It is with a sad clarity that I have come to accept the fact that I may never, visit New York City. The combination of global religious paranoia, my often public view on American foreign policy and even my very name ( a recent google search of my name revealed that I shared it not only with a famous Pakistani musician but also for a time one of the most wanted criminals in Pakistan) would destine any visa application to a folder labelled “For the consideration of Homeland Security”. Popular culture and the influence of friends have turned me into a New York junkie. I read the New York Times online, positively love the New Yorker magazine and tend to always enjoy TV series that glamorise New York. I am not naïve enough to assume that it is a utopic city full of arts, culture and culinary delights and understand that it too must have more than it's fair share of crime, poverty and poor service delivery but for now the New York of my imagination is as Alicia Keyes so concisely put it, “The concrete jungle where dreams are made of”. I was therefore awed recently when I discovered that my New York was not at all fictitious but very much alive in the Tswane suburb of Hatfield.
An unusual hastily arranged business trip recently found me spending the night in Tswane, and after consultation with my maps, itinerary and a strong urge to avoid peak Gauteng traffic, realised that it would be most convenient to spend the night in the suburb of Hatfield. I was delighted to find a brand new hotel, which I prefer on business trips to the homely, historical establishments that one would look for when on vacation. I won't go into detail describing the hotel because it was, like any 2 month old hotel is expected to be, immaculate. After my appointments that day, I made the trek north, trusting in the sometimes questionable ability of my GPS to get me to me desired destination. Upon arrival, I showered and decided to walk a bit and get something light to eat since I was meeting friends for a late supper.
The suburb of Hatfield is home to many foreign embassies and consulates and the University of Pretoria was located at the end of the street I was staying on. This must be what gave the place such a cosmopolitan vibe with even popular fast food chains like Chicken Licken and McDonalds having many tables on the pavement. In the late afternoon, most of these places were busy with students cahtting at the end of a long day, couples meeting for a bite to eat before going home, solitary readers sipping coffee whilst deeply absorbed in whatever it was they happened to be reading. Although there was a large assortment of eating establishments to choose from I was looking for a culinary experience to match the mood I was in. I settled on a Lebanese fast food place, Uncle Faouzi's, which appeared to have many patrons, a good indicator when choosing where to eat. I should have realised that what was really attracting me to this place was the all too familiar smell of a Hookah. Uncle Faouzi specialised in crazy deals and hookahs, hence the capture of a large portion of the campus crowd. I ordered a Chicken Burger special and started a conversation with two people from Kerala, India while I waited for my food.
Those of you who know me, know that these poor kids from Kerala did not have an option on whether to chat to me or not because I have the equivalent of a Death Star conversation tractor beam. Nobody is safe. I can strike up a conversation with anyone on any topic. My favourite victim, er, 'conversation buddy' are the people who have to sit next to me on a plane. After joining them at their table, we had a brief discussion on the University culture, life and the advancement of engineering at Indian tertiary institutions and how awesome Hatfield is, although they did not contribute as much to the last topic.
After my snack, I happened upon a bookstore that sold both new and used books. This was of course, no coincidence. If there is one thing that is certain,it is that I could locate a hookah, second hand bookstore or great value-for-money meal within a 5 km radius of wherever I happen to be.The Protea bookstore was not great, so far as bookstores went and was functional rather than inviting. Most of the second hand books were displayed in the exhibition window in the front which meant that everybody on the street got to see you rummaging through the books in cardboard boxes in search of a bargain/ hidden treasure. I suppose it is quite an effective theft deterrent but the attitude of the first assistant who I met in the store seemed to be sufficient for that purpose. Perhaps she did not work everyday. In any event, after rummaging through the books for a while, I made my way out of the display case, and proceeded to exit the shop when a much friendlier assistant asked if she could help me. I repeated to her, what I have repeated at countless other secondhand bookstores throughout the country.
“ Do you have 'The Killing of the Imam' by Barney Desai?”, I asked.
“No”, she replied, “I have not seen a copy of that in years. Is there anything else you were looking for?”, she asked assuming that I was a pretentious git who probably had a long list of out of print books that I was looking for. Not to let the lady down since she had been so helpful, I replied,
“What about 'Bury me at Wounded Knee'?”, I asked.
“I remember seeing a copy of that around here somewhere”, she said as she left me standing there dumbfounded and open mouthed. I eventually caught up with her in time to hear these awesome words, “Here it is”. She handed me the book and left me to decided whether I wanted to purchase it or not. She obviously had no clue for how long I had been searching for this book and that the purchase was a foregone conclusion. I often found second hand copies of the book at Amazon but felt that would have been cheating and searching for the book was a much better adventure. I was right. It was one of the most satisfying purchases, I can ever remember making and now I have this great story to tell my next 'conversation buddy'.
I met friends for dinner that night and did not walk around the streets when I got back, because they were still a lot of foreign nationals around, but these were of the seedier, car guard variety and although there were there earlier that afternoon when I was strolling around loving the city, I did not like the ratio of them to me and did not want to spoil my awesome experience with a mugging or a visit to the emergency room. I went to the isolated pool deck of the hotel and smoked a hookah while the city slept .
The next morning I went to McDonalds for breakfast as they were the only place opened and had breakfast with a lawyer from Umtata who was at the University for a 3 week course. It was too early in the morning for my conversation tractor beam but this guy was apparently my Karma. He joined me at my table for breakfast and we chatted and ate as the city came to life around us. Students coming in for morning lectures, people coming in to work and people, like us, looking for some breakfast. I had to leave for my morning meeting and we exchanged cards and promised to continue our discussion online. However, he was not the most amazing person I met in Hatfield. That honour would have to be besowed on the cashier at the bookstore.
When I went to pay for my book, the friendly cashier, an elegant lady in her late fourties, asked me if I wanted a plastic packet with my purchase. Eager to lighten my carbon footprint after flying to Johannesburg earlier that day( I enjoy the delusion of thinking one offsets the other), I replied in the negative and said that it would be my environmental good deed for the day. She then explained to me that she was currently reading towards her Masters degree in Environmental Science and in subsequent conversation I also discovered that she was a BSc graduate. We had a long chat about environmental policies and her studies and what we, as individuals can do to make a difference. As I work for one of the largest polluting companies in the world, I had a lot of guilt to unburden myself with. We chatted for about 15 minutes, stopping briefly whenever she needed to process a purchase. I was very intrigued by this cashier and had so many questions that I obviously did not ask, like why was she working at a bookstore when she had a BSc degree, and why study towards your Masters degree at this stage in her life? These questions would remain a mystery to me and to be honest, I think I prefer it that way.
These combined experiences has left me with a very soft spot in my heart for Hatfield. I suspect that the experience would not be the same for everyone. Everything described above happened over a period of about 14 hours and I never ventured more than 2 city blocks down the street from my hotel. However, I cannot remember the last time I walked down a street window shopping where there is crowd but you are not overcrowded. Where you felt safe and where the people were all friendly and nice, with the exception of assistant #1 at the bookstore. Where you stepped out into fresh air and sunlight as you moved from shop to shop. My perfect day in New York would be very similar in description to the one I had in Hatfield with the only exceptions being that I would have had breakfast at a New York deli and I would have went for a walk in Central Park after supper. I fear that suddenly New York has a lot to live up to!