Thank You, Mr. Rogers

Ezra Azra

Copyright 2022 by Ezra Azra


Photo by Bradi C on Flickr.
Photo by Bradi C on Flickr.

For the first twenty-nine years of my life, I lived, trapped by poverty, in a near-to-slum ghetto in the suburb of Clairwood, Durban, Natal, South Africa.

I was ashamed to be living there. Eventually, we were evicted by the landlord because we could not afford to pay the increased rent. We moved in with other members of our family in the same ghetto. Some years later, by a 'perfect storm' of incredible luck, skullduggery, and illicit maneuvers-negotiations, I qualified to be financially assisted by an Underground illegal consortium to emigrate. I hastily and haphazardly emigrated, in 1967, for good; in both senses of the word, I hoped.

Life was hard in the other country, but I coped comfortably, (through too many cultural blunders in ignorance) because, as difficult as it was to acclimatize, no circumstances were as difficult and as hopeless as were in the ghetto.

While the ghetto was slowly and permanently cauterizing out of me certain wholesome human qualities and dimensions, it was simultaneously fashioning others in me, into diamond-hard permanencies.

In my reluctantly adopted other country, I was aware of the progress I was making, gradually and measurably. I kept my resolution to never speak about my shameful ghetto days, in the hope those memories would fade away into nothingness, sooner or later. They did not. They have not, to this day.

I've come to accept that they never will. The brain, for some mindless reason, retains, forever, memories of long, long passed pains of embarrassments, shame, regret, times of low esteem; each and all of which I have so many.

In 1979, I heard, on a radio, for the first time and by sheer luck, a song that set in motion a new perspective in me. It was sheer luck because radio and television were, and still are, a very small part of my living. In the ghetto, most families were like us: no electricity.

For the first twenty-nine years of my life, I had never been near enough to touch a radio, a television set or a phone. The microwave oven had not yet been invented.

The song in 1979, was "The Gambler", sung by Kenny Rogers. Had I not been seated in a cafeteria, eating a snack, I might never have stayed long enough to hear the whole song. While the entire song struck me as an apt metaphor for anybody's life in general, two lines struck me as the immediate practical wisdom in my daily ghetto life: "Know when to walk away; And know when to run."

Long, long before I heard Mister Rogers singing these rules, I, and everybody else in the ghetto, lived only for as long as we obeyed these rules everyday when we left our homes to go even for the shortest trips: the corner store, the bus stop, to help someone in trouble down the road.

A frequent sight in the ghetto was a dead body by the roadside; probably a victim who failed to follow at least one of these two primary rules. I saw in those two lines in The Gambler, an invitation to view my life in the ghetto as not shameful; but as a normal random possibility in living outside a ghetto.

In other words, just another unhappy challenge life scatters around haphazardly, indiscriminately. Certainly not a plight of which to be particularly ashamed.

I researched the life of Mister Rogers. He had a difficult childhood, but nothing nearly as blighting as the ghetto into which I had been born. All the same, he faced difficulties in his non-ghetto living, to which these lyric rules applied most aptly. I am thankful to him for the song that triggered an option for me to embark on a process to lighten the burden of ghetto-shame in me.

It was a gradual process. I bought my first music player, and my first music disk. The process has taken years and years. Eventually, here I am. The nightmares I still have occasionally, will always be a part of my life. Four members of my family were killed in street fights on 20 Cherry Road, Clairwood, when I was a teenager. The nightmares aside, I have succeeded, for the most part, in not letting my ghetto-shame impede my progress. And so, here I share with you some of my memories of those evil times.

From when I was eight years old to my late teens, I was a member of a gang in the ghetto. Everyone, child, man, woman, belonged to a gang. It was fatal stupidity to not be part of a gang.

The number of members in our gang continually changed. I remember six who were around the longest. Maynard Jasmin, our leader; the only one who never hit me. To all the others I was open game because I was the youngest and the smallest. Eddie Jasmin, Maynard's younger brother. He hit me more than any other hit me. Perhaps he thought he had to hit me extra to make up for Maynard's never hitting me. Harry Crossly. Norman Brauns. Redvers Rigney. Mickey Jackson.

One girl tried to join. All of us ridiculed and threatened her. She ran off. Many, many years later I heard about her. Turns out she went on to have the last laugh on all of us, after all.

None of us wore shoes. All of us attended the same School located between and at the ends of the dead-end roads of Shale Road and Dunn Road: Clairwood Primary School.

Our gang must have been the most cowardly of all. We always ran away from what we guessed was about to be a confrontation with another gang. See, Mister Rogers, I knew when to run, long before I heard your sound advice.

We stole anything that was not fastened down. Even stuff we knew at the time was of no use to us. At unplanned times, gangs met to barter or buy or sell stolen stuff they did not care to keep themselves.

Our gang specialized in stealing food. And only at night. Friday and Saturday nights were our regular times because there was no school the next day. Sometimes the stealing went so uneventfully that, many years in the future looking back, I think those foods could have been purposely left for us to steal.

Most times the food we stole were fruit from trees in backyards. We were careful to stay clear of homes that had dogs. There was a home that, unknown to us, kept their dog indoors at night. Some of us were way up in their mango tree when someone came out of their backdoor with their dog. There was no indication they came outside with their dog in order to catch us. Since their backyard did not have a fence, all of the gang on the ground, and not too far up the tree, fled without being discovered. I was the only unlucky one to be so far high in the tree, I did not try to escape.

Instead, I kept myself quietly among the branches and foliage. I waited there a long time, listening for the absence of sounds of the dog on the ground. This was subtropical Africa. Noisy nocturnal insects and other animals were everywhere. When I eventually dared to slowly creep down, as hesitantly all the way down as a chameleon, none of the gang was around. I went home, my pockets stuffed with green mangoes.

Because I was the smallest, I was always sent ahead. I would throw the fruit down from the trees for the others. Fairness was not one of the criteria by which Maynard led the gang. He did not care how each one of us came by the loot, as long as everyone gave him half of their share.

Whenever the gang had to make a hasty exit, those unfortunate enough to be left behind to fend for themselves, ended up with nothing because by the time we caught up to the rest, they had eaten all their share of the loot. There was nothing left to fairly share. New members were the ones who suffered most by this custom. We rarely gathered afterwards to eat our spoils. Most of the time we ate on the run.

I discerned this unfairness very soon after I joined when I was eight. My remedy was secretly to eat my share while I was in the tree and to throw some farther than where the gang was waiting on the ground. I would return alone the next day in daylight to search for my share. My subterfuge worked perfectly for my entire tenure with the Clairwood gang on food escapades. I dared not try the subterfuge on other criminal ventures such as robbing abandoned buildings, and unattended possessions.

My cunning worked every time we raided our School's movie night food supplies.

On some Friday evenings, our School showed movies in the School's Assembly Hall. There was a small charge. The public was invited. At interval, among the items sold were cakes baked that very Friday in the School's kitchen. Those cakes were stacked in layers in the kitchen.

Our gang raided the kitchen, early in the evening before the Assembly Hall was opened for business. We would pretend to be the movie-night special yard cleaners. We went about the School premises collecting garbage and putting it in paper bags for everyone who might be noticing, to see. It never failed. We never got caught.

We had to be careful to not steal all the cakes and other pastries. We would steal a number for each member of the gang, a small enough number to not be missed. Maynard, our leader, calculated the number.

Always, I was the only one small enough to be hoisted through a kitchen window. I handed the stolen cakes to a member outside at the window, who was standing on another member's shoulders.

What nobody could see in the dark kitchen, was that I was eating my share of the loot, right there, under their snotty unfair noses.

Ironically, those were the only times Maynard, our leader, made sure I got my share, when we gathered on a distant dark school verandah corner to enjoy our spoils. Nobody ever found out that on those truly good Fridays for me, I got two allotted shares of the loot.

To my credit, I always offered some of my second share to some of the other members, in the hope it would help buy their undying non-violent friendship. They took my gifts, but the random gratuitous violence against me did not stop.

Our worst raid for me was when we raided the School's kitchen on a night that was not a School Friday movie night. The gang was on our way somewhere to which we had to cross the School grounds.

Some of the classrooms were lit up. There were adults milling about, all well-dressed. It seemed as if they were on a tea break. There were servant-like adults carrying tea-things to the classrooms from the kitchen. We waited. We dashed into the kitchen and grabbed whatever we saw, and ran off into the dark. We found a spot far away enough to stop at, and eat. Of course, I had long eaten my loot before we arrived at the spot. I had nothing to share with Maynard. He was not pleased.

I had grabbed a pound of frozen butter from the fridge. I ate it all on the run, within minutes. It was a good thing the next day was Saturday. I had the runs for days.

The best times I had being unfair to my gang was in the matter of Hindu poojas. A
Pooja was (perhaps, still is) an offering to a named living Spirit, invisible Being, in order to cure an illness. A small bowl of items of food and fruit, and money coins were (are) offered to the Spirit, and placed at the side of a road at a crossroad. It was (is) believed that the Spirit would (will) remove the illness from the sufferer, and inflict it on the first person who passed the pooja.

Hunting for poojas was our gang's first mission, most of the time. Maynard got to keep half the coin total. The rest of the coins were divided among the rest of the gang. A usual coin-take total was four-to-six a night. Most nights, there weren't enough coins for the rest of us to share equally, after Maynard took his cut. Most of the time there were not enough coins for me to get anything. That did not bother me because I knew a few pooja spots which I did not tell Maynard about.

I raided them myself, in the daytime. I kept all the coin loot for myself.

Harry Crossly brought a flashlight with him one night. We knew it as a torch. It had a shiny metal cover. Maynard made Harry put the torch in a black sock because at night the shine would give away our presence. Harry did not bring the torch along to provide light. The batteries inside were already dead when he brought it along the first time. Harry brought that torch along to be a weapon against the rest of us, except Maynard. He carried it in a pocket of his trousers.

Krishna Cinema was at the corner where three roads merged: Jacob's Road, Pine Road, and Backus Road. In Clairwood, the cinema was known as Krishna Bioscope. Throughout South Africa, the word bioscope was the name for movie theatres None of our gang members ever attended a bioscope because we could not afford the price of the cheapest ticket: eightpence.
The evening film began at seven o'clock, six evenings a week. The halftime interval would be at eight-fifteen.

Maynard, our leader, had found out that homemade sweets were sold during the halftime interval. Those sweets were made in poor people's homes along Pine Road. Beginning at about six o'clock in the evening, the sweets were carried in baskets, from the homes to the bioscope. The carriers were old women.

Maynard said he had known of this opportunity months and months ago, but he had to wait for Winter, because, in all the other seasons, it was still daylight at six o'clock in the evening.

We attacked the old ladies for their baskets of Krishna Bioscope goodies. All those women were South African India-Indians. They screamed at us in Indian languages. I recognized some of the Tamil and Malayalam words, because my Grampa spoke both Tamil and Malayalam, and other Indian languages. He worked as a language interpreter at the Law Court House in downtown Durban, about five miles away from our home on 20 Cherry Road in Clairwood.

We quickly let go the baskets of those women who fought back. We were criminals, but yet children, and so we instantly retreated if a grown-up threatened us. The other woman, in fear, immediately let us yank their baskets out of their hands.

Carrying our loot, we followed Maynard running down Pine Road. We scarfed on the run, as was our criminal wont.

We turned right at the first road, Sir Kurma Reddy Road. It did not have a tarred surface. The excessive height of the wild vegetation on the gravel surface indicated this section of the road was seldomly used by vehicular traffic; always a welcome fact for pedestrian common crooks like us. Very, very few private citizens in Clairwood owned cars.

We ran until we crossed Cherry Road. There were no street lights on Pine and Sir Kurma Reddy and Cherry Roads. As we crossed Cherry Road in the dark, all of us were slowing down, thinking we were home free. Then we saw them!

Our pursuers! On bicycles! Of course, in the dark we did not see details. We saw the beams of light from flashlights, and we heard the bicycles. Our criminal instincts shouted at us that whoever they were, they were after us. We ran. We threw down the baskets; all still had lots of homemade sweets in them. By then, we had eaten our fill, anyway.

We ran along Sir Kurma Reddy Road up to Richborough Road. We ran across. Turning right on Richborough would have taken us to Jacob's Road, a road with a tarred surface that was exceedingly friendly to bicycle-riding. Turning left would have taken us passed Clairwood's swamp, notorious for its poisonous flying and crawling insects.

We heard our bicycle pursuers, pushing their bicycles with much difficulties because of the countless holes and gutters in the surface of Sir Kurma Reddy Road, a common state of affairs in all side roads in Clairwood. A cyclist riding on a side road in Clairwood was a rare sight, because of the road-holes treacherously hidden by overgrown wild vegetation. Persons pushing their bicycles along, was a common sight.

We were thankful. Had the road been a mite more passable, those bicycle-pursuers would have been upon us before we reached the next road beyond Richborough Road.

I do not remember the name of that road that ran parallel to the brick wall of Clairwood's only cemetery.

Again, turning right would have taken us to Jacob's Road. Maynard led us left. There were no sidewalks; we were running alongside a graveyard brick wall. I was uneasy; I knew the rest of the gang were, too.

Running away from persons chasing us to harm us, was never frightening because we expected to escape. We were experts at escaping homicidal pursuers. But if graveyard ghosts gave chase, we did not know how to escape.

All our confidence was drawn from Maynard, our leader, always running ahead of us. We needed his example especially now that we were running alongside a graveyard wall. In pitch darkness; with our would-be murderers behind us who, had they ditched their bicycles and came after us with their torches, would have caught us.

Suddenly, Maynard disappeared. We stopped. Utterly consternated. In complete fear. The sounds of bicycles far along around the corner, approaching, meant nothing to us, gripped in terror of the dead. In the next few seconds I would have turned back and taken my chances with those living cyclist murderers, rather than face whatever it was that had swallowed up Maynard.

We heard Maynard call from the other side of the cemetery wall in a forced loud whisper: "Come on, guys! Jump the wall!"

Before that night I had not paid attention to the height of that wall. When joy exploded in me on hearing Maynard's whisper, I had the ability to scale a wall of any height. All the others, too.

Such was our blind trust in our leader that we instantly obeyed him in defiance of our fear of the countless sleeping corpses whose peace we were about to disturb.

Maynard ordered us to squeeze against the brick wall and to be deathly still and quiet. We obeyed. We heard a good deal of bicycle commotion happening on the other side of the wall. And whispering from the cyclists who, clearly, were concerned, too, about disturbing the dead.

In retrospect, I've always thought and still think that within minutes, if those noises were our bicycle pursuers, they would have thought to check the other side of the brick wall, if it had not started to thunder and rain.

In seconds, the night sky split open. The rain came down, as 'they' say, 'in buckets.' In thunderously noisy buckets. Had there been lightning in that cemetery that night, some of us criminals  would have instantly succumbed to fright, and joined the dead, squeezed tightly against that brick wall.

That storm seemed to last for hours. The rain fell so hard, it seemed to pierce painfully right through my body. Afterwards, feeling our way in the dark, we walked along the wall to find a gate. We followed Maynard's instinct about which direction would take us to the gate. Our clothes were too water-logged for us to be able to lift ourselves over the wall.

It wasn't much of a gate. After all, this was a cemetery. There was no need to protect anything; just a need to demarcate territory. We easily walked out between the few rusty iron bars.

No signs of our bicycle pursuers. Maynard was taking no chances. He stopped the gang. He sent us off home at intervals, one at a time. He suggested we keep to the pitch-dark side roads. If we saw bicycle riders, we were on our own.

Most of our night time raids occurred in the next suburb of Merebank because no yard in poverty Clairwood had either fruit trees, or any objects scattered about worth stealing.

We walked miles to get to Merebank. It was in Merebank that we engaged in a kind of raid for the first time in our history. We robbed a train goods coach of some of its load of sugar cane stalks.

It was at a railway junction in an open field. Once a week, I think a Thursday, a goods train of a few compartments parked overnight at a junction. Other goods trains and passenger trains passed by throughout the night. One of the compartments of the stationary train was loaded with sugar cane on the way to the Huletts sugar refinery.

The situation was perfect for thieves, rogues, vagabonds, misfits, and criminals. We were all of those. It was dark; there were no guards; the nearest homes were on the other sides of wild fields on both sides of the tracks.

We climbed up the sides of the compartment, and broke off as many sugar cane stalks as we wished. We carried them back to Clairwood where we sat and ate them. We did this only twice in my memory because it was grueling; the long walks there and back; carrying stalks all the way back to Clairwood. We didn't try eating them in Merebank because we did not know our way around Merebank in the dark.

Maynard claimed his share of stalks when we stopped to eat in Clairwood. He knew none of us could eat on the run. A sugar cane stalk had to be ripped with our teeth of its inedible bark, in order for its inner fiber to be chewed-and-sucked of its sweet juice. Both hands, unencumbered, were needed for the operation.

The railway line ran along the farther end of Merebank, which meant we had to walk a longer distance in the night. That is why we raided that rail truck only twice.

Late one night in Merebank we were on our way back to Clairwood. As was our custom, we were on a side road that was mostly grass, weeds and gravel. We turned a corner and found ourselves a few steps from a quiet group of people grouped around a car. It was Maynard who instantly whispered, "Police car! Throw away everything!"

That was the kind of quick thinking that qualified Maynard to be a leader. It took a special instinctive ability to discern in a pitch-black night that a car was police. In those days, police cars were not fitted with flashing lights. Then, too, in Clairwood, police cars were a sight as rare as mushrooms in a wilderness, after a thunderstorm.

Before any of us had time enough to interpret Maynard's whisper in the dark, two flashlight beams were on us. On everyone except me, that is, because, as usual, I was the last one walking alone more than a few steps at the end of the gang. My extremely well-honed criminal instinct instantly kicked in.

The moment those beams of light fell on Maynard and some of the others, I threw myself to the ground, and frantically backward-clawed my way farther into the dark. I twisted myself to crawl away into the night. It was Merebank. I crossed fields blindly, and pointed myself in the direction of what I guessed to be Clairwood.

Never before had I been so lucky, and never since have I ever been. I reached home in Clairwood. I did not see any of the gang the whole of the following week at school. Nobody showed up at our gang places that Friday. That Saturday, Maynard came to my home in the daytime. We sat in the shade of a mango tree, and spoke softly. Other children walked, played about.

The gang was about to be ignored by the Merebank police. But when they discovered Harry's torch in a black sock, the police became suspicious. They held the gang in jail for days in Merebank. They eventually let everyone out, except Harry.

Extra suspicious to the Merebank police  was that nobody in the gang knew the  names of everyone in the gang. Maynard  never took roll call. There never was a  formal acceptance as a member; no  membership fee; no membership card,  salute, tattoo, number. The only two  requirements for membership each night  were total obedience to Maynard, and sharing of half your loot with Maynard.

It took a few weeks for the gang to get together again. Some new members joined. Harry Crossly never returned. Maynard never asked me about that night, but I sensed he had more regard for me for my having eluded the police so perfectly. The fact that he made a special effort to come speak to me at my home, silently spoke volumes of respect.

The Merebank police confiscated Harry's torch-in-a-black-sock. Some weeks later we found out that Harry had started a gang in Jacobs, a suburb adjacent to Clairwood, opposite to Merebank. Every member in Harry's gang carried a torch-in-a-black-sock.

Fynnland was another suburb of Durban, but at the opposite side of Clairwood to Merebank. Fynnland was about twice the distance from Clairwood than Merebank was, and so we raided Fynnland once only.

I never found out how Maynard came to know about the opportunity in Fynnland. We walked at night along railway tracks from Clairwood to Fynnland. The way was so cramped that the raid might not have happened had a train come along while we were walking on the tracks.

Our Fynnland destination was a railway compartment parked on a railway siding in Fynnland. The siding was the route to a Government naval base on Salisbury Island in Durban Bay opposite the bay shores at Fynnland. The Government had built a railway causeway to carry supplies to the naval base.

Inexplicably, the two doorways into the compartment were unlocked. The amounts of canned foods for the Navy's sailors were incredible. We were sad that there was too much food for us to be able to steal all of it, and that because Fynnland was so far away from Clairwood, we dare not linger in that compartment for long to eat some of the food while we were there. While everybody else carried off as many canned goods as they could, I grabbed one large cardboard box of dried fruit. At home I would not have difficulty hiding the box in our yard away from the family. For canned goods, I would have needed the can opener my Mom kept and used regularly in the kitchen.

It's been over fifty years. Even if Clairwood is still a ghetto, I go for months and months nowadays without a nightmare. I am not as ashamed of having lived there for the first twenty-nine years of my life.

Thank you for the song, Mister Rogers, 1938-2020.

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