At certain hours of a regular workday, I will need space to think. I will need to step away from my desk to let the words stew as I think of what to write next. I will need to step out – alone – to breathe, to catch a cigarette break, chew some bubblegum maybe. And to get some bearing. You get my drift, don’t you? Unfortunately – or fortunately – I don’t work in one of those creative spaces that afford you the luxury of a dart board, a pool table or that little soccer men thingy. Not a creative room. Or a lounge. Not even a bar (and bar tender) to while away in the middle of the day.
You want some creative space? You step out into the gritty streets of tao.
There’s a cedar tree that’s rooted smack in front of my office building. The cedar tree is green all year round. Its small leafed-branches spread out like a parasol. The air beneath it always feels filtered and unrushed. Its only shortcoming is that it doesn’t have one of those wooden benches around it like you’d find in shagz. It has bollards instead.
The shade beneath this cedar tree, this is my space to think – I perch on the bollards for forty minutes then watch tao mill around me. On other days, I become part of the mill, too.
Come on, take a walk with me.
I walk past a shoe shop whose atmosphere is defined by end-month discounts, a looping playlist and bored staff in boring uniform shirts. It seems dark in there, even cold, despite the sunshine. This is one of those joints where guys only jobo as much as they have been asked – there is no personal initiative, no self-drive, not enough anger to fuel the thirst to have more than what you are given. You are asked to go an extra mile and you may as well fling a pair of discounted loafers at your boss before you do. Staff bitch to each other over lunch then return to their workstations to continue the afternoon shift as they did the morning shift. Institutionalize, that’s what it does to them. Kills their spirit. Ever been to one of such joints?
I saunter past and shake my head in second thought.
I could be wrong, you know – I am on the outside looking in. Whatever I see here is only one side of the story, one that I am choosing to tell to myself. To tell you right now. Am I being fair, really, judging their energy as I am? I momentarily catch eyes with the guy standing behind the cash register. His shirt is a different colour from the others. He has a twinkle in his eye that the others don’t.
Nah. I am being fair.
I keep walking.
I am at the traffic lights now waiting to cross the street… 10... Depending on how you chose to look at the lights and the street … 9… this may as well be a countdown to something you can only find on the other side of the street. Something great. That’s, of course, assuming you have the balls to cross the street. If ever you needed a sign… 8 … a message, a kiss from the heavens that you ready to go right now then watch out for the green light… 7… I pause before I cross the street. I shut my eyes to breathe. Pause. I want to remember what it feels like to be on this side of the street. I want to remember what it feels like to not have what I will find when I find what I find on the other side…6… I want to capture everything about this moment. Everything damn it. But the countdown won’t wait for you to, Love… 5… Move. Now… 4… More often than not… 3… I am tempted to do star jumps and two steps and moonwalks across the street. A little victory dance … 2 … one of those corny ones that seem cool because it came from you right in that moment of victory… 1… Everybody has one of those… Red light… I do mine.
I keep walking.
I am at DT Dobie now. I walk past the guards at the door, past what looks like staff parking and used-cars yard, and into the Mercedes showroom. I look at the four cars – two C-classes, one E-class and one S-class – lined up facing the street, then walk straight to the desk in the corner. There, I meet the saleslady sitting behind the desk. Maureen, she says pointing to her name tag. Maureen has the practised chirpiness of a saleslady – she talks too eagerly and too close into my ears. A heavy breather. I tell her I am shopping around.
“What do you want the car for?” she asks.
“Business,” I say without hesitation. It was a lie.
We get into the E-class. Let’s take a moment to breathe in this air of privilege, shall we? Nothing about this… this machinery… has been left to chance. Everything was built, not made. Parts and pieces were placed next to each other then joined in a process that is best described as ethereal. Take the upholstery of the driver’s seat I am in right now – I imagine they imported a school of blind Italian cobblers to hand-stitch this fine leather. A bunch of skilled men who relied on the intuition of their senses to work: one who listened to how assertively the leather moaned as it unfolded in his open palms. He traced its textured surface using the tips of his cracked fingers. He told of its age and origin from bringing it close to his nose and sniffing it. Licking it, even. His blinded eyelids squeezed tighter when he acknowledged that Mercedes has once again got the Artico leather right. Only then did he bring his needle and thread to it. Ethereal.
“Let me get you the keys,” Maureen says, interrupting my thoughts.
She bundles back into the car then instructs me how to turn him, sorry, it on. The sound of that engine. Jesus.
“Step on the gas,” she urges in a whisper.
I am not weary with thought because of the entirety of this beastly machinery, this Mercedes. I am weary because of the deservedness of the workmanship in the details. This is how things are to be built. (And made.) With thought and care and finesse, and materials with standards of longevity. Get this: I just moved into a digs that feels like it’s still under construction – electric ducts are poking out of the walls, splashes of cement are strewn across the kitchen and bathroom tiles, corners don’t meet at right angles, windows cracked and walls chipped two days into living there. Surely. It disgusts me to think that a contractor somewhere walked around that completed house work and stamped it as good to go. It’s not that I want to live in a castle of sorts, no, I simply want a solid build.
If we can’t afford the fine things that we dream and want, why the hell do we even bother working?
Maureen and I get out the car and she takes my details. I pocket her card.
Early the next morning, I receive an email from her. She has kept her word, and done as she said she would. I like that. Her email tells me to find “brochures for the C-class and E-class as well as specifications for some of the models that I did not get to see”. Neat, aye?
Where can I find that damn contractor to forward these brochures to?
I keep walking.
I pass an ugly building that squats on the outskirts of tao. I bought my laptop here over a year ago. Had I not been so comfortable with tao, I swear, I would never have imagined leaving my crisp clean bills in this building whose stairwell reeked of urine, old mattresses and fresh mold. “Don’t touch the walls. Don’t touch the banisters. Don’t touch the door knobs. Don’t touch anything. Keep your hands to yourself,” such were the warnings from my pal as we took the stairs to the sixth floor of the building. In the same breath, my pal also told me that Uncle Njenga expects a certain type of mutual business etiquette from the people he works with, “Be smart when you speak to him.” Err, OK. What is this, the mafia?
Uncle Njenga’s store is located in the far right corner of the sixth floor. But it isn’t a store, this is a dusty scrap yard for computers and old computer parts. It can only hold two and a half filed customers at a time – my pal has one foot in here and the other in the corridor. I am squeezed between him and a kid selling boiled eggs. When he’s done with his biashara, my pal and I pour into the corridor to give room to the kid to get out.
The laptop materializes somewhere from amidst all the junk: it’s lighter and sleeker than the borrowed laptop I’d been using. But it looks like it was stolen from a Danish tourist at the airport – its keyboard has foreign keys, its edges scratches from personalized used.
So I ask Uncle Njenga, “Is this stolen?”
My pal gave me a what-the-hell look.
“No,” Uncle Njenga says as he slides it from my hands and returns it to its sleeve, “it isn’t. I brought them in from the UK last week.” I can’t tell if he is offended or not. I realize that I’m falling out of favour with him so I break into some IT jargon that keeps he and I engaged for the next half hour.
My pal would later tell me that Uncle Njenga still asks after me.
I keep walking.
I zigzag my way around tightly congested human bodies. I take the bus home from here. Everybody in this God-forsaken side of tao has a story much different from those in the upper side. When I am seated in the bus waiting for it to get full, I usually overhear their conversations and see how they stand around talking to each other.
What you’ll realize is that everyone is after one thing, and one thing only: money. These people are here because they don’t have freedom of choice, or the choice of freedom. Money gives you both – it’s the sine qua non of choice and freedom. But there’s isn’t new money or old money as we know it. There’s is a no-questions-asked type of money. The type I’ve creepily become obsessed with of late.
Men here shake hands – they don’t sign contracts or exchange promissory notes. The deal is sealed when the sweat in your palms crosses from my hands to yours, when we look into each others’ eyes as we pump our clenched hands and nod to the deal. It’s your word that counts.
I keep walking.
I am back to my desk now. One crazy idea crosses my mind as I put the final touches to this piece: Is it weird that I want to douse tao in paraffin and watch it slowly burn to the ground?