I am in the Debonair Pizza (award-winner, Best Name Ever) with a perfect personal round – extra cheese, meat lover’s: hopefully kudu or blesbok or warthog – and I have finally pressed the combination of buttons on my loaner Nokia celly that will turn it on. For the past several moments I have been sitting at the plastic table, turning the thing over and over in my hands, eyeing the edges, manipulating it like a monkey with a typewriter (which is really all I am after all so I suppose I shouldn’t feel so sheepish under the stares of the kid across from me). I dial Craig. “He-eeey,” he sing-songs. “Holla!” I cry back. “Um, yeah. So Craig, I am in the Debonair Pizza on Oxford Street. The store I was in was just robbed and their credit card machine is down. I don’t have enough money for the shirt I want and the ATMs aren’t on speaking terms with my Scotiacard. Any chance you can pick me up and take me to another bank machine? In Joburg I was able to use the ones in gas stations – the aftermarket kind.” Silence. “You’re on Oxford Street?” I can hear the stress in his voice. “Yeah, in the Debonair Pizza,” I reply breezily. “A block down from the Biko statue.” “Give me ten minutes and I’ll come get you.” We hang up and I sink my teeth into possibly the tastiest and certainly the most dashing slice of pizza of my life.
It all started with Ryan Lanyon and the dodgy Levis. Heeding the advice of my friends, I had been relentless with myself in packing for this trip: No more than two pairs of jeans!, I had berated myself, psychically spanking myself with a wire hanger. Well, we all know how that turned out, and add to it that it’s bloody cold here on some days. No two ways around it: I had to shop.
I went to East London’s Oxford Street, a busy shopping thoroughfare with lots of pedestrian traffic in and around the shops and street kiosks. Oxford Street is medium rough. The stores are pretty low end and the streets are jammed with people selling sunglasses, vegetables, wallets, Crocs, belt buckles, CDs, and cheap jewelry. A block away, on Buffalo Street, is the Buffalo City Mall, where I was headed when a distinct change in vibe – from ‘colourful’ to ‘treacherous’ – sent me back to Oxford. I was the only white person which was unnerving but also probably really good for me. I mean, that’s a meaningful experience, right – to be the only one and to have to go about your business. It’s palpable. Everyone should do this a least once, I was thinking self-righteously as I tried to be purposeful and aware and not overly paranoid.
I was also preoccupied with avoiding the vehicular traffic. Cars here don’t stop for pedestrians so when I had to cross the street I would shadow someone until they traversed, essentially using them as a human shield. This worked a charm but every so often put me squarely in the middle of a jostling crowd doing something I had not foreseen, like hailing a cab. There is no public transport. People get around by driving, walking, hitchhiking, and taking cabs. The cabs are minivans that drive up and down the streets, endlessly honking (when I first arrived I kept turning my head and pointing to my chest as if to say, Who, me?). The driver leans out the window, and in an unforeseen twist, hollers where he is going; if you are going there too, you launch youself in and undoubtedly onto the lap of a fellow passenger. The cabs can hold around ten people.
It was with some relief that I walked into a store called Identity. It was familiar enough, like Urban Behavior meets Primark, which is right around my price point. I found a couple of shirts and a pair of shorts to try on and I headed into the change room. I was stripped down to my smalls and pulling a shirt over my head when I heard a crash and someone shout something in a language I didn’t understand. (DANGER!) A half-second passed and then there was this great swelling of increasingly urgent voices, all yelling. I couldn’t understand a single word and that was definitely the worst part. My imaginaton quickly and efficiently filled in gun shots, hostage-taking, rape and murder. As if all that is necessary to knock over an Urban Behavior, but that’s where I was going with it in my head.
I began dressing, fast. I was pulling my own pants back on when I caught sight of myself in the full length mirror. I looked utterly terrified – and I was. I was blinking rapidly and my hands were shaking as I buttoned my fly. Quickly I was dressed and then I just stood there, staring at myself in the mirror. I met my own eyes and let out a nervous little noise. I was trying for a laugh but my throat was too dry; it was more of a bark. Stay calm, I told myself. This will make a great entry for the blog.
When a few moments had passed without any screaming from the front room, I unlocked the change room door and poked my head out. The store was in disarray and people were milling about excitedly. I grabbed my bag and the shirt I wanted (a nice little linen number that I haven’t stopped wearing since – I worked for this shirt!) and I went to the cash.
When I stepped forward to pay, the cashier was shaking her head. “They hit us every week!” She seemed irritated. “What happened,” I asked. “I was in the back – in the change rooms…” “Yeah, I saw you,” the cashier laughed. “You poked your head out like this.” She gave me a decent impression of a big mouth bass gasping on the end of a hook, and we both laughed.