My entire office is attending an international conference in Cambridge to discuss each office’s projects for TRAFFIC. Being the extrovert that I am, Monday was quite difficult to work in an empty space all to myself. Today I decided to work from a coffee shop around the corner from my apartment building for good vibes and better coffee.
Around noon a man took a seat at the long table directly across from me. Though I was deep in thought I was aware that I was being studied from the stranger. He knows I’m American already, I decided.
An hour later I paused my music to order another “flat white” and the second I opened my mouth the corners of his mouth turned up, his eyes still on his laptop. When my waitress walked away our eyes met as he says, “So, what’s an American like you doing in District 6?”
How’d I know.
“This is my favorite spot in Cape Town, I’ve only been here two weeks though so it may change.” I told him, taking out my other earbud as I had a feeling the conversation ahead of me would not be a short encounter.
We began talking about my time here, why I chose the country, and where I should venture after the rains give up.
I couldn’t tell you where it the small talk wore off into a conversation between who-has-the-shittier-government but it was an interaction that I will always remember.
“The difference between ZA and the States is an entitlement,” he began, “only 5% of South Africans pay taxes and we have a 27% unemployment rate. Well, 27.7% if are talking accurate figures.
“The people who give back to the system benefit from the government. But when you have only a small group of people benefitting from the system then your country goes to shit. You create a cycle of people who say ‘this group owes me this, and they owe me that’. It’s all about what someone can do for you.
“And there’s your difference, you see. Correct me if I’m wrong because I very well can be, but Americans ask ‘what can I do for myself’ and even ‘what can I do for this country.’ Patriotism is a vital quality we lack.”
After about ten minutes of discussing the differences between Trump and the ZA president (who is much more unpopular), the conversation abruptly changed when he stopped and looked at me and asked, “So what do you want to do for America?”
I had never really thought about that before. I’ve always known I wanted to make a change or rather impact, but I have never really pinned what it is.
He could tell his question had stumbled my previous quick banter and shifted in his seat. “I think you know exactly what you want. But what I’ve noticed in women–now don’t bite my head off I promise you I’m the biggest feminist a man could be–women think things out. They get the job done more than men. I only hire women for project managers because they accurately and quickly finish tasks. Men are different, they gamble. That’s why you see more homeless men and men who rape. It’s a pride and power issue. That’s why women earn less, they don’t take risks.”
Where is this going?
“But I must say, there is something about you. I’m not coming on to you, I’m strictly talking professional and your personality. You know what you want and you’ve already taken a risk coming here to pursue a career in protecting the environment. Not many people can say that. Fuck it if it’s unpaid. That shows dedication and passion.
“You are charismatic and if you hadn’t said you went to 169 last Friday I would not have guessed you just turned 21. You are going to do big things. I had an ex-girlfriend like you.
“I had an ex-girlfriend like you. Smartest woman I’ve ever met. But someone had told her she wasn’t bright once and she never thought of herself as an intelligent person. Say it’s the system, I’m not sure, but one time I yelled at her and said, ‘you’re bloody brilliant now shut up and do the job you know you can do.
“Now, what do you want to do?” he asked again.
“I want to become a lawyer. I want to be in charge of an environmental agency but under this administration, I don’t have a future.”
“B****t.” he interrupted.
“Listen,” I said at the same time “no one ever takes me seriously, mainly because I don’t take myself seriously.”
“B****t.” he said again, this time startling the two hipsters next to us reading the newspaper.
“Alright look at me.” I motioned my hand up and down my body. “I could never run for public office. I am nowhere near educated enough and I would be sexualized by the media so fast. . . I’d be the laughing stock of any election.”
He rolled his eyes at me. “You’re holding yourself back. Take a risk. Go back to the States, get a degree and use it to your advantage. I’ve heard of Michigan. I know it’s a hard school. I barely know you and I know you have it in you to accomplish big things.”
“But what do I know, I’m just some random guy in a coffee shop.”
He looked at his phone and saw it had been over an hour. “I have to run, take my email and we can over analyze the political sphere and your future at another coffee shop sometime again.”
He left his business card and was off his way.
I finished my policy proposal within two hours after he left.
I’d say it was a very productive Wednesday in Cape Town.