Mohammad had the day off work on Thursday because of a doctor’s appointment so when he was finished he just ran around with me on some errands I had to do. One stop was in Claremont, which happens to be an area where Mohammad lived on the streets for a portion of his childhood. He explained to me the glue was cheaper in Claremont and there were less kids there than in the Central Business District of town and that is why he and his friends made the exodus from Cape Town to Claremont. I parked my project’s old beat-up truck in an open space and we hopped out, immediately met by a parking attendant.
She wanted payment straight away, telling me it was 3 Rand for thirty minutes and 6 Rand for an hour. I told her I didn’t know how long I would be and she said I could pay a little now and the rest later. I didn’t like the idea of having to pay twice and after a little bit of bargaining I convinced her that I would pay on return. As we walked away Mohammad complained about these new “formalized” parking attendants, “I don’t like them. What do they know about parking cars, huh? You have to pay them and they don’t even help guide you into your spot! When we used to park cars at least we treated the customers better.” My sentiments exactly.
It was lunchtime so Mohammad and I popped in to McDonalds for some food. Waiting in line Mohammad spoke nostalgically, “Yho! This was the spot back in the day! How many times did I eat people’s leftovers or get good stuff out of those bins,” he said pointing to a rubbish bin just outside the McDonalds windows. “I would collect a bunch of leftover chips from all the containers I found and put them all in one and sit at the table and eat them like I was a customer!” He shook his head and laughed at the homeless child version of himself, almost as if he was watching a mental movie of himself and could even taste the stale fries with that wonderful rubbish bin aftertaste. We ordered, sat and ate.
At the end of the meal I gathered the empty burger containers, cups, wadded up napkins and other scraps and put them on the tray. Just as I stood and began to pick up the tray Mohammad stopped me, putting his hand on it, “Wait!” he said with a strange sort of excitement. “I want to do this!” It didn’t hit me at that moment why he was so adamant about disposing of our rubbish, but I could tell by his tone it was something he really, really wanted to do. I let him. He lifted the tray, and as he did his shoulders lifted as well. He walked proudly over to the rubbish bin, pushed back the swinging trap door, and let the contents of the tray slide slowly into the bin. He held the empty tray up and spun around with the biggest smile. I had never seen someone throw something away with such joy, and I had no idea why he was so elated but I couldn’t help but feel extremely happy, if not very confused.
As we walked out of McDonalds he strutted as though he had morphed into the Shaft himself! “I used to dig other people’s rubbish out of these bins! Now I am putting my own rubbish in there!” He gave me a side hug as he spoke, “Things are different! Things are changing!”
I returned his side hug, “Yeah buddy they are! And you are! That’s what you call redemption.”
He raised one eyebrow, “Redemption? What’s that?”
“It’s like…when something bad turns into something good. Like if someone throws away a used Coke can, but then someone else comes, takes it and turns it into a piece of art, like that stuff at Green Market.”
His eyes lit up, “Ok! Or like, I used to walk down this very same street, with no shoes, no home and using drugs, and now I am walking down it with these nice clothes, a place to stay, a job, and I am not on drugs?”
I patted him on the back, “Exactly like that!”
He nodded in agreement with a flood of thoughts running through his head, “I am redemptioned!”
I chuckled, “Indeed you are! Now,” I handed him 6 Rand, “you can pay the parking attendant to make it all complete. It will be the full redemption package.”
He took the 6 Rand but protested, “But these people don’t even do their work properly.”
I agreed with him, “Yeah, but this isn’t really about them. It’s about us…you.”
He looked at me, and strongly approved, “Redemption!”
I laughed. We got in the truck and a different parking attendant to the first finally appeared. Mohammad held out the money as she said, “That will be 9 Rand.”
“But we weren’t even here for an hour,” I said.
The lady then began shouting, cursing me in the name of God, and telling me I am “jeopardizing” her job. It was a scene out of a crazy movie. I refused to be overcharged. She refused to be nice. I tried to just agree to disagree with the lady but she disagreed to disagree so I just drove away with her holding my 6 Rand, cursing me in the name of God. I guess the “full redemption package” doesn’t always come easy. I couldn’t believe the nerve of that lady. My adrenaline was pumping and I felt aggressive. I wanted to go back and rip my 6 Rand out of her hand and shout at her…But then I had to remind myself of my own words…it’s not really about them. It’s about us. It’s about me.