Face #4: Joe

One of the security guards of the estate where I live. Tall and smiling. A round belly pushing at the buttons of his faded white shirt. Gleaming teeth contrasting with a smooth, coffee-coloured face. Warm eyes sparkling behind thick round glasses.

I arrived at our estate quite late one evening after a very long day. I was feeling down…listless and discouraged. I was playing loud upbeat music in my car in order to lift my mood. It was not working. The gate opened and I rolled my window down to greet Joe.

He was dancing! Jiggling! Jiving to the ridiculously loud music I was playing. There he was at 10pm on a Monday evening. The memory seems so surreal. The orange glow of the estate lights. The little bugs buzzing around the street lamps behind me. The joyful man enfolding me in his glee.

I sat there as the boom opened and closed in front me, staring and smiling at him. He said: “Ah, but this music is good! You always play such nice music and I always want to dance. So, tonight I am dancing!”

His eyes closed. He smiled and swayed.

The moment was so simple and so happy.

Life’s too short to not dance to the music.


Face #3: Ashley

A student who came running into my office once. I saw her again on Friday morning. Petite and powerful. Concerned, restless brown eyes with fairy eyelashes. Olive skin. A forehead all crinkled up with anxiety. Dark hair which is mahogany in the sunlight. Nervous. Vulnerable. Determined.

She hurried into my office on a quiet Thursday afternoon. She was a gust of energetic intensity waving papers and throwing questions into the air. I wondered when she was going to breathe. An anxious hour passed. And I am not even sure what questions I really answered. Every time I tried, her words were stumbling out of her mouth as she asked me a new question. Reflecting back on that moment, I think she probably just needed someone to reassure her that everything would be okay. I wish I had done that. I was too busy trying to make sure that I taught her all she needed to know. The sad part? She knew all of her work already. She left my office with a heavy backpack and an even heavier heart.

I saw her again on Friday morning. I was sitting on the steps outside our Humanities building when I saw her rushing towards me. She sat down right next to me and began unloading. I took her load away from her and put it on the steps next to me.

We put our arms around each other and remained still amidst the bustling throng filtering out of lecture halls.

Face #2: Hayati

An old craftsman I bumped into on Monday evening while I was having coffee with two dear friends.  As I sit at my computer, he illuminates my imagination the way short bursts of lightning illuminate muggy evenings. A shiny caramel complexion and short dark hair. A few strands of grey in his beard. A broad and toothy grin which makes him seem much younger than he is. Only one crooked tooth which proudly pushes in front of the rest. Smiling. Luminescent.

I was chatting to my friends about something or other and suddenly burst into song (as is my habit). Hayati was walking past our table, stopped and said: “Ah! Sing more! I want to hear!” I stopped singing and, smiling shyly, acted like a clown in shoes far too big for her feet. We saw Hayati a few more times that evening. He eventually sat down at the table next to ours and offered to buy us all drinks. We thanked him but said that we had had enough to drink. It’s sad to live in a world in which we might be thinking: “I better not accept that drink…You never know what a stranger wants.” I know I thought it.

Hayati suddenly looked incredibly sad. He looked at me and shook his head. He said: “I don’t know why people don’t want to connect with other people.” His hand dropped to his side. “I just want to be kind, to talk to you, to connect.” Lovely kind eyes were looking at me – looking through me.

We landed up chatting to him for the rest of the evening. He told us about his life, his experiences, and asked us about ours. He left Turkey in 1992 and immigrated to South Africa. He is a craftsman and started a small business which he has developed over the past 22 years. He works in Johannesburg. I can tell you his story, which was fascinating in itself, but what I really want to share with you are the gems that fell out of the pages.

I can still hear his delicious accent.

“Over the years, I have been lucky to do what I love to do. It’s because I made a decision.”

 “The thing is, we’re all given gifts. Depending on what you do with that gift, you become a hero or an asshole.”

“Life is too f**king short to not love people, to not connect with people.”

“I should have died 9 times by now. I think I must still have work to do.”

“Why is it all about the material, the material, the material? It does not matter what you have. They’re just things. People. People matter more.”

When it was time to leave, I turned to Hayati and gave him a hug. He was glowing. He had reached out. And someone had reached back.

Words seem inadequate when someone is unabashedly raw and unguarded, when someone shows you their indentations, their cracks, their beauty.

Today, I googled what ‘Hayati’ means in English.

‘Hayat’ means ‘life’.

Face #1: Sam

The man who looks after my car every day when I park outside of the university.He wears a hat on sweltering days. He limps every day. His face is weathered. It looks like a map; there are lines going in every direction imaginable. They confirm his pain, his heartache, his laughter, his age.

I think he irritates people sometimes. When people get out of their cars and seem to be in a hurry, he tells them to get back into their cars and to park straighter. People awkwardly get back into their cars, straighten out, and run to class because they are even later for whatever they were initially late for. I know this because he has done this to me a couple of times. First reaction? Probably irritation. I think he asks us to park straighter so that more cars can fit into the parking area he looks after…He wants more tips. He needs more tips. More tips for what? Perhaps food to keep the hunger pangs at bay for one night. Perhaps alcohol. Perhaps a new hat to shelter an old and vulnerable head. Perhaps something, anything at all, to make his life a little easier for a little while.

I was waiting for an elevator on Thursday morning with a man delivering a huge arrangement of flowers. One of the flowers, a beautiful carnation, fell out of the arrangement. The man picked it up, put it in my hands and smiled. He said: “Today is your lucky day.” I had just been commenting on the beauty of the flowers. I carried that carnation with me the whole day. Spring itself was in my hands.

On my way to my car that afternoon, I saw Sam waiting by my car. I gave him a tip and started putting my things in my car and then I stopped. I looked at him, looked at my beautiful carnation and asked: “Would you like this flower?” For the first time, I saw a wide, toothless grin appear on his lovely lined face. He held out his hands, and I gave him Spring.

But you know what? In that instant, he also became Spring. He bloomed.

People are the real flowers.