Over the years, I have noticed more and more people standing on street corners, along pavements and busy intersections. People seem to have all developed strange habits of engaging, or disengaging, with those whom we drive past on a daily basis. Some people will practically empty their purses or buy something to offer those who are an obvious indicator of the alarming unemployment levels. Others smile politely or wave, and carry on their merry way without much of a second thought. Then there are those of us who suddenly develop tunnel vision, and refuse to acknowledge the human being standing at our driver’s window.

I cannot imagine how anyone would enjoy waking up day after torturous day to go and stand on a bare pavement, or at an unforgiving intersection, in the hope that someone might offer them what we refer to as a piece job (rubbish removal, sweeping, painting, gardening, etc.).

The scene that has always played out in my head is of the guy who has been standing on the pavement for most of the day, probably on a groaning stomach, and gnawing at the back of his mind is a sick child at home, or a bread-bin standing empty. What happens on those days when he goes home empty-handed? A patriarchal society has told him that he is the head of the household, and therefore he must provide for his family. Perhaps his friends or former classmates have achieved in life, and yet here he is, feeling defeated once more. Humiliated. Stripped of his human dignity.

But that, I tell myself, may not even be the hardest part. The hardest part is when he gets home and his young children run up to greet him, eyes wide with hope. Perhaps they have long since stopped asking what he has brought them because they have noticed the sadness that washes over his face when confronted with that question. Nothing. Imagine trying to say that to your hungry expectant children, with a smile on your face. Nothing.

When a young man asked if I could please give him R5 so that he could buy himself and his child something to eat, I told him I didn’t have cash on me but I’ll see what I can do. All I was picturing was a hungry kid. A follow-up request to buy a loaf of bread quickly became a loaf of bread, milk and tinned food. Fine. Who am I to judge?

When I returned to the car, requested items in tow, I was perplexed when I couldn’t find the young man. Where could he have gone? I looked up and down the busy pavement. Nothing. Perhaps he just crossed the road. Nothing. Bizarre, I thought. Then I remembered that on my way home I will probably drive past a dozen or more desperate dejected faces. The food would certainly not go to waste, even though I would have loved to give it to the man now missing in action to share with his child.

About three blocks away from home, there’s an intersection where anywhere from ten to fifteen or so men of varying ages congregate in the hope of a piece job or a random act of charity. Some stand on their own like lone rangers; others stand in pairs as if for moral support; while there are those who huddle in groups.

Truth be told, I find it hard to look these men in the eye, particularly when I know I have nothing tangible to offer them. When I think of the scenario of the empty-handed father described above… my heart just sinks.

Today was different though; I had something to offer. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Who to give it to? How do you even choose? As I reached the intersection and turned off the slightly busy road (still wondering about the guy who disappeared into thin air), I randomly beckoned the young guy in overalls standing on his own. He came running. I greeted him and handed him the plastic bag. By the time he had taken it, at least four other guys had swooped in towards the car.

What I saw in my rearview mirror as I slowly pulled away was…heartbreaking. Desperation personified. Almost a dozen men clawed at the plastic bag in the hope of coming away with something worthwhile. A hand-pulled out the tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce, as others frantically dived into the packet, all looking out for No. 1. I did not hang around long enough to see if the initial intended recipient was left with anything. I can only hope…

What I realised, however, is that I had just witnessed frenzied desperation in action. There was nothing polite or thoughtful about it. It was instinctive. Survival. None of this, of course, made it any easier to observe.


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