So I’m talking to this guy in the bath. He says that he
is Jesus. Jesus lying in the bath reading the paper. A mother somewhere in America
was taken to court by her prepubescent son and has subsequently been banned
by the courts from smoking cigarettes in her house and in her car. “I
wonder what that’s about,” he says and lights up a joint, pondering
its slow yet steady amble towards insectdom. He smiles. “No interview
is ever complete without the subject lighting up a spliff, is it?”
“Nope.” I say as he passes the last drag over the white tiled floor.
Jesus Christ, Son of God?, as he likes to call himself, climbs out of the bath. The slight commotion struggles aimlessly to drown out the whirring of my minidisk which up till now has been humming away obtrusively at the end of a small microphone. I figure I’ll give Jesus a bit of privacy and wander out of the room into a sterile corridor.
We are in Tara, a mental institute that briefly borders William Nicol Drive as it runs from Hyde Park corner to the suburb of Parkmore in northern Johannesburg. I’ve been here before. When I was a kid my grandmother suffered a nervous breakdown of sorts. I was too young to know much about it, but now I guess it has something to do with her and my grandfathers’ move up to Jozi from Bloemfontein.
They had both arrived from Lithuania in the twenties or thirties and eventually settled in Bloem. My grandfather learned to speak Afrikaans before English, opened a shoe store, met Hansie Cronje when he was just a nipper and raised my mother and her sister within the close-knit Bloemfontein shtetl. Eventually, the kids made their way to Jo’burg to get degrees and marriages and later, as my Sava and Safta they followed the trail north to be closer to their offspring in order to receive all the TLC that old age requires.
But uprooting from your comfortable spot in a Free State community to an apartment block in Hilbrow in the 1980’s can only be traumatic. Hence my grandmother’s eventual internment in this place.
Like I said, I didn’t know this then. Through playground jokes I knew that Tara was a place for crazy people. But having been there on regular visits I also knew that it had a soccer field with rugby posts at either end and a couple bowling greens – more space than was usually available to kick a ball around with my cousin and sister. And once I delivered a pizza to the nurses here when I was working for Debonairs during university holidays. I didn’t know much then, either.
Jesus wanders out of the bathroom with a toothbrush in his mouth and a couple days worth of stubble. His hair look like it was shaved on a No.2 about a month ago and his blue stokies and well worn army-grey dressing gown suggest that he has been here for a while and is pretty comfortable. I note this because that’s what I do. “Two years and three months next Tuesday,” he confirms “and I’ve got access to the entire stash of Government Issue weed that they keep for the cancer patients, so I’m in no hurry to move on. It’s good stuff.’ Sounds like some rich kid. His father must run the place.
I go back into the bathroom to fetch my recorder. Mr Christ, it seems, has blown out all the candles leaving the room to the damp and darkness. As I throw the light switch my senses go into shock at the fluorescent sterility of the room. No more cosy wet corner filled with candlelight and the sweet scents of coconut incense and marijuana – only bleak sterilised whiteness with the occasional blue stripe. A place to clean those people who no longer have any functional use for aesthetics. I re-flick the switch. Personal reality restored, I wander down the hall. Jesus had mumbled something about heading off to the kitchen.
The rooms and corridors of this building are sterile. White with occasional pale blue of yellow, the floors lamented and curving up towards the walls, leaving no place for dirt or germs to linger, to wait in the cracks before pouncing unexpectedly on some poor lunatic. Following the embossed plastic signs and occasional drops of water I find the dining room and the swing doors at the far end with their circular windows three quarters of the way up. The scenery change. The room resembles a factory more than a kitchen – the case of any kitchen that serves hundreds of people. It is clean, but after years of service it has been left with an aura of permanent dirt.
“There’s nothing like cooking your own food,” Jesus says as I catch up to him at the grill. Two eggs, some tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and greasy bread are sizzling away in a small corner of the surface custom built to fry 1000 hamburgers. “The food is really shit here,” he confides, “I mean, fair enough, you can’t expect to feed three hundred people three times a day and serve up some cordon bleu effort every time. It probably tastes good to the guy who’s cooking it but then he obviously has pretty unique tastes.” He chuckles. “Anyway, I get to do my own cooking, which is cool. Cooking is lank therapeutic. You know, you’re hungry but you can still take your time and decide what you want, chop up some onion and garlic, maybe add some feta or try some new shit that you heard about or whatever. It’s cool. It’s a process. And then you chow and because of the whole process your level of satisfaction is pretty good. And if you fuck it up you just chuck half a bottle of All Gold on and it’s another victory for the man in the street.
“It must be quite a stress cooking for loads of people,” he goes on, “you know, some guy doesn’t like what you made for lunch this Thursday and comes and give you a mouthful – excuse the pun – and you’re like ‘hey man, what the fuck, everyone’s food tastes the same’ and you know it does because you just cooked it. You end up having to give him the whole ‘look man, it’s not like I fucked this food up just to get at you. I don’t even know who you are, man’. And the next day he’s happy but some lady is pissed at you. No ways man. No wonder the food is always so bad in these places. The cooks probably mess it up just to be on the safe side. At least they will know what sort of reaction to expect.
“Don’t get me wrong, cooking for other people is
cool. Have a few friends around, smoke a few spliffs, hang out in the kitchen,
chop shit up, throw it in a pan, drink some wine, eat nice chow, blah blah blah.
But cooking for, like, a thousand people…as Mojo says (adopts southern
US accent) ‘Hell No! Not a chance’”.
A moment or two passes before he rediscovers my presence. “Sorry man, you hungry?” He motions at the grill, “there’s tons of food.”
“Yeah, why not.” I can handle belief for half an hour. It’s not every day that Jesus Christ makes you breakfast.
(wanna read something else Gil wrote?)