Signs of the Times

THERE'S A MAN WHO BEGS on the corner of Apollonia and Kitchener in Troyeville. As you’re waiting for the lights to change, he’ll suddenly appear between the cars. His bare feet and his head are as big as a grown man’s, but he’s no taller than a six-year-old. To attract attention he reaches up and bangs against the window. He wears short pants and a medieval tunic, and he’s fierce and insistent, a dense presence, as if he’s been compacted into this abbreviated form and is straining against it. Once I saw him ten blocks away, padding swiftly up Stewart’s Drive, pulling a small suitcase on wheels. He looked as if he was running away from home.

When I moved recently to a new neighborhood, I acquired a new school of beggars. The most enterprising is Stephen near the Killarney Mall. The first time I gave him a coin, he introduced himself. Smart move. It’s harder to ignore someone you know by name. Then, after a month or two of neutral exchanges, he suddenly asked: “Will you be coming on the twenty-fourth?”

“Maybe.” The date was a month away. “Why?”

“It’s my birthday.”

“That’s nice.”

“Will you bring me something?”

“What would you like?”

“A jacket or shoes. Anything you’re not using anymore.”

“Look, I’ve been living out of a suitcase; I don’t have much to spare. But I’ll see what I can do.”

“Now I’ve heard everything,” I said to Minky when I got home. “That guy at the mall asked for a birthday present. He placed an order.”

“Beggars can be choosers,” she said.

When the date approached he reminded me. “Don’t forget the twenty-fourth. It’s my birthday.”

I put it in my diary.

On the big day I went past Stephen’s corner with a couple of worn-out T-shirts. He was very glad to have them. His regulars had risen to the occasion, and he already had a pile of stuff on the pavement, a blanket, a pair of trainers, a few lumpy plastic bags. Among the hand-me-downs was one gift that stood out for a beautifully simple reason: It was wrapped in floral paper and tied with a bow.

Joburg beggars depend on drivers rather than pedestrians. People in cars, waiting at intersections, are a captive market. Moving from window to window, the beggars do what they can to create discomfort and win sympathy, fluttering their fingers, limping, even falling to their knees. They seldom bother with a minibus, unless it’s to bum a half-smoked cigarette through an open window. They’ll get no small change from a taxi passenger who’s as poor as they are.

For years, the standard begging apparatus was a simple cardboard sign. NO JOB. WIFE AND KIDS TO FEED. Then some joker added a twist. WIFE AND THREE KIDS. TWO DOGS. ONE CAT. It must have been worth more than a laugh, because it gave rise to a thousand imitators. WIFE AND THREE KIDS. ONE BUDGIE. SIX GOLDFISH. Or: DIVORCED. WIFE TOOK THE DOG BUT LEFT TEN CATS AND A PARROT. Or: WIFE AND TWELVE KIDS TO FEED. CAT ATE THE PARROT, DOG ATE THE CAT. WHO’S GOING TO FEED THE HORSE? Or rather: WHOSE GOING 2 FEED THE HOARSE? Today I saw this variation, which might well be the bottom of the barrel: CAT IS ARRESTED FOR DRINKING NEIGHBOURS CATS MILK. PLEASE HELP WITH BAIL.

The storyboard beggars drift through Joburg fiction, too. The beggar in Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog has this sign: “UNEMPLOYED. FIVE DEPENDANTS. TWO EPILEPTIC, ONE ASTHMATIC. WIFE HAS CANCER. HOUSE REPOSSESSED. NO FOOD. NO SHELTER. PLEASE HELP. GOD BLESS YOU.” He’s the only beggar in Joburg who can spell asthmatic.

A character in Louis Greenberg’s novel The Beggars’ Signwriters suggests that in one way or another we are all beggars, holding up our signs, looking for help and mutual recognition. But people don’t like to be reminded constantly of their privilege: As you’re floating home from the office or the gym in the warm bubble of your car, with Classic FM on the radio and a hot dinner in prospect, you don’t want to be confronted at every turn by a person in rags, shaking a paper cup and raising a morsel of thin air to his lips, that universal gesture of pursed fingers and open mouth that says: HUNGRY. FEED ME.

This street theater of need makes people angry, and some of them harden their hearts. They master the averted gaze or the vicious quip. I heard of a professor who went to the trouble of making his own cardboard sign, which he kept on the passenger seat of his car. When a beggar approached holding up a sign, he held up his own: WILL DO ANY WORK FOR MONEY. WIFE AND KIDS TO FEED.

From time to time, there’s a story in the press about the profit margins in panhandling. The beggars on the best corners are taking home R300 a day, we’re told, more than you’d make doing an honest day’s work pushing a lawn mower or a wheelbarrow. But this clouds the issue. What is an honest day’s work? There must be easier ways to make a living than working the traffic, nine to five, rain or shine.

At least one of my neighborhood beggars has been thinking about this, too. He has a sign that says: HUNGRY MAN. I DON’T DO CRIME.

Ivan Vladislavíc is the author of Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked (Norton, 2009).