Can I have fifty cents please?

If you’ve walked the Main Road in Rondebosch, Cape Town, on frequent occasion, between the hardware store and Pick n’ Pay, there is high chance that you’ve heard a voice from below begging for fifty cents. Its presence has become a commonplace feature of that stretch of pavement, significant in its familiarity, and I was determined to retrieve the story of the man to whom the voice belongs. What fixes him to the place? And in what way does the city exist for him beyond it?

But I didn’t retrieve the story I set out to get. It was late on Thursday afternoon, and I found him at his usual spot, expectedly, sitting against the wall of the Rondebosch Cafe and Video store.

To discover how he got there – Shaun is his name – proved neither successful nor significant, for he lives in a “time-warp,” in the same way we all do, as he described it. He believes that our past, present and future is one in the same, that we exist all at once in a single space in time, and this has led him to confess to never really considering what lies behind him, nor admittedly, what lies ahead.

But one thing I did learn from his past is that he has a gift. His gift, he said, made many in his family jealous, yet continuously reliant on him to bring in an income for the house. I pressed him on the nature of this gift. “My genius. I have genius,” he said, quite earnestly.

He always learned faster, and was able to pick things up a lot quicker than anyone else. He knows things about existence that he would rather not speak of to me.

“I don’t want to terrify you,” he added, explaining that I might not believe him and I would leave thinking that all he is is just well spoken.

Over our Steers-sponsored conversation, Shaun explained that he stems from the “structures” of Australia, Scotland, England, and America, and despite having family living in Israel – a very organic place, he says – the strong connectivity he feels to his sister and brothers brought him back to the city that I cannot seem to comprehend he ever left. His current street of residence, however, has changed much over his lifetime.

“There never used to be any of this,” he said, pointing towards the bars across the street with a salted chip pinched all too firmly in a hand conditioned in its grime to reveal the nature of his livelihood.

As a boy, he and his friends used to play in the river behind Pick n’ Pay supermarket. Today, the river’s banks are littered with the discards of lunchtime favourites of passersby –- remnants hardly fitting the carefree character of an area used previously by children whose futures had not yet been predestined. The deal of fate that would be handed over to Shaun, however, was that he’d go mad. His autism took over and he lost everything – “everything, everything.” He lost his speech too.

The “geniuses” gave him a remedy to transform his mind, he said. “You know, the ‘experts…’” But what brought him compos mentis – that is, within the unrefined effects of alcohol his breath revealed he entertained – was his ability to read. He always read novels, and in the dimming daylight that marked our conversation, Shaun told me the story of Chris and Katy in the attic, as if Virginia Andrews had written the book based on a moment that Shaun himself experienced.

Reading books brought him to the realisation that he could think, and this, for him, was profound. He was constantly thinking, he said, constantly thinking, and “thoughting,” and his words, then, brought him clarity as to what was going on in his mind. “Audio,” he remarked, “there’s lots of audio in the world, and different types of audio. We need to voice ourselves.”

Today he works in “street people management.” What does this involve? Well, he communicates with the police, only speaking to them every so often, but never fighting with them, he explained. They wake him up every morning at 6 a.m., and it is his responsibility to remove himself from the area. He never hides, he said. Unlike many of the others, he always stays in the same place where the police can see him.

Our conversation, peppered with words that stayed empty, turned out to be about the lives of others. His “story” was the story of book characters and municipal workers, and of street-folk like him. Their stories were not separate from his; the memories of his past take the form of the experiences of Chris in the attic, the manager of a suburban street, and the beggar who waits, but does not hope.

He’s going to write a book, he said, to document all his thoughts. He hasn’t gotten round to it yet; he still needs to formulate it in his mind. But one day he will, and his pseudonym will be ‘Shaun.’ While explaining about the book, his eyes twitched animatedly past my face towards an approaching street-woman, and keeping his words calm yet increasingly abstract, his attention turned towards shoving his takeaway meal into a stuffed black-denim bag for safekeeping.

He’s the popular one, he said. He always shares but sometimes he prefers not to share. So he apologises for his actions just there. And then smiling at his cunning he looked at me and added, “You know the saying, ‘Stick with me, I’ll make you famous?’

“It’s like that,” he says.

image credit: RondeboschVideo


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