Bread for the Underbelly



I found Tyrone leaning against the cement pillar of an abandoned bridge. He was wearing crocs and pajama pants and was too distracted rummaging through a grocery bag of clothing to notice me. I was writing an article on Cape Town’s homeless population and had heard the bridge was popular sleeping area for street people.

I introduced myself to him, hoping— at best— for a quick conversation and a usable quote for my article. An hour later, however, I found myself guided by Tyrone into an Odyssian journey through the city’s homeless underbelly.

After an afternoon of picking my way through back alleys and peeking into sewer grates, my tour ended abruptly after a visit to Tyrone’s regular homeless shelter. When she realized I had been walking around the city with Tyrone, the shelter’s cook, a stout lady in a flowered turban, dropped the spoon she was using and rushed out from behind her cart.

She yanked me away from Tyrone with surprising strength. “What are you thinking?!” she whispered fiercely.

“Oh he’s been fine,” I reassured her. Tyrone had, in fact, been a perfect gentleman. At one point, he had paused our interview and, after a minute of patting his coat pockets, gallantly produced a (slightly soiled) hanky for me to wipe my nose.

“And, anyway,” I added, “we’ve been around people all—”

“Just because it’s daytime, you think it’s ok?!” the tiny woman bristled. “Sure— he’s real friendly now, but watch how he’ll still be smiling when he’s mugging you the first chance he gets!”

I tried to explain about the article. She just waggled her head back and forth.

“You are going home!” she declared.

Ordering Tyrone to stay in the shelter, she tugged me by my elbow three blocks to the train station. Dragged along like a scolded child, I got the distinct impression she would have pulled me by my ear, had she been tall enough to reach it.

Looking over my shoulder, I saw Tyrone trailing behind us guiltily like a ragged street puppy in search of a home. The woman from the shelter noticed, too.

“She won’t give you any money. Get out of here!” she screamed, yanking me faster. Sulking, Tyrone ignored her and slinked onward.

Our motley parade arrived at the train station and Tyrone began pleading his case. Wringing his hands, he muttered to me,” Please sweetheart, a little something for me for helping you out?”

Having fully expected to give the man a small bill for his trouble, I began fishing around in my pocket.

“No!” the cook cried out. She put her body between us, as if to conceal me behind her five-foot frame. As the commuter crowd began flooding the station floor, our little scene began attracting some attention.

Having unwittingly stumbled into what appeared to be an ongoing battle, I decided to remove myself from the crossfire. “I’m sorry,” I mouthed to Tyrone.

Tyrone didn’t budge.

“Come on mommy, now— just a little something. All day, I showed you everything!” He stretched a cupped hand towards me, his movements increasingly frantic as the crowd thickened, dividing us.

“Security, security!” the cook squawked, waving frantically at two security guards wearing neon green windbreakers. They were the same type Tyrone had described to me just an hour earlier when I asked about the two lacerations slicing across his nose.

“I was beaten up by and I got sent to jail for sleeping in an abandoned hospital last weekend,” he had told me. “Before they called the real police, though, the building manager told the security guards to beat me up.”

The security officers grabbed Tyrone by the crooks of his elbows to stop him from following me. Lifted off the ground, he flailed his legs and issued a stream of cursing.

“Now there you go, you get on this train, you put away that camera and don’t you talk to anybody ‘til you get home,” the cook ordered.

I thanked her halfheartedly for her (over)zealousness and hurried into a train car.

Feeling shaken, I sat down across from an Indian girl texting on a blackberry.

Moments later, a man walked into the car chanting. He was wearing a dirty polo and worker’s overalls. I noticed the thickness of the denim where his pants legs rolled into cuffs, but his back pockets were totally blown out.


“Bread please, bread,” he chants. “Bread for a man who hasn’t eaten today. Bread for a man who can’t pay a rent.”

Dead eyed, he sleepwalked down the aisle, chanting to each person. “Bread mother, sister, please.”

As he passed me, I heard a woman behind me start muttering acidly.

“Bread, bread” the man in the overalls continued. The woman’s murmuring peaked into shrieking, “…and I do NOT need to be harassed by the homeless every day just for….”

The beggar started chanting over her: “BREAD, BREAD.”

In response, the woman also began yelling, “…coming from where I WORK for a living and–”

An unnatural crackling noise ripped through the car. It sounded like an appliance short-circuiting. Everyone froze. The chanting stopped.

“JESUS CHRIST!” the beggar’s thundering bellow reverberated in the metal car.

I craned my neck over the sticky plastic seat. The man stood with his back pressed against the metal railing, holding his arms crossed and against himself like a mummified corpse. His face had gone ashen, the sickly gray of wet newspaper.

Across the aisle, a trim woman in a pantsuit coolly aimed a Taser gun in his direction. It sparkled like a prop from a cheesy mad scientist flick. After a heavy silence, the man stumbled out the railcar door and into the darkness. The woman stowed the Taser back in her handbag, recrossed her ankles and checked the time. I turned back around. The girl in front of me was still texting.