It seems I cannot get over the friendliness of the staff at the local SPAR. The same goes for all the other coloured (ok, people of colour) folk I encounter. I am at times ashamed of myself for not greeting as passerby first, but often, when they have passed, I will hear the muted greeting, “Dag meneer,” and then I will pause and turn around and call out to their receding backs a belated greeting.
Something I noticed while living in Cape Town, and specifically Checkers in Kloof Street. This is a smaller store than than Pick ‘n Pay in the Gardens Centre, and therefore more intimate. If the cashiers were friendly, and some of them were, I noticed people exchanging pleasantries with them. Of course, there was no time for extended conversations but the tone of these exchanges would be friendly. I also noticed something else: the ones that started a conversation were mostly the elderly, and some of them gay and probably without partners, just as some of the old ladies were also alone, without anyone waiting at home and probably forgotten by their children. I knew the phenomenon well which is that strangers take the liberty of addressing you if you are in the service industry. When I was a waiter after school in London, I found that people who came in alone, and who were always alone – it was they who usually struck up a conversation with me. I believe waiters develop a special kind of language, or style of repartee because a brief exchange will take place as you pass by a customer’s table, only to be resumed once you return from the kitchen, balancing a salad nicoise or a steaming bowl of Irish stew. Amidst all this chaos, with people snapping their fingers for attention, you come up with a suitable riposte. So it goes, the whole day long, or all night long, the to and fro between the lonely and the waiter.
One morning, in Cape Town, I was in Woolworths, Cape Town. It was early, shortly after opening time and this early, for some reason that I cannot fathom out, my eyes tend to water. So it was on this morning, too, that I prepared to pay for my goods at the checkout counter. The cashier, or checkout girl (a term I prefer), a lady of colour, noticed my eyes and paused. She refused to hand me my change. She had something on her mind “My dear, what’s wrong with your eyes,” she demanded. I told her I thought it was an allergy of sorts.
“But you must have it seen to, my dear,” she gently chided me, like a concerned mother. Only after I had promised to have it seen to, did she condescend to release me, handing me my change.
This morning I had a similar experience at the SPAR. There was a bit of a queue so I went to the kiosk to pay for my items. The coloured lady, quite young, waved a fly away. Then she discussed the presence of the flies. She told me they irritated her and the fluorescent bars meant to deter flies also didn’t work. She asked me why I thought flies would come and sit on her till of all the tills when there’s no stickiness on it to attract a fly. I said I didn’t know. Of course, it was a mystery to me too. “I am so irritated,” she said again. I looked at her friendly oval face, her un-furrowed brow, her large brown eyes. I have never seen a person looking less irritated.
She was about to pack my purchases into my canvas shopping bag when she frowned. Something was wrong.
“My dear,” she said. “Your money is all over in the bag, and your cards.”
I told her that since I was wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, I didn’t have pockets.
She started to take out the notes in my bag, calling out each item as she retrieved it, like a police officer retrieving exhibits of a crime in a court room: “A ten rand note … a twenty rand note …a fifty cent piece! (why this should have caused her tone to rise, I have no idea) … your cards.” She paused and fished out the arm of my spectacles that had broken off. She put it aside with a degree of disdain. “I am going to give you a money bag for your money, and your cards,” she said. She did not wait for a reply. She folded all my notes, change and the two bank cards into a plastic money bag, the kind issued by banks.
“Now pay attention,” she said, switching from her role as police officer in a court room to that of a kindly school teacher – or was it as a mother, packing her lunch box for her son?
“Here I am putting you money so you won’t have to look for it. Here I am putting your keys together with your money bag so you can easily find them when you get home.”
I smiled and thanked her and went home. For the first time,
I found my keys easily. I went inside, my thoughts still with her and it was quite a while before something distracted me and I stopped thinking about her.
IMAGES OF DARLING