Crime sucks. Unless, that is, you’re a criminal. In which case you’re just another coward.
Being a victim of crime is debilitating, humiliating (when you’re left on the roadside with nothing but a towel and damp wetsuit) and mind-numbingly infuriating as you trace back through all the variables that put you in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Here’s my story. Arrive at the beach on a Saturday evening, day after my birthday. The waves are small and perfect, the sun is low so the white sand sparkles all iridescent in the early evening light. It’s pretty as a picture so I pull up, call a friend to share something beautiful, sling on a suit and run down. I put the key in my wetsuit pocket, chuck my clothes in the back and hide the immobiliser and house keys under the mat in the boot. There are loads of cars about but I learned that lesson a few years back. The surf is fun; it’s a weekend so there are lots of characters and a cool crew of dads with their young kids out. It’s fun and free and we surf with smiles. Then I catch a long wave and the paddle back out looks a long way, so I go in.
I walk back to my car and pass one of the dads. He gives me a smile and hello – I smile back. His is a familiar English accent; I think of home just briefly. I open the boot, grab a towel, slide my board in and dry off. But the bonnet’s off the latch and looks a bit skew. And the driver’s door is unlocked. Did I unlock it? I can’t remember. The glove box is open; that’s strange… and where are my trousers? It takes a few seconds, I check and recheck. Trousers are still gone, and with them my wallet, phone, credit cards… And the keys from the boot: house keys, gate keys immobiliser. And my iPod. My precious iPod with my deliberately obscure and obsessively manicured record collection gone, with no back-up. And my jacket, my favourite jacket. My one and only brush with fashion, gone. I didn’t even need it today – it’s a balmy winter’s afternoon and everyone’s wearing shorts.
Cards: whatever, take ’em, they’re all maxed out anyway. And the phone, it’s a nuisance and falling to pieces. But my jacket and iPod – they were mine, me.
And then the reality kicks in. The immobiliser was on those keys. I can’t drive; I’m stuck here. And even if I could, my house keys are gone so I can’t get into my home. I don’t have spares. It’s late and a weekend, and with my phone I’ve lost my landlady’s number so I can’t even call from a borrowed cell. I have no trousers. I am stuck in t-shirt and towel. And it’s getting dark. Laugh or cry? Laugh first, cry later.
So I walk back to the father, with a smile. His name is James. He’s from the UK but now lives in Hout Bay with his two young kids, both of whom surf far too well, and he helps me out, for which I will be forever grateful. That was Saturday night, now it’s Sunday and I am home at last. My cards cancelled, car towed to a garage, house re-opened and in mourning for the iPod and jacket: South African radio sucks, like salt in a fresh wound. It’s been a while since I was on the receiving end of crime and it’s been a lesson.
Like it or not we need each other. Be it your friend or your total stranger, at some point we will need each other’s help. But for the kindness and generosity of James and his family, I would have been sleeping in my car that night, far from home and very much at risk. To James I was a total stranger. In the water, as pathetic as it sounds, James was another surfer; competition amidst the crowd and, as is the norm at most surfing beaches, we hardly even interacted. Yet as we drove from the beach to his house, where he poured me a glass of wine, leant me his cell phone to call the UK to cancel my cards and drove me the 20 minutes back home, I found we shared a lot in common. It seems so sad we never interact more with one and other and instead choose the path of least resistance, because for the most part we want the same thing.
And the second lesson: crime has a terrible habit of polarising opinion. Victims of crime often become embittered and resentful towards the perpetrator and, in a country with a history as divisive as South Africa, this can only be a dangerous thing. But every country has its minorities, fundamentalists and fanatics and South Africa is by no means a unique example.
Just after James had dropped me off at home I walked to a pay phone to make a quick call to a friend. We talked for a while on the petty change I had left in my pocket before I walked back. As I neared my front door a dishevelled looking man in a torn overcoat approached me. I became unusually concerned. He was an older looking man and I had no need to be worried, but as I passed I bowed my head, doing my best to ignore him. As we passed I lifted my gaze and our eyes met briefly. He said nothing, merely fixed me with a soft smile and walked by. He asked for nothing, and nothing about his body language insinuated that he was after anything; it was a genuine smile to me, the complete stranger showing no interest whatsoever. I walked on, stopped, considered a second before turning and giving him my last 5 bucks. He was surprised and thanked me. I could easily have lumped him in with the same thieves who had broken into my car and stolen all my possessions, leaving me here on the street. Just vented my anger on him and continued. But then where’s the logic in that? That’s not how it works.
No matter who you are and how much you like to think you can rely on yourself, you will one day need someone’s assistance. One day you will be alone and you will need help from the person you least expect. And in that measure, we are all equal, we will all need one and other one-day. I think back to my years at Uni studying French philosophy (every bit is dull as it sounds). Reading about how in others we see our own failures and insecurities, and that in them we find only weakness; that alone we are strong and free. It’s a load of rubbish.
Alone you become isolated, bitter and jaded. We are good people, for the most part, and by acting together we can do more than going it alone. Compassion can go further than contempt, and empathy further than arrogance. It’s not all about an altruistic trip nor a drive for selflessness, it’s about treating others as you’d like to be treated yourself and having the balls to show restraint and common sense when you get burned. It’s just common sense in an age where we’ve been over run by histrionic and reactionary media, an age where we’re loosing a grip on perspective.
Crime’s always been there. And it sucks, it always has. But the good outnumber the bad and together we’ll be stronger, if we’d only just pull together more often.