16. Everyday magic.

Every now and then, I like to read a little bit of fantasy (no, not the Nancy Friday kind, you dirty buggers. The Tolkien kind). As in most genres, some of them are brilliantly original and compelling. And as in most genres, most of them are pretty formulaic. There are gruff dwarves with huge axes, grumpy magicians and elves in impractically tight tights. And magic, it always seems, is dying out in the land, a sad echo of a bygone golden age.

Elf-girls don't need tights because their bikini-armour is electrically heated.

Elf-girls don’t need tights because their bikini-armour is electrically heated.

Not round here. Magic is everywhere and it’s getting stronger. This is not the magic of the Northern hemisphere, where, from what I understand, real estate agents and data capturers can dance naked on the solstice to realign their chakras with ley lines so they can vibrate in sympathy with the universe (it’s a quantum thing) in order to make Deepak Chopra richer. I’m talking proper magic. Harry Potter magic. And you can see it. All you need is a car.

The best way to see it is to cut out all the background noise. Find yourself an isolated spot, like a graveyard. Wait until 2 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday, and drive yourself over there. Drive slowly around the block, making sure there is not a living soul in the area. Done? Stop the car and open the door. Standing next to you will be a man in a hat and a bright green dayglo vest. Always.

Real magicians don't look like Gandalf.

Real magicians don’t look like Gandalf.

He is not a ghostly apparition. He is a living, breathing man. He will even talk to you. “Morning sir!” He will say. “I will watch your car.” As impressive as this feat may seem, the magic is not over. This man is called a car guard, for reasons which are not entirely clear, and he is not from some fabled, mythical realm.

He is probably, for reasons far too complex and tragic to go into here, from the Congo. But he is no ordinary man. He has conquered space and time, and uses this extraordinary gift to haunt parking lots, pretending to stop thieves from stealing your stuff while you go about your business. He is not really going to do this. Crime in Johannesburg can be terrifyingly violent, and this man is not stupid. Ready for some more magic?

Nod at the car guard and go into the graveyard. Hide behind a gravestone and carefully check out the area around your car. There will be no-one there. Not a soul. Stick around a while. Give it an hour or so. And then sneak back to your deserted car. Slip in behind the wheel and start the engine. Now check your rear view mirror. Three feet behind you will be the car guard, waving his arms around like a mime directing a landing helicopter. He is going to help you reverse out of your parking spot, whether you want him to or not.

Shame on you for imagining the helicopter landing on him!

Shame on you for imagining the helicopter landing on him!

You may, having just seen a man blink into existence out of thin air, be feeling rather alarmed. Get it together. You are going to need your wits about you. You have just reached a crucial moment. This is the climax of the whole episode. There is a game afoot. You are locked in a deadly contest with this mysterious stranger. And the stakes are high.

The rules are simple. You may not make eye-contact with the car guard. To win, you need to reverse your car out of an otherwise deserted graveyard parking lot at two o’clock in the morning while giving absolutely no indication that you have seen the man in the dayglo vest waving frantically right behind you. If you manage to do so, you get to leave. If not, if you acknowledge him for even half a second, you lose, and you will have to give him all the change from your pockets and any loose coins you find lying around your car.

We don’t, of course, usually do this sort of thing in pre-dawn burial sites. But those of us who live in Johannesburg do this every day, several times a day. It is quite simply impossible to park your car in a public place without performing this little ritual. And I have just talked you through the basic version.

If you happen to be in a supermarket parking lot, there is a complex variation of the game with a special set of rules governing who has possession of the shopping-cart, and when. There’s also an entertaining game-within-the-game in which the car guard will walk towards your groceries with arms outstretched like Frankenstein’s monster. The challenge here is to pack all of your groceries into your car before the car-guard reaches you and tries to do it for you.



So there you have it. If you are missing something in your life, or have grown bored with making Deepak Chopra rich, come over to Johannesburg and see some real magic. Instead of sticking bits of paper on your mirror telling yourself that you are a super person, and are going to be rich, you can watch Congolese men in dayglo vests wink in and out of existence, and, if you feel up to it, you can even engage them in a battle of wits.

Part of the reason magic disappears from those fantasy worlds I mentioned earlier is that no-one believes. And I can see that happening. I see you all sitting out there, shaking your heads and smiling to yourselves. “That silly 23thorns!” you say to yourselves. “Where does he come up with this stuff?” You shouldn’t do that. It makes you seem a little creepy. But what I am telling you here is the gospel truth. Unvarnished and unembellished. Ask anyone who has lived here. Except for one tiny detail. No-one drives around at 2 in the morning. We’re all too scared of the police.

You don't get the magic without the monsters. That's just how it works.

You don’t get the magic without the monsters. That’s just how it works.

31 thoughts on “16. Everyday magic.

  1. theh2obaby says:

    We have simple-minded mages in Italy. No protection (that’s another racket), just assistance to identify empty parking spaces. I depart in fear every time of finding my car violated for lack of payment to the Space Finder, or worse, not finding it at all. As an aside to another comment, because our beggars, too, work for the mob, if anything, I give them something they can eat on the spot. And pet food. I’m a sucker for the ones with the four-footed Pity Accessories. ~molly

  2. presjzuma says:

    What is even more amazing is that these magical car guards can be in different places at the same time. The same car guard outside, say the “graveyard”, will also be magically winking in an out of existance oustide some dirty pub in Pretoria East at 2 am.

    The magic never ends.

    • 23thorns says:

      I’ve always been impressed by how well they manage their time. I don’t know what happens when three cars leave at once, but I’ve never snuck past them undirected. Ever.

  3. angelpai says:

    In Cape Town in some supermarket parking areas it can be a little more confusing and treacherous… you have the trolley-pushers/grabbers and car guards. The trolley grabbers hang around at the shop exit or at the till and accost you as you leave and then the parking attendant assist you with all manner of parking!
    I absolutely detest having the car guards flap their arms about blocking my line of sight as I reverse out of a parking space.
    I am quite sure they hate what they do as much as I do….

  4. Louella says:

    *chuckles* I used to read David Eddings Books! Love Love Loved them!
    Great Post 🙂

  5. narf77 says:

    Note to self…”Car Watch Men” are like mosquitoes. They are able to flip between alternate universes and occupy the “watching space” between them to take advantage of any chance to profit in any given universe at any given time. Much like the unseen university and the library in Mr Terry Pratchett’s novels, time is entirely relative (and in some cases…time is actually someones “relative”) to any given space and if said space is occupied by books, all trying to educate at once, time gets warped. Ever lost yourself in a book store? I rest my case Mr 23 Thorns…I can now place 1 solitary tick on the positive side of living in Northern Tasmania, 50km from the nearest habitation on a steep deeply furrowed bone dry hill comprised mainly of stones and silt with 200mm of silt occupying a very tenuous position on top of eons of clay. You just gave me that tick Mr 23 Thorns…”no Car Watch Men on Serendipity Farm” TICK. My first smile of the day at 5.28am and I have been up since 2.30. Cheers for that sir 🙂

  6. A Sign Of Life says:

    Wonderful post! Very amusing. 😀

  7. janelily7 says:

    What you didn’t say is, if you don’t pay, they won’t help you reverse out or you’ll find a mysterious trolly flying your way. Yebo baas. You are really funny and I love walking down memory lane with you. Thanx

  8. cari365 says:

    So funny, they really are the best bio-locater’s :D. As for the police, I know what you mean but in our area, our delightly police can be found all nicely tucked up in dream land, in their nice cosy charge office, drooling on their weapons that are lying on their desks…I kid you not…I have photos. Great post 23. -C

    • 23thorns says:

      Ours manage to stay awake, but I’m not sure what for. There are hawkers selling pirated DVD’s at the robots next to the police station, and the bottle store across the road stays open until seven o’clock on a Sunday night. I have my suspicions about who their biggest customers are.

  9. joanfrankham says:

    and you didn’t mention (yet) the magic ones who want to wash your windscreen!!

    • 23thorns says:

      They have been banished! We’ve driven them back into a corner in the far East Rand. They overstepped the mark and became violent, and for once the police stepped in and did something about it.

  10. Marcia says:

    Holy, Moly! At last a form of magic I don’t like! I didn’t think it possible. Just plain creepy, 23. (Notice how the comma saved me from insulting you? Who’s been studying up on Grammar & Punctuation For Writers, then?) Thankfully, I have never seen ANY man in a dayglo vest wink in or out of existence, in any local parking lot or graveyard. But living in The Land of Disney, as I do, I’m quite sure that could change at any moment. (I might add, I have seen policemen who look like your last picture. And lots of other newbies to central Florida, too. These folks have not been checking the SPF factor on their sunblock.

    • 23thorns says:

      I was expecting you to pop in. It was the bikini-elf that sucked you in, wasn’t it.
      I was trained as a grammar-nazi from a young age (when I wrote letters home from boarding school, they got sent back with corrections) and you’ve never missed a beat. No need for any studying.

      • Marcia says:

        Oh, yes. The bikini-elf did it, for sure. I can never resist anythng featuring a monster-hunting, kick-butt heroine clad in furry, fringey bikinis, or low-cut bustiers, or leather hip-huggers that are actually hugging much lower parts of the anatomy. Ah, cover art! What good is any apocalyptic werewolvy vampity ghostly fantasy without it? Long may the Bimbos of Righteous Ferocity reign!

        Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mr. Grammar Nazi, but I’m finding sad little participles dangling and broken-hearted infinitives being split all over the place in my writing these days. GAH. Study I must, and study I will. And I’ll probably still miss a whole slew of ’em. That’s why copy editors get the big bucks, right? But hey, I’m having fun, and I still say that’s just the BEST thing to have! Not to mention the main reason I stop by here so frequently. Looking forward to tomorrow’s offering.

  11. Malice says:

    Did you know that a lot of these magical beings get to “pay” their employers for the honour of standing car guard???!! Down here in Mpumalanga there is an arb fellow who provides them with a uniform (glo vest) & pays the shops to ‘rent’ out standing spaces for the car guards in the shop’s parking spaces. His costs are then transferred to the car guards – so they get tips less the daily rate they pay the arb fellow.

  12. museconfuse says:

    Sounds like a fantastic place full of character!! And there’s nothing wrong with a little fantasy.

  13. Acbnews International says:

    Reblogged this on acbnews.tk,40million!readers,EMEA.

  14. Buzzwordz says:

    You forgot to mention all the car guards in the garage parking at the hyper-market. There you get a guard for every 20 feet of parking space. A truly magical place!

  15. America must be a place truly without magic–maybe the only one, because I hear similar stories from people all over the world. Somehow we got the monsters without the magic. South Africa sounds more interesting all the time…

    • Hehe, I read my own comment and realized it would have made a lot more sense if I had thought to say that I live in America. That’s what I get for trying to think before 9 AM.

      • A Sign Of Life says:

        As a fellow American, I must say you worded that very succinctly: all monsters, no magic.
        Maybe that’s why I like to travel so much. Haha

      • 23thorns says:

        Thank you for clearing that up. I was waiting for an outpouring of patriotic rage.

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