With any luck it’ll be platform 6.
Park Station is in the middle of a power failure, so the bowels of the building are cloaked in a clinging darkness. Flitting shapes of commuters pour down the subterranean causeway like miners down a shaft. I’m swept aboard the 8825.
“To Springs, hey?”
“Sweetsie! One rand for five!”
“Amabanana cakes! Amafruitcake! Amarock cakes!”
An hour later I hop off at Dunswart station and join the flow to the taxi ranks.
I need to get to Fairleads on the outskirts of Benoni to pick up a car from my long-suffering mechanic. Timing belt again this time, all the valves are bent. But they say it was the water pump that caused it. The minute it’s fixed, we’ve gotta sell that thing. It’s end game for the Clio.
The guy directing passengers at the rank seems surprised, like I’m someone he hasn’t seen for years, or maybe he hasn’t seen someone like me for a while. Maybe I’m overdressed.
I end up in a newish Quantum driven by a guy in a 2010 Bafana shirt. I don’t know Benoni well enough to even be sure where I’m headed…
“Near Crystal Park?”
“Er, I think it’s past the Bunny Park. On the M44?”
We’re not going the route I would have chosen, but we’re travelling in the general direction.
“Don’t worry, Charlie. We get you there. You before or after Spar?”
I don’t know. I’m not sure where Spar is.
I’m in the passenger seat, so it’s my job to pass all of the ten rands to him.
“Val’ ucango, man! Close the door!”
The guy by the door doesn’t understand the Zulu, and the driver seems exasperated that he now has to speak to his passengers in English. Like, what’s the world coming to!
“Don’t slam! Yesses! I must pay that door! NM!”
He’s hooting constantly, as he describes a Z-shaped route through the suburbs and out of town. Landmarks are starting to look familiar to me. Piep. Piep. Pie-piep.
“Charlie, you coming to fetch a car?” He manages to work me out.
I’m not a regular taxi user, this experience is special to me. My synapses crackle with awareness as I soak up every moment of the journey – in contrast to the other passengers’ bored commuter faces.
He senses my excitement and gives me a polite commentary – “I just drop these guys here at Spar, then we go to you, Charlie.”
I’m trying to fit in, trying to look as black as possible, and feigning chilled ambivalence. But I’m like a lightie on an outing. I start dropping in my well-worn Xhosa phrases, then second guess myself. Am I being patronizing? I’m probably overthinking this.
“Oh! So it’s almost in Petit! Okay. You can just relax, Charlie.”
Everyone else gets out at Spar, the sexy girl in the jeans with the earphones, the two guys with the car battery and the older lady with the bags.
We continue up Pretoria Road, him chatting away in English, me, trying out my Xhosa. Me half trying to be down with the people, half embarrassed about it and half like the new kid at school.
Two weeks later, the timing belt snaps again, and I find myself at a bus stop in Gandhi Square. We’re becoming a one-car family.
As my circumstances change, I find myself being absorbed into the public commuter network. Me and some of my white homies. The guy on the Metrorail with the brandy tan and the kitbag getting off at Germiston. The tannie in the tracksuit waiting for the 413 bus to Roodekrans. The bearded kid hustling for small change at the MyCiTi stop. “If you’ve got either one rand or eleven rand…”
This hardly heralds the arrival of an egalitarian society, my forsaking of middle classness or the installation of me, Charlie, as the hippest man in Fairleads. But it works.
My mission fifty kays out of Joburg on two trains and two taxis cost me just 45 bucks.