My brother-in-law Norms responded to my recent Shebeen article in Hard Crackers with his own story. I want to tell it and a little more. Norms lives with his wife in the Walmer neighborhood of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He is married to my older sister, Bronwen. They have been a unit for coming on fifty years.
Port Elizabeth lies on the Indian Ocean, almost exactly midway between Durban to the east and Cape Town to the west. It is not a large South African city, like Joburg, Durban or Cape Town, but it is big enough and its population continues to grow. The Eastern Cape is a more indigent province. COVID is ravaging that area right now. Nelson Mandela hailed from this region. The important African liberation activist Steve Biko was tortured to death by the security police in their fortress of a cop station there in 1977. The same building is still occupied by the South African Police. Port Elizabeth is South Africa’s version of Detroit. Volkswagen, Ford, and GM (see the photo below) once all had major plants there and there were specialty component factories, like the one that made catalytic converters. Few are left. Detroit and Port Elizabeth have a lot in common today, especially in the unemployment department.
I am very close to my people down there. Norms worked in the community technical college. It is a poorer peoples’ academic institution, not at the university level. The technical school is out on the western edge of the city, near the windswept dunes of the beach. When I visited, I would get dibs at the family car, a 1999 Toyota Tazz which I nicknamed as the Green Hornet. It is still the household sedan, and it does not come with the manservant Kato. The Tazz is no longer green, it is now a dazzling white. Norms had an Earl Scheib cheapo spray paint job done.* My relatives are hardly well heeled. So I would take Norms to work and pick him up in the evening. And I would spend the rest of the day terrifying my sister Bronnie by driving on the wrong side of the road in the Green Hornet. South Africa is full of adventures.
Norms is a very capable wheelman. He has to be because Bronnie never got around to learning how to drive. She did take lessons some years ago, but found out midway through the course that her teacher was a fully licensed, on-the-job private detective, posing as a driving instructor. This character used motorist tutoring as a cover for stake-out duties and spying on cheating spouses. It helped explain the holstered loaded revolver and video camera in the glove compartment, the emphasis put on rear-view mirror watching, parallel parking, and why the same block was continuously circled. Bronnie never got her money back.
Norms’s co-worker at the tech college was an African guy by the name of Chris M. They were good pals. When Norms would greet Chris with a “Howzit,” the usual response was “Hey Norms, we’re cooking with gas, brother!” Because their place of employment was quite far from the city, Norms and Chris would often retire to the local shebeen nearby. It was called Mama Rosas. There, they would suck on a few Carling Black Label quarts. The ghetto in Port Elizabeth is not that different from the one in Brooklyn.
Chris sounded like a real mensch. He came to a tragic end. Unfortunately he was a ladies man, and he was going with the wife of a cop. The policeman trailed him to the shebeen and stabbed him to death in front of it. Everybody knew the cop had done it, but because he was police, he walked free. Shebeens have a lot of dirty secrets.
Here’s another one from Port Elizabeth. Neil, a mutual friend, Norms and I reserved an evening for the so-called quintessential male bonding experience. This wasn’t wandering off into the woods and yelling at trees a la the Promise Keepers, or engaging in paint-ball fights. It was far more spiritual than that. We went out drinking. Neil, an ex-Mancunian, led the way.
Our first port of call was a lonely little pub, the Crazy Zebra, on a residential block around the corner from the Ten-Minute Airport. Port Elizabeth International Airport is called that by me because it always takes ten minutes to get there. The owner of the bar, a thirty-something white man named Johnny with money signs for eyeballs, sidled over and proceeded to try and sell us a bill of goods. We christened him Johnny Dollar, after the Chicago bluesman. His swag included a showcase full of endangered species waistcoats, rip-off designer handbags that Senegalese street vendors sell for much less on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Swatch chronometers that gave the wearer the correct time both in Paris and Port Elizabeth whilst scuba-diving, and an impressive array of knobkerries (African fighting sticks) that he claimed were popular with Scandinavian tourists. All customers were potential gullible marks in Johnny Dollar’s mock curio and worthless tchotchke con game.
My accent, considered American by local white South Africans, only fueled his retail spiel. Johnny Dollar offered us his rock-bottom Crazy Eddie prices, even lower if we paid in U.S. currency. He then disappeared into the basement to retrieve his Cullinan Diamond, the crown jewel of his inventory. This was the Simon and Garfunkel Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme vinyl album apparently signed by Eddie Simon, Paul Simon’s younger brother. The yarn goes that Eddie’s plane was delayed, so he scooted off to the boozer closest to the airport which happened to be this one. Here he got legless, ran out of cash and offloaded his stash of the elder sibling’s records to pay off his bar tab. In the hope of putting a stop to this nonsense, I told Johnny Dollar the warbling duo’s knock-knock gag, the one that poses the “Simon who?” question and ends with “Garfunkel to do with you.” On that sledgehammer note, we moved on.
Dolly’s Bar was way different. Tucked behind a gas station and next to a twenty-four hour porn video parlor, it was across the valley on the tougher side of town, placing it within the Twenty-Minute Airport zone. Dolly, a former black madam, was respected by the regular drinkers of all colors. A pair of armed villains had tried to stick up the place a few months earlier and the customers not only tracked down the robbers but, as rumor had it, removed them permanently from the picture. Dolly’s was one of Neil’s “Slippin’ In” Snooks Eaglin kind of New Orleans joints, and we were made welcome.
Dolly herself, clearly a vibrant local business personality but not of the Chamber of Commerce ilk, swung by and bought the bar a round. Twenty or so years before, regulations would not have permitted Dolly to operate legally. She reminded me some of Malcolm X’s former numbers boss in Harlem, West Indian Archie. The gangster Archie, it was said, possessed a photographic memory, an ideal skill for his line of work. Malcolm claimed that under a different circumstance, West Indian Archie could have been a very able U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.
Dolly and Johnny Dollar represented polar ends of the “looking after number one” South African small-time entrepreneurial class. Dolly had style and Johnny had none. Dolly came from the skommers (local slang for the poor trash). She knew them because she was one of them. Johnny decided to join the skommers, adhering to the cheap hustler dictum of “aim low, you will never be disappointed.” I would be stretching the truth if I claimed all of this occurred to me during one night of trawling a few bars in Port Elizabeth. I’m not that savvy, nor that sober at closing time.
These stories are foreign but they should not be alien. At Hard Crackers, we offer an insight into what goes on underneath the official version of events. My point is that what we read here is universal. One can find the same thing in Bangkok, Caracas, Mumbai, Marseilles, Moscow, Adelaide, Watts, Brixton, or Cairo, anywhere. Our circumstances are international. Seeking a meaningful solution to these problems has to start with both thinking and acting locally and globally. I don’t have the answers, but I know where to start discovering some of them. Otherwise, we are doomed to making the same mistakes and being stuck up the same old tree. We have to cook with gas, all of the time.
* Earl Scheib businesses were cheap panel beating, auto body repair and paint shops. Bruce Springsteen had a rap about these places. He talked about going to an Earl Scheib’s for the $49.99 paint job special. He left the back window open, so they spray painted his brother midnight blue and free of charge as well.