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Growing Up in Johannesburg

When I was young, the streets smelled of mine dumps
and black children played in the sand with red bottle tops
to find the gold that wasn’t there. They clinked out tunes
on milk bottles filled with water and clicked their tongues
to the splash of the afternoon rain, like boiled sweets
in an empty classroom.


Natasha was my friend and she, her mother and her sister
Yelena conducted the family operatic recitals in the lounge
with all the verve and passion of boiling borscht, Mrs. G
playing the baby grand with matzo ball dumpling fingers
and the girls joining in singing and accompanying with
whatever instrument was cooking at the time; violin, guitar,
saxophone and occasionally a nice piece of brisket on
rye bread. Their father was a jewelry salesman and on Sabbath
he was a Rabbi. He was a quiet man but on new year he blew
the ram’s horn loud and clear even at home after some sweet
red wine. One year, before the Day of Atonement he disappeared
but they went on singing in the lounge, everyone joining in
to drown the eastern European tears.


Sitting on the grass slopes that waited around the shimmering
heart of the musical fountains, in a park outside the city, waiting
like children, bottoms frozen to the horses on a carousel
and suddenly she bursts into life, the water leaps and dances
as eighty-two choreographies of fragrant colors whirl, soar,
seethe mistily into red Beethovens, waltzing Andre Kostelanez,

orange and blue Sousa marches all whirling, cascading and we
become transparent as whirling joy to it, jazzing classic pops
above the water music like a firework display, fragile and
temporary as drifting wet ghosts chewing our biltong in wonder
as in-between numbers the waters hiss down to a flat hush and
suddenly it was all over until next week.


The encore was played by the City Symphony Orchestra with
Charles Manning conducting like a frenzied puppet, his white
mane waving and bouncing into his jutting baton triumphant
above the applause. Then the players stood up, filed out and
came back to bow, pull up black pants and skirts and play again.


Apartheid was a red trolley ride home; the green buses dirtier and
less frequent were for the blacks. They were the obbligato of our
lives and in the morning on the way to boy’s school, I would put
my ear to the tramway pole, hear their sad music a thin sonata
keening down the wires. Natasha and I heard this music as we did
the minstrel guitars Sunday mornings in the streets kicked down
the hill like empty beverage cans.  We cried for them, she from
London and I from Tel-Aviv

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© Johnmichael Simon



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