Kids who aspire to be gangsters, grow to be gangsters who aspire to be kids.

And then I found myself and this ‘dangerous’ gangster in the kiddies’ section of the video shop.

But first…

Occasionally I get reminders of what a strange world I live in. And when I say “world” I don’t mean the big ball of dirt, water and gas, rotating, slightly tilted, on its axis. I’m talking about my world: my day to day, the places and people I surround myself with, the city I live in, the particular parts of that city I choose to go to, my norms and the norms of those who I choose to place around me, my reality…yeah, that world. Sure, pieces of my world are shared with different people, some parts more than others, and some people share more parts than others do, but for the most part, my world, is uniquely my world. Which brings me back to my original point, that I am occasionally, if not often, reminded of just how odd my world really is.

One of those reminders came yesterday through a gangster who used to be a kid, and maybe still is…

I had a pretty laid back morning with a meeting about a thing. No big deal. My main goal of the day, however, was to get my hair cut. Now, that may not sound like a big deal to you, but it was getting to the point where it was becoming more and more urgent. You see, over the years, the thinner my hair has gotten on top, the more ridiculous it looks when it grows out. I’ve surrendered to that fact, and therefore try to keep it as short as possible, like most balding-to-bald men who maybe don’t want their blank patch running down the middle of their head to be as noticeable as it is on others’ who don’t seem to care at all. Whatever. I needed a haircut.

I have a machine at home. But it is old, and it misses spots, and I didn’t have anyone around to check the back. So a self-cut was not an option. In times like those, or when I am feeling lazy, I usually go to Jerry, the Nigerian barber in Capricorn, the “developing” community that used to be an informal settlement, the oldest one in Cape Town at that, called Vrygrond. Jerry only charges 20 Rand ($3.00 US), and he’s really nice. So, after I had finished my morning meeting, did some emails, ate some lunch, and what-have-you, I headed to Capricorn for my much needed haircut.

I pulled in to Capricorn, turned down the one street, up the next, winded around a bit, and then my car was stopped by a group of gangsters. The one stood in front of my car, placing his hand on the hood and his other in the “stop” position. The others ran to all my doors, trying to open them, two of them coming to my open window. This scene would probably cause the average person to wet their pants; maybe me too, had the circumstances been slightly different. In this instance, I was greeted with smiles. “Come man Ryan, let us in! Give us a ride around! It’s boring here.” Yeah, so these particular gangsters are just the rough, more grown-up, less innocent versions of the kids I have known for years and years. Not a threat, really…at least not to me. I greeted them with the usual handshakes. I bragged to the one about how he has gotten fatter, insinuating that I noticed he seems to not be smoking tik, he smiled, insinuating he appreciated me noticing.

“No drives around today. I got something to do.”

“Where are you going?”

“To get my hair cut.”

The chubby one took one glance at my hair, and then earnestly waved me on, with wishes and promises of future “drives around”, but a true understanding of the urgency of my hair situation. I drove on and waved bye in the rear view mirror, as they all got back to doing whatever they were doing before I drove up. I turned the corner, pulled up on the sidewalk and got out of my car to see Jerry’s barber shop, a four-chair-haircutting business in a shipping container, totally empty. Strange. Jerry’s always there.

A random dude came up to me and pointed over to the Somalian shop, down and across the street, “He says he’s coming now. He’s just sorting something out quickly.” I looked over and saw the back of, who I assumed was Jerry, standing in front of the shop, a shop looks more like a cage because the merchant is locked in and the customers are locked out, doing all their dealings through the bars. There stood Jerry on the outside of the cage. He was speaking with a raised voice at the least, and a Somalian arm kept coming through the bars, from the inside, trying to hit Jerry, who apparently possesses ninja-like skills and remained untouched. The moment suddenly ended, for reason unbeknownst to me, and Jerry turned around and walked towards us.

As he neared I noticed, this is not Jerry, no not at all. He walked up to me with a smile. “You probably expected Jerry.”

I was a bit surprised he knew. “Um, yeah. Yeah, I was. Where is he?”

The guy, not looking a thing like Jerry up close, smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know. He didn’t come in today.”

I looked at him for a moment. Not trusting this stranger’s haircutting skills I said, “Uh, ok, well, I’ll just come back later.

“Cool.”

“Cool.”

I walked to my car and looked down the street at the other Nigerian barbershop, about two blocks from Jerry’s. I weighed it up in my mind. Honestly, I haven’t felt good even seeing those guys since my last real interaction with them. It was a random situation where the one Nigerian barber had offered to by a television from one particular Auntie, and he had come to fetch it but only paid half the price and then refused to pay the rest once he had the television in his possession. I just so happened to visit that particular Auntie on the night all that went down. When I arrived at her house the Auntie told me what happened and asked if I could give her a lift down to the barbers so she could “speak” with them. Of course I didn’t mind! She brought her son and a thug with us. I pulled up and stopped, the thug jumped out and stabbed the one Nigerian barber in the arm and then ran into the darkness of the community. I sat there, not sure what might happen next.

Let’s just say the Nigerians were pretty pissed, and they did not appreciate me being the driver of this drive-by stabbing. I tried to assure them I had no clue that was going to happen. Not consoled in the least, they promised vengeance and the bleeding guy shouted in other languages. I drove away and decided to speak to them when they were more cooled off. I dropped the Auntie and went back to the Nigerians, parked and went in to their shipping container shop. I think they thought I was coming back for more, as the one grabbed a pair of scissors. I lifted my hands in surrender, apologized, and promised I had no clue that situation was going to go down in that way it did. I told them I thought it was just a “drive to talk to a man about a television” kind of interaction. The enormous, bleeding Nigerian patted me on the shoulder, “It’s alright Eminem. We understand. But that one, that one who did this,” he removed his hand from his bleeding arm, “he will die.”

Fair enough, I thought. I shrugged, “Well, I don’t recommend that. But I understand you’re angry. You might want to get that looked at.” He looked at me as though I had spoken the worst of the worst blasphemy. “Me?! Doctor?! My brudder, I am a man! I am African!” I shrugged again, “Whatever. So are we cool?” The big bleeding dude patted me on the back, “We’re cool my nigga.” Um…I started to correct him but decided I should probably just be happy I didn’t have a pair of scissors sticking through my neck, or worse, and I just said, “Cool. Sorry again. Later.” And I walked back to my car, got in and drove home.

I have seen those Nigerians since that night, but I still get a strange guilty feeling when I see them, even though I didn’t know I was going to be a part of the attempted assassination. So, as I stood there yesterday, with Jerry nowhere to be seen, considering going to that Nigerian barber as an alternative, I decided otherwise. I opted for the Nigerian barber all the way in Muizenberg. The problem with that dude is he always tries to charge me the “white man’s” price. A haircut is twenty Rand, just like at Jerry’s, but if he sees white skin or hears a foreign accent the price goes up by at least ten Rand. I have both, so he often tries to charge me forty. I usually manage to talk him down a bit, but rarely all the way to the real price.

As I was driving out of Capricorn I saw someone running beside my car and waving. I stopped. It was Boy. Boy is only his nickname but maybe not unironically nicknamed. I’ve known Boy since he really was a boy. He’s got a real sweet spirit but is the usual case of an individual whose actions are molded by the negative environment in which they grow up. He became a gangster, did “bad” stuff, went to prison quite of number of times, but, like many do while they are inside and then sing a different song on their release, the last time Boy was locked up he decided he didn’t want that life anymore, and he decided to change. And so far, he has done just that. I’m proud of him.

Boy, “Yho!!!! I haven’t seen you in forever. Why don’t you ever come and pick a guy up?”

“I’ve just been busy. You look like you’re doing good.”

Boy smiled proudly, “Yeah. I am! I told you I am done with that shit.”

“I’m glad to see that.”

“Where are you going?”

“I need a haircut, and Jerry’s not there.”

Boy looked down at the direction of Jerry’s place in confusion, “And now?”

“I’m gonna go to the Nigerian barber in Muizenberg.”

“Can I come with you?”

“Why not.”

I unlocked the door and he jumped in. I figured Boy coming with me, and us speaking Afrikaans the entire time, could help me get the brown skin discount. On the way, Boy excitedly filled me in on all the positive things going on in his life. I was pleased to hear them. We got to the barbershop, parked and went in. They had no customers, but the usual group of random dudes sitting and talking. The one Nigerian pointed at an empty chair and I sat in it. Boy told me he was just going to go smoke a cigarette quickly. The Nigerians spoke to each other in other languages. When Boy walked out the one Nigerian told me, “He’s very dangerous! A gangster. He just got out of Pollsoor.”

I looked at the guy, sitting behind me, through in the mirror in front of me. I smiled, and then laughed, “Yeah well, I’ve known him since he was a tiny kid. He doesn’t really show me his dangerous side.” The guy laughed. They went back to speaking whatever language they were speaking. Boy came in and we spoke Afrikaans. We all shouted over the sound of the clippers; all speaking at once, not bothered by each others’ conversations that seemed to be colliding in the air. The Nigerian barber tried to do that trim thing around the edges of my head. I managed to stop him just in time. It doesn’t look good on white guys, but definitely not on balding white guys! He seemed disappointed but compromised by trimming my beard, which ended up looking like a beard of a Mexican gangster. I was ok with that.

The barber brushed the hair off my neck, then took off the smock and whipped it. My hair flurried in the air. I stood, reached in my pocket and pulled out a twenty rand. I handed it to him. He looked at the other guy, and back at me and smiled, “”It’s thirty.” I laughed out loud and spoke to Boy as I pulled out another ten rand without arguing, “The white man’s price.” Boy laughed and agreed. I was just glad to finally have my haircut. As we walked out Boy asked me what I was up to and if it would be possible to watch a movie. I didn’t have any pressing matters and said it would be cool. We went to the video shop and as we walked in Boy commented about the poster in the window of The Rock dressed as a fairy, “YHO! I wanna see that one!”

I was slightly surprised at his taste in movies, but was relieved that the poster said, “Coming Soon.” Boy was disappointed. We walked to the New Release section and Boy couldn’t find anything that tickled his fancy. I pointed him in the direction of the Action Section, but he got sidetracked by something that interested him way more. And then I found myself and this “dangerous” gangster in the kiddies’ section of the video shop. He excitedly snatched up one of the DVD covers, “Have you seen this?!” Hoping he was joking but knowing he actually wasn’t, I held back my laughter and smart comments, “Alvin and the Chipmunks? Um, nope. Not, uh, not that one…yet.”

Boy’s eyes lit up. “You wanna get this one?”

Knowing it was not really as much about what I wanted, “Do you?”

“YEAH!!!!”

“Ok.”

Boy silently fist pumped the air.

I thought surely he would be disappointed with this choice once we watched it. But no, we went to my house, watched the little-talking-singing-chipmunks, and Boy seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, laughing quite often. I must admit, I enjoyed it enough as well. And as I sat there on my couch, with this so-called “dangerous” gangster, according to Nigerian barbers, I just thought a thought that I have thought so many times before that moment. When we let kids grow up too soon, allowing them to partake in adult activities that they are way too young to partake in, certain parts of them die young, they lose their innocence. But certain parts of them, the parts that maybe were never allowed to really and truly be a child, never grow up. So we find kids who act like gangsters and gangsters who act like kids. It’s altogether sad and hopeful. And it is most definitely one of the peculiar, yet common, realities in this odd world I find myself in.

Oooooooh eeeeh ooh ah ah, ching, chang, walla walla bing bang. Oooooooh eeeeh ooh ah ah, ching-chang walla-walla bing bang!

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3 Responses to Kids who aspire to be gangsters, grow to be gangsters who aspire to be kids.

  1. Wilm says:

    Your storytelling is very powerful

  2. geckongaio says:

    Very thought provoking… thanks for posting it.

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