living with the helpless

Living with the Helpless

My first introduction to Joe* was on a Wednesday night.

I was tired, overwhelmed, and somewhat unprepared for the gentleman’s greeting. Joe was wasted, could hardly stand, and had problems with his words. He was, however, very good at saying hello. He greeted me by telling me about my provenance (on my mother’s side), and it went South from there.

He made it clear I was not welcome into his room with many choice expletives, and I quickly learned a new dictionary of swear words in minutes. The night supervisor eventually decided that I could sleep downstairs for the night, and we’d sort things out in the morning when Joe had sobered up.

Come morning, Joe was sober and willing to listen to reason, especially now that the social worker had arrived. Joe was more amenable, and I moved into his room, where I discovered Bill*, a very short Afrikaans speaker who spoke at 1000 words  per second in a gravelly basso profundo. I didn’t know what he said, but it sounded welcoming. (I never properly understood what Bill said during all my time in the house with him.)

After putting my stuff down, I went immediately to breakfast, which was pap (maizemeal). I would get used to pap, as it was all we had for breakfast the entire time I was at the house. It’s impressive that pap can be cooked to suit any occasion in many ways. I got to like it, especially when introduced to all the additional ingredients that can be added to jazz it up. After breakfast, the guys did their mandatory chores at light speed. I was astonished at their ability to do an excellent job at cleaning the house in record time. It was like watching the house Olympics.

I was then introduced to my “team,” a group of street people who lived at the house and worked for a stipend. Our job was to sweep the streets and clean up the drains, an utterly dull and backbreaking activity. We did this for 8 hours daily, with a half-hour lunch break. Slavery had taken on new meaning. I was amazed at the fitness of the guys (and women) as they swept.

The heat was astounding; some wore jerseys and jackets throughout the day! Lunch consisted of plain bread/bread and butter/bread and jam/bread and peanut butter/bread and polony, depending on what was available from the pantry and the time of the month. I highly recommend peanut butter and jam (jelly) for starving workers! Any jam will do – it’s the sweetness that counts.

Work finished at 3:30 pm, and the house opened at 4:00 pm. The team would put their tools away and either go into the house or go “skarrelling” (hustling), basically looking for things they could sell and make some money for alcohol and/or drugs. This was a thriving business, and often they would make enough money to get very drunk or high.

By 6:30 pm, everyone had to be in the house for supper. Eating with very drunk and high people was an experience. Food occasionally made it into their mouths, but most of the time was spent arguing and negotiating for someone else’s supper. All this was conducted at high volume. I watched in awe.

After supper, people went to their rooms or sat down to watch TV. As usual, there was a fight about what movie to watch, and usually, the loudest group won. The movie would have a running commentary about what happened in English, Xhosa, and Afrikaans. Bill was a particularly stupid man, and the plot had to be constantly explained to him, especially if the film consisted of dialogue instead of action (he understood the action and enjoyed the fight scenes – no brain activity required).

Around 9:00 pm, people would start heading for bed, with the diehards watching movies until late into the night. Going to bed was interesting, particularly if one of your roommates was severely drunk. Watching him take off his clothes and get into bed (especially the top bunk) in deliberate slow-motion, accompanied by every curse under the sun, was entertaining and an amusing end to the day. During the night, people would smoke and drink (highly against the house rules), and the lights would be switched on and off as new supplies were required. Sometimes, it was like a disco, especially on weekends.

Their ability to drink like the proverbial fish and still get up in the morning ready for work was incredible, and I put it down to many years of having alcohol for food every day. I grew to like these misfits, with their outrageous ways and manners. Their thinking was simplistic but direct and to the point (even if it was the wrong point), and they would defend their position to the very end by arguing or fists. I learned a lot from them despite my initial misgivings.

The one thing they needed most was love, and it was not there to be found.

*Names have been changed.