Day 353: 11 November – Absence Makes the Stories Grow Wilder

I’ve felt like a real bum lately. As the 16 Days of Activism quickly comes upon us again, I look back on a year that feels like it flew by at warp speed. And in that year I can count on my two hands the number of times I have visited Wise Guy and the others who walked beside me during my 16 days on the streets last year. It’s shocking really. And of that handful of times I did visit Wise this year, many of them were merely quick “catch ups”, on the way to or from a meeting. It wasn’t intentional, and I don’t even know if I really realized it was happening. Though I would think about Wise Guy, everyone else, and the streets on a daily basis, I guess I kind of had this awareness in the back of my head that they were “there all the time”, and was always able to put off a visit to the next time; and the “next time” rarely rolled around.

This is a disturbing reality for me. I hate it! In the past few weeks I have spent a great deal of my mental energy asking myself questions and trying to dig deeper for reasons behind my seemingly unconscious decision to avoid the Cape Town streets. I know it wasn’t intentional, thought out, or even something I wanted! It just kind of happened. So my introspections have helped me narrow it down to three main reasons.

Firstly, I have let personal issues and struggles come in and take a good bit of “the fight” out of me. You know, in my early years in Cape Town, back when I would sometimes spend up to 18 hours a day on the streets and was there on a daily basis come rain or shine, people would always tell me that I was going to burn out. They said I worked too hard, gave too much, and didn’t give myself enough breaks. I never believed them. I never expected them to understand it either. And now, if those people are reading this they are probably about to raise their finger to say “I told you so!” because they think I am about to admit I am burnt out.

Well, I do feel burned out, but it’s not from over work. As a matter of fact, though I feel I have less of myself to give than ever before, when I do get a chance to do what others consider “my work”, it is actually refreshing. But on a personal level, for the past few years, I have been going through some stuff that has proved to be more challenging than the biggest, baddest gangster in Cape Town. And those challenges have seeped into each and every last aspect of my life, zapping me, draining me and leaving me with very little of my self to give, in a field where that is kind of my job. Those struggles took a knock at me; at my person, at my soul, at my fight, often leaving me feeling like a lethargic boxer in the 15th round of a grueling bout.

Second, I have tried to get involved in a new organization: a residential facility for young men ages 16 to 24. I say “tried” because even after an entire year of being “fulltime involved” I am still not all that sure what I am doing a lot of the time. Don’t get me wrong, the guys are great and I love my colleagues! I guess I am just not the “office social worker” type, and so sometimes trying to figure out my involvement within the walls of the home has felt as awkward as trying to force a wild lion to become a house pet. Also, from the years spent on the streets, I am just not all that used to structure, and working in an institution, and no matter how flexible and homey it is, it requires being willing to work in more structured times and ways. So this new “position”, which has felt more like an experiment much of the time, has also slotted in as my day-today; and because of my first excuse…COUGH…reason, I don’t feel that I have even given the organization and the guys the time and energy they deserve.

Third, I realized something pretty deep the other day. Last year’s 16 days on the streets were probably the best days of my entire life. That time was beyond a doubt the most incredible experience of my life. Sure, I was living on the streets and I don’t want to glorify that, but it was a chance to turn ten years of head knowledge into actual manifested experience; feelings, emotions, and first hand knowledge! I remember the night I had to leave the streets when my 16 Days came to a close. I cried all the way home…like a baby! And I think something shifted in me. I had spent time and been with people I had known for years, but those 16 days allowed me an opportunity to commune with my friends on the streets of Cape Town on the deepest level possible, and therefore anything less than that afterwards would be insufficient.

After that, walking around town with a full belly felt weird, saying “hi” to Wise Guy and then returning to my home felt strange, and being at home wondering “who was doing what?” in town made Cape Town feel farther away than it ever had before. I guess it would be like if McDonalds switched back to using processed chicken for their burgers, after their recent switch to whole breasts. I would never be able to enjoy a processed chicken burger again, and would long for the tender, wonderful taste of the whole chicken breast they “once served”. Yeah…or something like that.

I spoke to a friend today who told me she was speaking to a friend (complicated I know) who also works with the guys in town. She was telling me that he was telling her that the guys were telling him (yeah, sorry!) that they were angry with me and they were talking all sorts of things about me. This kind of behind-my-back talk would have surprised me years ago, but at this point, after my year-long absence, I am even talking bad about me, so it is understandable that they are doing the same. Hearing that only further validated the feeling I have had that I need to go visit the guys before I leave the country for a two month period…next week. I hung up the phone with my friend and tried to get some work done.

The only problem, I could not get anything done because all I could do was think about this information I had just received. I don’t like unresolved issues. Even though I had just returned home from a long day and had plenty of work to do, I decided to drive into town and speak to the guys. I had butterflies in my stomach the entire drive there. It felt like the dreaded walk to the principal’s office. I think a message must have also gone out for all of the slow drivers of Cape Town to get in front of me, because it felt like longest drive to the CBD in world history. I finally got there and saw Wise Guy first thing. He greeted me with an enormous smile. Shew! Slight relief. A smile is much better than knife!

“I hear you’ve been talking kak about me!”

Wise laughs at my comment and answers honestly, “Of course! I didn’t know where you were! And I was hearing all sorts of stories from all sorts of people!”

I laugh, “Well, I don’t blame you! I would talk bad about me too!”

He then went on to tell me that some random guy, who I don’t even know, told him that I “no longer work on the streets” and that I am “making a movie about the time I spent on the streets during the 16 Days of Activism”. The millions and millions of Rand I was making on this film were obviously implicit. Who is this joker? I assured him that if there was a movie being made he would be the first to know.

Relieved he said, “Well, I thought so but I hadn’t seen you so I was confused! I knew you told me about the Manenberg movie but I didn’t know anything about that one.”

I reassured him, once again, that he would be one of the first to know if I was indeed making a movie about that time. I also told him about the deal I did just sign for the “Manenberg one”. He seemed happy and proud of me. I was again reminded at how absence without explanation leaves room for others to make up stories and reasons for your absence, most especially on the streets. He told me he would often sit and wonder “what happened to keep Ryan away?” and then he followed it up by saying sometimes he would sit with a newspaper, and though people thought he was reading, at times he was really just thinking about me, our time together during the 16 days, my absence, and what on earth I could be doing. I felt like a pretty big piece of dog poop at that point.

We spoke for a while. Others came, greeted, spoke and went. Wise expressed how happy he was that I had visited. I expressed how sorry I was for staying away, and also gave him my three point theory as to why. He was understanding. We spoke about how time had flown by and how the 16 Days of Activism is just around the corner. I told him I was not even going to be here for the 16 Days this year because I am travelling over seas. Just as I was about to leave he asked me, “Hey Ryan, do you have anymore of those 365 Days of Activism shirts?” I remembered that in fact I did have one stray; a shirt I was supposed to give to someone but I could never remember who, so I just kept it knowing as soon as I gave it away I would remember the rightful recipient. I told Wise Guy about it.

 “Well, you think you could bring it for me? I’d really like to wear it this year for the 16 Days, in remembrance of our time on the streets last year.”

 If it is possible for a heart to melt from warmth, I think mine did at that moment!

 “Of course. I think that’d be great!”

We smiled, did the manly-hug-kind-of-thing, said our goodbyes and I drove home, feeling much more at peace, trying hard to hold back tears.


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