a cup of joe

A Cup of Joe

 Joe* was a man on a mission: to get as drunk as possible as often as possible. He had the unique ability to get blind drunk and still report for duty at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. He was ready to work, and he was one of the hardest workers on the team.

He drank whatever he could find, starting the month with Zorba, a litre of putrid wine in a clear container that sold for R25 and whose sole purpose was to get you drunk as quickly and efficiently as possible. As the month wore on, the quality of the booze went down, and Joe’s behaviour got worse. By month’s end, he had a constant splitting headache, and talking to him was taking your life in your hands.

Joe had been living on the streets for more than 20 years after an altercation with a relative, and he was an expert at “skarreling” (hustling to find things to sell). He often made several hundred Rands daily, which financed his 5-litre-a-day wine habit. Food was optional. The massive alcohol intake had altered his face and speech so that often it was difficult to understand him. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand himself or why his behaviour caused chaos wherever he went. The house where we stayed never sent him for psychological counselling despite the obvious need for it.

Joe has led a terrible life. A few years ago, he watched his girlfriend self-immolate by pouring petrol over herself and setting herself alight. He was 2 metres from her when this happened. She had 90% burns over her body and could not be saved.

Everyone on the street thought that Joe would go out of his mind, but he made it and managed to keep himself together. However, the horror of the incident had affected him, and he talked about it given the opportunity. It is never far from his mind.

One Friday night, I knew that Joe was on the way to getting badly drunk, so I decided to sleep in the sick room on the ground floor to keep out of the way of the storm. That was a wrong move; I should have stayed upstairs. I woke up from sleep (I had taken sleeping meds) and needed to pee.

I got up and met Joe at the door, and he verbally attacked me viciously. So badly that I thought we were going to fight. I took his tirade for a few minutes, then said I had to pee and bolted.

The night supervisor stood nearby and watched, doing nothing to prevent the altercation. He told me the following day that the confrontation between Joe and I “meant nothing to him”. I was afraid for my life.

The following day, I confronted Joe and asked him why he had attacked me. He was astonished and apologised repeatedly. (We usually have a good relationship). We kissed and made up. There was no apology from the night supervisor.

It always amazed me how the drunkards would argue and fight to the death while they were solidly drunk and yet be the best of friends the following day. I remember one incident where Joe repeatedly hit another man hard in the face with the heel of a shoe, and the man kept talking to Joe while this was happening as if nothing was wrong. It was a terrible thing to watch such violence taken as normal behaviour. The next morning, they were the best of friends.

Another weekend and public holiday are coming, with the same night supervisor on duty.

This time, I’ll stay upstairs.

*Name has been changed.