Monday, August 1.
It takes 12 minutes for the Gautrain high-speed rail line to connect arrivals at OR Tambo International Airport with Johannesburg’s high-rise business hub, Sandton, and about half that time for my carefully laid plans of recent months to get entirely upended.
I’m not exactly caught off-guard by any of this. I had spent the past week in Accra thinking about the future, wondering if the story line I’d plotted for myself just a few weeks ago was a convincing one. There would be my dramatic return to Joburg – a few frenzied weeks of boozed-up reunions and binge shopping – followed by a quick tour of Cape Town and the vineyards of the Western Cape. A few days later I’d be boarding a one-way flight to Tanzania, primed to indulge my tropical-island fantasy of book-writing and tourist-screwing in Zanzibar. All things considered, you couldn’t ask for a better script.
But I wasn’t entirely sure it was my script. I still remember my arrival in Joburg one night last April, the plane coming through a bank of clouds to reveal the city lit up and glittering like gold ore far below us. It was a beautiful sight for anyone who, like me, had grown up with city blood in his veins. Even before the plane landed, before I came to know and love this African El Dorado, I had a sense that moving to Joburg after three itinerant years in Africa was sort of like a homecoming.
More than a year later, the tropical tumult of Ghana vanishing like the vapor trails left in our wake, my Zanzibar plans already seem hazy. The crisp, dry air of the highveld winter burns my nostrils – a nostalgic smell, memories of late autumn in New York, the leaves like gold and copper coins. Joburg isn’t just a place on a map for me any more, a section of a guidebook to quickly leaf through, a collection of horror stories throwing lurid shadows against the walls of my subconscious. It’s a place where, however tentatively, I began to build a home. Last year, in fits and starts, despite some of the most difficult months of my life, felt like the start of something here. And just as I had the sense, when I boarded the plane to Accra in February, that I was leaving some unfinished business behind in South Africa – personal failures, emotional reckonings – I realize now that what I want more than anything is to pick up where I left off.
Like a sailor stumbling onshore after months at sea, though, it might take some time for me to find my legs. Already the acute sensory thrill of being back is blurred around the edges by a certain wariness – the Joburger’s hyper-vigilance which, while tempered after my first few months in the city last year, has returned as I fuss with the Gold Card that will grant me passage on the Gautrain. The lurid tales of carjackings and armored-car robberies and brazen burglaries are part of this city’s nervous tapestry. I feel it again, already. When I’m approached by a flak-jacketed security guard looking warily over my shoulder, I’m so on-edge after his first words – “I have to advise you, sir” – that I’m completely unprepared for what follows: “that there is no drinking of beverages on the train or the platform.”
No beverages on the platform! Gautrain, bless your heart! As with the gaudy shopping malls and garish residential complexes of the far northern suburbs – places so remote from the rest of city life that they should have their own consulates – the Gautrain is secured by the CCTV cameras and armed-response teams that keep the city’s frightful chimeras at bay. Oh, Jozi! Too stingy with your wealth, too full of your open-armed promises of a better life – these muted dreams which, like the morse-code tappings of your skyline, are like a thing on the verge, but still incomplete. This, too, will take some getting used to again. The city, so unlovely in so many ways, stretches out like a sleeper unhurried by the dawn. The sun hangs like a pendant over the mine dumps, the power stanchions, the six- and eight-lane highways. I suppose a love that’s easily explained is hardly worth the effort. When we get off in Sandton the morning air bites me to the bone. Goodbye, goodbye, tropics! I’m back in my mile-high city, my sun-scoured palace on the veld.
The taxis are lined up at the station. During the week there is a shuttle bus running between Sandton and Rosebank, but on this Saturday morning, I am shit out of luck. The driver handles my bags daintily, accustomed, perhaps, to high-strung Sandton types. He is of a familiar sort, found at taxi ranks the world over, reading a much-handled morning edition, pontificating with his peers. I do not have to pick up the day’s Times to know the score. Strike season has returned, he says, as sure as spring training in Port St. Lucie. “Monday it is the coal,” he says. “Tuesday is going to be another one.” Maybe it will be the teachers, or the nurses. Already some strike or other has crippled the delivery of petrol to the gas stations; there are shortages across the country. Fuel trucks are being escorted by armed teams under the cover of night. “Eish,” he says, that simple South African syllable which contains worlds of grief, resignation, gallows humor. And has he heard any news about the Gautrain station in Rosebank, I ask? “They keep telling us ‘month end, month end,’” he says, “but we don’t know which month. Maybe it is November, December.”
Had the Rosebank station opened according to schedule, I would’ve saved myself about 15 bucks. Still, I have no grief in my heart for this lovely, leafy suburb. Since meeting my friend Cihan last year, her two-bedroom flat on Tyrwhitt Avenue has been the lode star of my aspirations in Joburg. It is a beautiful apartment – hardwood floors, a garden, huge bay windows full of sunlight – and just a few minutes’ walk from The Zone mall, an open-air complex peopled by the city’s loveliest sorts in every color the Rainbow Nation has to offer. On dreary nights in Auckland Park, eating leftover stir-fry and simmering with quiet rage at the housemates who refused to do their dishes, I would dream of a time when, through some improbable career twists and turns, I could afford to live a Rosebank life.
And now, suddenly, I am. Had I been crashing anywhere but Rosebank on my first night back in Joburg, perhaps the city – big, sprawling, ungainly, in spite of its charms – might have lost some of its luster. Perhaps I would’ve stuck to my original plan and been booking a flight to Dar es Salaam as I type these words. But the neighborhood appeases my inner New Yorker; there are tree-lined sidewalks with actual people walking on them, neighbors stopping for a chat. Jan Smuts Avenue – a straight shot by taxi into the heart of the city – is just down the street. Everything I need in my day-to-day life is a short walk from my front door. In five minutes I can be shopping at Pick ‘n’ Pay, eating pizza at Doppio Zero, working out at Planet Fitness, or boarding a taxi to Newtown. For a non-driving New York transplant, the place reeks of a convenience you’re not likely to find elsewhere in Joburg, unless you’re squatting in Sandton City or Montecasino.
By late morning, I’ve mentioned to Cihan that I might stick around longer than planned. What’s the big hurry to get to Zanzibar, anyway? I can pass a busy month in Joburg, head down to the Cape in early September; surely there’s nothing stopping me from getting to Stone Town in October – to catch the tail-end of the dry season, the last straggles of Indian-summer tourists. Cihan, accustomed to my whims, still fruitless in her search for a roommate, offers me the guest room for as long as I need it. In the afternoon, cruising the shops at the Zone, plotting the week ahead – drinks in Greenside; dinner in Parkhurst; a show in Newtown; a panel discussion at Wits – I’m reminded of the fullness of life here. I’ve missed the social and cultural life of this city: the Tuesday-night gallery openings, getting shit-faced over Cape wines; the readings and exhibitions and high-brow ephemera of urban life. Since I arrived my gray matter has been overloaded, synapses firing like a 21-gun salute to the life I’ve always wanted. Why not Joburg redux, then? I’ve returned on something resembling sound financial footing – the first time I can say that in the better part of a decade. Renting Cihan’s spare room – so unthinkable a year ago, when I dreaded the first of the month in my Auckland Park commune – would strain, but not altogether break, my budget. I could be really happy here.
The more time I spend mentally trying on my new life in Rosebank, the more I like the fit. Zanzibar suddenly seems a long way off. Kwaheri, kwaheri, island fantasy! Just three days after debarking at OR Tambo International, I’m signing up for a one-month membership at Planet Fitness, a swank health club on the top floor of the Rosebank Mall. (Motto: “It’s not just another gym, it’s another way of life.”) More than a month removed from Ouagadougou’s Super Gym Club, shaken daily by the fear that my body will fall into some irreparable state of decline, I hit the floor on my first day with the passion of a religious convert. To squat! To crunch! To live! Surely there are some Latin phrases that would come in handy. The marvels of this high-tech masochist’s workshop, the machinery scientifically engineered to brutalize the body into some higher Platonic ideal, are alone worth the price of admission. What wonders have descended on the modern world of physical fitness as I was curling and pressing through my poor-man’s reps in Ouaga! Everything looks so finely calibrated, so lustrous, so goddamn efficient. The tribe that inhabits this rarefied space seems likewise disposed to make the most of each workout, to say nothing of our allotted time on earth. They are muscled and toned within an inch of their coiffured existence, primed for weekends of mutual admiration in Johannesburg’s finer precincts.
Have I mentioned the girls? They are a lovely species of gym bunnies. Spandex-besuited, fashionably flustered on their treadmills and yoga mats, they seem like an extension of the aspirational lifestyle I’m committing myself to here in Rosebank. After a single afternoon I find it hard to recall that I’d ever worked out any other way. You can imagine the shock and dismay of these South Africans – accustomed, as they are, to all the accoutrements of a Northern Hemisphere lifestyle – as I describe the rigors of my Super Gym Club routine: the windows rattling with harmattan winds, the unbearable heat of an April afternoon sans climatisée, the machines like the relics of some Soviet-era Olympic training complex in Podolsk. The things I have braved and seen would no doubt make for some interesting banter around the water fountain. But I am too focused for socializing. Time’s terrible passage might continue with each agonizing, irrevocable moment that slips away, but fuck if I’m going to stand around with my hands on my love handles.
The nights are cold; I pad around the house in my thick Pick ‘n’ Pay slippers, puffing into my fists. Still, the mornings start full of joy, promise. Sunlight fills the living room. A mug of Cameroonian coffee steams on the table. In my first week back I’ve launched full-tilt into a routine that would appease even the severest Puritan. Chapter three of my work-in-progress is coming along, slowly, surely. I am excited by just about everything. Just days after checking into Chez Cihan, I make plans to visit Cape Town the first weekend in August – to reconnect with my old friend Andrea, from Kigali, who’s getting a Master’s Degree at UCT. The days are long and fruitful – at night I’m happily spent, I heap onto the bed like a sack of coal. This bed is, in fairness, just a mattress on the floor, but I tell myself it’s a concession to my conscience: still unaccustomed to an upscale Rosebank lifestyle, that solitary mattress makes me feel like some exiled Marxist poet. With time I might add a boxspring, some bookshelves to add to the Spartan furnishings of desk and chair. This will be a project for another day. It feels like I have all the time in the world.