Looking Back Into the Shadows
I pointed to his flat rear tire, "I just-"
"Dude, get the f*ck away from my car!" All I could see of him and his passenger were their eyes. The car had tinted windows and he'd opened them just a crack. I shrugged and went on my way, initially perplexed and a bit disturbed by the driver's unexpected rudeness.
After I had a chance to think about it, it's my own behavior and naiveté that perplexes me. This was a car with tinted windows that had pulled into a corner of my apartment complex parking lot and then parked there awhile with the engine running. I'd noticed this sort of thing in the past and thought nothing of it, thinking maybe they were simply lost or picking someone up.
If I'd thought about it for more than just a moment then things would have been clearer. The initial signs were admittedly subtle, but they were there and the odds were decent that these characters were up to no good... and I should have seen that. I should also have immediately noticed that the driver was not being rude, he was being threatening. He did not want me getting close enough to witness whatever they were up to and his overreaction should have all but confirmed the suspicions I should have had.
Just when did I stop seeing the obvious warning signs of criminal activity? Somewhere along the line since moving to "safe" Portland, I changed from a street-smart big city boy to a someone no longer looking out for signs of trouble... no, not just trouble, real danger. You feel safe here, but crime should never be forgotten because it is all too often accompanied by violence.
Truth be told, while I'm a bit pissed off at myself at how soft I've become, I'm also grateful to be living in such a relatively safe city. But safe and relatively safe are not the same thing and this incident left me reflective about my own bad old days living in a high crime area.
There was a time that I lived in the dangerous neighborhood of Hillbrow, back when the city of Johannesburg was claimed to be the crime capital of the world... and the Hillbrow suburb was the crime capital of Johannesburg. Ranking dangerous cities is a guessing game at best and mostly just lies, damned lies and statistics. Johannesburg remains a dangerous place, and these days I see that Joburg is only ranked 50th in the world, behind three other SA cities. I find those numbers to be dubious, just as I did back in the 80s and 90s when they said we were the worst.
Even so, it was bad back then, really bad. To remain unscathed you had to have good instincts and solid street-smarts, and eyes in the back of your head. As a white guy in a mostly black neighborhood I was a target. This was not racism, this was simple practicality. Due to the legacy of apartheid and the enforced poverty of black South Africans, it was simply logical that white people were most likely to have more of value to steal. That means more cash, credit cards, nicer watches and jewelry, etc.
I remain deeply grateful that I stuck it out and was living in this mostly black neighborhood at the time of our first democratic elections. My ex wife and I were just two of maybe a hundred other white South Africans to join the huge street party of hundreds of thousands that spontaneously erupted onto the streets of Hillbrow after Mandela was announced as our first democratically elected president. That was an unforgettable once in a lifetime experience that I still greatly cherish, but it came at a price, and that price was living with intolerably high crime rates.
This crime was the product of extreme poverty and an apartheid government that saw only crime in white areas as a priority, neglecting the safety of all others. Crime was rampant in black areas, but we whites were so insulated from it that many ignorantly still believe to this day that the crime wave only came with the change of government.
I saw my neighborhood of Hillbrow change from a whites-only neighborhood to a 95% black neighborhood over a period of time when the apartheid laws forbade mixed neighborhoods. Initially only the most desperate of the poor took the chance of moving into our concrete jungle. The apartheid government saw the high-rises of Hillbrow as an antidote to their own neglect of the needs of those they oppressed and so mostly turned a blind eye to it all, mostly declining to charge or evict these people. The more they did this the more word spread and the faster this migration to Hillbrow became.
What it ended up doing was ensuring that for the most part only the poorest and most desperate moved to Hillbrow, and the tsotsis (criminals) who had been left to run rampant in the townships were among the first to make the move to these richer feeding grounds. People I knew who lived in Soweto and Alexandria told me that life there had become so much safer since all the tsotsis had moved to Hillbrow.
This didn't happen overnight, but rather snuck up on us. We accepted it as reality one new danger at a time, like the parable of the frog in a a pot of water not jumping to safety if the pot is brought to the boil slowly enough. If it had all happened at once then most of us would have left in a hurry, but after we finally moved out we were left wondering how it was that we'd put up with that much crime for so long and we were unable to answer the question of why we had not moved sooner.
Just before I moved out of Hillbrow it had become intolerable. We heard gunshots most nights, often several times a night. We regularly saw people mugged on the streets and other violent confrontations, sometimes from our balcony. Break-ins became common and countermeasures were ramped up as a result; buildings added automated security, barbed wire, security bars on windows, steel security gates on doors, building night watchmen, armed response security guards and so on.
Walking the streets required confidence and awareness. You had to see the bad guys and you had to act in ways that deterred them before they thought of attacking you. Most times, the simple act of letting muggers know that you're watching them by looking them in the eye is enough to deter them because they prefer the element of surprise.
You needed to avoid getting trapped in an alley or other out-of-view spot, meaning you often walked in the street rather than on the pavement (sidewalk). You made sure you had no visible valuables to draw muggers like sharks to chum. You carried as little as possible, to reduce both risk and potential loss. If you had to carry cash then you hid it in several different places, leaving one or two bills for the muggers to find easily, because if they found nothing then their disappointment often turned into violent retaliation.
That and all the other signs of a society in disarray, hookers and pimps, widespread homelessness, runaways, police corruption, widespread drug use and dug dealers on every corner, and the feared car hijackings. Murder rates were horrifying, rape rates were even worse. Even after the end of apartheid things continued to decline in the face of massive urbanization, an influx of millions of illegal immigrants and crime cartels from around the world, and the new government's decision to release both the guilty and the innocent from jails because they had almost never received fair trials under the old racist system.
We eventually fled Hillbrow for the suburbs, spurred by the second time I managed to dodge a four-man gang of muggers, along with all the other crime horrors we could no longer accept. A month after we moved, one of our former neighbors was murdered during a car hijacking as he exited the building parking lot. The question was never why did we move, it was what took us so long?
Even so, the suburbs were safer, but not safe. Homes became fortresses, with alarm systems and armed response units a required deterrent. Rampant hijackings meant getting into and out of your car required care and speed. South Africa was for a time a world leader in home and car security systems and the tech we had twenty five years ago still far exceeds anything I've seen in the US to this day. The brutality apartheid had bred into us meant that violence was all too common and retaliations equally harsh. We are the society that bred such deterrents as the anti-rape 'tampon' that would slice off part of a rapist's penis (see a photo here), a female-condom-like device bristling with internal hooks designed to snare rapists (see a video here), not to mention the anti-hijacking flamethrower option for your car (see a video here).
My hard won instincts from those years initially saw me laugh at what Americans considered crime-ridden cities. My first US city was "notorious" Detroit, where locals actually apologized to me for their "dangerous" home city being my first US experience. This made me laugh because there was less crime in my entire 4.5 moths in Detroit than I'd have seen in a day in Hillbrow, or even in a week after I'd left Hillbrow.
Yet somewhere between then and now I lost those self-protective instincts and became... soft. My inner good samaritan has always been strong... but he can be stupid, so very stupid. It has in the past gotten me into situations where I can't win and other times into situations where I'm in some danger. I'm miffed at my dulled senses, but also grateful that I don't much need them anymore. This is a wonderful city full of gentle souls and kindness and I'm lucky to have found it.
Except of course now some criminal asshole has taken to using my apartment complex lot for his shenanigans, and he threatened me. But he was an idiot. The only way he could have made it clearer to me that he was an undesirable was if I'd seen it happen, so I'll be keeping an eye out for him and reporting him to the cops if I need to. Maybe I just have to relearn some of my own ways if I want to keep my new home safe and stop those memories from creeping out of the shadows of memory and becoming real again.
No more frog in a pot syndrome. My eyes need to at least be open.
P.S. Hover your cursor over any of the images if you want to see a caption. More visible captioning of embedded images with LJ is hard.