I was walking the other day when I saw, up ahead, an old, thin man.
He had the kind of thinness that makes you worry for him. He had thin legs and thin shanks and thin shoulders. Underneath his clothes I imagine he looks like length of driftwood that has taken its beating in the ocean for fifty years and then washed up on a distant beach and been worn for another decade or so by wind and salt and sand and then finished off by the sun. He was a piece of wood once strong but the world has worn it down, and the world isn’t done with him yet.
He wore a suit that once fitted him better, the kind of suits that old men wear to visit the bank and the post office and that make my heart ache with love for old people.
He looked as though he might have headed out that morning wearing a hat, but any hat was long gone in the wind. He wouldn’t have had a spare hand to keep it on his head, because he was using both to hold very tightly to the stone pillar outside the bank.
The wind doesn’t blow very often in my neighbourhood – not the way it blows in the rest of Cape Town – but when it does it comes hard down the main road and it seems to funnel and concentrate in the delta where the road splits in two, with the bank on the corner. It’s always windiest there, like the area at the north corner of the Flatiron Building, where 23rd Street meets Broadway, the windiest corner of New York.
On YouTube you can see footage from 1903 of pedestrians fighting the wind at the Flatiron. Obviously they had invented this thing called a movie camera and were casting around for something interesting to film and someone said, “What about the Flatiron? People’s hats are always blowing off there.”
In the footage men and woman, all now long dead, struggle along clutching their hats, their skirts and coats whipping. There’s a gratifying moment when one gentleman notices the camera, tragically loosening his grip on his hat which whips away in the wind like a magic trick. One minute it’s there, the next it isn’t, and he does a cartoon-like two-handed grab at his bare head then goes chasing after it, exiting screen left.
That’s what the corner outside the bank is like, and as I approached I could see the old thin man was having a hard time of it. He wanted to round the corner and turn right up Regent Road but that was tacking into the teeth of the wind, and he was clinging to the pillar like Odysseus tied to his mast. If he loosened his grip he might blow away like that long-gone New Yorker’s hat.
One passer-by stopped and offered assistance but was waved away with a smile, and then another passer-by, and then the beefy bald guy who runs the shop selling bodybuilding supplements. Just as I drew level, the security guard from the bank asked the old thin man if he could help him.
“No, no, thank you,” said the old thin man pleasantly and patiently, still clinging tight. “I’ll just wait for it to stop.”
It reminded me of when I was in Dublin, at Merrion Square, opposite the Georgian house where Oscar Wilde grew up. There’s a small park in the centre with a weird jade and granite statue of Oscar reclining louche upon a rock, and I was waiting to photograph it. Pictures of statues are the worst holiday pictures, other than pictures of buildings and arm’s length photos of your own stupid face, but I didn’t know that then. There was some sun but there was mostly clouds. Oscar would be lit for a second in a band of gold, a crown of glory, but before I could focus all would be plunged into Dublin grey again. I’d been standing there for nearly half an hour when an old fellow wandered past and wondered what the hell I was doing.
“Waiting for the light,” I replied.
“Ho ho ho,” he wheezed, continuing on his way. “You’ll grow old waiting for the light in Dublin!”
I thought this week about the difference between old men in safe, rainy Dublin and old thin men in South Africa. The chap clinging to the pillar outside the bank has seen plenty of strong winds in his time, headwinds and tailwinds alike. These are windy times in South Africa again, and the winds are strong, and when it’s gusting we have to hold tight and keep our heads. Sooner or later the wind will drop again, and we’ll be able to carry on up the street.
The Times, 25 Feb 2016