Rent Boy on the Promenade

A pedestrian promenade along the Atlantic Ocean is a popular destination for locals and visitors in Cape Town. The wide, paved walkway runs from the heart of the harbor at the V & A Waterfront through the ocean-side neighborhoods of Green Point and Sea Point. On any given day the promenade attracts jogging athletes, old women in wheelchairs being pushed by attendants, boys kicking soccer balls and thousands of others soaking up the sun or, in the spring of the year, patiently waiting to spot a whale in the water that breaks at the seawall. For most people who frequent the promenade it is a picturesque destination in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But there are others who are attracted to the promenade.

On a recent spring night the temperature dropped to the 50s. A fierce wind, blowing across the Atlantic from Antarctica, made it feel much colder. Nearing midnight, enjoying a nightcap on an open patio was only possible because the bartender provided my friends and me with blankets to wrap around our shoulders. Directly across the street, a sidewalk paralleled the promenade and beyond that was the dark sea. During the day, it would be crashing waves that would capture my attention. Late at night, it was a lone man across the street from the bar who I couldn’t stop watching.

The tall man, with blonde hair dressed in distressed jeans and a dark blue sweater with two gold stripes on the left sleeve, stood out on the deserted street.  Facing Beach Road, he leaned against a bench as though waiting for a bus – though there was no bus stop nearby.

The man would stand in the same position for five minutes or so and then walk a few feet on the sidewalk; watching the cars pass by him. He would stop and light a cigarette.  After throwing the butt on the ground and extinguishing it with a twist of his sneakered foot, he would walk back to the bench and study every car that drove by. I didn’t immediately assume that the man was working, but after observing his actions for some time, I was certain he was one of Cape Town’s rent boys trying to make some cash on a cold night.

The group I was with at the bar enjoyed our cocktails as we caught up with each other on our day’s activities. While I continued to engage in conversations with my friends, my attention was focused on the man across the street.

To be honest, I wanted a car to slow down, for there to be a brief chat between standing man and driving man, and for the two of them to drive off together. It’s not to say that I necessarily condone whatever exchange might occur between the two men, but I wanted the young man to be off the street, at least for a time; someplace warm and, hopefully, relatively safe.

There was another reason I wanted a car to stop and for the standing man to drive off to some darkened street or a nearby flat. If the trick found his john, I was off the hook. I could do nothing more than be an observer of yet another of life’s disparities between those who have and those who don’t. But 45 minutes later, and a nightcap for me and two cigarettes and scores of passed cars for him, the man was still standing there on Beach Road.

We paid our tab at the bar and friends parted company. Although my apartment was in the same direction as the others, when they turned left to go home, I turned right. My unconscious mistake was, I realized later, my subconscious quickly trying to process the scene across the street. Two blocks later, realizing I was walking the wrong way, I turned around. When I saw the man still standing across the street, I crossed over to talk with him.

I didn’t know what I would say to him, but knew I needed to establish that I wasn’t interested in his services. I also didn’t want to be presumptuous or insulting.

“It’s a cold night to be out here so long.”

“It is, man” he responded in an accent I didn’t recognize as South African.

“It looks like times are hard.”

The man, who I could now see was in his 20s, searched up the desolate street with his eyes and said, “Look. There is no work tonight, man.”

“I assume you could use some cash.”

“I could” was the response.

I reached in my pocket, handed the man the equivalent of about $10. He thanked me. I said good-bye and walked home.

Maybe the man bought drugs with the $10. Maybe, hours later, he had something to eat at a 24-hour fast food restaurant. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me what he did with the money.

What matters is that there are people who we don’t see. Some – poor people, sick people, children – we can sometimes be moved to help. For others – drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes – it’s easy for us to walk past them.

Every night, when we crawl into the warmth and safety of our beds, there is a man, or a woman, or a boy, or a girl, whose work is just beginning. An occasional handout isn’t going to change that. But refusing to see what is before our eyes won’t change things either.