Today I heard Tracey Chapman’s “Fast Car” in the airport. Whenever I hear Tracey Chapman’s “Fast Car” I think of Tobias Ngwenya, and the first and one of the last times I smoked weed, and the strange power of passivity.
In first year I stayed in a small single room in the worst real estate in my residence: the long dark sticky corridor that lead to the bar. It was a bad place to be, and not just because every night you had to use a rolled-up towel to defend against drunk seniors enjoying the competitive sport of trying to projectile-vomit under your door. No, far worse was that Tobias Ngwenya lived in the room above me and our windows opened onto a small shared courtyard and all day, every day, he would play Tracey Chapman’s “Fast Car” and no matter what I did I could not keep it out of my room.
It’s not that I don’t like the musical stylings of Tracey Chapman – although in truth I don’t much like the musical stylings of Tracey Chapman – it’s more that he played that one song, over and over. How did he do it, in an age before digital settings and “repeat” buttons? He must have physically recorded “Fast Car” back to back, over and over, filling 180 minutes of cassette tape. That is dedication. That is obsession. That is insane. If Tobias Ngwenya had channeled that focus into other areas of his life, where might he be today?
Tobias Ngwenya was a legend in the residence, a mystery, an enigma, more idea than man. I’d never laid eyes on him myself, and few others had either. He’d been there for the better part of a decade – some said he had always been there, that when one Tobias Ngwenya graduated another was appointed to take his place, like the Dread Pirate Roberts. He was never seen coming or going. The only way anyone knew he was here at all was Tracey Chapman’s “Fast Car” and a cumulo-nimbus of marijuana smoke that hovered around his door.
One glorious day I woke and something was different. It took a while to figure it out: there was no “Fast Car”. It was like the unearthly silence after a natural disaster when even the birds do not sing, only it was wonderful. I could open my window without inviting in more acoustic guitar. I assumed that the tape had snapped or his tapedeck had imploded from grievous overuse, and it must have been the latter because when I arrived back from breakfast “Fast Car” was playing again, but my own tapedeck had vanished.
I poked my head through the open window and sourly regarded the drainpipe that linked his open window and mine. I sat on my bed and worked up my nerve, then marched up to his corridors and knocked on his door. I knocked again. I banged. I made fists and hammered. I tried that technique where you just knock and knock and knock like a dripping tap. Nothing. Maybe he wasn’t in there. Maybe he didn’t exist. Maybe this was all some weird psychological experiment. I fetched a butter knife and started unscrewing the doorhandle. If he was going to take my tapedeck, I was going to take his doorhandle.
I was sitting on the floor, unscrewing away, when Tobias Ngwenya opened the door. He was a vision, a rumour made real. He stood there wreathed in billowing blue smoke, like a man slowly exiting a flying saucer. He looked at me without surprise or curiosity, through eyes like scrambled eggs. Tobias Ngwenya, I perceived, was very, very high.
We went into his room and I asked for my tapedeck back. He looked at me. He opened his mouth, but he had no power of speech. There was only one of him in the room, but somehow there were at least three joints burning in various ashtrays. He held one out to me. I had never smoked a joint before. I told him I didn’t want his joint, I wanted my tapedeck. Tobias blinked his poor tortured eyes. Smoke curled around. There was something so magnificently incapable about him, so peaceful. He was like an ancient turtle, like ET, like one of those wise talking trees in Tolkien, except he couldn’t talk. He held out the joint. He wanted to be friends. I took it from him, just to see. Tracey Chapman kept singing that damn song. I never did get that tapedeck back.
Times, 25 November 2017