Can I help you? And other loaded questions

In the 1700s, when I was just a young cabin boy, ships going into battle flew the flag of their country. However, some would fly a flag from a different country so as to trick the enemy into thinking they were an ally. Then, when they were within range, they’d run up their real flag and attack. This is where the phrase “showing their true colours” comes from.
Why am I telling you this? I have no idea. No, wait. It’s coming back to me. The country is at some weird kind of war with itself and there is much hiding of one’s true colours. A high-octane game of political hide-and-seek is on the boil but it’s all dangerously interchangeable. At any given time the hiders become the seekers and the seekers become the hiders and, just when you think you know what’s going on, they switch it up.
Take Dali Mpofu. As chairman of the Economic Freedom Fighters, you’d think his true colours are red. The colour of revolution. Also love. The two are entwined. True revolutionaries love the poor. They have to or nobody would support them. Then they get elected and turn into fascists or dictators and the poor end up even poorer. Love and hate, eh. Funny old business.
Mpofu is a master at flag-flying and he’s not overly concerned about which flag happens to be flying at any given time. I think he probably just runs them all up and sails into battle with the aim of confusing the enemy. It’s not a bad tactic. Just as long as his commander-in-chief, wife, friends and colleagues at the bar know what he’s doing and why. Not that bar. The other one.
Then there’s Alochna Moodley who was removed from a Kulula flight and subsequently lost her job for using the k-word in an SMS. Later, she apologised to Reverend Solumuzi Mabuza who had been seated next to her and who read her SMS while she was writing it. Swiftly changing flags, Moodley said her schooling was to blame for not having taught her about apartheid.
Meanwhile, I am casting an early vote in the Orwellian future that awaits us for Rev. Mabuza to head the Thought Police in the Ministry of Truth. He’ll clean up this mess in no time at all.
And then there’s Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. He calls an imbizo to explain why the government shouldn’t be allowed to get its filthy hands on the vast tracts of rent-collecting land owned by his Ingonyama Trust, all the while running up Zulu war flags alongside flags that say war is the last thing the Zulus want.
President Ramaphosa flies a flag signifying good, clean, honest governance. He is worth R6-billion. You don’t accumulate that kind of money by adhering to the ten commandments. But that was then and this is now. Cyril might well have a skull and crossbones in his closet, but it’s unlikely he will ever deploy it because he’s just too damn decent. Jacob Zuma set the bar so … no, he took the bar, repeatedly whacked the taxpayers in the face with it, chopped it up and painted the pieces yellow and sold them as gold nuggets to his friends and family who broke it into even smaller pieces and … you get the idea. And for his entire truncated term, Zuma’s flagpole remained as naked as his avaricious ambition.
Speaking of misjudging books by their covers, I was on my way to rob the Standard Bank in my local mall a few days ago when I stopped off at Wordsworth Books to have a look at all the new releases I can’t afford. I don’t usually make it further than the sale table at the entrance because it’s too depressing to be reminded of the number of people who make a proper living from writing.
While browsing, I noticed a middle-aged man with a beard behind the counter watching me. I watched him watching me for a bit, then returned to the marked-down books. It took him about thirty seconds to get to me.
“Can I help you?” he barked. Momentarily confused, I shook my head and said I was fine. This wasn’t strictly true, but he didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be interested in hearing about my rapidly escalating aversion to humankind, telephones and winter.
I sauntered over to the ghetto that is SA non-fiction to make sure that nobody had bought the last remaining copy of my memoirs. There it was on the bottom shelf where it belonged. The only way you’d even know it was there was if you had to suffer a cardiac event and collapse. I like to think whoever it was might reach for it as he lay there and perhaps, if the paramedics were stuck in traffic, die with a smile on his lips.
Then I left. Walking through the mall, I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window. It wasn’t pretty. I had come directly from a two-hour surf. My hair was wild and tangled and bleached more from age than the sun. My eyes were scarlet from the salt water, my 15-year-old jacket looked like a Salvation Army reject and I hadn’t shaved in five days.
That’s when it struck me. The manager of the bookshop had pegged me as a homeless shoplifter and hurried over to make sure I knew that he knew. There was no other explanation for it. Staff in South African bookshops never initiate contact with customers. It might even be in their contracts. Most of the time they actively avoid you in case you ask them a question involving books, a subject many of them know little about. But they do know that you are there to browse and that if you need help, you’ll ask. Bookshops are almost unique like that. Nobody goes to Sheet Street to browse. There, you expect to be asked if you need help with anything. But in bookshops, nobody expects to be harassed by shop assistants.
It was patently obviously that I was a browser. There were other people in the bookshop who were also quite clearly browsing. The bearded man, having been trained to manage a bookshop, will have known how to recognise a browser. They are the ones who wander in, pick up books at random, read the back cover, mumble the title to themselves to hear how it sounds, shake their head at the price, then wander out.
He singled me out. There was no cheery greeting. No chit-chat about the weather. Not even a smile. Just a pair of raised eyebrows and a curt “Can I help you?” The same question whiteys ask when they come across an unidentified darkie sitting on the verge outside their home. It’s a warning, not a question.
But even if I did look a bit rough around the edges, what the hell kind of idiot homeless person would go into a bookshop to shoplift? Did he think I’d wandered down off the mountain to slip a James Patterson down my broeks when nobody was looking? Upon which I would hole up in my lair for three days reading voraciously before sloping back to the bookshop. Maybe to slip it back onto the shelf and steal something with a little more intellectual heft.
I only thought of it later, but what I should have done was call him out on it. Ask him outright if he thought I was a kleptomaniac hobo. The passive-aggression would have startled him enough to call security. That would’ve been my cue to dart over to the ghetto, grab my book and hold it up.
“Recognise the jacket?” I’d say. Because in my author photo I really am wearing the same jacket. The face is shaved, hair is more or less under control and eyes have been whitened thanks to Photoshop, but even he would have to admit that the customer who stood before him, limping slightly after taking a surfboard rail to the testicular department only twenty minutes earlier, might not be not an unhinged vagabond after all.
Fun fact. Bookshops make at least three times more than any author on each copy sold. Perhaps I’d look less like a desperado if I got the 40% and they got the 12%.

4 thoughts on “Can I help you? And other loaded questions

  1. temple25 says:

    Those puff heads sitting languidly behind the polished desk at Word(shit)worth(less) books are those wanna bee writers who can’t actually put pen to paper, let alone spell, not that spelling has anything to do with it. They would be aghast and in a state of shock had you picked your book up and showed them. Why didn’t you, surfer-best author Ben. Would be worth the observance of the strangeness of human behaviour once you do. I take my reading of books seriously and your book is one of best I’ve read so far. Love your humour. so cut throat.

  2. Trouble says:

    Those “can I help you” people irritate me. I find them to be presumptuous as if I am incapable of asking for help or making my own decision. Next time, strike up a conversation with the bearded mussel. Have had some fun at his expense with your delightful humour. By then, he wont be able to secrete one byssus thread to anchor himself. Then come and tell us 🙂
    You only get 12%? Shocking!!

  3. TheCelt58 says:

    Considering the pecunary imbalance of 40 to 12 one must expect to be treated shabbily. Slaves are usually whipped. You got off lightly, old bean.

  4. theagrob says:

    Oh bravo! This is a good one! xx

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