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Jo'Burg Days: The Man In The Plastic Bags

Barbara Durlacher tells of the sad, sad life of a man clad in plastic bags.

I often saw him clad in nothing more than a strange assortment of plastic bags, grey, scrofulous skin and horny bare feet, purposelessly walking and walking without an end, or seemingly, a destination.

Up the road he marched, taking no notice of anyone, one hand carrying a loose bundle of plastic dangling from a dirty piece of string. Looking neither to right or left, he must have walked hundreds of kilometres over the years, apparently quite content to live his hermit-like “life without an end”.

Nobody knew who he was, or what he lived on, or even where he lived; once or twice I glimpsed him wrapped in a couple of grey blankets sleeping in an open bus shelter on the side of the road, as the traffic roared by, and pedestrians stepped heedlessly over his inert body. Actually, those times I saw him in the blankets, I thought he was dead, that he had succumbed to the cold of the Highveld winter’s night, malnutrition and possibly, dementia.

But then, spring and summer came round again, and there he was once more, walking, walking, wrapped in plastic bags, carrying his bundle of useless plastic sheeting dangling from a dirty string.

People who had noticed him said he had been seen in Sandton, and even as far as Rosebank, which was a fair walk for anybody, and certainly must have put his scrawny body under huge strain when one considers that he probably had not eaten protein or fresh fruit and vegetables for many years. Goodness knows where he got the strength and endurance to cover the distances.

Poor soul, what can one do for these nameless, homeless people in a country where there is no welfare net to help them in times of trouble; no one except the Salvation Army and possibly a church group who might take pity on their plight and offer them a roof over their heads or a hot meal to eat? I know of soup kitchens run by the Methodist and Anglican Churches who in their selfless kindness feed a growing number of desperate people on an on-going basis. But whether this man was even aware of these facilities or capable of remembering the days of the week when the sustenance was available, [how, when you cannot read or write, or have access to any of the modern ways of time- and date-keeping, do you tell a Monday from a Wednesday or a Friday?] nobody knows, and equally, no one ever knew where he managed to obtain the food which kept him alive.

But now he is gone; no longer will idle passers-by see him trudging up the road to Balfour Park, or covering the distances near the Wanderers Cricket Ground and further. For a few moments our consciences will no longer be troubled by thoughts of – just possibly – stopping one’s car and getting out to ask if we can take him to a shelter where they will give him warm clothes, and wash and feed him before sending him on his way again.

We will put him out of our minds and never think on his plight again, because on Saturday last he was knocked down by a passing vehicle and as silently and unresistingly as he lived his life, he died, never to trouble our sensitivities again.

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