The salesmen and the panhandlers are out on the roads on beautiful days, then disappear when it rains. They make space for themselves where it doesn’t seem possible to do so: they stand, kneel, and sit on the dotted white line between lanes. On crumbling medians, they wait for the light to turn red and seem to know exactly how many cars they can approach before the light will turn green, at which point they return to the median at the precise pace necessary to bring them even with the first car as soon as the light turns again.
They sell corn and avocadoes, beadwork animals, birdfeeders made from two-liter bottles, newspapers, and brooms. They carry black plastic bags and take drivers’ trash, or they hand out fliers for retirement communities or car-repair centers. They take turns carrying signs that say, “My cat ate the neighbor’s chicken, now he’s in jail. R80 to free him!” Sometimes I see two people, one a woman and one a child. Other times I see two men, one of them blind and the other leading him down the dotted line.
The start of my job in Johannesburg was also the start of encountering all of these people at traffic lights (or robots, as they’re known in South Africa). Alone in my car, on my way to and from work, there was no one to ask, Is that person pretending to be blind? How do I stop someone from cleaning my windshield when I don’t want them to? Every South African I know has developed a personal system of giving and buying and refusing while driving, and once I began driving, I had to as well. “You can’t give to everyone,” my family reminded me.
To better prepare myself for my new job in marketing and PR, I had been reading a lot about the psychology of advertising. I considered billboards and radio spots and bumper stickers, and I considered the panhandlers and entrepreneurs. I analyzed them all in terms of emotional granularity, a four-quadrant graph that describes complex human reactions in terms of two axes: arousal, which ranges from calming to agitating, and pleasure—that is, the degree to which pleasure is present or absent.
The sight of a man with one leg who leans on dirty crutches with a cigarette in one hand and a worn McDonald’s cup in the other is a point of low arousal, low pleasure—it is painful, depressing. The sight of teenagers sharing the sign that says, “I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention” is medium arousal, high pleasure; funny. Men selling food or newspapers rely on tension (high arousal, low pleasure) as they stand just outside a driver’s window, pretending they have neither seen nor heard any indication of “no.” Any money paid is to make them go away.
But the need in Johannesburg is inescapable, and watching people through the lens of advertising was a futile, if accidental, means of distancing myself from my discomfort—or rather, from theirs. It allayed my shame of not giving to all of them, and some days, not giving to any of them. “You can’t give to everyone” had at first sounded like a weak justification, but it became my mantra.
One day at a robot on Malibongwe Drive, I watched a young man and waited to see what he was selling. Despite the heat, he was dressed in a windbreaker and jeans and dirty white shoes too big for him, their laces cinched down tightly, which gave the appearance of the toes and heels ballooning out.
He was a gymnast. Across two lanes of traffic—an alarmingly short distance—he executed a round-off, back handspring, and back flip. He was so high in the air I could see him over four rows of cars in front of me. The heat shimmered up off the pavement and broken glass around him. He fetched a cup from the curb, and I watched him pass every car window, including my own, without collecting anything. The light turned green.
I watched him for days before I remembered to draw cash (and then buy a coffee) so that I’d have money for him. An amount like R5 is a standard offering, but I didn’t want to give the young man coins. I wanted to give him R50—something to make up for every day I drove by and gave nothing. On this day, he performed three standing back flips in a row. It made me cry, though I’m not sure I could explain the reason. It had something to do with the courage it takes to learn to throw your body in such a manner, and it had to do with imagining how many injuries he had sustained and avoided in such learning. What must his hands feel like after a day of slamming them upon hot, dirty pavement? How long could he carry on this way, and how long had he done so already?
I called the young man to my window, the note ready between my fingers. I was suddenly shy; I didn’t know what to say when he approached, so I placed the note in his cup. He and I looked into the cup and then at each other: I’d accidentally given him a R200 note, South Africa’s largest denomination, equivalent to about $17.
“You are so talented,” I fumbled, grappling with my surprise. “Thank you for being here.”
He stared at me and then yelled to the sky, “God bless you, ma’am.”
A few months later, after a particularly difficult day at work that resulted in an employee’s resignation, I entered an intersection and saw a man lying in the middle of it, surrounded by paramedics, the car that hit him now serving as a barrier against passing traffic. Its windshield had caved in the shape of the man, and the man wore no shoes; he’d been knocked out of them. I began to tremble.
Four robots later, I watched a man touch his hand to his stomach, then to his mouth. He carried a trash bag to take drivers’ rubbish in exchange for money. I’d forgotten to eat my lunch, and so I rolled down my window and handed the man the entire bag, which contained a granola bar, a Tupperware of vegetarian chili, an American flag napkin, a fork, and a dishtowel. I watched his face, waiting for the smile there as he accepted the bag, but it did not come. He looked like I’d handed him dirt. The light turned green.
I was angry, and I was ashamed. I’d wanted the man to smile at me, to give me some sort of blessing. It was why I’d given him my lunch; I wanted to feel better at the end of a shitty day. He’d been within his right to look at my selfish offering in whatever way he pleased, but I was also unduly upset for giving away some of our “good” Tupperware. What was wrong with me?
I thought of other times I’d given money, trying to remember and examine my motives then. I thought of the gymnast and suspected that, had he not reacted with such elation (high arousal, high pleasure), then I would regret (high arousal, low pleasure) that gift. Advertising—selling—has infected my charity in every way: I am more likely to give someone money when they make me feel good. I call it a gift but it is a transaction. I am still learning what it means to give. To give up.
In one way, though, it wasn’t a transaction, what happened with the gymnast: I hadn’t meant to give him R200. I could accept retrospectively that I had, but I could not have chosen to hand that note to him. And so for that moment, when R200 is what I gave him, I was allowed to be better than I am. I was allowed to share in his awe at the note shivering in his cup of coins.
“Mzansi South” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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