brixton and Mayfair - and I'm particularly baffled by Mayfair. Only a few hundred meters away from downtown Johannesburg and the flashiness of Newtown's Market Square, Mayfair is a vibrant Muslim community, the streets cluttered with tiny shops, and it's bustling with men and women in traditional Muslim dress. I find it hard to believe how I have missed knowing about Mayfair all this time. Zed, who has followed us in the BMW, seems to know half the people who pass by the garage, and tells me amiably I should come back to the main square on Friday afternoon - and cautions that I should not flirt with the women as the men are very protective. He tells from experience, he says. I just let it wash over me; I feel curiously out of touch with Johannesburg. With the arrangements ready, Mr. Jiz queries where I live and he's as baffled as most people that I frequently get around by taxi's. He and Zed drop me off at my own place - it's on the way back to the shop, but it's a nice gesture. I feel a lot more secure about my deal.

Tuesday. Zed will take me to see Mr. Jiz's man that handles the paperwork. I like to get it done quickly so that I'm not wasting another day of work, but there was never much chance. Yesterday the paperwork-man had said we had to be there at nine. But like father like son, Zed is late. I wait in front of the shop for an extra ten minutes before I call - at least I got his cell phone number, and when I call it sounds like I wake him up. Zed, perched in another sparkling BMW, drives with the style that always worries me about sharing a road in Johannesburg: fast acceleration, weaving through lanes, mocking other cars verbosely. He is obsessive about cars and speed, and I, while trying to humour him, get fairly lost and bored on that subject. But he does know Jozi life inside out, and that always interests me. To my surprise, Zed is nineteen - when he made me guess, I said 23 to be nice, because he looked like 26 to me. Perhaps it is his considerable girth. Later on, I recognize the signs of his youth: he shows a certain hesitation that I recognize as unfamiliarity to the business, and Zed's not only obsessed with cars, he's equally obsessed with women. He says he finds Ramadan particularly hard on that aspect, never mind the fasting. Ah, hormones.

We park in a side street in Mayfair, the sky a fragile blue, a very long row of snuggling doves perched like a circus-act onto one electricity cord across the street. Amir, the paperwork-man, is sharp-nosed, trim-bearded and flinty eyed. He's curt, to the point of abusive to people who don't see his side of the story and is also one of the hardest working men I've seen in Africa. He slams the horn of the phone that is frequently ringing. His shop is more a dustbin with a dividing desk in the middle - but it works. And I quickly realize why it does: because Amir knows exactly his way through the convolutions Home Affairs has thought up to get a car registered. Briefly, the way it works is this: before you can get a car registered, you've to get registered as a qualified driver with your own, individual registration number. Then, the next step is to slot your car onto that number. I actually don't know how this works in Europe; this is the first time I buy a car.

I fill in the forms that Amir had slapped in front of me, two older (Indian) men behind me discover that they both have lived in Machadodorp, and both muse how the place has changed, though not for the better. Somehow Machadodorp also keeps coming back in my life; it's the place where I inhale, leave the motorway and embrace Africa, because it is the end of somnambulating your way across the boringly flat Highveld, disfigured with the coal plants of Mpumalanga and blotches of industrial smoke-stacks.

After some 15 minutes, Amir comes back to Zed and me, and he spells out my situation to get it exactly right, boring me and Zed with his eagle eyes. He then nods decisively, and sends his young assistant (a black kid too youthful to run errands all day) with us into town, to get my passport to the office of Home Affairs. Zed hates town, partly because of the taxis (Zed can't stand taxis), and of course the office is two streets away from Bree taxi station. I follow in tow of the young kid, into the grim building, pass the guards, up the stairs. He drops me off at another of Amir's assistants (yet again a young black kid who should've been at school this time of day), who is designated to stand the whole day in the queue inside one of the drabbest offices I've come across so far, with a faded brown and yellow colour scheme and muted light. At least there are chairs. I forgot the assistant's name, but he looks at me glumly and doesn't adhere to the traditional greetings. Behind the desk of this office, a man in a smart suit and two women, chatting and working with the slow African leisure. I have an instant dislike for one of the women: wobbling her way on ungainly high heels, pimped up with tight black pants and a frilled blouse spilling bosom. The attitude that is emanating: this desk forms the divide between those who've it made (with a desk job??) and the poor sods from outside who can wait all day. At least Amir seems to have rigged his way through this interminable torture, and with twenty minutes, the assistant guides me out, down the concrete stairs spiralling like twisted spaghetti through the building. Outside, we shake hands and I ask him if he is OK, he really doesn't look well. His father is very ill, he says, and I know enough. I wish I could scream in public - but the police would just shoot me.

Somehow I've lost the first assistant, and he's not in the car with Zed who has parked double and is getting anxious about that and about sitting in town for so long. Zed calls Amir but Amir says the assistant can come back by taxi. So be it. It's noon, and what is left is payment. That also takes a convoluted three hours, but then the cheque lies on the desk of Mr. Jiz, and Zed drops me once again at home. I give him a glass of water, the poor guy is parched, and he can't accept fruit juice. Then I sit down in the shade in front of our backdoor, shake my head and decide I need a strong cup of tea and a bacon and avocado sandwich. Which I have, there and then.

Friday. Waited until noon to get a phone call from Zed or his older brother, then I call myself. For one moment my paranoia flares that I've been duped, that the car got sold to someone else, that the shop no longer exists. But none of that: car's ready by three. One more time I walk through Westdene, the men loitering around the crossing at the robots don't stand a chance anymore to find a chore today, and they know it. "Some money for bread, boss?" I waver, then gesture to the one who spoke up to follow me. It's not really a man, I realise when he walks next to me. Another lost youth, perhaps just twenty. His name is Richard, he says, and he's from Zimbabwe. I wonder if he's here legally; after the riots in May, the xenophobic hatred never really seems to have cooled to the level it was before, continues to be a society's poison. He lives in town. Town?? But then, I ask him, why are you spending 15 Rand per day on taxis to get at this forsaken crossroad and back? I don't really get an answer to this. We enter the Checkers supermarket at Westdene and I get Richard a white loaf of bread, and a tin of white beans. Outside, he gives me God's blessings I don't really need, and we part ways.

My car stands ready. I shake hands with Zed and his older brother who's planning to take over the shop from Mr. Jiz. And then I get the keys and the papers, and with them my life in South Africa attains a new dimension of freedom. That afternoon there's one sour discovery: When I have my car checked for the insurance at the Demon garage around the corner, it is found that the friends of Mr. Jiz have installed an older version of my immobiliser, one my insurance doesn't accept. The newer version that they do accept costs me an extra 900 Rand, but at least when I now activate the alarm of my car (my car!) I get funkier beeping noises than before. That's worth something in this mad city where style means everything. Yeah.


Previous instalments:

(1) Pierre, Tom & Sharon
(2) Nina & Henri
(3) Cape Town with Dagmar & Leon - Part 1
(4) Sarina
(5) Taxis

I do apologise for the fact that this diary has nothing to do with a) Obama, b) politics in general, c) continuous global financial meltdown wheeees and d) shoes.

Further instalments should be posted through this month, in which I'll bring this dreadfully narcissistic series to a close. Enough is enough.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Wed Feb 11th, 2009 at 12:16:28 PM EST
Great diary, Nomad.  Feel no need to  bring the series prematurely to a close.  Sharing your experiences is the antithesis of narcissism.  

You bring back memories of the first car I purchased--a 1951 Cadillac Coupe de Ville that I purchased in Tucson from a co-worker at Stereo Go Go in 1966.  He was from California and he only had a pink slip for the car.  In California a title was also required.  He offered to sell me the car for $10 dollars--well less than a day's wages.  It was not without problems, having a radiator leak, (only when it was not running!) and having no springs for the hood, for which reasons it came with a 3' 2x4 in the trunk and a 5 gal. can for water.  (Prop the hood open with the 2x4, fill the radiator, go to the nearest gas station, refill the can with water, and be on your way.)  It was with some anxiety that I stood in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to register the car in Arizona, only to discover that no title was required in Arizona!  I certainly got my money's worth.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Feb 12th, 2009 at 12:13:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great to see you writing again. Will read your story later and "properly" , skimming them is just not enough.:-)
by Fran on Thu Feb 12th, 2009 at 12:43:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Finally got to reading your story. Wow, what a tread, so colorful and I do hope the will be many sequels. Besides being intertaining I do learn a lot from your stories. Thank you for them, Nomad.

Hope your "new" car works out well for you. I remember mine too - I was lucky to have a friend who restored antique cars and got me a good bargain. Somehow I remember the second one more fondly, it was a Mitshubishi Colt, the first one with 5 gears. However, at that time to get into the 5 gear you had to use a second shift-handle(?) which I called James, as my licence plate ended in 007. :-))

by Fran on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 02:12:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd suggest you don't stop writing these.

In fact I'd suggest you write a few more, bundle them up as a manuscript and start sending it out to literary agents.


by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Feb 12th, 2009 at 09:22:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sounds like a plan, actually.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Feb 12th, 2009 at 09:24:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And I've it under serious consideration!
by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 01:47:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That was exactly my thought as I was reading this.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 05:17:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll bring this dreadfully narcissistic series to a close. Enough is enough.

Bad Nomad. Nomad keep writing or Nomad no get cookie.1
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Feb 12th, 2009 at 09:24:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Enough may be enough for you, but not for me.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Feb 12th, 2009 at 01:15:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Personally very tired of hearing about a) Obama b) politics in general c) the continuous global financial meltdown.  

Glad to be reading this. :)  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 04:36:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am fully with you, Gaianne!
by Fran on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 10:58:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll try to include some shoes in a next edition, then. :)
by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 01:24:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
These diaries are always fantastic, Nomad.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 09:10:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
All that effort for a car. Cars have always been the bane of my existence, a constant drain on the wallet and were there decent public transportation here, I'd dump mine in a heartbeat.

Don't let the damned thing run your life!

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire

by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 07:16:24 AM EST
But public transportation, or the lack of it, is the problem here too. There are promising but unfinished developments, but using available public transportation was severely restricting my life and time. Bus lines stop running after six o'clock in the evening, and so would most taxis. Taxi routes aren't ideal either - sad that it needs to be said, but for me (a white guy) some areas are not safe enough to rely fully on taxis.

When I first arrived I considered the purchase of a scooter, but a few glances at the traffic killed that idea.

Simply, one still needs a car around here to run an active life. But what is very vexing is the dominance of the car culture in this country.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 01:45:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In contrast, I love cars. I enjoy reading about the new models, I find the negotiation process exciting, am a nasty dealmaker when selling, and have plenty of useful and free advice for my acquaintances as they struggle with their transportation problems. I do (practically) all of my own repair work and look forward to a Saturday spent lying on my back under a greasy transmission.

Over here, buying a car requires only that you be breathing. There are used car lots everywhere, and fancy new car dealerships for those with the appropriate bank accounts. I like to check out what is available on the nearby lots, and frequently engage in insincere negotiation for cars that I have no intention of buying. (Most recently a baby blue Mercedes from 1967.)

In the U.S., car and house purchases are the only remaining opportunities for bargaining, and getting a few thousand off the price of a car is a moral victory worth bragging about for years. (Actually it turns out that jewelry can also be bargained for in the current economic situation.)

Maybe I should have been a car salesman...

by asdf on Sat Feb 14th, 2009 at 12:43:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very nicely written diary, Nomad!

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 02:03:59 PM EST
another delicious piece, your eye for humanistic detail and recall are amazing...

i don't think narcissists see so much around them as you do

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Feb 13th, 2009 at 02:10:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Another anti-bah comment.  This is another, breathtaking brainful that I couldn´t stop reading all the way through, before I came ´back to earth´.  As I read it, I´m transferred to Jozi and I get a full image of the place, that I´d recognize immediately if I were ever there.  It almost feels like I could recognize the people if I saw them.

Your ability to catch and express the human side in the middle of chaos and the seamless description of the private and the public spaces at once, is enviable.  

You seem to ´read´ the lives and the system at the time of impact, in those harsh conditions and opposites, while they are also impacting you.  It just gives me powerful views of a reality I don´t know, but will change and widen my personal views.

You have the depth to analyze and still feel, which is bravery; to set clear limits on what you ´can´ do in your circumstances, which is kindness.  That´s living fully! and you deserve peace with Self.  

Thank you, Nomad.  I hope your writing talent keeps bugging you to keep using it.

P.S.  Study up on narcissism ´cause you fail that test.   (;

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sat Feb 14th, 2009 at 05:06:41 PM EST
Again, I set aside some uninterrupted time with a cup of tea to fully enjoy your story.  Your writing is wonderful.  Please keep writing more!!
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 05:18:05 AM EST

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