‘No, don’t give me money,’ he said, ‘perhaps you have a book instead.’
He was cleaning up the broken bottles left by the 7th street revellers the night before. Smashed green glass, empty brown bottles, cans and fag butts littered the shaved yellow verges and tarmac slopes. So I went inside and rummaged through my books. There’s a whole pile of Coetzee I’ve been racing through during the last month, some stuff on film and camera work, Deleuze & Guattari’s anti-oedipus which I am still struggling to understand very very very slowly, Pepetela’s o quasi fim do mundo, a tome on tantra, and a brick of American short stories. And of course the book that follows me everywhere, The Wretched of the Earth. I wondered, Perhaps he’d like that? And started to run through all the possible interpretations of a white middle class English woman giving a black Johannesburg street cleaner a copy of Fanon. Interpretations of others, as well as his own. But I took it out to the street anyway, and handed him the book.
‘If you don’t like it, give it back, and I’ll pick you another. Or perhaps you’d like to come and choose your own?’
‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘let’s stick with your choice. I’d like to see.’
I saw him again, just now, dribble running from the left side of my mouth, and asked how the book was going.
‘I’m on page 12,’ he shouted, and smiled.
‘When you get half way through, let me know,’ I said, ‘and we can share our thoughts.’
He raised his right hand, giving me a thumbs up, and carried on swinging down the street.
I turned back to the group I was standing with, three African-American film makers, here for three weeks. One of them has been here many times before, she says she loves South Africa. I felt sad when she told me that, for I realised how my own experience has been shaped entirely by who I’ve met, as hers has by who she has met. And I wanted to tell her what I’d done, about the book I’d given the man with whom she just shook hands. But I somehow couldn’t summon the courage.