Parkview life

Jeremy Gordin reflects on being burgled (twice) in the early hours of the morning

In the 1940s or maybe the early 1950s – I’m not certain, I wasn’t yet born – my father had an acquaintance, a “visiting” American rabbi, come to minister (so to speak) to the Pretoria Jewish community, or parts thereof. As might be understood, this rabbi from overseas often found some of our local “conditions” and attitudes a trifle peculiar.

To fully appreciate this man, whose name I unfortunately also don’t recall, you need to try to imagine a strong Brooklyn accent, Yiddish- or eastern-European-type locutions, and that, when taken aback or excited, his voice apparently rose in volume.

Now then, his home was once burgled, some of his clothes stolen, and the police came to investigate. (They did that sort of thing in those days, and sometimes even achieved successful results.)

“Elias,” the rabbi said indignantly to my father, “you know what the police said to me? They suggested I should buy a gun – so that I would be able to shoot the next burglars. Me? Me, Elias? What? I should shoot someone over a couple of suits?”

I recount this old family anecdote by way of offering some perspective. I.e., there was (perhaps still “is”) a time when a sane human being would question, from the very depths of his or her being, the “idea” of taking another’s life over the theft of some clothing or other object.

For example, I mostly feel just as the rabbi did about the idea of shooting some other person for a so-called “minor” crime. But I’m old enough and ugly enough to know that when a crime, even a minor one, is committed against me or my family, my emotions and therefore attitude shift exponentially. 

Coupled with this, I also know that, because these days crime and violence cast such a frighteningly gigantic shadow over life in South Africa, we have all become concerned, scared, and hyper-sensitive – with the result, for many of us, that the better angels of our nature seem to have emigrated, without leaving a forwarding address. 

About two weeks ago, on a Friday evening, my gorgeous wife and I decided (telephonically) to pop out in the early evening to a local eatery. However, because my wife, having just returned from somewhere or other, was waiting outside the house in our car, I exited the house via a wooden door leading directly to the street.

And, perhaps because my exit took place in the middle of so-called load shedding and a heavy highveld downpour, or perhaps because I am 70 and growing (even) more forgetful, I omitted to lock the door. Thus, when we returned, which we did through our “main gates” so as to bring in the vehicle – the door remained unlocked.

So, yes, when we awoke the next morning, we discovered that someone or someones had waltzed in through the wooden street door.

On the property, besides the main house, are three outbuildings. These are: the former re-fashioned garage, known as the “Jacob Zuma library,” so named because future generations will be taken there to see the spot where, at 4am most mornings and for many months, I toiled over the famous biography [i]); a wooden Zozo hut, the “Jonathan Steele/Anton Harber library,” so named because of the many journalistic books it houses; and a second unnamed wooden hut in which garden implements and some of the castoffs of a long and happy life are (were) kept.

Oddly, the intruders didn’t seem much interested in books; they’re the first things I’d have taken, but I’ve clearly passed my sell-buy date and also have food in my refrigerator (something to which we shall return).

They took a new stepladder and a bag of about 30 pairs of ancient, discarded women’s shoes (from Zozo 2) and, using our garden shears, easily broke open the alleged hyper-secure security gate of the Zuma library and stole my bicycle and an empty gas cannister, later dropped in the garden, the ladder and bicycle obviously being something of a hand(s)ful.

Oh well. Since last year’s laminectomy, I haven’t ridden my bicycle; and my wife can’t go on being a sort of poor person’s Imelda Marcos forever, can she? As the disciple Matthew (who once worked for Rome’s Receiver of Revenue, so knew his stuff) remarked: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal”.

But the thieves did steal something else too, as we later realised: information. They must have noticed (as you will hear) that our dear bullterrier Olsen left some months ago for the Big Kennel in the Sky; previously he slept in the room nearest to the garden (the kitchen), where he could be clearly seen, and, though deaf, he managed to spread fear far and wide courtesy of his fun-loving looks.

Then this last Saturday night at 9.45pm, load shedding again being due, I left my wife reading in bed and walked down to a neighbour with a more powerful inverter than mine (“I’ll show you my inverter batteries if you’ll show me yours”) to watch the Springboks get somewhat robbed in France.

Then came an unexpected event – and please bear in mind that I am sharing certain personal and intimate medical events with you only because they forced me to keep a close eye on the time, which has some relevance to my main story.

Possibly because my neighbour keeps his sitting-room very highly heated, or because I was “stressed” by the exciting end to the game (I take my sport seriously), or maybe because I had not eaten much for some hours and, being a liberal, helped myself far too liberally to my neighbour’s partner’s excellent chocolate and cheese cake (I also take other people’s birthdays very seriously) – I unexpectedly fell prey to what is known as “Vasovagal syncope” [ii].

I.e., I quickly realised, on exiting my neighbour’s house on Sunday at 12.05am, that I was about to sommer keel over, something that hadn’t happened to me, as a result of the forementioned vasovagal syndrome, for some 30 years [iii].

I had my cellphone, but I didn’t want to bother my neighbour, who wasn’t feeling too well, and whom I’d left safely locked up in his home (crime, you know); and I didn’t see the point of phoning my gorgeous wife, who has, over the years, slept through most of my urgent phone calls (I hate to break a tradition); and above all I didn’t want to topple over and whack my sensitive and poetry-filled head.

So I lay down on the pavement of Wicklow Ave – and passed out for 10 minutes. I know this because when I next looked at the time on my phone, it was 12.15am. I then remained there for about five minutes girding up my loins before continuing my 15 metres trek to my gate [iv].

In other words, I reached home at about 12.25, but, because I hadn’t then yet grasped that it’d been the vasovagal lark, I futzed around for some time, checking my blood sugar and such, watching a replay of the game (lights back on by then), only climbing unhappily into bed at about 2am.

At about 3am, so I wasn’t deeply asleep, my wife did her version of Eek. She’d woken and decided to head for the kitchen for a smoke. Our visitors from the previous weekend, having twigged that Olsen was no longer there, had climbed over the fence (the door not having been left open this time), removed – quite neatly and expertly, I must say – a full pane of glass from a kitchen window, and proceeded to pillage the kitchen.

They took the contents of half a (pretty expensive) canteen of cutlery (all the spoons and forks, but no knives [?]), all the liquor in the kitchen (whiskey, vodka, gin, cognac, beer, wine, plus all my wife’s packets of smokes), all the uncooked pasta, marmite, peanut butter and honey, as well as selected items from the fridge, such as a nice juicy (but uncooked) fillet, eggs and milk. They also took a gift given to me by the management and staff of the Daily Sun when I left, a special bone-handled knife and a coin in a neat little box [v]. All of these had been packed into handy Woolworths shopping bags.

The thing though was that they obviously must have been there within the last 60 minutes – between 2am (when I switched off all the lights) and 3am – so if they were on foot, they’d still be somewhere in Parkview.

The local security company (24/7) personnel reached the kitchen in 10 minutes; and, more to the point, were appreciative of my point that the burglars could still be in Parkview. Most left immediately, got through to their control, which has a camera operating at one of the local “hot spots,” the corner of Carlow Road and Emmarentia Avenue, where there is a bridge that crosses Barry Hertzog Avenue to Melville – and under which is apparently a collection of tunnels (the Braamfontein Spruit trail) in which you can find all the bad guys you need.

Two guys carrying bags were spotted on camera – and then were unsuccessfully chased, but they dropped the bags. Everything was returned to us – except my gift knife – and even the eggs weren’t broken.

So we had a fine old coffee party at about 4-5am, during which time the Parkview cops, having been informed by the 24/7 control room, showed up. They were nice enough folk (the cops), they painstakingly and tediously took down a statement, but were clearly out of their depth, and above all were not interested in pursuing anyone anywhere - this would have been a bridge far too far for them. [vi].

Well, there you go: some 1600 words of a slice of Parkview life, one that, all things considered, ended pretty well.

But that’s always (so to speak) our lowest common (SA) denominator, isn’t it? “Oh,” we always say, “at least no one was hurt, at least there’s that.”

Does one have to live like this? – And, believe me, by the way, I know that when it comes to crime and violence, there are millions more people than I who live in far worse circumstances. I know there are millions more folk who probably can’t even begin to afford the electric fence, etc., that I shall now probably be forced to install.

Why can’t a 70-year-old codger forget about locking his door, without having to have his property invaded? Why can’t his gorgeous wife go for a smoke in the early hours of the morning without having to worry about who might be in her kitchen? What does this tell us about the state of SA?

How about the police – and what’s happened to them in this country? Odd, isn’t it, that in South Africa their demise and uselessness is now regarded as so normal as not to need comment. But I’d say the collapse of policing has been even more “complete” than the collapse of Eskom, about which we talk all the time.

It’s all a pathetic tragedy. Why were these guys stealing mainly food? Because they and theirs are pretty damn hungry – and we know why they are.

Worst of all, though, is that these kinds of situations are the sorts of ones that do push generally decent humans into eventually not giving a damn about the “idea” of taking another’s life over the theft of food or some clothing. And I resent that bitterly.


[i] Well, maybe not.

[ii]Faints (Vasovagal syncope): When you are upright, standing or sitting still, blood drops under the influence of gravity down into your legs. With more blood held in your legs, less blood returns to the heart, and the amount of blood the heart can pump around the body diminishes, and the blood pressure in the circulation will begin to drop. Usually the body counteracts this and tries to maintain the blood pressure, by constricting the blood vessels in the legs and abdomen, and by making the heart beat faster. In some people, these attempts to maintain the blood pressure are ineffective in the specific situations when the fainting reaction occurs”.

[iii] Beware: crafty vasovagal and other syndromes can lie in wait for decades, only to nab you when you least expect it. And even if you’re tough and ostensibly healthy, don’t be a windgat, maibru. It’s good ol’ vasovagal syncope that from time-to-time fells those young and fit household cavalrymen standing guard at Buck House and various similar venues.

[iv] I’d best mention, I suppose, that while I was lying in Wicklow Ave, a main thoroughfare, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, numerous cars drove (up and down) past me – certainly when I was conscious. I think many folk were returning from watching the rugby at someone else’s home. Yet only one fellow stopped (but didn’t get out of his vehicle) to ask if he could help. I appreciate that if I saw an old codger looking like me, spreadeagled on the pavement, I might well think that he was just another vagrant who’d obviously had too much to drink. Yet I also think the level of crime in this country is directly related to the paucity of good Samaritans.

[v] Go figure – some sort of Deon du Plessis tradition. (Apparently you have to include a coin with the present of a knife – to negate the evil eye.)

[vi] There might even have been some nudge, nudge, wink, wink from the 24/7 guys; but I can’t swear to it – I was pretty tired by then.