Walking to Work – Heaven or Hell?

Oh, how I missed the urine scented sidewalks of Cape Town’s city bowl. Made all the more pungent by the fact that I no longer smoke, depriving my born again nostrils of an olfactory defence mechanism. My facetious sarcasm is due to a copywriting contract I took up a week ago, returning me to the scene of work related crimes of yesteryear. As an inveterate acolyte of the walking to work philosophy, I traverse the City Bowl from Kloof street on the slopes of Table Mountain to my place of diabolical wordsmithery in Thibault Square every day, Monday to Friday. It is the seven a.m. walk down to Thibault Square in the Foreshore that delivers the aforementioned urine tinged odour. There’s a certain environmental irony in the fact that it is only detectable due to a lack of petrol fumes in the streets at that hour. Pee flavoured air aside, the early morning walk showcases a very different Cape Town from the one in tourist brochures. A more interesting and insightful one in my opinion. The city seems to shrug off the dramas that enacted themselves in its bars, clubs and streets the night before, and ready itself for the day with renewed, albeit world-weary, vigour.

At seven a.m. it is mostly blue collar workers who occupy the sidewalks, with those occupying higher social strata invariably stuck in gridlock on the N1 and N2 highways that feed into the city from the northern and southern suburbs. Construction workers arrive on site to continue work on another hipster bar or cafe, which seem to spawn all over the City Bowl like demented blots on the landscape. Congolese and other African immigrants open up storage rooms and start wheeling artifacts and other tourist souvenirs to their stands in Greenmarket square. The odd early rising executive eases his (it’s always a he for some reason) luxury German sedan onto a ramp that leads to a private bay in a basement parking lot. Restaurant staff start opening up premises that will provide overpriced coffee concoctions to the caffeine addicted office workers who will soon flood the sidewalks in their corralled masses.

And wheeling above all this early morning human activity are the seagulls scouring the landscape below for any leftover morsels. An act that they probably performed long before there were any skyscrapers or cars rushing between them, with only solitary bands of Khoi hunter-gatherers providing the occasional scrap of shellfish or venison.

The walk back in the afternoon is a different kettle of fish. Gone are both the smell of piss and the steely willed serenity of the morning, replaced by a manic sense of urgency and unleaded petrol fumes. The stressed faces of drivers mentally willing the snarled traffic to move at anything faster than a snail’s pace so that they can get home, kick off their shoes and watch Australian Masterchef on Dstv. Car guards, who were nowhere to be seen in the morning stand ready for their tip. I gave up thanking them in my rudimentary French, because I usually end up looking like a schmuck when the guy turns out be Angolan or Ghanian.

My Cape Town walk reminded me of other walks to work I’ve made over the years. In the mid-90s my daily sojourn from a squat in Vauxhall Bridge to a job in a tacky souvenir shop in Soho took me past Big Ben, 10 Downing street, through Trafalgar square and the tourist madness that is Picadilly Circus. The mid-morning journeys to work were pretty ‘pedestrian’ compared to the evening return trips that often turned into something out of a Frank Miller graphic novel. The evening’s psychotic festivities usually kicked off with an impromptu visit by Dave Elaine, an ex-parabat of Caribbean ancestry who was my area manager. It was 1996 and Dave was a man with a penchant for anti-apartheid rhetoric, which meant that the only white South African working for him got it in the ear, on a regular basis. Many was the occasion that dear old Dave would stop by and invite my Sri Lankan and Jamaican colleagues for a pint and a bite to eat after we shut shop at 11 pm, pointedly excluding me from the invitation.

Then there were the fascist flat caps (Metropolitan police) who had an extreme dislike for rockers with long hair and who wore leathers. At least once a week they would confront me as I was walking home, asking threatening questions and basically insinuating that I was an undesirable who was lucky that they weren’t probing me or whatever they did to undesirables in the dungeons beneath New Scotland Yard. Friday nights were the worst. Every chav in a 100 mile radius descended on central London’s night clubs after first celebrating their release from working drudgery with a two litre Scrumpy Jack cider, probably boosted with ethanol judging by their boneheaded behaviour by the time I had to walk back home. A chav on Scrumpy Jack is always under the illusion that he is somehow related to Bruce Lee and that every Friday night requires a re-enactment of Enter the Dragon. A group of three chavs on Scrumpy Jack meant Enter the Dragon in 3D. My main aim was to make sure I kept to the opposite side of the road until I made it home, otherwise you had to endure anything from drunkenly shouted threats to a bottle whistling past your ear before it shattered in the road to excited cheers from Bruce Lee’s minions.

Strangely enough the people who remain the most firmly etched in my memory are the homeless who took shelter in the shop fronts at night. On cold winter nights I would hear their muted coughs and murmurings as I did the ice shuffle down the road, vague shapes wrapped in sleeping bags and cardboard registering in my peripheral vision as I focused on not slipping on the ice covered pavement. Earlier in the evening these refugees from regular society would come into the shop exchanging the small change they had earned through begging for bank notes. I learned early on in the job that it was better to have the motley collection of glue sniffers, prostitutes, tinkers and rent boys on your side by doing them the odd favour than have them causing havoc by harassing customers and nicking stuff from the shelves. It was sobering to see them huddled against the cold when they were strutting the streets with such false bravado just a few hours before.

The grand prize for the most memorable walk home from a day’s work has to go to my stint in Botswana as a rep for a direct sales company. Every day we would be dropped in a section of a town or village and were expected to go door to door selling home products from a catalogue. Except for the fact that as a still-to-be-domesticated student I didn’t know the difference between a pressure cooker and a spittoon, I also possessed no sales skills whatsoever. After a long day of trudging up and down dusty roads with a backpack full of household items and a dog-eared catalogue in hand, I usually ended up completely lost and in a slight panic as I watched the sun set. Not because of the fabled Batswana vampires, who were about to crawl out of the bush, but because of dogs. When the British ran Botswana as a protectorate, called Bechuanaland, they brought along Whippets to hunt with. These whippets mingled over the years with Ridgebacks and other breeds and formed semi-feral packs that come out at night to torment unsuspecting door-to-door salespeople such as yours truly. Raw fear overcame me whenever I spotted the first sable coloured dog sniffing around, because I knew that if there was one there would definitely be many more lurking around. And that meant the pack mentality would kick in and that’s me jumping over fences and on top of cars to escape snapping jaws amidst a howling vortex of dogs.

My worst experience came after another long day in the sweltering heat and nary a sale. As I struck out in the approximate direction of where I thought our camp was I heard the first dog before I saw it. It was in the road behind me and it gave an excited yelp when it spotted fresh meat, that being me. My false hope that it was a solitary scout that could be seen to with a swift kick in the ribs was promptly dashed when a pack of almost twenty dogs rounded the corner behind it and started gunning for me. Knowing what’s going to happen next I ran with my jangling backpack towards a fenced off property on my side of the road. The first dog was already biting into the backpack when I flung myself over the fence. Waiting for me on the other side were two Rottweilers, that from their salivating reaction to my unexpected visit, have not been fed in ages. All I could do was to press my back against the fence and hold my backpack in front of me as a shield. When the owner of the house finally opened a door to investigate the cacophony of noise going off in her yard, she found me shouting at the growling Rottweilers in front of me while a rabid pack of Whippets were trying to gnaw my arse off through the wire fencing. Needless to say I finished a crate of beer when I finally got home that evening.

So for now I will enjoy my congenial stroll to work in Cape Town. It keeps my feet on the ground and my perspective pragmatic if not phlegmatic.