I experienced something very unsettling yesterday. Footsteps on the pavement behind me, a voice saying my name. I turned, recognised a face in that way in which you think, “I know you, but who are you?’

He reminded me, and I was instantly whisked back six years to the many months before I left Cape Town to live in England. A coffee bar in the City Bowl where I would read my Cape Times over a cappuccino and a buttered, toasted croissant with bacon and egg. Miles (not his real name) would always serve me. Tremendously personable, very well-spoken, almost overly polite. A tad shy but not without confidence. His countenance and manner spelt out “potential” in bold, bright letters.

Now, facing me on the pavement, was Miles, but this was not the confident 22-year-old with the wraparound smile and glinting intelligence. I asked him what he was up to these days.

“To be perfectly honest,” he said, locking my eyes with what looked somehow like desperation, “I’m living on the street.”

In 2008, Miles the friendly waiter has become a beggar and a bum whose innocence and potential have been stolen by tik and booze. The shock and emotion I felt on hearing this were sharper than I would have expected. I did not know him well, but sometimes somebody makes an impression on you. I know he’s a 28-year-old man now, but the guy standing before me yesterday was a kid, and one badly, badly in need of help.

I offered to take him for coffee, ironically in the same premises where six years ago he had served me breakfast almost every day. He wouldn’t go in at first. He is banned from the building, for bothering people. The way I saw it, he was with me, my guest, and I sure as hell am not barred from that building. If he was prepared to join me, I said, I would talk to any security-clad individual who tried to turf him out. It did not happen. We sailed in, nobody batted an eyelid, and a waiter served us at a table at which Miles once had served me.

I must say firmly and clearly that other than greet me and describe his circumstances, Miles did not try to touch me for money, although I don’t doubt that he was hoping I might offer something. He asked for nothing more than an ear. He said that I had always been nice to him, had “given him time”. I insisted on buying him a modest bite (anchovy toast) and coffee, for which he thanked me so profusely that I was embarrassed. I asked him lots of questions, and he answered readily, as if desperate to pour his heart out.

He started drinking years ago, and it took hold of him, and he drank badly and behaved terribly when drunk. He started smoking dope, then moved on to tik. He must have become a nightmare to have at home, I suggested, and he told me how his parents had finally kicked him out when it became apparent that he was not going to give up his habits or seek help.

He has no friends. One by one, they dropped him, and told him to let them know when he was ready to pull his life back together. His girlfriend gave up on him a long time ago.

Finally, six months ago, the folks turfed him out. A month later, they left Cape Town to live in another South African city. With nowhere to go, no money, he shuffled on to the street and is still there six months later. He begs for money. When he’s got R4, he buys himself a bowl of cornflakes with milk and sugar at the Grand Parade. If he makes an additional R35 in a day from handouts, it pays for a bed at a night shelter. This also means he can shower before hitting the street again next day. He shaves every second day, he told me, because he wants to try to look decent.

If he can’t afford a night-shelter bed, there’s a block of flats going up somewhere in the City Bowl where he can be found shivering on wet concrete. The day I encountered him was the first sunny day after seven consecutive days of torrential rain that caused flood havoc throughout the Western Cape. That was what he had just endured when I met him, in jeans and a T-shirt and a blanket. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel something for the poor bastard.

Sitting opposite me at that café in that slim T-shirt on a cool day, he carried nothing. He has a few possessions, he said, wrapped in a bundle. Each morning he lifts a drain somewhere in town and hides them. Every two hours he goes to check that they’re still there, “because people are watching”.

He told me about the things he’s learnt in six months. The rules of the street, the code, how things work. How you survive.

Now here is a key point in why I am telling this story: I asked him the obvious question: What kind of drugs and drink are you doing now?

Fixing my gaze, he replied that he has not touched either alcohol or tik in two months, “but to be honest once in a while I do smoke marijuana”.

My next question: What would you say to your parents if they were standing in front of you right now? A storm of emotions passed before his eyes before he answered.

“I’d say … please excuse my language, Tony … but I’d say for fuck’s sake, help me. Please help me. I need help. I’m ready for help.”

There is no way in hell he’s so good an actor that he did not mean this from the depth of his being. Here was a young man who needs help, desperately, and is ready for whatever steps need to be taken in order to turn his life around. I would wager my life on it.

So, here’s the next question: Where to from here? I have arranged to meet him in a few days, to give myself time to make enquiries and work out what can be done for the guy. And, for that matter, to find out what not to do. The last thing I want to do is interfere in a process which others know more about than I do. There may be people on the sidelines keeping a distant eye on him. Not that there seemed any evidence of this.

Who was I to judge this kid? What did I know about drug abuse? Happily, not a lot. I called a friend who was once a drug-addled wreck and who made a success of rehab and now runs a very successful business. He asked me whether Miles made eye contact with me when saying he’d given up tik. I said yes, very much so. “Then he’s given up tik,” he said emphatically. “Tik users can’t keep their eyes still, his eyes would be all over the place.”

Miles deserves the benefit of the doubt. If family and friends have left him to reach rock-bottom, there is evidence to suggest that this been achieved. I can, at the very least, look into possible routes of assistance for Miles.

But back out in the street he calls home, a terrible moment arrives when I realise that, for now, all I can do is leave him there and hope that another cold front does not blow through.

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Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman is a journalist, budding playwright and sometime chef. He's written two plays, An Influence of Ghosts and Blue Train Coming, and back in the day wrote loads of songs. He paints a bit in watercolours...

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