A street filled with life and death
It was summer, towards the end of 1986, when I moved into a Green Point backstreet with my life partner, Graham Sonnenberg. Melrose Mansions is an old apartment building, dating back to around 1930, like most of its neighbours.
The street was somewhat withered, but that was part of its charm. Our neighbours included Italians, a house full of students, an elderly British couple. There were Portuguese and Greeks in other houses, and further down, on York Street, there were also people of colour.
It was a grey area, as mixed neighbourhoods were known under apartheid; the police turned a blind eye. The Italians owned a corner café (there are no corner cafés left). With their volatile Mediterranean temperament, an Italian argument often echoed down the street. Their young dark-haired son would then hop on his motorcycle, flip them off and roar away.
The street was full of life and drama. One late, cold winter evening, I smelt a braai. I thought to myself, who the hell is braaiing now; light rain was falling and it was almost midnight.
I stepped out onto the balcony and saw the cottage behind the Italians was on fire. There was screaming. The fire department, ambulance and police arrived.
They extinguished the flames; later, they carried someone in a body bag on a stretcher to the ambulance. The police remained, blue lights flashing in the night.
The next morning, we heard the shocking news. A young couple had rented the cottage, and she found out that he had been unfaithful. When he fell asleep, she poured petrol over him, set him alight and fled. He died, and she was never found.
Pamêla the beauty queen
One day, I looked out from the balcony and saw a well-dressed and made-up woman; she was sitting on those steps across from us that lead nowhere. I have no idea why they were built.
She had a large bag with her and was gazing ahead. Hours later, I saw her again, and at sunset she made a bed for herself on the sidewalk.
This went on for a while, and I thought I should talk to her. She told me she came from the Eastern Cape. Her name was Pamela Mtwete but she pronounced it Pamêla. In her day, she had been a beauty queen, but things had gone awry.
Every day she sat perfectly still, staring down the street, always well-dressed, lips blood-red, big fake eyelashes and green eyeshadow. She became a fixture and said she didn't want to go to a shelter; she was happy there on the street.
When winter came, we bought her blankets; one woman knitted her a sweater. A friend called to say he had painted a picture for me, and he wanted to drop it off. I was going out and suggested he leave it with Pamêla. When I arrived home, Pamêla ran up and gave it to me.
So, she later held keys for people. Anything anyone wanted to drop off, they left it with her. The students sometimes cooked for her, and others, when they had something to pick up from her, gave her money.
Pamêla was a part of Cavalcade Road. We kept an eye on her and she watched over us. One day, after two years, she was gone. It was as if she had never been there, her spot empty.
Everyone was stunned; we even reported her disappearance to the police. We never saw her again, but we will never forget her. The light of that beauty queen who brightened our street for two years had vanished.
Milk of human kindness
A woman who always seemed like she had just been startled by something moved in. Her life partner moved in with her. It didn't take long for them to start fighting. Every evening. Loudly, doors slamming.
One night, I heard her crying, and she said, “Please don't leave me, I love you, please." Such an Athol Fugard moment, as in People Are Living There or Hello and Goodbye.
One morning, I was working from home when I heard a knock on the back door. It was the woman from upstairs, the one who looked as if she'd been startled by the bell and was unable to shake the expression. “Milk," she mumbled.
She was too hungover to go to the store. I gave her a glass, which she drank quickly. She crawled back up the stairs to her apartment as if she were climbing a mountain. After that, I started keeping extra milk in the fridge because it happened regularly.
When they left, two hippies moved in who strummed their guitars and made the nights feel nostalgic with their melancholic voices. Unfortunately, they disappeared overnight, probably to Knysna to live in the forest.
Fish and chips in newspaper
If you got hungry around dinnertime, you could go a bit further down the street to the Portuguese woman and her two sons. All three had drinking problems and trembled severely.
You could order fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper. One day, I saw one of my articles in one of those same newspapers and thought, “one day you're the cock on the catwalk, the next you're a feather duster".
The smell of vinegar and salt everywhere. I drank black Frisco coffee without sugar, and everything cost less than R15. Delicious and unpretentious.
That place is now gone and has been replaced by a restaurant with a French name and food that no one can pronounce. To top it off, a health food store opened. That's when I should have known it was coming: the era of the puffed-up bantams. Overnight, Graham and I became dinosaurs in our own street.
Bulldozers and lonely millennials
The elderly British neighbours moved to a retirement home. Within days, a dandy in an Armani suit and with perfectly combed black hair arrived. The house was demolished, the garden removed, and two apartments were erected.
The woman in one of the apartments had a flat voice with which she yelled and commanded people over the phone all day long. She also had two dogs the size of squirrels that barked at the shrieking hadedahs. Relentlessly.
The family that lived next to us for 30 years left. The new owner immediately started demolishing walls and wrecked the place with manual labour. Authorities found out about this and stopped him.
The house resembles something from a war zone; most of the doors and windows are gone, and it's been like that for a year. His plan is to build an apartment block.
The new trend in architecture here is what they call micro-apartments. Those tall, slender buildings with one-room flats, an open-plan kitchen and a bathroom. Only one person can live in them. They're clearly built for lonely millennials who spend the entire weekend playing computer games. There's no space for entertaining or socialising, and they sell for just under R2 million.
The woman on the corner, who grew up in her house, is moving after 40 years. They had a mutt named Sushi. On the other corner, three houses and a boarding house will soon be demolished to make way for a hotel.
I remember the people who lived in those houses; some of the children are now over 30. One man in an apartment building just across the road had the habit of not closing his curtains at night.
He had a beer belly and would lie reading on the couch in his underwear. One evening, I walked by and saw him on top of a woman who also had a beer belly. They were having relations and I quickly looked away.
As fate would have it, I later saw this couple with a stroller. I greeted them and stared in amazement at the baby, who also had a little beer belly. Too precious. They moved too.
There's more to mention, but it's too much. Cavalcade Road is turning into a street of hotels, micro-apartment blocks and generic people who have no trace of a unique character about them.
A few of the old residents are holding on. What saddened me was the elderly couple two houses down who arrived in 1970. They had to put their house on the market because they are mostly bedridden. For decades, I would wave to them as they passed my place.
Last week, I saw the sign: SOLD. It started raining, and I pulled my long, black coat tighter around me.
Like at a funeral.
♦ VWB ♦
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