Friday, 14 September 2012

Fourteenth Street

Vrededorp (which literally translated means “Peace Town”) was a small residential area situated on the Western side of Johannesburg. The residents were a mixed bunch of Blacks, Coloureds, Whites and Indians but predominantly Indians that operated retail “shops” along the length of Fourteenth Street. While some of the stores were large, well lit affairs others were little more than holes in the wall but all had in common the floor to ceiling towers of trading stock which frequently spilled out on to the pavement during business hours. The combination of products not usually found in “White” shops and their willingness to haggle down to a “bargain” price attracted customers not only from Johannesburg but also the surrounding towns. The owners invariably lived in dwellings above their shops and entire families were involved in the daily operation of the business.

Fourteenth Street was so narrow that vehicular traffic was restricted to only one direction but even so movement was painfully slow and finding a parking spot was all but impossible. Pedestrian traffic was equally congested more particularly because of the piles of boxes and clothes racks that spilled out of the shops on to the pavements. Happily these impediments did nothing to reduce the number of visitors particularly on Saturday mornings.

Fourteenth Street is sadly no more because the then government decided to “move” the Indians to their own area and in the process one of the most colourful aspects of Johannesburg life simply disappeared.

Fourteenth Street

Just step inside the shop Sir
I’ve bargains you can’t beat
You’ll hear this cry in Vrededorp
On bustling Fourteenth Street

 The shops are small
The stocks are large
Goods spill out everywhere
You dodge a box
You mind a rack
Smell incense in the air

 With names like “Family Shoe Store”
And “Ismael’s Bargain Centre”
They stand out on the pavement
Entreating you to enter

 “Look at this suit
Just feel that cloth
Let’s slip it on for size
It’s perfect Sir
I’ll wrap it up
Now what about a tie?”

 The young, the old and in-between
To purchase, would induce us
The kids sell combs and razor blades
The mothers sell samoosas

 His price is high
You beat him down
He cries “That’s less than cost!”
You turn to go
He grabs your arm
The sale must not be lost

 From Kensington and Florida
From Houghton or Crown Gardens
The people come from near and far
To find those special bargains

 The same they say
Will cost you more
At any other shop
Their profit’s low
And so is the rent
Besides, it’s bankrupt stock

 Saris direct from India
Fine weaves from Hong Kong
Brass ornaments from Thailand
All write the merchants song

 A bell rings out
The auction starts
“Who’ll give me five and six?”
The bids increase
The vase is cracked
“But Sir, it can be fixed!”

 Amid the clamour suddenly
A voice rings out somewhere
In mystic tongue and unknown chant
Calls the faithful to their prayer

 Some go some stay
They work in shifts
Lose business? Not a one!
The money flows
And goods change hands
Until the day is done

 Then shutters up and close the doors
On Fourteenth, straight and narrow
And naught but night sounds will be heard
‘til they trade again tomorrow

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