Wanting to seem “cool” with the whole authentic experience (and to be fair, I think I am), I reassure Craig that whatever hovel he resides in will be more than adequate. He presses the issue. “I want you to understand what you are getting into.” I decide to be quiet.
We are driving through downtown East London and it looks a lot like the bad areas I am familiar with except that everyone on the street is black. “This is Quigney – your new home.” Stucco houses in pastels line the streets. It’s clear that in their prime they were part of a vibrant and colourful oceanfront, but heyday has given way to mayday in this area. Auto parts stores, bedding outlets, pawn shops and adult emporia are king. Even convenience stores are curiously absent; it is a relief to see Crazy J’s Liquors as it is now ranked the number one place at which I might shop in my new neighbourhood.
We crest Inverleith Terrace (doesn’t that sound aristocratic?), our home street. I catch a glimpse of remarkable waterfront. Foamy waves bathe great grey slabs of rock that abut a pedestrian promenade. It is a vigorous, almost pugilistic landscape. Nothing is still and even the colours (sky, sea, street) remind me of bruises. The wind is relentless, even though it is a sunny day.
From the outside, Kennaway Court is a slightly run down and unremarkable building. On the inside, it oozes broken down gentility. Its history as an upscale beachfront hotel is commemorated in a linoleum mosaic in the lobby: white women in their finery picnic on the beach while black men in loincloths labour unloading crates under the watchful eye of white military men, some on horseback.
We get in the elevator and hit ‘5’. Though the lower floors are still reserved for the hotel, the top floors are now residences. At 5 we disembark and walk down an unremarkable hallway. Craig is at the door to my new home. He’s explaining that the locking metal grate (like a jail cell door that goes over your regular front door for added security) has been removed to be cleaned of rust. The skeleton key is in the lock, twisting and as it catches Craig is saying something, again, about squalor.
The door swings open effortlessly on its hinge. The apartment is easily three times are large as mine, and with its marble tiles, pristine steel appliances, and picture window overlooking the ocean, it is also easily three times as luxurious. “You bastard,” I laugh and Craig begins the tour.
Here is the toilet, separate from the shower and jacuzzi tub. I’ve cleared you two shelves for your toiletries and the towel on the left is yours. This is my bedroom. I don’t have a lot of personal space issues so you needn’t wait until I am out to go through my drawers. Here is your room. It has wireless and I have emptied the desk because I know you will be writing a lot. The CD player is loaded with CDs of the hottest African artists – you should find it inspiring. The cleaner comes on Thursdays but this week it’s a national holiday so she will be here on Wednesday. Her name is Mandisa. Come to the living room – look out the window. In the mornings you can see dolphins and whales right here. Look for a dark spot under the waves and hopefully you’ll catch them when they breach...
So this is East London – a place of extreme aesthetic disparity that echoes the class and race imbalances evident in the lives of those who live here. It is awkward, thrilling, and discomfiting. I get a slippery anxious feeling in my gut when I see myself flitting around East London in a BMW, retiring in the evenings to Kennaway Court, and looking forward to Thursday when an amaXhosa woman will wash my laundry. I feel guilty.
I also feel exhilarated by the freedom. Here you go, have a few rand tip. It’s less than a dollar to me. I can eat what I want, buy what I want, do what I want. I can live, as they say, like a king.